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James Lyall (1827–1905)

by Dirk Van Dissel

This article was published:

James Lyall (1827-1905), Presbyterian minister, was born on 9 April 1827 at Edinburgh, son of James Lyall, mason, and his wife Janet, née Pirrie. Educated at Edinburgh High School and the universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, he trained for the ministry of the United Presbyterian Church at its Synod Hall in Edinburgh. His early aspirations to foreign missionary work had to be abandoned under medical advice, but while a student he engaged for ten years in mission work in Glasgow, Edinburgh and a colliery district near Alloa. After completing his studies he was licensed to preach by the Edinburgh Presbytery of the United Presbyterian Church. On 28 April 1857 he was ordained by the same presbytery in response to an appeal from the Gouger Street United Presbyterian Church seeking a replacement for Rev. Ralph Drummond. Next day Lyall married Helen Whitecross. He sailed with her for South Australia and arrived at Adelaide on 27 September.

Lyall devoted himself with zeal and enthusiasm to his ministerial duties, and in 1865 a new and larger church in Flinders Street was opened for the greatly increased congregation. In that year he played a part in reuniting the three branches of Presbyterianism represented in the colony after earlier attempts had failed. His ministry at Flinders Street was very successful and his congregation included such influential members as W. W. Hughes, John Duncan, David Murray and John Gordon. Lyall and his wife were prominent in colonial affairs and devoted to evangelistic, social and missionary works. He was a founder of the inter-denominational City Mission, holding its early meetings in his vestry and acting as its first secretary. His wife was active in the Women's Christian Temperance Union and founding president of the Presbyterian Women's Missionary Union in South Australia; among her other activities she lectured and wrote a pamphlet on The Duty and Privilege of Giving (Adelaide, 1895).

For health reasons Lyall's congregation enabled him to visit Britain at the close of 1873; he also spent three months in Italy, opened a preaching station in connexion with the United Presbyterian Church at San Remo on the Riviera, and returned to Adelaide in March 1875. In January 1890 at Hobart he presided over the Federal Assembly of the Presbyterian Churches of Australia and Tasmania, the forerunner of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Australia. As moderator he visited Presbyterian missions in the New Hebrides and attended the annual meetings of the mission Synod at Aneityum. An account of this visit appeared in four letters in the South Australian Register, August 1890. In 1891 he visited Queensland to open the Federal Assembly, to report on the New Hebrides mission and later to see the Kanakas on sugar plantations near Maryborough and Bundaberg. Mainly through his efforts the Presbyterian Church in South Australia undertook to support a mission of its own on the island of Tanna. He was also appointed convener of the foreign mission committee and of the Ministerial Association, and moderator of the South Australian Presbytery and Assembly in 1886-87 and 1897-98; for over twenty-five years he was foreign mission convener in the Presbyterian Church. Largely through his influence W. W. Hughes was persuaded to make his gift of £20,000 originally intended for Union College, of whose council Lyall was a member, available for founding the University of Adelaide.

In 1897 Lyall retired from the pastorate of the Flinders Street Church and was given £2000 as a token of esteem. He was representative elder in the South Australian Assembly for Wallaroo in 1898-1901, and for Goodwood in 1902-03. His wife died on 22 October 1902 aged 70 and he moved to Victoria, where he died at Mentone on 10 September 1905. He was buried in the West Terrace cemetery at Adelaide, survived by four sons and three of his five daughters.

Lyall was a devout and faithful minister of the older Presbyterian school and a powerful preacher. In his farewell sermon he claimed that he had 'availed himself of the principles of higher criticism in his interpretation of scripture', but his preaching and activities showed a more conservative outlook than any influence by the newer trends of thought.

Tablets to him and his wife in the Scots Church, North Terrace, Adelaide, were moved there when the Flinders Street Church was demolished.

Select Bibliography

  • Observer (Adelaide), 20 Nov 1897, 16 Sept 1905
  • W. Gray, The History of the Presbyterian Church in South Australia 1839-1938 (State Records of South Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Dirk Van Dissel, 'Lyall, James (1827–1905)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 23 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


9 April, 1827
Edinburgh, Mid-Lothian, Scotland


10 September, 1905 (aged 78)
Mentone, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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