This Sunday Collins Street Baptist Church celebrates 169 years in the city of Melbourne. That’s a heck of a long time. It certainly helps to put my half-century into perspective!
Along the way CSBC has been led by some extraordinary people. Granted, its leadership is an overwhelmingly male story and to focus on its pastors misses the real depth of the church’s history. But because I currently have the gig, I confess to a certain fascination with these men, that is the first handful who stepped up to pastor what is now the oldest continuing Baptist congregation in the country.
At the risk of losing whatever readers I have, I thought over the next few days I might identify some of these blokes, not at great length but just enough to provide a sense of who they were and what they add to our story. If it’s not your thing, you can go and drink coffee with my blessing!
I can’t tell you just how reassuring it was to learn that Collins Street’s first pastor didn’t really want the job. Hands down, John Ham has to be the most reluctant starter!
He was an experienced pastor from Birmingham in the UK with a crook set of lungs. Having decided that the Sydney climate was his only hope of reprieve, he and his family set sail in 1842. When the ship docked in Melbourne’s Port Philip Bay there were two local Baptists waiting for Ham, charged with nabbing his services for a month before he continued north. Ham was not interested, but after some prolonged and vigorous arm-twisting, he relented (though his family continued on to Sydney). Ham’s one month turned into four years.
Though ever reluctant, Ham turned out to be just what was needed to get this church off the ground. The first thing Ham did was organize a ‘public lecture’ in the local Mechanics Hall, now the Athenaeum Theatre. With the riveting title The Constitution of the Christian Church, you wouldn’t think he’d get a crowd, but he did. In fact he concluded his address with an altar call and they streamed to the front … sixteen of them! Thus begun CSBC.
[note to self: more altar calls!]
With Ham came the church’s historic commitment to an open communion table, a fact that didn’t please all Baptists in the fledgling town. Many of them left in a doctrinal huff. The truth is, divisions and factions so coloured early Baptist life in this city it’s a miracle anything happened! One can only assume Ham and his two deacons were no pushovers because, despite the opposition, Collins Street went from strength to strength.
Ham accepted a grant of land from Govenor Latrobe (another controversial move among the colony’s devout) and the church’s first chapel was built in 1845, ‘a neat and handsome place’ to seat 400. By 1846 there were 100 children in the Sunday School and an infant day school with 107 enrolments. What’s more, Ham played a key role in missionary outreach to the indigenous ‘Yarra tribe’ and spearheaded Collins Street’s establishment of a school for indigenous children near the Merri Creek encampment.
In the few Ham stories I’ve read, I don’t get much a sense of him on a more personal level. Still, to birth a congregation on nothing more than a handful of ‘strong men with strong opinions’ and a boggy plot of land at what was then the ‘wrong end’ of town, I can’t help but admire the man.
His lungs never did improve and in 1847 Ham bid farewell to his infant congregation for his original destination of Sydney. Poor bloke!