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Reginald Chapman Nicholson (1882–1945)

by Rodger Brown

This article was published:

Reginald Chapman Nicholson (1882-1945), clergyman and missionary, was born on 21 October 1882 at Glenelg, South Australia, son of Robert Nicholson, accountant, bookseller and Wesleyan Methodist, and his wife Dorothy Jane, née Neasom. An uncle was Rev. Joseph Nicholson, Wesleyan minister.

Reg Nicholson was a candidate for the Methodist ministry in 1905, and after two years at the theological hall at Queen's College, University of Melbourne, and first-aid training at the (Royal) Melbourne Hospital he went to Vella Lavella in the Solomon Islands as the area's first missionary. He was a blue-eyed, fair-haired young man. His sister accompanied him, to keep house, and took over when he became ill and went to the United States of America to recover. He brought enthusiasm, medical skill, and compassion to quarrelsome head-hunters. Early in his incumbency he cured a boy of about 12 of a serious eye infection; Bula became his cook, medical assistant, interpreter and language co-worker. The local language was transcribed and they translated parts of the Bible and hymns. Bula, the first convert to Christianity, chose Daniel as his baptismal name and was the subject of Nicholson's book, The Son of a Savage (London, 1924).

In 1911 Nicholson returned to Australia and on 22 February married Elizabeth Bowers Lancaster, at Lancaster, Victoria. He returned to the island with his bride and they began their long missionary partnership. Nicholson wrote next year: 'our work out here is progressing. We have dark difficult days … bloodthirsty savages, are now becoming fine Christian young men, … Mrs Nicholson's girls have become a delight … they were filthy little creatures of impulse'. The Nicholsons returned home with Daniel Bula at the end of 1916 and for two years travelled around Australasia, preaching and demonstrating the transformation from cannibalism to Christianity. On 12 October 1918 Nicholson enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force as a chaplain but was not called on for duty.

In Vella Lavella in 1919 he helped some American film-makers, in exchange for a copy of the film they were making; he became the hero of the silent movie, The Transformed Isle. In 1922 on a visit to the U.S.A. Nicholson secured the film and spent two years at home telling the story of his transformed isle.

The South Australia Methodist Conference appointed him secretary for overseas missions in 1924, and for the next twenty-one years he travelled the State promoting the missionary cause. Following the film's success, he pioneered other forms of visual presentation, inspiring interest, raising funds and recruiting missionaries. He was president of the Methodist Conference in South Australia in 1941: 'His zeal has never flagged, nor his spirit lost its ardour'.

Survived by his wife and only son, Nicholson died in Epworth Private Hospital, Melbourne, on 3 December 1945. He was cremated. Obituaries proclaimed: 'Greatheart is dead'. 'This candle which so fiercely challenged the world's night has burnt itself out early with the very intensity of its shining', and 'By his fervour he lit the fires of missionary enthusiasm in the hearts of thousands'.

Select Bibliography

  • Australasian Methodist Missionary Review, 4 Dec 1909, 4 July, 4 Nov 1912
  • Methodist Church of Australasia (South Australia), Conference Minutes, 1946, 1976
  • Australian Christian Commonwealth, 8 Mar 1940, 18 Jan 1946
  • South Australian Methodist, 1 Feb 1946.

Citation details

Rodger Brown, 'Nicholson, Reginald Chapman (1882–1945)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


21 October, 1882
Glenelg, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia


3 December, 1945 (aged 63)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.