Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Priestley (1903–1964)

by J. H. Love

This article was published:

John Priestley (1903-1964), Presbyterian minister, was born on 8 September 1903 at Yackandandah, Victoria, fifth child of Alexander Priestley, bootmaker, and his wife Maude Elinor, née Burgis, both Victorian born. Educated at Yackandandah State School, John worked (1918-23) as a telegraph messenger with the Postmaster-General's Department before preparing for the ministry at St Andrew's Theological Training College, Carlton, and the Theological Hall, Ormond College, University of Melbourne. While studying, he served as a 'home missionary'—a layman in charge of a parish, supervised by a nearby minister. At St Paul's Presbyterian Church, Wangaratta, on 5 April 1933 he married Elvie Sabina Peipers.

Ordained on 27 April 1933, Priestley ministered to the parishes of Tarnagulla (1933-35), Portland (1935-42) and Brunswick (1942-55). He was the convenor of the Victorian General Assembly's committees for the beneficiary fund (1944-49) and the maintenance of the ministry (1949-55).

In January 1956 Priestley became commissioner of the Presbyterian Church of South Australia. Among other duties, he advised and encouraged parishes and their ministers, supervised the establishment of new congregations and liaised with the Presbyterian Church of Victoria, which was then subsidizing its smaller neighbour. Defying the illness that eventually killed him, he drove himself relentlessly. Central to his work was his combination of American methods of 'stewardship' and lay evangelism. In this system, lay men and women visited people in their neighbourhood, urging fellow parishioners to pledge a proportion of their income to the Church, and inviting nominal Presbyterians to become fully committed members. Active participation by the laity brought new vigour to the Church. By 1960 there were more parishes and more full-time church workers than at any previous time. In 1959, at the invitation of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, he had demonstrated his methods of stewardship and lay evangelism at a parish in Belfast.

Within the Presbyterian Church of South Australia, Priestley successfully strove for the payment of adequate salaries and allowances to ministers, the appointment of a full-time director of Christian education, and the completion of a revised code of Church law and procedure, of which his knowledge was legendary. He also promoted co-operation with other Protestant denominations in new housing areas. While holding to what he saw as the essentials of Presbyterianism, he was involved in preliminary moves towards the formation of the Uniting Church in Australia.

Lean and wiry, with a low, husky voice, Priestley gained respect and affection with his quiet but insistently persuasive manner, earthy humour, sympathetic concern for his fellows and total devotion to his ministry. Illness compelled him to resign as commissioner, and from most of the committees and boards on which he served, on 30 June 1961. Survived by his wife, their daughter, and three of their four sons, he died of emphysema and secondary heart disease on 21 December 1964 at his Glenunga home and was cremated. Although his methods have been modified, his influence is still felt in the Uniting Church.

Select Bibliography

  • Presbyterian Church of Victoria, Proceedings of the General Assembly, 1925-32 and 1965 (held at Uniting Church Archives, Melbourne)
  • Presbyterian Church of South Australia, Minutes of the General Assembly, 1954-70 (State Library of South Australia)
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 22 Dec 1964
  • private information.

Citation details

J. H. Love, 'Priestley, John (1903–1964)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 6 December 2023.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2023

Life Summary [details]


8 September, 1903
Yackandandah, Victoria, Australia


21 December, 1964 (aged 61)
Glenunga, Adelaide, South Australia, 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.