The Establishment of the Canberra Baptist Church


Canberra Baptist Church, located within the Australian Capital Territory, was formally established on 17 October 1927 during the visit to Canberra of the Chairman of the Federal Home Mission Board and Vice-President of the Baptist Union of Australia, The Rev.A.J.Waldock D.D.

On that occasion Dr Waldock met with thirteen Canberra residents and secured their pledge of support to his proposal to establish a Baptist work in Canberra.

Less than three weeks later on 6 November 1927 the first church service, led by Mr H.L.Walters, was held in the Presbyterian Hall, Braddon which had been made available for services to the new Baptist group and to the Congregationalists on alternate Sundays.

Five months later on 21 March 1928 the foundation stone was laid for the new church building. The President General of the Baptist Union of Australia, the Rev.J.H.Goble performed the stone-laying ceremony in the presence of a large gathering of Baptists from many parts of Australia.

On 23 February 1929, sixteen months after the formal establishment of the Church, the church building was completed and officially opened amidst great rejoicing among Baptists and wide publicity was given in the local and interstate Press.

The Rev. Arthur J. Waldock D.D. was installed as the first minister during the Sunday services on 24 February 1929. The new church building and the adjacent Manse cost a total of Pounds 12,239.12s.0d to erect and partly furnish with all but Pounds 3415.8s.5d remaining to be paid as at 28 February 1929.

Church membership had grown from the original thirteen to only twenty-two by 28 February 1930 while actual church attendance had grown to an average of seventy five each Sunday; thirty-one at morning services, forty-four at evening services. Average weekly offerings by the congregation in March 1929 amounted to Pounds 2.lls.9d (134.lls.0d per annum).

On the eve of the greatest economic crisis of the twentieth Century how was it possible for such a small number of people to negotiate a lease of land in the new Federal capital, raise such a large sum of money, erect buildings leaving a crushing debt to pay off with a totally inadequate income and yet still establish what became a notable and significant presence and witness in the life of the developing national capital?

In exploring the answers we find that the establishment of the Canberra Church was cast in a very different mould from other Baptist churches throughout the Commonwealth The burst of development in Canberra in the late 1920’s was a visible manifestation of the decision in 1901 to federate.

This was also a period of heightened awareness within the Baptist denomination of the need for greater unity of purpose and a number of Baptist leaders had the vision to see the need to establish a Baptist presence in Canberra as an integral part of Canberra’s early development.

Federation at Work: A presence in the National Capital

Drawing on the experience of the Boards and committees established by the various Interstate Conferences and Congresses, the new administration of the Baptist Union of Australia proceeded smoothly, particularly in the case of the Federal Home Mission Board whose members decided the Baptist work in Canberra, first proposed in 1901, would become its first major responsibility.

It was no surprise that the Board members looked in the direction of their Secretary, Dr Waldock and proposed that he should also become the commissioner for raising funds and promoting interest in the establishment of a church in the Federal Capital.

Dr Waldock accepted this call and put a great deal of energy into the task while at the same time serving as Minister of the Baptist Church at Mosman, N.S.W.. He was a man who wore many hats.

Dr Waldock set to work to bring together the numerous ideas and plans for a church in Canberra which had evolved in various State Unions and Interstate Federal Conference Boards.

These included a suggestion from Rev.E.H.Swan who in July 1923 wrote to the N.S.W. Home Mission Committee and raised the question of a church in Canberra.

In his opinion there was a pressing need for definite action in view of 1400 men employed in the area. N.S.W. records indicate that Mr Swan served for a short interim ministry in Goulburn in the early 1920’s and from here he would have been aware of the new developments being undertaken in the Canberra/ Queanbeyan area and saw the need for a local Church.

A month later the minutes of the N.S.W. Home mission Committee record that the Superintendent had been made aware of the fact that the Rev. Gilmour was retiring from work in Western Australia and might be available for preliminary work at the Federal Capital site.

Subsequently on 16 October 1923 the minutes note that Mr Gilmour had conveyed his willingness to go to Canberra when the work was ready. With a minister willing to move to Canberra there was an urgent need for someone to visit Canberra and undertake a survey of the population to establish just how many Baptists were in the area. The Superintendent,

Dr Waldock invited Mr Swan to do this. Mr Swan reported to Dr Waldock by December 1923 that workmen in Canberra were living in a number of camps with homes being mostly in Queanbeyan. As far as Mr Swan could ascertain no Baptists were living in the area. It was considered that it was not appropriate to commence a local work in Canberra at that time.

In 1924 the Federal Government entered the picture and at once solved the problems of selecting a church site and having to find money to purchase the land.

The Minister of Home Territories wrote to the Interstate Board requesting the Baptist Denomination to advise their requirements for the Government allocation of a site for Ecclesiastical purposes in accordance with the provision of the Church Lands Leases for each denomination; leases for second or subsequent sites must be taken on a commercial basis.

On receipt of this letter, the Secretary of the Interstate Board, Mr G.P.Rees of Box Hill, Victoria, wrote to the N.S.W. Home Mission Committee requesting that the Superintendent (Dr Waldock) visit Canberra to select a site for submission to the Interstate Board for consideration. Dr Waldock visited Canberra on 6 August 1924 and reported to the Board in Melbourne on 18 August.

The minutes of the N.S.W. Home Mission Committee record this visit by noting “Superintendent reported having visited Canberra where he was well received by Col. Owen and the Federal Surveyor General. He had selected two sites and would submit a report to the Interstate Board during the following week.

The land would be appraised by the Federal Government and the rental would be final at 1% per annum of the value which would be fixed and remain permanently. About 1000 men were at present employed – most of these lived at Queanbeyan.”

The site selected by Dr Waldock was requested by the Board and later approved in a letter from the Secretary, Federal Capital Commission dated 18 January 1926. The lease for the site was signed on 27 June 1928 giving to the lessees the land identified on the lease document in perpetuity from 1 July 1927 in accordance with the Church Lands Leases Ordinance 1924-27.

As the Baptist Union was not a legal identity, the signatories to the lease were seven Baptist laymen from the various States who agreed to act as Trustees.

As recorded on the lease documents the Trustees were John Murray Crawford, Victoria, Engineer; Albert Charles Joyce, Victoria, Member of the Federal Air Board; Henry James Morton, New South Wales, Contractor; Quinton Stow Smith, South Australia, Merchant; Arthur Ernest Bickmore, Queensland, Conveyancer; Harold John Foreman, Western Australia, Accountant; James Gordon Duncan, Tasmania, Importer. (21)

Collectively these men accepted the full legal responsibilities for the Church in Canberra; a step of faith that the work would proceed in accordance with the plans still to be developed, approved and funded. The rapid development of the enterprise was by no means assured yet the example of the seven Trustees encouraged others to play important roles in the establishment of the church in the National Capital.

Planning for the First Service

For Dr Waldock, the Commissioner of the project, there was a sense of urgency for the formal establishment of a church and the appointment of a minister in Canberra.

This became one of his top priorities and he put in an amazing amount of research and letter writing from his office in Sydney to ensure the success of the venture. As no surveys of Baptists in the Canberra area had been undertaken since the visit of Mr Swan in 1924, Dr Waldock researched Union records and church rolls and drew up a list of people who, as public servants, might be transferred to Canberra in the course of their duties when Government departments re-located their head offices in Canberra.

From this list he selected Mr G.A.Whitlam, a senior official in the Prime Minister’s Department and Mr H.L.Walters, a senior official in the Department of Works.

On 22 September 1927, Dr Waldock wrote to both men asking Mr Whitlam to become Secretary of the new Church and Mr Walters to take the Sunday Services and undertake the charge of the new work.

Dr Waldock informed both men that he proposed to visit Canberra on 17 October 1927 en route to Melbourne in the hope that a nucleus of people would gather to meet him on that evening to formalise the act of inauguration.

Dr Waldock provided some of the other names on his list and requested Mr Whitlam to locate these people and seek their presence at the planned Monday evening meeting.

In his letter to Mr Whitlam, Dr Waldock outlined the plans under way. The Board in Melbourne had resolved to proceed without delay.

An Architect was completing plans and specifications for approval after which tenders would be called and building commenced. The official stone-laying ceremony was planned for Anniversary Day, 26 January 1928.

Mr Whitlam and Mr Walters proceeded to co-ordinate arrangements for the visit of Dr Waldock, no doubt with some misgivings about the speed with which the plans were being made and the unexpected and time-consuming task which was now their lot.

Mr Walters had not yet moved into a house but he did have a suite at the Hotel Acton which included a sitting room which he made available for the thirteen people present at the first meeting. Among Dr Waldock’s papers is a sheet of note paper bearing his signature and the signatures of the thirteen foundation members of the Canberra Baptist Church.

Those present included Mr Whitlam, Mr & Mrs Walters and Mr & Mrs W.H.Lavender.

Mr Lavender later recalled that he initially read about the proposed first meeting of the Canberra Baptist Church in an advertisement in The Canberra Times.

Over the three weeks following the 17 October 1927 meeting dodgers were printed and displayed in the hotels and hostels and distributed to homes in Canberra. At the first church service held at 3 p.m. on 6 November 1927, 33 people were present and the collection amounted to Pounds 1.14s.0d. Mr Walters conducted the service and preached the sermon.

Reports of the opening appeared in the Melbourne Argus, The Canberra Times and in the Sydney Morning Herald of 7 November 1927. The Congregationalists, who shared with the Baptists the Presbyterian Church Hall in Braddon on alternate Sundays, had no minister or lay preacher and Mr Walters assisted with their church services as well.

The Promotion of the Enterprise

With the small group of Baptists regularly meeting on alternate Sunday afternoons at 3 p.m., Dr Waldock was able to concentrate on the other priority of promoting the Canberra Church enterprise to the State Unions and the constituent churches.

Dr Waldock was working on the premise that as plans were to be submitted, approved and the building completed within two years of signing the lease, and the new Baptist Union of Australia had no more money than the small number of Baptists in Canberra, the State Unions were the only possible source of funds in the time available. (By June 1928, Canberra Baptist Church services were experiencing an average attendance of 15 with collections between 12s.0d. and 15s.0d.).

In an honorary capacity and through the generosity of his Church in Mosman,

Dr Waldock spent nearly two years, including three months unbroken service, in fund raising activities around Australia.

His campaign ran into difficulties even before he left Sydney. Dr Waldock wrote that he was ready to begin the task “but Satan hindered me, and I was not a little astonished, after yielding with considerable reluctance to the wishes of all States that I should undertake the task of raising this money, to be informed by State after State that it would be a waste of time to visit them for that purpose.”

After much entreaty a door was opened to Dr Waldock in Queensland and his epic campaign began in June 1927. The aim was to raise Pounds 10,000. Queensland (pounds 782) and New South Wales (pounds 3231) managed to raise their quotas. South Australia afforded a chilly reception to Dr Waldock but eventually raised the target set by the State Union (pounds 2038).

Victoria responded well (pounds 2408) and Tasmania participated valiantly (pounds 231) but did not reach the target set. Western Australia did not invite Dr Waldock to that State but raised pounds 50 for the Canberra Church.

The fund-raising campaign was given a significant boost with the unveiling of the foundation stones of the church building and the Manse in Canberra on 21 March 1928 when representatives from State Baptist Unions and individual churches around Australia gathered to share in the occasion and place their gifts on the stones.

The stone-laying ceremony also provided renewed impetus to the small number of Baptists in Canberra who were struggling to build a viable group without the assistance of a full or part-time Minister.

Mr and Mrs Lavender and Miss Eva Robinson were three foundation members faithfully attending each service and the work of Mr Whitlam and Mr and Mrs Walters during this period was significant in holding the group together.

During 1928, while Mr Walters was on leave in Melbourne, services were suspended so that poorly attended services over the holiday period would not dishearten those present and give a poor impression to any visitors.

By early June 1928, the health of Mr Walters was failing and the Head of his Department arranged for his transfer to Melbourne for several months to have a break from his busy life in Canberra. Thereafter, and until the arrival of

Dr Waldock and the opening of the church building, arrangements were made for church services to be supplied by visiting or guest preachers.

Mr Lavender was in business as a cartage contractor at the time and in this capacity he had a practical and vital personal interest in the venture. He was successful in securing the contract from the Builder for carting all the bricks, sand and cement used in the construction of the church buildings.

The faithfulness and hard work of these foundation members is all the more notable when it is realised they were all part of a small community working in a city that had been brought into being as a compromise amid State rivalries and being built from without rather than within by people who did not want to live there and took their places in a spirit of rebellion and martyrdom.

The New Church in Canberra

By August 1929 Dr Waldock was able to report to the Baptist Union of Australia that the new church in Canberra was alive and well at the end of the first six months, embracing one of the severest winters recorded in the history of the city.

Looking to the immediate future, Dr Waldock’s report mentions with some foreboding, that new members may be hard to find because of the uncertainty brought about through the Government carrying out its economic campaign. “Hundreds have already been dismissed from the Service and the work of retrenchment still goes on.

Many families have been compelled to leave the city and it has been determined that no more departments will be transferred for at least twelve months”. Financially the Church was being supported by the N.S.W. Baptist Home Mission Society and the congregation were contributing about a quarter of the cost of maintenance.

The deficit of pounds 3000 on the building fund had been paid from a loan from the Commonwealth Bank on the personal guarantee of the Trustees in the several States.

A beginning had been made and the Church was quickly establishing a presence in the National Capital. Visitors to Canberra were including the new church building on their tour itinerary and the number of adherents and visitors attending services was growing.

A Sunday School of forty pupils had been commenced, as had a Young People’s Society with 20 members. Mrs Waldock was doing a great work among the women of the church, her Women’s Fellowship meeting fortnightly for prayer, devotion, social fellowship and service.

Dr Waldock was poised to make a significant impact in the city. He became a member of the Council of the Australian National University and Chaplain of the local Rotary group. Included among his personal papers are handwritten notes from the Governor General, Sir Isaac Isaacs exchanging views and comments on newly-published literary works.

Sir John Butters, Chief Commissioner, set up a Church Council of Ministers of the several churches in Canberra to advise on certain matters and for a number of years Dr Waldock served as Chairman. Dr Waldock notes that shortly after the Council was formed it advised the government to cancel the annual rentals on church sites and this was agreed to!

Included with Dr Waldock’s papers is a printer’s copy of a Wells cartoon entitled “Civilians Captured at Canberra”. It depicts in kindly caricature Dr C.E.W.Bean, Commonwealth War Historian; Mr K.Binns, Commonwealth Librarian and Book Censor; Professor Giblin, Chairman Commonwealth Financial and Economic Committee; Mr E.G.Bonney, Chief Censor; Mr M. George Ronans, Hansard Chief; Dr A.J.Waldock; Professor J.M.Haydon of Canberra University College and Archdeacon Robertson, Church of England, who holds a large book under his arm with the words ‘For we are jolly good fellows’ emblazoned on the cover.

The opening of the Canberra Baptist Church, made possible with the contributions large and small from Baptists around Australia, was an event which helped turn much of the resistance encountered by Dr Waldock into cause for rejoicing. Baptists, as a denomination, were registering a significant presence in the Nation’s Capital.

Time has failed to extinguish the flame lit by the Baptist Union of Australia in 1926 and fanned to a blaze with the opening of the Church building in 1929. The flame lives on in the activities of the congregations past and present and today is burning brightly for succeeding generations to inherit and thus maintain a significant Baptist witness in the Nation’s Capital.

Many glimpses of history about Australian Baptists are seen through the numerous memorials placed in the church building; the pulpit, the communion table and chairs, the name plates on the pews, the stain-glass windows. All help to give tangible testimony to what can be achieved through unity and faith.

Sources of Church History

Fifty Capital Years – A History of the Foundation of Baptist Witness in the Australian Capital Territory. R.K.Robb (Editor), Canberra Baptist Church, Canberra, 1979.

Further Capital Years – A summary of the History of the Canberra Baptist Church over the Decade to February 1989. R.D. Holly, Canberra Baptist Church, Canberra, 1989.