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John Williams (1796–1839)

by Niel Gunson

This article was published:

John Williams (1796-1839), by Henry Anelay

John Williams (1796-1839), by Henry Anelay

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an6621835

John Williams (1796-1839), missionary, was born on 27 June 1796 at Tottenham High Cross, London, the son of John Williams and Hannah (?) Maidment. His ancestors on his father's side had been Baptists for many generations. His mother was influenced by the Calvinistic Methodist movement and brought her son up as a Congregationalist. Williams was taught writing and arithmetic at Lower Edmonton; he was apprenticed to an ironmonger in 1810 and was soon entrusted with the management of the business. In 1814 he underwent an Evangelical conversion and became a member of the Tabernacle Church (Calvinistic Methodist). He was taught grammar and exegesis by Rev. Matthew Wilks and in 1816 volunteered for missionary service with the London Missionary Society.

Williams was accepted and on 3 September 1816 was ordained at Surrey Chapel. On 29 October 1816 he married Mary Chauner, formerly of Denston Hall, near Cheadle, Staffordshire. Williams, Robert Bourne (1794-1871), David Darling (1790-1867), and George Platt (1789-1865) formed the third party of missionaries to arrive in the islands after the nominal conversion of Tahiti in 1815. They sailed in November 1816 and were joined by Rev. Lancelot Threlkeld at Rio de Janeiro. They arrived at Hobart Town in March 1817 and held the first Evangelical service conducted in Van Diemen's Land, Williams defying opposition by preaching in the open air. In May the party arrived in Sydney where already an itinerant Evangelical ministry had been established by earlier missionaries. William Ellis (1794-1872), who arrived in July 1816, had visited the 'interior', conducted regular services based on Parramatta, taught reading and writing in a Sunday school at Prospect, and set up the mission press in the home of Rowland Hassall. When Ellis left for Tahiti this work was carried on by John Muggridge Orsmond (1788-1856) and Charles Barff (1792-1866) who had arrived in the Surry in December 1816. Orsmond and Barff had taught many of the young Irish convicts to read and write and Barff continued this work in the country districts after Orsmond went to the islands in February 1817. Orsmond later returned briefly to New South Wales, and on 25 December 1819 married Isabella, daughter of Isaac Nelson, an emancipist farmer and the first schoolteacher at Liverpool. Orsmond was better educated than most visiting missionaries, and studied with the family of Dr William Redfern. He later became principal of the South Sea Academy in Moorea, and as a Polynesian scholar and educationist influenced John Dunmore Lang.

All these Dissenting missionaries were received favourably by Governor Lachlan Macquarie and assisted the evangelistic labours of both Anglicans and Wesleyans. Particular friendships were formed with Edward Eagar and Rev. Samuel Leigh. Williams, in particular, impressed Samuel Marsden with his ability. The entire mission party left for the islands in September 1817.

Williams was regarded as the most enterprising missionary in the islands. In December 1821 he and his wife paid a three-month visit to Sydney, where he preached and addressed public meetings. On his own initiative he also bought a ship with Marsden's reluctant approval, to trade between Raiatea and Sydney; and he engaged Thomas Scott to instruct the people of Raiatea in the culture of sugar-cane and tobacco. Governor Sir Thomas Brisbane was so impressed by Williams that he supplied stock to the mission and gave him magisterial authority for the islands.

In 1838, when Williams had become a public figure, he returned to Sydney in the mission ship Camden, and drew considerable crowds to his meetings. Having recently given evidence before the committee of the House of Commons on Aborigines, he was influential in the establishment of the local Aborigines Protection Society, and was also responsible for founding an Auxiliary Missionary Society in Sydney. News of his violent death at Eromanga in the New Hebrides on 20 November 1839 was received with much public sorrow and a new impetus was given to Australian Congregationalism. His widow died in England in June 1851. Their eldest son, John Chauner Williams (1818-1874), was for a time a produce merchant in Sydney before returning to Samoa where he was appointed British consul in 1858.

Besides the well known Baxter prints of Williams, including those of his landing and death at Eromanga, there is a miniature of Williams in the London Missionary Society archives, Westminster.

Several of Williams's colleagues, besides Threlkeld, returned to Australia. Bourne, who arrived in February 1827, went into partnership with Charles Appleton, merchant, in January 1829 before returning to England where he dissolved connexion with the London Missionary Society. He finally settled in Sydney and assumed full management of the business in May 1831. At the end of 1835 he opened a separate business, resigning his Sydney partnership to David Jones, then Appleton's London partner. With William Pascoe Crook and J. Hayward, he took a prominent part in the formation of the Pitt Street Congregational Church in Sydney and was also a prominent member of various philanthropic organizations. Later he moved to Brisbane where he helped to found the Wharf Street Congregational Church in 1859 and among other duties was secretary of the Board of Public Education. He died at Brisbane on 1 June 1871. One of his sons, George Bourne, was William Landsborough's colleague when he crossed the continent in 1862. A daughter, Harriet, married the parliamentarian, George Raff. Four of his grandsons held important positions in the Queensland civil service. Both Darling and Barff retired to Sydney and died there. Barff's grandson, Henry Ebenezer Barff (1857-1925), was registrar of the University of Sydney.

The presence of these missionaries in the colonies aroused public interest in missions and drew attention to trade with the Pacific islands. Williams, who had a dynamic personality, believed that the Christianization of the islands in the Pacific would lead to the greater prosperity of Sydney's business houses. But he also believed Australia had a duty to evangelize and civilize, and wrote to the Sydney Gazette, 22 March 1827: 'Prosper, O Australia! in your mercantile pursuits, in the extent of your dominions, in the numbers of your flocks and herds, in the fineness of your fleeces; yet recollect, that in your prosperity you are neglecting the work that God, the author of all your prosperity, has assigned you'.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Williams, A Narrative of Missionary Enterprises in the South Sea Islands (Lond, 1837)
  • E. Prout, Memoirs of the Life of the Rev. John Williams (Lond, 1843)
  • J. E. Ellis, Life of William Ellis (Lond, 1873)
  • J. J. Ellis, John Williams (Lond, 1890)
  • J. King, Ten Decades, the Australian Centenary Story of the London Missionary Society (Lond, 1895)
  • N. Bartley, Australian Pioneers and Reminiscences, ed J. Knight (Brisb, 1896)
  • B. Williams, Memorial of the Family of Williams (np, 1904)
  • LMS archives (Westminster).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Niel Gunson, 'Williams, John (1796–1839)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 15 July 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

John Williams (1796-1839), by Henry Anelay

John Williams (1796-1839), by Henry Anelay

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an6621835

Life Summary [details]


27 June, 1796
London, Middlesex, England


20 November, 1839 (aged 43)
Eromanga, Vanuatu

Cultural Heritage

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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.