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Criminals, Easter and Australian values

By Warwick Marsh - posted Thursday, 13 April 2017

Believe it or not, Easter celebrates a man who died a criminal's death and became the foundation for what are commonly called 'Australian Values'.

When I was a young boy, visiting my grandmother in Edinburgh, Scotland, she used to tease me by saying, "You and your family are descended from convicts." I deeply resented her comments because as a five year old boy, I did not yet know that Australia, in its founding, was populated by criminals.

From 1788 to 1868, Britain transported more than 160,000 convicts from its overcrowded prisons to the Australian colonies, 80 years' worth of convicts. It was in fact William Wilberforce who petitioned the British government to settle Australia, in order to give prisoners dying in overcrowded British prison hulks, a new start in life.


Interestingly, while the vast majority of our early settlers were convicts, most of our early explorers were men of faith. James Cook, Charles Stuart, Matthew Flinders, Edward John Eyre and the indomitable Pedro Fernandez De Quiros, who in 1606 gave Australia her name, Australia del Espiritu Santo.

This legacy of faith carried on through our many devout, practicing Christians, such as Governors Lachlan Macquarie, Brisbane, Hunter and Latrobe, to name a few. Macquarie, in particular, encouraged Christian education, commencing a number of schools under the supervision of government chaplains. By 1817, the most common discussion in the pages of the Sydney Gazette was the merits of Bible reading.

Australian money tells the story of our early Christian pioneers and the ways in which they influenced our values. The early $5 note told the story of history making Christian social worker Caroline Chisholm, Australia's first advocate for women in the early 1800s. The current $20 note tells the story of Rev John Flynn who pioneered our Flying Doctor service to outback areas. The current $50 note features David Unaipon, an aboriginal inventor and lay preacher, who invented improved methods of shearing sheep, among many other things.

The preamble to the Australian Constitution contains the words, "Humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God". For centuries, to speak of Western civilisation was to speak of Christian civilisation. The two were in many ways synonymous.

To paraphrase the words of the Canberra Declaration:

The values that we have cherished and sought to strengthen are in large measure founded on the Judeo-Christian belief system. The many freedoms, advantages, opportunities, values and liberties which characterise the West, including Australia, owe much to the growth of Christianity with its inherent belief in the dignity of the human person as created in the image of God and the code of behaviour that flows from this belief...These values are being attacked and undermined on many fronts, by dedicated and articulate proponents of different views.


Niall Ferguson, in his book the "Civilization: The West and the Rest", carries a quote from a member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in which he tries to account for the success of the West, to date.

He said:

One of the things we were asked to look into was what accounted for the success, in fact, the pre-eminence of the West all over the world.

We studied everything we could from the historical, political, economic, and cultural perspective. At first, we thought it was because you had more powerful guns than we had.

Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focused on your economic system.

But in the past twenty years, we have realised that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity. That is why the West is so powerful.

The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don't have any doubt about this.

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About the Author

Warwick Marsh is the founder of the Dads4Kids Fatherhood Foundation with his wife Alison. They have five children and two grandchildren and have been married for 34 years.

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