Constituting a “Christian Commonwealth”:
the Christian foundations of Australia’s constitutionalism
by Augusto Zimmermann
“The Commonwealth of Australia will be, from its first stage, a Christian Commonwealth.” – Sir John Downer.1
Australia’s Greens announced that, when Parliament resumed in February, they would move to end the reading of prayers at the start of each sitting day. “The Lord’s Prayer in Federal Parliament is an anachronism”, said Greens acting leader Richard di Natale, who called to have the prayer scrapped.
The statement reveals a form of secular ignorance and secular intolerance towards our nation’s Christian heritage. After all, Australia’s constitution is deeply infused with religiosity from the outset.
The Constitution of Australia Bill was passed by the Imperial (British) Parliament on July 5, 1900. Queen Victoria assented four days later, and in September proclaimed that the Commonwealth of Australia would come into existence on the first day of the twentieth century (January 1, 1901).
On the occasion, one of the constitution’s most distinguished co-authors, Sir John Downer, declared: “The Commonwealth of Australia will be, from its first stage, a Christian Commonwealth”.2Like him, many of the other leading writers of the Constitution had strong views on the importance of Christianity to the Commonwealth.For example, Sir Henry Parkes, known as “the Father of Australia’s Federation”, believed that Christianity comprised an essential part of Australia’s common law.3In a column published in the Sydney Morning Herald (August 26, 1885), Sir Henry stated: “We are pre-eminently a Christian people—as our laws, our whole system of jurisprudence, our Constitution … are based upon and interwoven with our Christian belief.”4
Similar views were found among the drafters of the Constitution Bill in 1897.Among these were Edmund Barton, who entered politics under the influence of his Presbyterian Minister, and the leading federalist and statesman Alfred Deakin.5On the day following the referendum concerning the draft of the Constitution, which was held in New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania on June 3, 1898, Deakin humbly offered a prayer of thanksgiving for all the progress that had been made, asking for Christ’s blessing on the endeavour: “Thy blessing has rested upon us here yesterday and we pray that it may be the means of creating and fostering throughout all Australia a Christlike citizenship.”6
All of these statements are much more than just rhetoric. After all, the Christian belief of the Australian Framers also made its way into the preamble of the Commonwealth Constitution: “Whereas the people of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland, and Tasmania, humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God, have agreed to unite in one indissoluble Federal Commonwealth . . . .” (emphasis added).
As Helen Irving has suggested, the preamble is that part of the constitution laying out “the hopes and aspirations of the parties involved,”7and, indeed, the reference to God received the strongest popular support of any part of the Constitution. According to Professor Irving:
During the 1897 Convention delegates have been inundated with petitions . . . in which the recognition of God in the Constitution was demanded. The petitions, organized nationally . . . asked for the recognition of God as the “supreme ruler of the universe”; for the declaration of national prayers and national days of thanksgiving and “humiliation”. But, the essence of their petition was that the Constitution should include a statement of spiritual—specifically Christian—identity for the new nation.8
The insertion of an acknowledgment of God into the Preamble of the Australian Constitution occurred in response to overwhelmingly popular public support, which came, among other things, from countless petitions received from the citizens of every single colony in Australia. Overall, these petitions reflected the general sentiments of the people for “some outward recognition” of the Divine Providence, so that the work of the Australian Framers should “fix in our Constitution the elements of reverence and strength, by expressing our share of the universal sense that a Divine idea animates all our higher objects, and that the guiding hand of Providence leads our wanderings towards the dawn.”9
In the process of popular consultation, which took place during the constitutional drafting, the legislative assemblies of Western Australia, Tasmania, New South Wales, and South Australia, all submitted proposed wordings for the preamble acknowledging God.10The Legislative Assembly of Western Australia, for example, proposed that the preamble should declare that the Australians are “grateful to Almighty God for their freedom, and in order to secure and perpetuate its blessings.” Similarly, the Legislative Assembly of Tasmania suggested that the constitution’s preamble should “duly acknowledge Almighty God as the Supreme Ruler of the Universe and the source of all true Government”.
Furthermore, both the legislative assemblies of New South Wales and South Australia, as well as the Legislative Council of Western Australia, proposed a preamble “acknowledging Almighty God as the Supreme Ruler of the Universe”.11
This being so, John Quick (one of the drafters of the Constitution) and Robert Garran (who played a significant role in the Australian federation movement) wrote in their standard commentary on the Australian Constitution:
This appeal to the Deity was inserted in the Constitution at the suggestion of most of the Colonial Legislative Chambers, and in response to numerous and largely signed petitions received from the people of every colony represented in the Federal Convention…. In justification of the insertion of the words stress was laid on the great demonstration of public opinion in their favour, as expressed in the recommendations of the Legislative bodies and in the petitions presented.12
It may well be argued that the overwhelming public support for a reference to God in the Commonwealth Constitution reflected the view that the validity and success of an Australian Federation was dependent on the providence of God.
Speaking at the constitutional convention, Patrick Glynn of South Australia explained this precisely to be so and that it was to Australia’s credit that the new nation would have “[t]he stamp of religion . . . fixed upon the front of our institutions.”13
To conclude, the inclusion of the words “humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God” in the Constitution exemplifies Australia’s religious, and specifically Christian, heritage. It can, at the very least, be said that Judeo-Christian values were so embedded in Australia so as to necessitate the recognition of God in the nation’s founding document.
When considered alongside the development of colonial laws, the adoption of the English common law tradition and American system of federation, it is evident that the foundations of the Australian nation, and its laws, have discernible Christian roots.
1 Col Stringer, Discovering Australia’s Christian Heritage (Robina/Qld: Col Stringer, 2000), p.103.
3 Francis Nigel Lee, The Christian Foundations of Australia 10 (Brisbane: Queensland Presbyterian Theological Seminary, August 2000), p.17, available online at: URL: www.dr-fnlee.org/docs6/cfa/cfa.html
5 Elizabeth Rogers Kotlowski, Stories of Australia’s Christian Heritage (Sydney: Strand Publishing, 2006), at 152.
6 Deakin’s Prayer 223, 4 June 1898, in Stringer, at 104.
7 Helen Irving, To Constitute a Nation: A Cultural History of Australia’s Constitution (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p.196.
8 Id., at 166.
9 Id., 166.
10 John Quick and Robert Randolph Garran, The Annotated Constitution of the Australian Commonwealth (1901), pp.283–84.
12 Id. at 287.
13 5 Official Record of the Debates of the Australasian Federal Convention 1733 (1898) (proceedings of March 2, 1898).