Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Henry Sexton (1863–1954)

by Suzanne Edgar

This article was published:

John Henry Sexton (1863-1954), Baptist clergyman, was born on 2 July 1863 at Callington, South Australia, son of Alfred Sexton, cobbler and Primitive Methodist lay preacher, and his wife Grace James, née Bray. The family were total abstainers. John attended the Nonconformist seminary, Union College, from which he graduated in 1886, having entered the Baptist ministry the previous year. On 30 June 1886 at Norton Summit he married Mary Annie, daughter of Thomas Playford.

Sexton ministered at Georgetown, Gumeracha, Morphett Vale and Gawler. While he 'in no way assumed any superiority' over his flocks, he was known for his 'courage to state his opinions'. He was a tactful and 'brotherly' secretary (1900-03) and president (1906) of the South Australian Baptist Union, in 1905-07 editing the Southern Baptist.

In 1907 Sexton became the paid, full-time secretary of the South Australian auxiliary to the British and Foreign Bible Society, editing the monthly, The Bible in the World, in 1909-19. He was a heavily bearded man whose intense gaze was emphasized by steel-rimmed spectacles and beetling brows and he proved a zealous organizer. He was also a prolific producer of 'chaste and beautiful leaflets' which contained advanced views on the Bible as revelation of truth. His literary guide to the Bible, The Classic of the Soul (Adelaide, 1937), sold 100,000 copies and was reprinted overseas. He arranged to have the gospels translated and printed in Aranda. From 1911 he was also secretary (for thirty-one years) of the Aborigines' Friends' Association.

In 1913 Sexton told a State royal commission on the Aborigines: 'it would be … better to keep these natives together on a big settlement because they could have supervision'. His implied definition of missionary work was revealing: it 'will still be necessary, because I do not think you will get the natives to work properly unless you instil right ideas about work in them'. Despite the assertion of one historian that to the Ngarrindjeri people Sexton was merely a city clerk who 'never seemed to understand them, made no attempt to study their culture, and did not even get to know any of them', Sexton displayed knowledge of their customs: 'You could not move them from their native lakes … Their dreams and their desires are around the lake, and there they wish to be buried when they die'. He also recommended procuring land for them.

In 1914 Sexton travelled to the Holy Land, Egypt, Europe and London where he worked at B.F.B.S. headquarters. He also visited India, travelling with a swag and sleeping on railway stations. In 1923-29 he was on the Bible Reading in State Schools Committee and in 1926 he administered a committee to provide religious support for navvies building the railway in Central Australia. That year he became president of the Adelaide City Mission, which ministered to the poor of the West End.

In 1918-40 Sexton was a member and sometime honorary secretary of the State Advisory Council for Aborigines. He visited Central Australia in 1925 to allocate centres for the colportage work of the B.F.B.S. In 1930 he retired, but made a further trip to the Centre and interviewed tribal elders about the needs of Aborigines, publishing a report in 1932.

Sexton was a member in 1935 of a Federal board of inquiry investigating ill-treatment of Aborigines at Hermannsburg Mission Station near Alice Springs, and the killing of Yokunnunna, an unarmed Aborigine, at Ayers Rock (Uluru) by Constable W. McKinnon. The board journeyed by lorry and camel to remote places, sometimes taking evidence by the light of the camp fire and a pressure lamp. It found that, while the black man's slaying was legally justified, it was not warranted.

Sexton published many pamphlets, including Aboriginal Intelligence (Adelaide, 1946) in which he demanded citizenship rights (twenty years before they were granted) for tribal Aborigines. He complained that the authorities 'are not thinking black'; that 'Preference is being extended to the half-castes instead of to descendants of the original proprietors of this country'; that the presumed decline of the Aborigines 'need not take place if we will only do our duty'; and that these people 'were shabbily treated in the Australian Constitution'. A selection of his articles was published as Australian Aborigines (Adelaide, 1944). In 1943-48 Sexton was president of the Aborigines' Friends' Association and in 1946 was appointed O.B.E.

He loved literature and read proofs for Hunkin, Ellis & King who printed much of his writing. In old age he and his wife were tended by their daughter Annie, a World War I nurse who had served in Egypt. Survived by his wife (d.1956), four daughters and son, Sexton died on 3 November 1954 in Adelaide and was buried in Mitcham cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Lamshed, ‘Monty’ (Adel, 1972)
  • G. Jenkin, Conquest of the Ngarrindjeri (Adel, 1979)
  • R. Layton, Uluru (Canb, 1986)
  • Parliamenary Papers (South Australia), 1913 (26)
  • Truth and Progress, 1 June 1888, 4 May 1893
  • Southern Baptist, 31 Mar 1903
  • Baptist Record of South Australia, 21 July 1943
  • Mail (Adelaide), 9 Jan 1915
  • Observer (Adelaide), 23 May 1925
  • Chronicle (Adelaide), 19 June 1930
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 1 Jan 1946, 5 Nov 1954
  • Aborigines' Friends' Association, Annual Report, 1954 (State Library of South Australia)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Suzanne Edgar, 'Sexton, John Henry (1863–1954)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 4 March 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]


2 July, 1863
Callington, South Australia, Australia


3 November, 1954 (aged 91)
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.