If you’re like me, you’ve probably driven past dozens of solid-looking buildings in the suburbs or in remote country towns, proudly declaring themselves ‘Mechanics Institutes’, without having a clue what they were about. I was intrigued to discover they were an innovation that exploded out of Scotland in the early 19th century and spread like wildfire across the English-speaking world.
When John Birkbeck advertised a free lecture on technical subjects in Edinburgh on October 16th 1821, an astonishing crowd of 450 men turned up. It’s certain he had no idea what he’d launched and that by the end of the century, all across the globe, eager workmen would flock to one of 9000 Mechanics Institutes to improve their skills as artisans.
The roots for the phenomenon lay in a quiet Christian group known as the Quakers. They were driven by the idea that it was important to nurture God’s gifts in everyone and that learning should be available to all – rich and poor, girls as well as boys.
Australia should be proud of the fact that Lifeline began here as the initiative of the Rev Sir Alan Walker. This Methodist minister was fearless at speaking out on things that matter and relentless at working on solutions to the things that trouble us. My friend Ian Palmer who volunteers as a telephone counsellor sent me his reflections on what this 24/7 service has meant for us over the past six decades and OK’d me to share it. It’s an amazing story.
The scene is a small house set between the sea and the Australian bush. Picture a lone man wrestling in prayer between tall, white gumtrees in the moonlight. It’s 1953 and the country is just beginning to recover from the battering of war. The forty-two-year-old Methodist minister’s name is Alan Walker and he’s full of fear at setting out on a nation-wide mission. His convict ancestor had arrived in Botany Bay in 1810 and 20 years later, through the preaching of a travelling Methodist, his alcoholic son John decided to follow Jesus and began preaching in the Windsor district with powerful effect.
And now his great-great grandson Alan - the thirteenth evangelist from that line – is praying for strength. A sudden rustling of the gum leaves in the night-wind made his spirit soar. A vivid image of Jesus challenging Rabbi Nicodemus to allow the wind of the Holy Spirit to flow through his life, gave the shrinking preacher the courage he needed to undertake the preaching ministry to his native country, half a world away from Israel.
His preaching had a powerful effect – just as his great-great grandfather John Walker’s had in Windsor 150 years previously. Decades later, Labor parliamentarian Bill Hayden dubbed Alan Walker, ‘The Conscience of the Nation.’ Others called him ‘Mr Methodist.’ What did that mean?
On the bookshelf in front of me I can see several rare books I hunted down in VINNIES shops as I travelled around the bush. The thrill of chasing a bargain blinded me to a richer story hidden in those humble stores. Behind those kindly, ageing volunteers who serve you, stand two gifted young men who challenged poverty across the world with robust Christian faith.
Europe was torn by revolution, war and crippled by disease in the early decades of the 19th century. The streets of Paris had flowed with blood as the ruling aristocracy were guillotined in the name of Liberty, Equality and Brotherhood. When a brilliant young student named Frederic Ozanam arrived at University in that city, he found religion on the decline and atheism increasing.
He had struggled through doubt himself and was confronted by sceptics who demanded more than the intellectual proofs for the Christian faith he presented. The challenge jolted Frederic and a group of friends to start providing food and firewood for starving people flooding in from the country, even as a cholera epidemic swept through the slums. They saw themselves following the example of a priest named Vincent de Paul who had left his mark on France two and a half centuries earlier.
Join The Outback Historian, Paul Roe, on an unforgettable journey into Australia's Past as he follows the footprints of the Master Storyteller and uncovers unknown treasures of the nation.