Charles Strong was born on September 26, 1844
at Dailly, Ayrshire (Scotland). His early education was at the village
school and then at Academies in Ayr and Glasgow. He commenced studying
at Glasgow University when he was fifteen years old. The method
of instruction differed from that in English universities. Professors
engaged in dialogue with their students and there was less emphasis
on rote learning. Strong's democratic outlook, his extensive knowledge,
his pleasure in the interconnection of ideas and sense of logic
are attributed, in part, to his studies at the university. He completed
his MA course in 1862-3. Then he entered the Divinity course which
he completed in 1866-7. In 1868 he was ordained. Four years later
he married Janet Julia Fullarton Denniston. She was a well-educated
woman who shared his interests and supported him throughout his
ministry. Strong was minister of the Scots Church in Melbourne from
1875 to 1883 and of the Australian Church from 1885 until his death
on 12 February 1942.
Ministry - Scots Church
The congregation of the Scots Church in Melbourne
flourished under Strong's leadership. Among the many people he attracted
to church services were non-Presbyterians and people who were previously
not interested in religion. He set up several groups for discussion
of literary, religious and social topics. He was highly regarded
by community and church leaders, as well as by working class people
who respected his sincerity and concern for social justice. He taught
his congregation that there was little value in religion without
service to the neighbor in need and was at the forefront of efforts
to draw attention to problems in the slum areas of Melbourne. He
was an active member of the Australian Health Society which promoted
guidelines for good health, was president of the Convalescents Aid
Society and secretary of the Society for the Promotion of Morality.
He was also involved with efforts to improve housing in slums and
in giving support to unmarried mothers.
Although he was known to be a liberal in theological
and social matters, this did not arouse any conflict until 1877.
In that year an anonymous pamphlet appeared in which concern was
expressed about the preaching of false doctrines, the mocking of
orthodoxy and the denial of the supernatural elements in Christianity.
Although Strong was the target of these accusations, he was not
named in the pamphlet. However, from that time he was under suspicion
of heresy. His article on the Atonement, a scholarly description
of the development of this doctrine, was published in 1880. It raised
concerns about his radical views which some regarded as heretical.
Strong resigned in August 1881 but was persuaded to take six months
leave and then to serve the congregation for a further twelve months.
It appears that he was driven out of the Presbyterian Church by
a small group of his colleagues. The main complaint against him
was that he failed to emphasize sufficiently certain points of doctrine
which his accusers considered to be essential. Although there was
no examination of the charges brought against him, he was officially
declared not to be a minister of the Presbyterian Church in November
1883. He then left for a visit to Scotland.
Strong's "social views" and attempts
at reforming society were intrinsic to his religious perspective.
He rejected the idea that religion was not concerned with matters
of everyday life, with social welfare or with economics. He regarded
with disdain the idea that religion was mainly concerned with the
preparation for life after death, with salvation and damnation,
preaching and praying, services and sacraments, the Bible, and vestments.
He believed that the first task of the church was to preach "freedom,
justice, peace, charity, compassion and reconciliation". It
should condemn everything that was contrary to the Gospel. The mission
of the church was not to attract more people but to change the world.
For him social issues were also spiritual issues. Religion was interconnected
with consideration of social problems and action to bring about
Ministry - The Australian Church
Upon his return to Victoria in October 1884, Strong
was approached by a group of friends and supporters who asked him
to preach for them during the next twelve months in a hall which
they would hire. In November 1885 a new church was constituted and
Strong was asked to be its first minister. Although involved in
the formulation of its aims and objectives, Strong made it clear
that he was not the founder of the "Australian Church".
In a review after the first year, it was noted that attendance at
services had been about a thousand each Sunday and large sums of
money had been donated for a church building. The principles and
basic ideas of the church were published for the information of
the public. The Australian Church aimed to be " a comprehensive
Church, whose bond of union is the spiritual and the practical rather
than creeds or ecclesiastical forms". The imposition of theologies
and interpretation of the Gospel from the past was seen to hinder
both minister and congregation. Membership of the church required
"sympathy with the general spirit and aims of the society,
the honest effort to carry into modern life and thought the religion
of Reason and Love and contribution to the funds of the society
according to ability". The notion of a church that was non-dogmatic,
inclusive and tolerant was not new. It was one of the important
ideas of the liberal religious movement of nineteenth century Scotland
Strong organized the social work of this new Church.
It included aid for children, a creche for the children of working
mothers (led by Mrs Strong) and a Working Men's Club. He set up
societies for the discussion of literature and music, and the Religious
Science Club. He also maintained a strong interest in the value
and significance of religions other than Christianity.
The establishment of the Australian Church did
not result in a movement of secession from traditional churches.
Australian Churches were set up in Newcastle, Lucknow and Sydney
but they did not last long. By 1905 the Australian Church in Melbourne
was the only one.
The Australia Church- after 1900
The depression in the 1890s and the departure
of some of the wealthy members of the congregation meant that financial
support for the Church was reduced. Attendance at services was still
about one thousand. The societies formed to discuss economic, literary,
social and religious problems attracted people who were not associated
with the congregation. The major problem was the debt on the church
building . This appeared to be solved when a group of four men bought
the building and leased it back to the congregation. However, lack
of funds continued to be a problem and attendance at services gradually
declined. Eventually, the departure of numerous families from the
city meant that there was no longer a reliable source of income
for the church. Strong resigned from the congregation on October
6, 1913 thereby leaving its members and its management committee
free to make decisions about the future of the church. When all
seemed lost, the bequest of a large sum of money enabled the church
to continue to pay the minister and in due course to purchase a
Strong's interest in world peace and his views on peaceful means
of settling international problems made him unpopular during 1914-1918
and resulted in the resignation of many members of his congregation.
His opposition to war and to a proposal by the Australian Government
in 1917 to conscript Australians for service in overseas countries
aroused the disapproval of friends and supporters. The press in
Melbourne also attacked him for the first time in his career.
A renovated church was purchased in 1922. However,
the congregation did not flourish. Old members died and Strong's
calls to "social duty and responsibility" did not appeal
to young people who thought that the church did not show enough
interest in present-day matters. This was in spite of the fact that
Strong and his congregation were very much involved in addressing
the needs of society. They were active in their support for peace,
quick to support a campaign to assist victims of the Spanish Civil
War and among the first to help Jewish refugees from Germany and
Eastern Europe. Members of the congregation were made aware of the
need for justice for Australian Aboriginal people. They were active
in promoting reform in prisons and abolition of capital punishment.
Strong was at the forefront of moves to provide for mentally handicapped
The depression of 1930-1933 was a very difficult
time. Numbers declined and so did the financial support. This state
of affairs continued during the years that followed. After Strong's
death, Rev Mervyn Plumb accepted the call to become minister of
the church in January 1943 and remained in that position until October
1950. On July 10, 1955 the final service of the Australian Church
It was decided that the establishment of a trust
would be an appropriate memorial to Strong. The church building
and the organ were sold and after payment of debts, the remaining
money was paid to the Charles Strong (Australian Church) Memorial
On February 3, 1957 the Australian Church was dissolved. It was
the enduring interest of Strong in non-Christian religions as worthy
of respect and serious study that led to the decision to make the
primary object of the Trust ‘the sympathetic study of religions
other than Christianity’.
CR Badger, 1971
The Reverend Charles Strong and the Australian Church
Melbourne: ABACADA Press
An Early Progressive Christian
(Published in Why Weren’t We Told, p. 110, under the title: Charles Strong an Early Christian Heretic’)
With the recent rise of ‘Progressive Christianity’ and the Common Dreams conferences
held in Sydney (2007) and Melbourne (2010), it might be assumed that such a movement
is relatively recent in Australia. One might well argue, however, that the voice
of Charles Strong at the end of the 19th century anticipates much of the current
thinking. The Australian Church based on Strong’s approach may have closed in 1955,
but the radical thinking of Charles Strong has been said by some to pre-date the
voice of Bishop Spong toward the end of the twentieth century. As Strong says:
Thus Christianity re-interpreted escapes from “carnal” theologies, traditions, questions
about dogmas, infallible books, infallible churches, and presents itself as a Spiritual
Life which is its own witness, and to which perhaps such things are felt to be a
hindrance often rather than a help. (1894, 15-16)
The Australian Church
Charles Strong was born in 1844 in Scotland, began university at 15, was ordained
in 1868 and became a minister of Scots Presbyterian in Melbourne in 1875. Due to
an anonymous pamphlet suspecting him of heresy relating to the doctrine of atonement,
he was removed from his church in 1883 and returned to Scotland.
Upon his return to Victoria in October 1884, Strong was approached by a group of
friends and supporters who asked him to preach for them during the next twelve months
in a hall which they would hire. In November 1885 a new church was constituted and
Strong was asked to be its first minister. Although involved in the formulation
of its aims and objectives, Strong made it clear that he was not the founder of
the "Australian Church”.
The Australian Church in Melbourne defined itself as ‘a comprehensive church whose
bond of union is the spiritual and the practical rather than creeds or ecclesiastical
forms’ (Badger 1971, 104)
Strong had a disdain for religion that focussed on preparation for life after death,
salvation and damnation, services and sacraments, the Bible and vestments. The task
of the church, he claimed, is to preach ‘freedom, justice, peace, compassion and
Membership of the church required "sympathy with the general spirit and aims of
the society, the honest effort to carry into modern life and thought the religion
of Reason and Love and contribution to the funds of the society according to ability"
(Badger, 1971, 104). The notion of a church that was non-dogmatic, inclusive and
tolerant was, however, not new. It was one of the important ideas of the liberal
religious movement of nineteenth century Scotland and England.
The hermeneutical task, according to Strong, is to
Re-interpret Christianity in the light of modern knowledge, the principles of development,
and the spirit of religion as distinguished from the letter; to re-interpret Christianity
just as Copernicus and Galileo re-interpreted astronomy. (1894, 9)
In the light of his writings, this re-interpretation of Christianity might well
be understood as follows:
Embracing modern knowledge—science, cosmology, psychology
and nature. (Nature is not an alien power—it enters us, we enter it—it draws out
our secret mental forces and we draw into it. We are nature.)
Following the Spirit
not the letter—Jesus did not ask the woman who anointed his feet whether she believed
in a creed, but if she had faith in him.
Knowing the Spirit—as the ‘universal
all-animating Spirit’, an eternal and deep dimension of reality. The Trinity is
re-interpreted in terms of this deep Spirit in the universe.
Reading via the
Spirit—with a clear mind that is part of the eternal Mind led by the universal Spirit/Word
to follow the Gospel of trust in God as Light and Love.
within deep mysteries of life.
Understanding the Gospel—as the message that God
is Spirit, that God is love and that God so loved the world as to send his Son to
draw us into sonship and make us partakers in a divine life.
For Strong, The Gospel of John was the canon within the canon. The themes of John,
such as life, light and word, were central to his reinterpretation of the Gospels.
In his own words, ‘Salvation is no longer accepting an offer of deliverance from
hell, but being saved from ourselves and lifted into Christ’s life and God’s life.’
Strong also speaks of a ‘spiritual Christianity’, a movement that links us with
the spirit deep in all things and the spirit deep in each human. Spiritual Christianity
ought to be an expression of who we are, expressing the spirit/divine within. When
we discern the Spirit of Christ in the text, rather than search for doctrine or
theology, we facilitate this process.
An extraordinary feature of Strong’s spirituality is its distinctive incarnational
base. This base is read in line with the approach of Clement of Alexandria. So ‘the
Word of God became man, so that thou mayest become God’ (1894, 116). In other words,
the incarnation is not an ephhapaz (once and for all) event, but an expression of
an eternal present reality. The word or spirit becomes/is incarnate in every human.
Every human is an expression of the incarnation of God’s presence. As Strong writes:
The essential idea of Christianity in such writers as Justin, Clement and Athenagoras,
is the revelation of God in man, that man may be drawn into God through the Logos
or Word. God in man and man in God is indeed the very keynote of spiritual Christianity
in the early church, the Middles Ages and modern times. (1894, 116)
According to Strong, Christianity must be reborn. It must change with the times,
knowledge and the evolution of humanity in society. Christianity must reflect the
kingdom/spirit of God within each of us and ultimately be connected with the cosmic
spirit. Christianity must shed the book and letter worship of the past and adopt
a new cosmology – no more heaven and hell! And finally, Christianity must be part
of the moral force for social change.
For Strong, what is true of the way people live life is also true of the way interpreters
have read the text. The task is to explore the depths and discover that a Spirit/spiritual
connection with Christ means a profound connection with the Centre, with the Divine,
with Life itself. Christ is the ‘way’ to that Life. The Gospel for Strong is therefore
essentially Life with all its deep divine dimensions! Or in the words of Strong,
…the gospel is that God is Spirit, that God is Love, and that ‘God so loved the
world’ as to send his Son to draw us into sonship and make us partakers in a divine
life; glimpses of a world at length inspired with a ‘spirit of life in Christ Jesus.’
Social justice was central to Strong’s re-interpreting of Christianity. He saw this
dimension associated with both evolution and Scripture. He believed there has been
and continues to be an evolution of human knowledge. Christians need to take this
reality into account when reading the Bible, re-reading theology, re-interpreting
Christianity and living social justice.
Spiritual Christianity has a crucial moral and social dimension. God is not the
God of the individual only or of the physical universe, but also the God of the
Social Order. God’s nature cannot be interpreted apart from the laws of that Order
manifested in social nature. The fundamental principle of social justice is: Live
by the law of Love!
Strong organized the social work of the Australian Church. It included aid for children,
a creche for the children of working mothers (led by Mrs Strong) and a Working Men's
Club. He set up societies for the discussion of literature and music, and the Religious
Science Club. He strongly supported women’s right to vote and was heavily involved
in prison reform. He also maintained a strong interest in the value and significance
of religions other than Christianity.
Strong was vehemently opposed to any wars. ‘I cannot reconcile war and democracy,
war and the Christianity of Christ’. He preached fiercely against the Boer War,
declaring it to be rampant militarism and morally wrong. As a result, many of his
followers no longer attended his church.
Strong's interest in world peace and his views on peaceful means of settling international
problems made him unpopular during the 1914-1918 War and resulted in the resignation
of many members of his congregation. His opposition to war and to a proposal by
the Australian Government in 1917 to conscript Australians for service in overseas
countries aroused the disapproval of friends and supporters. The press in Melbourne
also attacked him for the first time in his career.
The Kingdom of God
Strong interpreted the Kingdom of God in line with this re-reading of the Gospel.
According to strong the Kingdom includes:
- the rational ethical divine meaning
that permeates the universe,
- the evolutionary unfolding of that divine purpose
in human experience,
- the justice of God expressed in goodwill, love and brotherhood
- a willingness to suffer until this great ‘law of our being’ is realised
Strong rarely functioned as a modern preacher, taking a particular text and doing
a detailed exegesis as the basis for his sermons. Rather he functioned with a progressive
theology which may be summarised as spiritual, evolutionary and moral. Yet, these
three are all expressions of a divine unity. There is an underlying interconnectedness
of the physical, the spiritual and the ethical. And that unity is not in some distant
realm, but within each of us. Nor is it a distant concept; rather it is an energising
force—that divine Love with moves all things to live, to love and to realise the
Kingdom of God in creation. Our task is to discern that Love in the text and be
agents of that Love in society.
1971 The Reverend Charles Strong and the Australian Church.
Melbourne: Abacada Press
Strong, Charles 1894
Christianity Re-interpreted and Other
Sermons. Melbourne: George Robertson and Company.
See also the lectures from the
Charles Strong Symposium on the Strong Trust website:
Chair, Charles Strong Trust