It was a tough gig.
Taking up the role of Collin Street’s pastor after Samuel Chapman’s 22 golden years at the helm had to be a poison chalice. I doubt even Jesus could have measured up. What’s more, though Chapman left behind a thriving congregation, the turn of the century brought a level of social change in Melbourne that would altar the fortunes of this city church, and many others like it, for decades to come.
Another UK import, Reverend Samuel Pearce-Carey, took up his role in 1900. This was a man with Baptist blood pumping thick through his veins. The son a Baptist minister, great-grandson of the Baptist missionary and linguist William Carey—commonly known as the father of the modern missionary movement—and grandson of Samuel Pearce, the founder of the Baptist Missionary Society, Pearce-Carey came with impressive credentials. But the fact is he struggled from day one.
Just as Pearce-Carey was getting a good grip on his new pulpit, Melbourne’s population was heading full steam to the suburbs. The old and large Baptist families were exiting as the Baptist heartland changed address. A once great Sunday School program shriveled as the city centre emptied of its residential life. In an editorial early in 1900, The Southern Baptist offered an analysis of Pearce-Carey’s challenge: ‘How does one get in touch with the community when there is no community to touch?’ The answer, the editorial concluded, was in the drawing power of Collins Street’s pulpit. It was only in maintaining the highest level of preaching that such a church could survive. Pearce-Carey certainly fit the bill as a fine and stately preacher, but the inevitable decline won the day. Within the eight years of his ministry, church membership fell by around 200 people.
Pearce-Carey was a strong and forthright communicator and unafraid of controversy. He tackled head on the ‘errors’ of the Catholic faith, the threat to Christian education in schools, and the failure of the evangelical church enamored with revival but unconcerned with numerous social inequities.
On the first Sunday in July 1906, Pearce-Carey welcomed a procession of 150 working men led by the two leading left-wing socialists of the state. Once gathered, he preached a strident sermon condemning the church that assumed its agenda was entirely ‘spiritual’. He called the church to proclaim a gospel that was good news for the poor, the landless and the downtrodden. In other sermons he spoke of Christ the great social reformer, Christ’s doctrine of work and Christ’s view of wages.
Pearce-Carey’s sermons attracted growing criticism, especially those he preached to the Baptist Assembly. In 1900 he spoke on the nature of the Bible’s inspiration and caused uproar among many churches. In 1906 his sermon ‘The Great Good God’ in which he proclaimed that God’s salvation was more inclusive and far-reaching than many Baptists believed, caused anger of unprecedented strength. Controversy boiled. Churches were moving in greater numbers to distance themselves from Pearce-Carey and the congregation at Collins Street felt the heat. At a hastily convened church meeting Pearce-Carey maintained the church’s support but 26 members resigned in protest.
To its credit, and despite the heat, the leadership of Collins Street remained resolutely behind its pastor, but at considerable cost. Finally in 1908, with the good of the church at his heart, Carey bowed to the pressure and resigned. He returned to England badly bruised but still speaking warmly of his love for Australia and its people.