Richard Johnson (chaplain) bigraphy, stories - Australian chaplain

Richard Johnson (chaplain) : biography

- 1827

| death_place = | church = Church of England | other_names = | education = Magdalene College, Cambridge | ordained = 1784 | writings = | congregations = | offices_held = | title = | spouse = Mary Burton | children = | parents = | footnotes = }} Richard Johnson (circa 1756 – 13 March 1827 in England) was the first Christian cleric in Australia.

Johnson was the son of John and Mary Johnson. He was born in Welton, Yorkshire and educated at Hull Grammar School under Joseph Milner. In 1780 he entered Magdalene College, Cambridge as a sizar and graduated in 1784. His first post was as curate of Boldre, where William Gilpin was vicar. After about a year in Boldre, Johnson moved to London to work as assistant to Henry Foster, an itinerant evangelical preacher.

Johnson was appointed chaplain of the prison colony at New South Wales in 1786. This appointment was due, in large part, to the influence of the Eclectic Society and two notable men, John Newton and William Wilberforce, who were keen for a committed evangelical Christian to take the role of chaplain. Johnson and his wife sailed with the First Fleet and arrived in Australia in 1788.

Governor Arthur Phillip had first of all to find means of feeding and housing the soldiers and convicts and labour could not be spared for the building of a church. Services were held in the open air and even four years later, when Johnson appealed to Phillip for churches at both Sydney and Parramatta, he had no success. Under lieutenant-governors Grose and Paterson, Johnson was in even worse case. Grose made vague charges against him and Johnson made many complaints about the treatment he received.

He was given a grant of land and worked it so successfully with the help of some convict labour that, in November 1790, Captain Tench called him the best farmer in the country. He planted seeds of oranges and lemons he had obtained at Rio de Janeiro, which later on produced good crops of fruit, and occasional references are found to his having made a fortune by his farming; this is all probability an overstatement, though he sold his land and stock to good advantage when he left the colony.

In 1790 he and Mary had a daughter, who was given the Aboriginal name Milbah. They also had a son in 1792.

In June 1793, tired of waiting on the authorities, he began to build a church himself, and by September completed a building capable of holding 500 people at a cost of about £67. Even allowing for the difference in the purchasing power of money and the comparative flimsiness of the structure, this was a remarkable achievement. This church was burnt down in 1798. Johnson, with his wife Mary, taught between 150 and 200 school children in this church.

An assistant chaplain, the Reverend Samuel Marsden, was appointed in the same year and arrived early in 1794; and henceforth Johnson had the support of a stronger personality than his own. In 1794 he published An Address to the Inhabitants of the Colonies established in New South Wales and Norfolk Island and, in 1800, obtained leave of absence to visit England. He sailed on the Buffalo in October and did not return to Australia. In June 1802 King in a dispatch said: "I understand that Rev'd Mr Johnson does not mean to return." Practically he retired in 1802, but so late as July 1805 he appears on a list of officers as "On leave in England, no successor or second clergyman appointed".

After returning to England, in about August 1801 Johnson took up a curacy with the Reverend Thomas Dykes of St John's, Hull. During this time he had opportunity to influence William Cowper, who became the third chaplain to New South Wales after being recruited by Samuel Marsden. In November 1803 Johnson was curate at Bunwell, Norfolk, a position he occupied until he moved to West Thurcock, Essex, in April 1809. In 1810 he was presented by the king to the united parishes of St Antholin and St John Baptist, in London. He never served as a curate at Ingham, despite oft-repeated claims to the contrary. The Richard Johnson who served at Ingham was a different person.

Johnson continued to take an interest in Australia, appearing before the House of Commons Select Committee on Transportation in 1812 and in 1815 he recommended John Youl to be chaplain at Port Dalrymple. He died on 13 March 1827.


  • Johnson preached the very first sermon on his new soil (then the colony of New South Wales) on Sunday, 3 February 1788. The sermon (commemorated by a plaque) was on Psalm 116:12; "What shall I render unto the Lord for all that he has done for me?"
  • Johnson is commemorated in Sydney by Richard Johnson Place, which is on the corner of Bligh and Hunter Streets in Sydney.
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