Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Saunders (1806–1859)

by B. G. Wright

This article was published:

John Saunders (1806-1859), Baptist minister, was born on 7 October 1806 in London. At 17 he became a member of the Baptist Church, Cold Harbour Lane, Camberwell, under the ministry of Rev. E. Steane. He was articled to an attorney and became a solicitor. When 19 he began to prepare for missionary service. He studied at the University of Edinburgh, was ordained to the Baptist ministry and became responsible for the formation of churches at Mason Court, Shoreditch and Ball's Pond. In 1834 while minister at Stoke Newington, London, he declined an opportunity to enter parliament.

The request for a pastor from the Baptists of Sydney came while he was considering missionary service in India. With his wife Elizabeth he sailed as chaplain in the George Hibbert, a ship carrying female prisoners, and arrived in Sydney in December 1834. No obligation for his passage or work in Australia was undertaken by the Baptist Missionary Society of England, for its charter was 'to go only to the heathen'. Baptist services were begun immediately, first in York Street, then in a room attached to St James's Church of England, known as the Court House Room. Services were held also at South Head lighthouse. Finally in 1836 the first Baptist chapel was built on land in Bathurst Street granted to a congregation of Baptists under the leadership of Rev. John McKaeg who, before the arrival of John Saunders, led a small group of Baptists under a somewhat erratic ministry, too irresponsible to call for recognition. The Bathurst Street chapel was described as a Particular Baptist church which provided for open communion and open fellowship. John Saunders ministered there for thirteen years. He visited Melbourne in 1844 and 1845 and Van Diemen's Land in 1846. He opposed the transportation system and crusaded tirelessly for its abolition. When a petition for cessation of transportation with 6765 signatures was presented to Governor Sir Charles FitzRoy in 1846, Saunders was among those deputed to present it.

His opposition to the rum traffic earned for him the name of 'the Apostle of Temperance'. By constant journeying over the colony as far as the Blue Mountains he obtained thousands of signatures for total abstinence. At the conclusion of one lecture in Sydney Governor Sir George Gipps, who had chaired the meeting, led the way in the signing of the pledge.

In 1847 John Saunders announced his return to England because ill health had made a continuance of his ministry impossible. The attorney-general, John Hubert Plunkett, chaired his farewell meeting; Saunders was given a testimonial of £300. In spite of illness he resumed practice as a solicitor and served as pastor in suburban churches of London. He died on 1 May 1859. When news reached Sydney that his widow had been left destitute the Sydney Morning Herald opened a subscription list and £650 was sent to her.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 18, 25
  • Baptist Magazine (London), 28 (1836)
  • Australasian Baptist Magazine, 1 (1838-39)
  • Australian Baptist, 13 Aug 1946, 1 Apr 1959
  • John Saunders, letter book (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

B. G. Wright, 'Saunders, John (1806–1859)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 19 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (Melbourne University Press), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


7 October, 1806
London, Middlesex, England


1 May, 1859 (aged 52)
London, Middlesex, England

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