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John Osborne (1842–1908)

by Walter Phillips

This article was published:

John Osborne (1842-1908), Wesleyan minister, journalist and secretary, was born on 25 September 1842 at Wollongong, son of Robert Osborne, builder, and his wife Rebecca, née Musgrave. Educated at Wollongong, Osborne worked in a solicitor's office, entered the firm of John Bright and in Sydney joined Farmer & Co. as a clerk. He decided to join the Methodist ministry and after private study was received by the Wesleyan Methodist Conference in 1867 and sent as a missionary to Samoa, accompanied by his wife Elizabeth Wastell, whom he had married on 9 April.

Osborne was not a denominationalist at heart and disliked Wesleyan competition with the London Missionary Society in Samoa; at his own request he was transferred to Fiji in 1869 and Rotuma Island in 1870. After two years he returned to circuit work in New South Wales for his wife's health. He ministered at Adelong in 1873, Yass in 1874-76, Newtown in 1877-79 and Newcastle in 1880-82 and won repute as a topical preacher. In 1883 the conference appointed him to York Street, the mother church of colonial Methodism, hoping that Osborne's style would revive it.

At York Street Osborne introduced 'Sunday evening lectures for working men' and his liberal approach to Christianity soon increased his congregations but also disturbed conservative Wesleyans. His generous praise of the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Roger Vaughan, in a sermon on charity provided the opportunity for the trustees of York Street to charge him with heresy. In July the district meeting accepted Osborne's professed adherence to Methodist standards but concluded that his presentation of Christian truth was 'so inexact' as to give the impression of error. Acquitted but enjoined to more discretion in the pulpit, Osborne found his reputation enhanced and ignored the committee's admonition. He offended again when he attended the Requiem Mass for Archbishop Vaughan, defended George Higinbotham's lecture on 'Science and Religion' and supported Charles Strong in Melbourne. In January 1884 before the conference could send him elsewhere he resigned from the Wesleyan ministry and the Methodist Church.

Osborne joined the editorial staff of the Daily Telegraph but still felt the urge to preach and in February started the Christian Platform ostensibly to combat free-thought. Most of the York Street congregation, including the choirmaster and organist, followed him. At first he identified himself with the 'Broad Church' party, which he believed transcended denominational barriers, and hoped to present a Christian option to secularism but spent more time attacking orthodox Christianity than free-thought. The Christian Platform lasted until August 1885; Osborne pleaded the pressure of professional duties but his following had declined. In December 1886 he failed to launch a new series of week-end evening lectures. By then he had announced himself a secularist and a convert from free trade to protection.

In March 1885 Osborne contested the Argyle by-election for the Legislative Assembly as a candidate for Alexander Stuart's government against Sir Henry Parkes. An enthusiast for the dispatch of the Sudan contingent, he made Parkes's opposition to it the principal issue of the campaign. Parkes dismissed him as a 'decayed parson' but Osborne lost by only 42 votes. After a rowdy campaign in Newcastle, he was narrowly defeated for the third seat of Northumberland in the elections of February 1887. Soon after the Argyle by-election Osborne had joined the Sydney Morning Herald staff but in 1889 found more congenial work as a leader writer for the protectionist Australian Star; in 1890 he became its forthright editor, advancing his political views and attacking his opponents, especially Parkes and the free traders. This post largely fulfilled his political aspirations and in 1899 he left the Star to become secretary of the new Public Service Association of New South Wales and editor of the Public Service Journal. A capable organizer, he exercised a powerful influence in the formative years of the association and started its mutual provident fund.

After a year of ill health Osborne died at Double Bay from a heart attack on 1 September 1908, survived by his wife, four sons and three daughters. Despite his uncertain attitude to religion, he was given an Anglican burial in the South Head cemetery. His estate was sworn at £451.

Select Bibliography

  • J. E. Carruthers, Memories of an Australian Ministry 1868-1921 (Lond, 1922)
  • J. E. Carruthers, Lights in the Southern Sky (Syd, 1924)
  • Australasian Wesleyan Methodist Church, Conference Minutes (1867-73), and Minutes of the New South Wales and Queensland Conference (1874-84)
  • Protestant Standard, 11 Dec 1886
  • Public Service Journal (Sydney), 10 Sept 1908
  • Bulletin, 16 June 1883
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 21 July 1883, 2 Sept 1908
  • Australian Star (Sydney), 1 Sept 1908
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 2 Sept 1908
  • W. W. Phillips, Christianity and its Defence in New South Wales Circa 1880 to 1890 (Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University, 1969).

Citation details

Walter Phillips, 'Osborne, John (1842–1908)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 18 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]


25 September, 1842
Wollongong, New South Wales, Australia


1 September, 1908 (aged 65)
Double Bay, Sydney, New South Wales, 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.