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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Symons, John Christian (1820–1894)

by Renate Howe

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

John Christian Symons (1820-1894), clergyman, was born in Cornwall, England, son of Mark Symons, farmer, and his wife Ann, née Christian. He was a Wesleyan local preacher and an apprentice at the drapery firm of G. Hitchcock & Co. in London in 1844 when fourteen employees formed the first Young Men's Christian Association; he was elected secretary. In 1846 he was religious instructor aboard the convict ship Maitland travelling to Port Phillip. In port Symons attended the Wesleyan chapel, Collins Street; he was nominated for the ministry at a Melbourne Circuit Quarterly Meeting in July 1847, and was later approved by the British Conference.

Symons began his ministry at Kapunda, South Australia, and was assistant minister in Adelaide when Rev. J. Draper authorized him in February 1852 to visit the Victorian goldfields to raise money for chapel debts. One of the first resident clergymen on the goldfields, he arrived at Forest Creek in March; next year he went to the Melbourne East circuit. In 1856 he moved to Beechworth and while there a chapel was built and a Young Men's Association formed; his presidential lecture that year was published in Melbourne as The History and Advantages of Young Men's Associations. He was later a vice-president of the Melbourne Young Men's Christian Association. After a year at Geelong he was circuit superintendent at Carisbrook and encouraged the building of two local chapels. In 1863-77 he was editor of the Wesleyan Chronicle and manager of the Wesleyan Book Depot.

Symons had been a prominent member of the Victorian District Education Committee which until 1855 fostered Wesleyan schools; when they were impeded by a new method of allocating government funds, he responded with the pamphlet What is the Best System of Education for Victoria? (Melbourne, 1857). In 1865 he was secretary of Wesleyan Grammar School (Wesley College) which opened next year. He criticized the Education Act of 1872 which made no provision for religious teaching in state schools. Constantly opposed to spiritualism, he also publicly debated Sabbath observance and defended the literal interpretation of Scripture.

The Victorian and Tasmanian Conference of 1876 elected Symons president. After a visit to England in 1881, he was appointed by the General Wesleyan Conference of Australasia as treasurer of the Supernumerary Ministers' and Ministers' Widows' Fund. With Rev. W. P. Wells he codified the laws of the Australasian Wesleyan Church and perfected a model deed for Church ownership of property. He was elected president of the General Conference in 1888. Although he lacked formal education, Symons read widely and in 1891 was appointed a part-time lecturer in Church history at Queen's College, University of Melbourne. He was the author of many pamphlets and also published a Life of the Rev. Daniel James Draper … (London, 1870). Dogmatic and outspoken, conservative in theology, in later life he proved a sound administrator of affairs which did not require a larger vision. He died on 14 February 1894 at Hawthorn survived by his wife Matilda, née Hodgson, whom he had married at the age of 27 at Truro, Cornwall, and one of their three sons. His estate was sworn for probate at £1834.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Dyson (ed), Australasian Methodist Ministerial General Index, 2nd ed (Melb, 1896)
  • Spectator and Methodist Chronicle, 23 Feb 1894
  • R. Howe, The Wesleyan Church in Victoria, 1855-1901: Its Ministry and Membership (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1965).

Citation details

Renate Howe, 'Symons, John Christian (1820–1894)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 12 August 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

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