Heathdale flower 08th March 2024

Here By Design

Join our Executive Principal, Ross Frace, in delving into the captivating story of Richard Johnson, the Chaplain to the First Fleet, and uncover the remarkable journey of faith and purpose behind Australia's inaugural church service in 1788.

Heathdale flower

I love a good story, whether it is told, enacted, read, watched on the screen, recited or recounted. If it’s a good story, it captures my imagination and draws me in.

I find that autobiographies and biographies are a genre that always seem to be built around a good story, as it not only has a strong story line but is based on fact rather than fantasy. When I read this genre, I get caught up and even find myself trying to relive the events in my imagination.

Hearing Richard Johnson’s story is one such story. He was the Chaplain to the First Fleet. If you haven’t heard of Richard Johnson, Google him. What a captivating story he has!

The history books tell us that Richard Johnson conducted the first Christian service on Australian soil under a large gum tree in the Sydney settlement. The weather had been suffocatingly hot, as it often is at this time of the year. Out in the harbour was the First Fleet, having carried just over a thousand people from Southampton.

Governor Arthur Phillip attended this first service along with twenty officials and their servants, 213 marines with some wives and children, more than 750 convicts, and one chaplain and his wife and one James Smith, who had actually stowed away on the First Fleet!

We are told that Captain Arthur Phillip wasn’t a particularly spiritual person, but he did his duty on the 3rd February 1788 and ordered the entire company to be present at the service. Here we have a congregation of 1000 people attending Australia’s first church service. Now that is church planting on steroids!

Before we get too excited, we need to remember that attending this inaugural service was a governor who didn’t want to be there; soldiers, most of whom didn't want to be there; convicts, who had no choice and didn't want to be there, and a Chaplain and his wife. All of them believing that this was indeed a ‘God-forsaken,’ inhospitable land of heat, humidity and flies.

Into this scene steps the Chaplain and he reads as his text Psalm 116:12. “What shall I render unto the Lord for all his benefits towards me?” or as a modern translation puts it, “How can I repay the Lord for all His goodness to me?” What on earth could have possibly possessed Richard Johnson to choose this text?

I’m certain that none of those listening could possibly think of one of God's blessings in this situation. Without knowing anything more about Richard Johnson, you might come to the conclusion that he was your stereotypical pious, upper class, highly educated, out-of-touch parson who didn’t have the ability or sense to even marginally identify an appropriate Bible verse for his first sermon in this new land. One wonders what he was thinking!

What has impressed me about Richard Johnson’s story is he deeply believed he wasn’t by chance that he was appointed the first chaplain to this country for a reason even though it wasn’t initially obvious to him.

With the wisdom of hindsight, however, we can see it wasn’t a random act that Johnson was a member of well know Christian group, called the Eclectic Society, of whom people like John Newton and William Wilberforce were also members.

It wasn’t a random thing that Wilberforce was close friends with the newly elected Prime Minister, William Pitt, and Wilberforce nominated Richard Johnson for the role as Fleet Chaplain. It was as if God had been at work behind the scenes orchestrating things to enable these situations to come to pass.

God had placed in Johnson’s heart a desire that drove him to seek out others who also believed in prison reform and mission. There’s a deep sense of God’s hand at work, of God’s design coming into play, because God doesn’t do random!

There is the same sense of design over each of us. I firmly believe that we are not in the positions we are in because of some random act or decision that has aligned our circumstances.

The Staff and I are convinced that God doesn’t place us in our circumstances such as this school community for no reason at all. We need to discern His reason for us being in the place we’re in and hear His call. As we grow in understanding we realise we are strategically placed by God; some to be Kingdom workers, others to learn more about Him, and for others, the opportunity to enter a deep personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

This is why the words from the Old Testament Book of Psalms (Chapter 25, verses 4-6) just seem to resonate deep within. “Show me how you work, GOD; School me in Your ways. Take me by the hand; lead me down the path of truth. You are my Saviour, aren't you? Plan only the best for me GOD! GOD is fair and just; He corrects the misdirected, sends them in the right direction. He gives the rejects His hand, and leads them step-by-step.” (The Message translation)

Being in God’s appointed place doesn’t mean that we will be protected from hardship or difficulty, but it does mean that God knows exactly where we are and what we are going through. He uses the processes of life to help sharpen and develop gifts within us so we can fulfil His call and follow Him.

Let each of us draw strength from God because we know we are in His appointed place, responding to His design and call on our lives. Bless you as you delight in this understanding.