Soapbox Speakers

“The Atheist Call”, Queen’s Wharf, Melbourne’s Speakers’ Corner.

“Are there no savages in central Africa and if so, why do you not go to them instead of casting those doubtful pearls where no one wants them? Why don’t you go without purse, without weapons, without societies?”


This was the challenge of Joseph Symes to evangelist Joseph Booth. It was to change the life of the evangelist. Booth was a willing participant in the Sunday evening debates at Queen’s Wharf, which was conveniently near Flinders Street Railway Station, Melbourne. It was a popular Speakers’ Corner in the 1890’s.

Booth and Symes had  radical views.  They had much in common, but not when it came to religion.  They admired each other, as they had come to their different world views in a similar way. They were locked into their separate efforts to win the hearts and minds of the Melbourne public.

Joseph Symes (1841-1906), was a secularist and publicist, born in England, into the Wesleyan faith of his parents. In 1871 he joined the Kilmarnock ministry in Scotland as a probationary cleric. It was during these years he married and began to question his faith. He questioned the mass slaughter of the Franco-Prussian war, the belief in God’s providence, and matters such as Papal infallibility. In July 1872 he refused ordination and resigned from the faith. Symes took an interest in the labour movement  and lectured at the Northern Union Mechanics’ Institute. In May 1876, he joined Bradlaugh’s National Secular Society.

Then, in the far-off  British colony of Victoria, Australia, the local Victorian  Secular Association asked Bradlaugh to send them an organiser. Bradlaugh sent Joseph Symes. Symes arrived in Melbourne with his wife on 1884. He began to publish a weekly newspaper, ‘Liberator’,  and provided his flock with secular meetings, sermons and Sunday schools. Symes fought against the parochial, wowserism of the times. The Lord’s Day Observance Society fought back and lobbied  the Victorian government to prosecute Symes and The Secular Association.  This harassment continued until the Association broke up in 1888. Backed by a faithful few, Symes struggled on with  the ‘Liberator’ and the Sunday meetings at Queens wharf.

In the colonial election of 1889, Symes ran for the parliamentary seat of  Collingwood and came last. This is not surprising considering his radical platform: land nationalisation, graduated income tax, the abolition of colonial titles and governorships, Sunday trading, legalised contraception, the ending of discrimination against Chinese, and Home Rule for Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Joseph Symes  retired in 1892 but continued to issue the Liberator until 1904. He died in 1906 while visiting England.

Joseph Booth (1851-1934) was born in Derby, England. His father was a Unitarian, but
by the age of fourteen, Booth questioned his father’s religious beliefs and, as he could not
live with those beliefs, left home. Over the next few years, Booth educated himself through extensive reading and, before he was twenty, turned to the Baptist Church.

He married in 1872 and in 1880. Booth emigrated to New Zealand and then to Melbourne, Australia, where he became a successful businessman. His business success helped develop his later views on self-reliance and the economic bases of missionary work. As he became more active in the Baptist Church, he became more fundamentalist in church teaching. However his view of capitalism was at odds with colonialism. He believed in a utopian a heaven on earth based on radical self-help.

Booth could not resist the excitement of public debating. He attended  the Sunday evening debates at Queen’s Wharf. The forerunner of the Melbourne’s Yarra Bank Speakers’ Corner. In 1891 he was challenged by the atheist Symes to practice what he preached, sell all his goods and go out to preach the word. Symes offered this challenge to Booth:

“Are there no savages in central Africa and if so, why do you  not go to them instead of casting those doubtful pearls where no one wants them? Why don’t you go without purse, without weapons, without societies?”

Booth called the Symes challenge at Queen’s Wharf  “The Atheist Call”. It changed Booth’s life. He had been thinking of becoming a missionary and wanted to put his ideas of self-help into practice. From 1886, Booth had become more active in his local Baptist Church and more fundamental in his beliefs. Booth sold his business in Melbourne and  agreed to become a missionary in East Africa. He left Australia in 1891 with his young family and started his missionary career, choosing to work in Africa. He aimed to set up the type of self-supporting Baptist mission pioneered by William Carey in India, combining teaching and commercial activities where the natives could become  self–supporting.  His short book, ‘Africa for the African’, published in America in 1897, sets forth many of his ideas.

His first attempt  in Nyasaland  met with opposition from the colonial authorities. In South Africa his plans were rejected. He was barred from central Africa in 1903. Yet he had many supporters who advocated an “Africa for Africans”. He moved to Basutoland where he could  work as an independent missionary. In 1915, one of Booth’s supporters, John Chilembwe, led an uprising in Nyasaland (Malawi.)  Booth came under suspicion and was deported from Basutoland to Britain. He was later permitted to return to South Africa, but when his health failed he went back to Britain and died there in 1934.

Booth and Syme’s deaths passed unnoticed. Their contribution to radicalism in Australia and Africa has also passed almost unnoticed. What makes change can depend upon one’s meeting a challenge in the most unlikely places between the most unlikely people.

Steve Maxwell.

References:
– Wikipedia; Joseph Booths (1851-1934) Missionary.
– Wikipedia; Josephs Syme ( 1841-1906 ) secularist.
– The Making of a Maverick Missionary: Joseph Booth in Australasia p 48
– Harry Longworthy, The Life of Joseph Booth .P23

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