Attending to the National Soul: Evangelical Christians in Australian History 1914-2014.

Attending to the National Soul: Evangelical Christians in Australian History 1914-2014. Volume 2 of The Fountain of Public ProsperityStuart Piggin and Robert D. Linder, Monash University Publishing, 2020

The purpose of Attending to the National Soul, Stuart Piggin and Robert. D. Linder explain, is to illuminate the significant roles that evangelical Christians have performed throughout Australian history. The authors are well-positioned to undertake this ambitious task. Piggin is Conjoint Associate Professor of History at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Previously Piggin held the positions of Director of the Centre for the History of Christian Thought and Experience at Macquarie University (2005–16) and Head of the Department of Christian Thought of the Australian College of Theology. His specialisations include religious revival, the history of evangelicalism and missions.

Linder is a Distinguished Professor of History at Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kansas, USA. Promptly, the spiritual position of the authors, and any inherent bias, is addressed as they state; ‘we are only too aware that those of a different or no faith would have painted a very different picture, darker in some parts, rosier in others’ (xii).

Due to their professional backgrounds, Piggin’s and Linder’s style is academic, in tone and presentation. A comprehensive bibliography and footnotes are provided to readers. The chapter layout is uniform throughout the book; a specific time period and a relative quote are provided before the start of the chapter. Interestingly, the chapters are typically written in pairs.

The first chapter described the Australian political and social landscape of the chosen period before the reader is guided through a second chapter that discusses the evangelical experiences. The conclusion of each chapter is exceptionally well done, with short sharp sentences illuminating Piggin’s and Linder’s primary arguments. There are consistent glimpses throughout the book of an interdisciplinary approach, as Piggin and Linder utilise sociological research to explain declines or shifts between churches.

Readers new to this series, of which this is the second instalment, can read the preface to gain a brief overview of the previous book. Piggin and Linder argue the second instalment is required as previous historians, from both secular and spiritual standpoints, have failed to notice the significance of evangelical actions being completed across time since white settlement. They state that ‘[h]istorians typically assume rather than proved that Australia’s heritage in the twentieth century was secular’ (15). This substantial tome is guided by the following questions: ‘To what extent did evangelicals influence the development of Australian values and public opinion post-empire? Did they have the moral energy to generate public-spiritedness? How successful were they in communication to their fellow Australians not so much the doctrines but the ‘dynamic altruism’ of faith? And in the process, how effective were they in attending to the Australian soul, to the spirit of the nation, as well as to the cure of the soul of individual Australians?’ (xi)

Three major themes of this volume are identified by the authors as being: 1. the transition of the evangelical movement from spiritual empire to an antipodean Christiandom; 2. the capacity of evangelicals to attend to the conscience and the consciousness of the Australian soul; 3. the interaction of evangelical Christianity with secularism (xi).

The sixth chapter, Reluctant combatants: Evangelical Responses to World War II, was a standout to me. This chapter relied more on oral histories and archival sources, rather than the secondary resources that provided the foundations for previous chapters. The tone seemed to have more analysis as well, demonstrating the Church had learned from its experience of WW1 and evangelical members, and communities adjusted their responses accordingly. This chapter focuses on a bigger issue of men and women in the war, and the faith of Prime Minister Curtin. The inclusion of the latter was interesting, due to the popular refrain that Australia is a secular nation. In this chapter, the separation from Church and State is shown to be anything but clear cut. Afterwards, I felt more inclined to consider the religion of Australia’s leaders, a compliment to the authors for prompting further interest in such a topic.

Overall, Attending to the National Soul illuminates to the reader an interesting tension between a community, Australian evangelists, and the individual. Repeatedly the authors demonstrate a religious movement that was informed by the society in which it was based, as much as it tried to inform the society it occupied. While not ‘the’ history of evangelicalism in Australia, due to its primary focus on Sydney, this remains a significant text for social and political historians. The summarization of an immense array of secondary resources woven with oral histories creates a richly textured book.

One issue arose with the authors’ representation of First Nations people. I feel there would have been great benefit had the term Indigenous been uniformly used throughout the book and ‘Stolen Generation’ should have been capitalised in respectful recognition of the harmful and long-term experiences of First Nations individuals, families and communities. Regardless, I have no doubt this book will illuminate a pathway for future historians to explore specific regional, gendered and sexual issues associated with evangelical churches in Australia.

This review was first published in the Professional Historian Association‘s Pharos.