William Guthrie Spence

William Guthrie Spence (1846 – 1926) trade unionist and politician
Perhaps the greatest trade union organizer in Australian history, William Guthrie Spence, was both a Methodist preacher and a Presbyterian elder. The suburb of Spence in Canberra is named after him. In 2003 the head office of the AWU in Melbourne was also named after him.   The AWU secretary called him, “the founding father of not only our union, but unionism as a whole in this nation”, without acknowledging his Christian convictions and values.


It is significant that the most vocal supporters of the Labor Party and the Trade Unions in their fight against IR reform have been the Christian churches. A fact little appreciated even by the Labor Party itself and the Trade Unions is the debt both owe to Australia’s Christian heritage. The founders of Trade unions and the Labor Party in Australia, for the most part, were not atheistic Marxists, as the stereotype goes, but Christians, and not Catholic Christians, as another stereotype has it, but the branch of Protestantism in which John Howard was raised, namely Methodists.

While it is true that the IR legislation seeks to minimise the abuse of union power, standover tactics, inflexible workplace agreements, and unreasonable loadings, it is also true that it threatens to do away with over a century of gains for working people, and many of those gains were achieved by committed Christians who believed that they were acting in a way consistent with the teachings of Jesus.

Perhaps the greatest union organizer in Australian history, William Guthrie Spence, was both a Methodist preacher and a Presbyterian elder. The suburb of Spence in Canberra is named after him. In 2003 the head office of the AWU in Melbourne was also named after him. He was, said AWU secretary, Bill Shorten, “the founding father of not only our union, but unionism as a whole in this nation”. But there was typically no mention in his speech of Spence’s Christian convictions and values. (para 3 of    http://www.awu.net.au/10650686359401.html

But the labour movement would have been a very different thing without Spence’s Christian heritage. He was born in 1846 in the Orkney Islands. Why are so many trade unionists Scots? Spence was the grandson of a noted Presbyterian minister in Scotland and his parents were staunch Presbyterians. His mother taught her two sons to read from the Bible before they were six, and Spence later became and remained throughout his life an elder in the Presbyterian Church.

He came to Australia with his family in 1852, settling first at Geelong and later, in 1853, at Spring Hill near Creswick, Victoria. As a small boy, he observed the Eureka uprising in 1854 and later claimed that it had a profound impact on his mature thought. Largely self-taught, he became widely read in the Bible, the classics, political ideas, and economics, and he made a close study of the lives of both Jesus and St. Paul.

Beginning as a shepherd, in his youth he also worked as a butcher-boy, a shearer, and a miner.
• 1874, in the Clunes district, he initiated a trade union that was part of the process of the formation at Bendigo in the same year of the Amalgamated Miners’ Association of Victoria.
• From 1882 to 1891 Spence was general secretary of the AMA and under his leadership, the union was ‘moderate and conciliatory but firm on fundamentals.’ A genius in his organizing and negotiating skills, Spence wanted one grand union that would cover all kinds of miners in Australia and New Zealand,
• and from 1884, several unions, including New South Wales coalminers, affiliated loosely to become the AMA of Australasia.
• His growing reputation as an industrial organizer led to his appointment in 1886 as foundation president of the Amalgamated Shearers’ Union of Australasia.
• Spence is, of course, best known among labor historians for his failed leadership in the l890 Maritime Strike in New South Wales. The failed strike is of immense importance in the history of the labour movement. It convinced the trades unions of the need for a parliamentary labor party if they were ever to compete on equal terms in the future with the country’s moneyed interests.
• Spence continued to be active in the labor movement and increasingly in labor politics following the l890 strike. He was general secretary of the Australian Workers Union from 1894 to 1917.
• Elected as a Labor member of the New South Wales Legislative Assembly from 1898 to 1901,
• he later served in the federal House of Representatives from 1901 to 1919.

In the years before his union organizing took him on the road for much of the time, Spence served as secretary and Sunday School superintendent of the Creswick Presbyterian Church. In the 1880s, while he was achieving fame as a union organizer, he became a ‘local preacher’ for the Primitive Methodists and Bible Christians, two branches of Methodism, which were to amalgamate with the Wesleyan Methodists in 1901. He frequently served as an evangelist in Primitive Methodist and/or Bible Christian churches. He was a teetotaller and a leader in the temperance movement.

In his unexcelled concern for the working people of Australia, he always maintained that he was doing what Jesus would have him do for the downtrodden of society. Presbyterians, Primitive Methodists, and Bible Christians of the period all stressed that the Gospel should be applied to the whole of life, that redemption through Jesus Christ brought with it a changed life that worked itself out in both personal piety and social awareness.

He constantly argued that the labour movement must be based on the values of Jesus. He wrote in l892: ‘New Unionism was simply the teachings of that greatest of all social reformers, Him of Nazareth, whom all must revere’. On June 12, 1892, in a speech entitled ‘The Ethics of New Unionism’, Spence told a roaring crowd of several thousand labour supporters: In taking up this new unionism, we must see if we cannot get back to the level of the founder of Christianity, imbibe some of His spirit and get rid of musty theology, for some of it is very musty. (Laughter and cheers.)

Spence was a very Christian socialist. That is, he was a gradualist, always stressing a preference for negotiations and conciliation over confrontation and class conflict. In 1891 he declared that strikes are ‘barbarous’: “I do not believe in strikes at all”. While he obviously believed that working people had to organise or they would be exploited, he believed, with the framers of today’s IR legislation, that negotiation, not force is the best way forward. He hoped that the capitalists would come to the unionists and say, ‘We will go mates on this or that concern’”.

Source : http://www.anchist.mq.edu.au/CTE/Documents/AUSTRALIA’S%20CHRISTIAN%20HERITAGE.doc

Further information on William Guthrie Spence : http://www.adb.online.anu.edu.au/biogs/A060191b.htm
http://www.awu.net.au/national/speeches/1065068635_9401.html
http://www.answers.com/topic/william-spence

Labour Day and the Christian Connection. William Guthrie Spence. http://diduno.info/2014/11/labour-day/

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William Spence was the grandson of a noted Presbyterian minister in Scotland and his parents were staunch Presbyterians. His mother taught her two sons to read from the Bible before they were six, and Spence later became and remained throughout his life an elder in the Presbyterian Church.

In the years before his union organizing took him on the road for much of the time, Spence served as secretary and Sunday School superintendent of the Creswick Presbyterian Church. In the 1880s, while he was achieving fame as a union organizer, he became a ‘local preacher’ for the Primitive Methodists and Bible Christians, two branches of Methodism, which were to amalgamate with the Wesleyan Methodists in 1901. He frequently served as an evangelist in Primitive Methodist and/or Bible Christian churches. He was a teetotaller and a leader in the temperance movement.

In his unexcelled concern for the working people of Australia, he always maintained that he was doing what Jesus would have him do for the downtrodden of society. Presbyterians, Primitive Methodists, and Bible Christians of the period all stressed that the Gospel should be applied to the whole of life, that redemption through Jesus Christ brought with it a changed life that worked itself out in both personal piety and social awareness.

He constantly argued that the labour movement must be based on the values of Jesus.

The suburb of Spence in Canberra is named after him. http://www.actpla.act.gov.au/tools_resources/place_search (search Spence)
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One Response to William Guthrie Spence

  1. Great post. Where is your “like” button?

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