John Lang

John Lang (1799 – 1878) Presbyterian clergyman, politician and educationist
John Dunmore Lang, Presbyterian clergyman, politician, educationist, immigration organizer, historian, anthropologist, journalist, gaol-bird and, in his wife’s words engraved on his statue in Sydney, ‘Patriot and Statesman’.

John Dunmore Lang (1799-1878), Presbyterian clergyman, politician, educationist, immigration organizer, historian, anthropologist, journalist, gaol-bird and, in his wife’s words engraved on his statue in Sydney, ‘Patriot and Statesman’, was born on 25 August 1799 at Greenock, Scotland, the eldest child of William Lang, a small landowner who worked as a ships’ joiner, and his wife, Mary Dunmore, who came from a similar background; she had formidable powers of moral indignation and such capacity for vituperation that in comparison her son’s most savage strictures seemed but a mild remonstrance. Lang was educated for the ministry at the Largs parish school and the University of Glasgow, winning many scholarships and prizes (M.A., 1820).

He later remembered the divinity professor, Dr Stevenson Macgill, as his most influential teacher, but was perhaps even more impressed by Dr Thomas Chalmers, then minister of the Tron Church in Glasgow. Thus Lang was brought up by Evangelicals who were beginning to challenge the prevailing moderatism within the Church of Scotland. He was licensed to preach by the Presbytery of Irvine in 1820 but, having an Evangelical aversion to the common system of lay patronage, considered emigrating overseas and, being assured by his younger brother in Sydney that a suitable field of labour there awaited him, he sailed in 1822, arriving in May 1823. He was the first Presbyterian minister in Sydney, although Rev. Archibald Macarthur had settled in Hobart Town in December 1822.

The Scottish community in Sydney welcomed Lang as their minister. His first task was to build a church. Private subscriptions, he hoped, would be supplemented by a grant from the government which was both aiding Catholics and supporting the Church of England. An official refusal in insulting terms signed but not written by Governor Brisbane provoked Lang to a spirited defence of the Presbyterians; this sharp rebuke to the governor deprived Lang of support from influential sections of the community. Yet sufficient private funds were collected to begin Scots Church, which was finished in 1826.

Early in 1824 Lang’s parents and their family arrived in Sydney. Soon afterwards Lang returned to England where he persuaded Bathurst to grant him an annual stipend of £300, obtained his doctorate of divinity and induced Rev. John McGarvie to become the minister at Portland Head. Back in Sydney friction between Lang and Dissenting Presbyterians was caused by personal conflicts, suspicion that Lang was insufficiently Evangelical and alarm at his readiness to challenge the civil authorities. This culminated in Lang’s first polemical work, Narrative of the Settlement of The Scots Church, Sydney, New South Wales (Sydney, 1828), which was a violent attack on Deputy Commissary General Wemyss, the leading Presbyterian layman, who had first befriended and provided hospitality for Lang but whose support for Lang’s church had since grown cold. However, one of Lang’s minor targets was James Elder, who sued him for libel, claiming £300 for being described as a ‘renegade missionary’; he was awarded damages of one farthing.

Lang, always eager to promote education, opened a primary school in 1826; John Robertson was one of its first pupils. In 1829, prompted by proposals to revive the Free Grammar School, Lang approached Archdeacon Broughton, who was then planning The King’s School, to see if he could co-operate with him in promoting secondary education. At first he thought this possible, but later feared that Presbyterians would not receive fair treatment in an Anglican school. He therefore appealed to Governor Darling to grant land for a Presbyterian school. This was refused, so in 1830 Lang joined, much to Broughton’s disappointment, a group, predominantly Dissenting and emancipist, which was proposing to establish the non-denominational Sydney College. This venture provoked much sound criticism, not only from Broughton, as tending to produce irreligious education; but in the thinly settled colony the smaller denominations had little alternative. In 1830, however, before Sydney College was built, Lang inherited considerable properties from his father and, hiding his intentions from the governor and public, decided to abandon Sydney College and to sail again for England to make arrangements for a Presbyterian secondary school.

In England in December 1830 Lang was struck by the country’s poverty and thought this might be relieved by emigration, while well chosen migrants might produce a moral reformation in New South Wales. Lang was alarmed by the gross wickedness produced by transportation, and free emigration complemented his plans for education. He persuaded the Colonial Office to grant a loan of £3500 for the establishment of a college on condition that an equal sum was subscribed privately. He obtained an advance of £1500 on this loan to take free migrants to Australia. Lang selected about 140 persons, Scottish tradesmen and their families. They agreed to repay their fares out of wages received when building the college. Lang recruited three schoolmasters and two more Presbyterian ministers. He also persuaded his 18-year-old cousin, Wilhelmina Mackie, to marry him. The wedding was to be at Cape Town to avoid opposition from Lang’s mother, anticipated because of the difference in their ages. The marriage was happy and in all his public controversies Lang was comforted by a warmly harmonious family life, marred only by tragedies involving his children; of ten, five died in infancy.

Returning to Sydney in 1831 Lang was applauded for his patriotism and enterprise in bringing such valuable migrants, tradesmen better than any in the colony, who were to raise standards among Sydney builders. The Australian College buildings were commenced. But an intemperate attack by Lang on the Church and School Corporation, the lands of which, he suggested, could be sold to pay for immigration, led to a censure by the Legislative Council in 1832 which impaired his credit and lessened the public’s financial support; so Lang was forced to use his own property to complete the buildings. Nevertheless the Australian College opened in 1831, and survived with ups and downs till 1854; at its best in the late 1830s it appears to have been run very efficiently.

In 1833-34 Lang again returned to Britain. As always on voyages, he wrote; this time it was his An Historical and Statistical Account of New South Wales, both as a Penal Settlement and as a British Colony, 1-2 (London, 1834) which ran to four editions. The Westminster Review suggested that its title should read ‘The History of Doctor Lang, to which is added the History of New South Wales’; however, it was among the most widely read and fully informed accounts of Australia. In 1835 Lang commenced the weekly Colonist, which ran till 1840. The Colonial Observer (1841-44) and the Press (1851) were also Lang papers. Lang wished to use these journals to protect himself and the Australian College from newspaper attacks and to improve colonial morality. The upright young minister was always horrified by the licentiousness of the convict colony. Even his agitation for free immigration had a moral purpose, for he hoped the immigrants would behave better than convicts and emancipists and, by reducing colonial wages, lessen the workers’ deplorable dissipation. He attacked fancy dress balls, Sabbath picnicking and alcoholic intemperance. A major target was the colonial press, especially that section run by convicts or emancipists. In June 1835 the emancipist, Edward O’Shaughnessy of the Sydney Gazette brought a libel action prosecuted by W. C. Wentworth. At the preliminary hearing Lang defended himself so ably that the case lapsed. Lang’s sharpest journalistic attacks were made on sexual immorality; he was determined that none should enjoy the pleasures of matrimony without undertaking its responsibilities. He drove some offenders from society, one of whom later committed suicide. Lang recounted their sufferings with an implacable, hard impartiality.

Source and further information – Australian Dictionary of Biography:

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