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(2014) “...but in its proper place....” Religion, Enlightenment, and Australia’s Secular Heritage: The Case of Robert Lowe in Colonial NSW 1842-1850 - Journal of Religious History

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Over the last few decades historians have been rediscovering Australia's religious heritage, often in response to entrenched narratives depicting Australia's social, intellectual, and political history as a triumph of secular enlightenment
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  STEPHEN CHAVURA “. . . but in its proper place. . . .”Religion, Enlightenment, and Australia’s Secular Heritage: The Case of Robert Lowe in Colonial NSW 1842–1850* Over the last few decades historians have been rediscovering Australia’s religiousheritage, often in response to entrenched narratives depicting Australia’s social,intellectual, and political history as a triumph of secular enlightenment over vestigesof Old World partnerships of religion, state, and society. That Australia has a richsecular heritage is indisputable, but to draw a sharp distinction between the “secular”and the “religious” is anachronistic and misguided, and any attempt to tell the storyof Australia’s secular heritage must acknowledge that the “secular” often found its justification flowing from more general religious premises grounded in enlighten-ment ideals such as rational religion, rational piety, and general Christianity. Indeed,when liberal democracy was emerging in the colonies the “secular” had to be justified in terms acceptable to the public square and these terms were broadly religious.Robert Lowe is an apt case study for divining the nature of the secular in colonialAustralia, for his thought and political activity show the subtle and complex way thatideals such as “enlightenment,” “religion,” and “secular” entered into dialogue rather than warfare with one another and contributed to social institutions judged suitablefor a fledgling pluralist nation. Introduction It is only with his activity in New SouthWales that Robert Lowe, laterViscountSherbrooke, is remembered as being on the right side of history. Unfortunatefor a supremely gifted man who only came to Sydney for health and wealth and  Dr Stephen Chavura is an independent scholar.* Paper srcinally delivered to the Centre for the History of Christian Thought and Experience,2 June 2011, Macquarie University, and the Rethinking Secularism in Australia and Beyond seminar held at Robert Menzies College, Macquarie University, 30 September 2011.Thanks to theanonymous reviewers of this Journal for their comments. For support and advice special thanks toRaymond Heslehurst, Stuart Piggin, Meredith Lake, Geoff Treloar, Ian Tregenza, Wayne Hudson,and Steve Wood. For advice on the fate of Robert and Georgiana Lowe’s letters to William SharpMacleay I thank staff at the Macleay Museum, University of Sydney.Thanks also to the documentdelivery services staff at the National Library ofAustralia. Finally, thanks to Kim Robinson and thestaff at Moore Theological College, Newtown, for access to the W. G. Broughton papers. bs_bs_banner  Journal of Religious History Vol. 38, No. 3, September 2014doi: 10.1111/1467-9809.12075 356 © 2014 The Author   Journal of Religious History  © 2014 Religious History Association  returned to London to make a name for himself in a much bigger pond. Hisinternational fame rests principally on his frustrations: his eloquent oppositionto the democratic 1867 Reform Act, 1 and his attempt to base English elemen-tary education on “payment by results.” 2 His failures of personality are alsolegendary; merciless, caustic, sarcastic, and ideologically blinded are descrip-tions that pepper all serious biographical accounts, except that of his official biography. 3 Yet in NSW he is remembered as a champion of causes vindicated shortly after his departure, most notably colonial self-government and generaleducation. 4 For Lowe, these causes were merely institutional expressions of the  terminus ad quem  of human history: enlightenment. In this way New SouthWales held promise for Lowe as a young potential showcase of enlightenment planning, and it is in Lowe’s attempts to justify his enlightenment vision for the colony that we get a good insight into the relationship of enlightenment,religion, and the secular in colonial New South Wales.Current debate over the nature of eighteenth and nineteenth-century secu-larism resembles debate over the nature of the Enlightenment, for in bothcases historians have come to reject exclusive conceptual categories for more porous and reciprocal accounts of crucial concepts, such as “reason,”“religion,” “enlightenment,” and “secular.” 5 John Gascoigne suggests that weshould look at the Enlightenment more “as an attitude of mind rather than aformal creed with clearly defined articles.” 6 This is promising, for it becomeseasier to appreciate popular Victorian notions of “enlightened religion”and “rational piety.” Similar comments may be made about secularisation asa European phenomenon occurring concurrently with the Enlightenment.As well as occurring very differently in different European states during theeighteenth and nineteenth centuries, secularisation was, for the most part, less 1. R. Lowe,  Speeches and Letters on Reform  (London: Robert John Bush, 1867). See A. Briggs,“Robert Lowe and the Fear of Democracy,” in  Victorian People: A Reassessment of Persons and Themes  (NewYork: Harper and Row, 1955), 232–63. T. D. L. Morgan, “All For aWise Despotism?Robert Lowe and the Politics of Meritocracy,” PhD diss., University of Cambridge, 1983;C. Ingham, “Liberalism against Democracy: A Study of the Life, Thought and Work of RobertLowe, to 1867,” PhD diss., University of Leeds, 2007.2. In 1903 James Bryce could write: “He left his mark on our elementary school system byestablishing the system of payment by results, but nearly every change made in that system sincehis day has tended to destroy the alterations he made and to bring back the older conditionof things, though no doubt in an amended form.” J. Bryce,  Studies in Contemporary Biography (New York: Macmillan, 1903), 304–305.3. A. P. Martin,  Life and Letters of the Honourable Right Robert Lowe, Viscount Sherbrooke , 2vols. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1893). For Lowe’s personal shortcoming JamesBryce’s portrait remains unsurpassed. See above n. 2.4. Henry Parkes’ thought and reforms on education bear striking similarity to Lowe’s own policy.Parks was an admirer of Lowe and helped him get elected to the Legislative Council in 1844. SeeA. W. Martin,  Henry Parkes: A Biography  (Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 1980).5. See, for example, W. R. Ward,  Christianity under theAncien Régime 1648–1789  (Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 1999), 20; N. Aston,  Christianity and Revolutionary Europe c.1750– 1830  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 2; H. McLeod, “Introduction,” in  The Decline of Christendom inWestern Europe, 1750–2000 , ed. H. McLeod and W. Ustorf (Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 2003).6. J. Gascoigne,  The Enlightenment and the European Origins of Australia  (Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 1. The same is true of other contestable concepts: seeS. Macintyre on liberalism,  A Colonial Liberalism: The Lost World of Three Victorian Visionaries (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 12. 357 ROBERT LOWE AND THE SECULAR IN NSW © 2014 The Author   Journal of Religious History  © 2014 Religious History Association  a matter of anti-religion as it was a process of Christian pluralisation. InEngland and Germany, for example, what at the time may have been considered secularisation was what we would call pluralisation; the state loosening itsconnection with a single favoured church, but not with Christianity itself. 7 Taking all this into consideration I wish to continue the research programme both of historians of the Enlightenment and secularisation and consider theconcept of the secular and how it related to the Enlightenment and religion inAustralia. Indeed, the concepts of the “secular,” “enlightenment,” and “reli-gion” were crucial in education debates in New South Wales in the 1840s; buthow, if at all, did they relate to one another? 8 The barrister, journalist, and member of the Legislative Council of New South Wales from 1843 to1850,Robert Lowe, is an apt case-study, for he is universally considered an enlight-enment liberal, yet in accounts of his Australian career his religious thoughtand relationship with the colonial church has usually had to play second fiddleto his political and economic thought and his relationship with the LegislativeCouncil. 9 This is despite the fact that much of Lowe’s polemical energy wastaken up in ecclesiastical and even theological controversy. I shall explore aslice of the secular in Australian history by discussing the thought of RobertLowe, who was considered an infidel in his time and potentially the greatestenemy to religion then living in colonial New South Wales. 10 In the case of Lowe it may be surprising to see that secularisation was partially shaped and driven by theological convictions and religious concerns; or, at least, impos-sible to recommend in the public sphere without satisfying the social fact thatreligionless education was anathema. Lowe’s conceptions of “enlightenment”and “secular” were capacious enough to include general Christianity, or liberalProtestantism. Thus Lowe was able to champion his liberal enlightenmentvision for general secular education while able sincerely to claim that his wasnot an irreligious system. 11 7. See H. McLeod,  Secularisation in Western Europe, 1848–1914  (Basingstoke: Macmillan,2000).8. On Enlightenment education as secular see J. Gascoigne, “The Cultural Origins of AustralianUniversities,”  Journal of Australian Studies  20, nos. 50–51 (1996).9. Three published biographies of Lowe are: Martin,  Life and Letters  (vol. 1 is largely concerned with Lowe’s career in New South Wales); R. Knight,  Iliberal Liberal: Robert Lowe in New SouthWales, 1842–1850  (Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 1966); James Winter,  Robert Lowe (Toronto and Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1976).10. Certainly by Bishop William Grant Broughton as evidenced to his good friend the Rev.Edward Coleridge. He referred to Lowe in 1844 as “a radical of the darkest dye.” Then in 1846,speaking of Lowe’s Clerical Benefices Bill, Broughton said “it was generated out of hatred to theChurch universally, and partly to me personally.” For the quotations see respectively “Broughton toColeridge, 15August 1844,” Broughton Papers (BP), MooreTheological College, Newtown, Letter 51; “Broughton to Coleridge, 3 October 1846,” BP, Letter 83. For Lowe’s own account of religionin his upbringing see R. Lowe, “A Chapter ofAutobiography” (1876), in Martin,  Life and Letters ,vol. 1, 7–8, 23; cf. Martin,  Life and Letters , vol. 1, 46.11. Numerous commentators have used “secular” or “secularism” to describe Lowe and his political activity. See Knight,  Illiberal Liberal  , 102; J. Barrett,  That Better Country:The Religious Aspect of Life in Eastern Australia, 1835–1850  (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press), 141;Winter,  Robert Lowe , 25. See other comments by J. S. Gregory,  Church and State: Changing Government Policies towards Religion in Australia: with Particular Reference to Victoria sinceSeparation  (Cassell: North Melbourne, 1973), 38; Gascoigne,  Enlightenment and the EuropeanOrigins of Australia , 19, 46. Lowe himself affirmed that his preferred system of education was 358  JOURNAL OF RELIGIOUS HISTORY © 2014 The Author   Journal of Religious History  © 2014 Religious History Association  As Alan Atkinson has said, the organisation of an administrative framework within theAustralian colonies to accommodate all “forms of religious life” was“the great challenge of government.” Indeed, religious plurality in the antipo-dean colony had “left in limbo the religious character of government itself.. . .” 12 The task of guiding the colonial administration from a  de facto Anglicanconcern to a pluralist administration fell to a number of exceptional reformers,clerical and lay. If the decline of denominational education is, as Richard Elyonce suggested, one of the “sacred ‘events’in the liberal-democratic story,” this process is not merely sacred because it was “sacred, that is, from a certainviewpoint,” 13 it is sacred in the sense that it, and other instances of church–statereform, are not describable in terms of a break from religion, for the policyreforms themselves were considered possible because they used theologicalarguments and satisfied religious social requirements. 14 This is certainly thecase for outwardly religious reformers like John Dunmore Lang, 15 JohnWest, 16 and John Fairfax, 17 to name a few, but it is also the case with Robert Lowe. Byconsidering Lowe’s religious and philosophical ideas we gain an insight in tothe intellectual backdrop that helped form enduring institutions in Australiaand especially Australia’s secular heritage.It is difficult to discuss Lowe’s activity in New South Wales without refer-ring back to his religion. In Lowe’s mind one of the great obstacles to freetrade, general education, and land reform in New South Wales was BishopBroughton. 18 Furthermore, Lowe’s hostility to Broughton was not merely political, it was also theological, for he saw Broughton as theologically suspect, made up of “secular instruction.” See “Report from the Select Committee on Education,”  Votes and  Proceedings of the Legislative Council of New South Wales , 1844, 453. A contemporary criticcalled Lowe “the apostle of modern and secular education.” See H. H. Almond,  Mr. Lowe’s Educational Theories: Examined from a Practical Point of View  (Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas, 1868), 31.12. A. Atkinson,  The Europeans in Australia: A History, Volume Two  (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2004), 193–93.13. R. Ely, “Secularisation and the Sacred in Australian History,”  Australian Historical Studies 19, no. 77 (1981): 565. Alan Atkinson has also pointed out how church and state relations in NewSouth Wales, though disappointing to establishmentarians and many conservatives, were inkeeping with the broad-church theologians and reformers such as S. T. Coleridge and ThomasArnold. Institutional “secularisation” was partially driven by theological movements. A. Atkinson,“Time, Place, and Paternalism: Early Conservative Thinking in New South Wales,”  Australian Historical Studies  23, no. 90 (April 1988): 17.14. This is what Wayne Hudson calls the “sacro-secular.” See his important monograph  Austral-ian Religious Thought: Exploratory Studies  (forthcoming).15. D.W.A.Baker,  DaysofWrath:ALifeofJohnDunmoreLang  (Carlton:MelbourneUniversityPress, 1985); R. D. Linder, “Australian Evangelicals in Politics in theVictorianAge:The Cases of J. D. Lang, W. G. Spence, and J. S. T McGowen,”  Lucas: An Evangelical History Review  13 (June1992): 34–60.16. R. Ely, “The Religion of John West: Orthodox Protestant, Deist, Atheist, or What?,”  Lucas: An Evangelical History Review , 25 & 26 (1999): 46–74.17. S. Johnson, “‘Busy for Both Worlds’: John Fairfax as a Leading Evangelical Layman (Part1),”  Lucas: An Evangelical History Review , 27 & 28 (2000): 41–63; S. Johnson, “‘Busy for BothWorlds’: John Fairfax as a Leading Evangelical Layman (Part 2),”  Lucas: An Evangelical History Review , 33 & 34 (2003): 67–103.18. Lowe’s opinion that Gipps and Broughton were a kind of political duumvirate is rejected byhistorians owing to the scarcity of evidence and also the independent personality of Gipps. SeeKnight,  Iliberal Liberal  , 93; S. C. McCullloch, “The Attempt to Establish a National System of Education in New South Wales, 1830–1850,”  Pacific Historical Review  28, no. 1 (February 1959):35. 359 ROBERT LOWE AND THE SECULAR IN NSW © 2014 The Author   Journal of Religious History  © 2014 Religious History Association  that is, a Puseyite. Puseyism, whose frequent tendency to Roman Catholicismand ecclesiastical authoritarianism Lowe despised, had been a preoccupationof Lowe’s since 1841. For Lowe, Puseyism was an English betrayal of enlight-enment and Protestantism, the latter which Lowe considered a harbinger of  progress. Thus, for Lowe, given his opinion that colonial affairs had degener-ated to being a matter between the Bishop of Australia and the Governor, politics was religious and religion was political. 19 Lowe’s own vague religiosity proved a liability at times, for his anti-clerical political activism in the name of moral and religious improvement could easily be written off as the disinge-nuous lobbying of a crypto-infidel wishing to erase all social and politicalinfluence of religion. This was a slight exaggeration of Lowe’s hostility to thechurch, as indeed Lowe’s doxologies to religion and its importance were probably slightly more sanguine than his real feelings on the matter. Whatwe may glean from considering Lowe’s thought and political activity are thereligious dimensions of his justifications for secular education, yet also thereligious requirements and barriers characterising the colonial public spherethat an outsider had to engage with in any attempt at social reform. Put another way, colonial New South Wales was profoundly religious and denominational,there was simply no getting around this for anybody who wished to engagesociety for social and political ends. People like Robert Lowe, who were never  particularly devotional in their religion, had to learn how to negotiate with thefact of colonial religiosity. Enlightenment ideas enabled Lowe to engage the public sphere as an advocate of secular causes yet still cast his ideas and policyin the language of colonial public (Protestant) reason: general Christianity.Lowe’s lobbying against denominational education in favour of a generalsystem was couched in terms of the good of general Christianity instead of any particular denominational advantage. A glimpse into Robert Lowe’s career in New South Wales allows us to see how someone rather unecclesiasticalmanaged to justify his political and social vision within a religious culturalmilieu. 20 Out of this we see the interplay of various concepts such as “religion,”“secular,” and “enlightenment,” disabusing us of our instinct to bracket thesemodes of thinking off from each other when considering Australia’s political,social, and intellectual heritage.Robert Lowe was born in Bingham, a small town in the south of  Nottinghamshire in 1811, the son of the local rector Robert Lowe Snr. 21 He was 19. There is insufficient room here to discuss Lowe’s unsuccessful 1846 “Clerical BeneficesBill,” which was his attempt to remove Broughton’s power over the Anglican clergy. On this see  Atlas , 12 September 1846, 433;  Atlas , 19 September 1846, 446;  Atlas  3 October 1846, 470;  Sydney Morning Herald  , 23 September 1846, 4; “Broughton to Coleridge, 3 October 1846,” BP, Letter 83.See also G. P. Shaw,  Patriarch and Patriot: William Grant Broughton 1788–1853  (Melbourne:Melbourne University Press, 1978), 193–97.20. Martin describes Lowe as “among the least ecclesiastical of English statesmen.” Martin,  Lifeand Letters , vol. 1, 46.21. Biographical information is taken from Martin,  Life and Letters ; Knight,  Iliberal Liberal  ; and Winter,  Robert Lowe . There is not much evidence of deep family devotion in Lowe’s early years.Lowe’s cleric grandfather wrote a book on the improvement of local agriculture which wasabsolutely devoid of even token references to “God,” “providence,” “design,” or “designer.” Lowedid not even use his ecclesiastical nomenclature on the book title-page. See Robert Lowe Esq., 360  JOURNAL OF RELIGIOUS HISTORY © 2014 The Author   Journal of Religious History  © 2014 Religious History Association
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