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The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

                                Sunday 7th Feb 2021

First Anglican Service at Sydney Cove led by Reverend Richard Johnson, Sydney 1788

Today marks the 233rd year the Reverend Richard Johnson who gave his very first sermon under a large tree to the troops and convicts who came off the ships of the First Fleet that arrived a little more than a week prior.

Records show that careful preparations were made, ensuring that convicts were to ‘appear as clean as circumstances will admit’ and that ‘No man to be absent on any account whatever’. The guard was to be changed earlier than usual, so as to give those who had been relieved, ‘time to cleanse themselves before church’, and the Church Drum’ beat at 10 ‘O clock’.

On the 13 of May, in 1787, Richard Johnson and his wife Mary (of less than a year!) began their journey aboard the store ship, the Golden Grove. He was ordained Deacon only four years prior and Priested in 1784. Only a year later in 1785, Johnson was offered the appointment as Chaplain to Botany Bay. Both William Wilberforce and John Newton had a hand in encouraging Richard Johnson to take up the position as Chaplain to Botany Bay. John Newton acted as mentor, confidant and advisor. Johnson was 34 when he took up his post as Chaplain to the colony. He took with him 4200 books including bibles 100 bibles and 100 books of common prayer and others.

After a long and arduous journey, Johnson and his wife lived on the ship Golden Grove for some months before a cabbage palm walled building was built with a thatched roof, that apparently leaked continually, flooding the dwelling during heavy rainfall.

Apparently, he became one of the busiest men in the colony. He held services, either in the open air or in a storehouse as a Church building would not be built until some 5 years later. He performed all the functions of the church, Baptisms, Weddings and Funerals and attended the execution of the condemned and worked hard among the convicts. (1788: David Hill, p166, 167). When the Church building was erected, Johnson and his wife opened the church as a school to 500 children, ensuring that both the children of troops, and convicts alike received an education. Apparently, this had such a great effect upon that generation, records testify that they were of better character and chose not the way of their parents.

In the accounts left on record,  Johnson was a man of character and decency. He was an excellent farmer and records show he had the best crops of the early colony. His wife Mary worked hard alongside her husband but also took in a young aboriginal girl by the name of Abaroo (Boroon) became the third wife of Bennelong. Although both Bennelong and Abaroo were encouraged to convert to Christianity, neither of them did. However their son, did become a Christian.

Reverend Richard Johnson’s sermon on the 3rd of Feb was from Psalm 116 verses 12 and 13 which reads:

 How can I repay the Lord for all his goodness to me?

I will lift up the cup of salvation

And call on the name of the Lord.

There is no record of Johnson’s sermon, so we do not know why he chose this particular text.

The theme of Psalm 116 is Rescue. It begins,

I love the Lord for he heard my voice:

He heard my cry for mercy

Because he turned his ear to me

I will call on him as long as I live.

The cords of death entangled me;

The anguish of the grave came upon me ;

I was overcome by trouble and sorrow.

Then I called on the name of the Lord:

‘O LORD, Save me!’

Johnson perhaps had little idea of what his travels across the ocean would be like or what he would see upon his arrival or what the demands of his ministry would be. The journey from England to Botany Bay brought Johnson face to face with many deaths, 65 souls lost their lives on the way. In the words of the Psalmist, Johnson faced ‘the anguish of the grave’ on that journey as well as in his ministry over the years he spent at Botany Bay.

What we hear in this Psalm is the affirmation that the Lord heard Johnson’s prayer and the cry for mercy. And because he recognised that God was with him and the people of the First Fleet. And Johnson, standing under that great tree, just a little over a week in the new land, begins to share with the people his thanks to God.

How can I repay the Lord for all his goodness to me?

Today we give thanks for the ministry of The Reverend Richard Johnson and for his wife Mary, who wholeheartedly laboured for God in the midst of a strange and new beginning.



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