Church Army History

Early History

Picture a church building in London full of people who are happy with things the way they are. They enjoy being part of a church community and gathering together on a Sunday but don't want to extend their community to those outside of the church, particularly those struggling with poverty. Then along comes a young trainee clergyman who's passionate about his faith and wants to share the Good News of Jesus with people who'd never dream of stepping foot in a church.
This man was Wilson Carlile. He believed God's love is for everyone, and with this belief he established Church Army in 1882.
Carlile began by hosting open-air gatherings to share faith and encourage people to put their faith into action. He soon introduced an early form of cinematography- the magic lantern - into the service. This had the effect of driving away all the "orthodox" people in horror and attracting men and women from the street.
He started week-night gatherings for the rough and rowdy lads of the district using comical lantern shows and music to attract and entertain them followed by a devotional message and an opportunity to receive Christ. Many did. He ran open-air services at night to reach the butlers and groomsmen of the wealthy at the end of their day's work. Vast crowds gathered and at times the meetings turned violent. Some of the worst men in Kensington became his regular workers. Carlile discovered that he could be far more effective if he put up ordinary working men and women to speak, keeping them on the platform for a relatively short time. He was the leader, they were the workers. It was this insight that ultimately led to the establishment of the Church Army.
As the work grew, a training college for evangelists, men and women, was started. Candidates were sent out as evangelists by the Church. Oftentimes they worked beyond the four walls of the local parish; among the destitute, the abused, the poor and the homeless. "The least, the last and the lost" was Carlile's heart beat. Outreach was always done with the blessing and support of either the parish or the diocese. Part of the evangelist's role has always been to identify others who could work alongside them. These others were regarded as 'Church Army workers'. Some would go on to become commissioned by the Church as "lay evangelists" with the Church Army.
Interest soon grew in extending the work of Church Army to other parts of the Commonwealth, in partnership with the Church of England. One U.K Officer in particular, the Rev Capt Nathaniel Shawcross Robinson, was instrumental in establishing a Church Army work in both Victoria and NSW. In the late 1890s in Melbourne, a Governance Council of prominent citizens was formed, mission teams were sent out and the Church Army headquarters was established in Footscray. Likewise in Sydney (1901-1903), Captain Robinson led a significant Church Army work in the inner city and Church Army was registered in NSW. However, both these works were beset by personality differences, church politics and a lack of support and both came to a close. Fast forward 28 years, when Captain John Cowland came with a small team from the U.K to Australia in 1931 and over 3 years they travelled to every State and Territory preaching the Gospel.
The first edition of the Pioneer Magazine in June 1932, one year after the team's arrival, makes for fascinating reading. They divided themselves into pairs preaching in prisons, conducting open-air services, going door to door, living among the 'hop pickers' in Tasmania, and arranging outreach services in countless parishes. Thousands of people came to faith in Christ and committed themselves to mission in those early years. The result of the team's campaign was unanimous support of every Australian Bishop to establish the Church Army in Australia.
By 1936 they had made their way to Far North Queensland, where, at the invitation of the Bishop they began a work among the indigenous people of Palm Island and Yarrabah. Sister Ridgewell was the first Church Army evangelist to establish a work there, followed by Sister Irene Johnson, who stayed for 12 years on Palm Island, and later she went to the Edward River Aboriginal Mission, now known as Pormpuraaw. The result of these efforts were a number of indigenous men and women presenting themselves for training with Church Army.
One prominent feature of the early Church Army ministry was the "mission vans". At one stage there were 6 different vans across each state that would each cover thousands of miles in order to set up a base for mission in hard to reach places. They were set up in holiday caravan parks near the beach, on the fringe of country towns by a river, or be parked in the grounds of a local church. Church Army Officers would sleep in the van and minister from the van. In the early 50s, one of the vans was set up as a dedicated 'Mobile Cinema' with great effect.

Indigenous Partnerships

The contribution of Indigenous Christians to the advancing of the Gospel in Australia is immense. The Church Army in Australia, since its inception, has been privileged to partner with First Nations people and is grateful to God for what He has achieved through them.
Sister Muriel Stanley became the first Indigenous CA Officer in 1941. She came from Yarrabah in Far North Queensland to train with Church Army in Stockton, NSW. Following her training (1938-1940), Sister Stanley became matron of an orphanage in Tasmania. But her heart was back in Yarrabah. She wanted to gain practical skills in obstetrics - but, because of her colour, none of the hospitals would take her on and train her. Finally, the South Sydney Women's Hospital made a place for her in 1943 and she completed her 18-month course. She was the first Aboriginal Australian to become a registered midwife. Despite numerous offers of work from hospitals in Sydney, she returned to Yarrabah to become matron of the hospital there. Her impact, socially and spiritually, on the communities in which she served is a testament to her incredible resilience, character, integrity, and skill.
Bishop Arthur Malcolm (who passed away in July 2022) also came to the Church Army Training College from Yarrabah in Far North Queensland. He was commissioned as an Evangelist in 1959 and, after working in regional areas, in Victoria and NSW, returned to North Queensland in 1974. He married Church Army sister, Colleen Saunders. He was consecrated Bishop of North Queensland in 1985 as Australia's first indigenous bishop. He had a significant ministry among the people of Yarrabah and Palm Island. He was at the forefront of a spiritual revival that impacted the whole region in the early 80s. In 2004, he was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia for "service to the community through the Anglican Church in Australia, particularly providing pastoral care to Indigenous communities . . . and promoting reconciliation, ecumenism and education".
Other First Nations peoples commissioned as evangelists include Kathleen Jones (1947), Allan Polgen (1947), Emma Polgen (1949 - who sadly passed away very soon after her commissioning), Norman Polgen (1949), Connie McDonald (1962), Jack Harradine (1987), and Elverina Johnson (2003). Their stories of tragedy and triumph would fill books: how they battled against systemic racism and abuse, how they struggled in being away from their families and communities for extended periods of time, and yet, how God through his grace used them powerfully to reach, not only their own people, but educate and challenge white Australia. Other indigenous men and women came as students for training but the distance from home, the cold, associated health issues, the routines, the regime of lectures and exams, the lack of empathy from white superiors, were understandably too much for some and they returned home before being commissioned.
In addition to the training of Indigenous workers, Church Army was active in supporting work among Aboriginal people. A number of officers were assigned as mission or hostel staff around the country. In addition, mobile ministry, such as that pioneered by Graeme MacRobb and Allan and Norman Polgen in the 1960s, brought to light the issues facing dispossessed people across rural and regional NSW.
Needless to say, Church Army was, in its early history, complicit in the paternalistic attitudes and assimilationist goals of white Australia. And yet, God in his mercy, brought many of these First Nations people to faith through Church Army's partnership and the impact of that ministry is still being felt today.

Areas of Service

Between 1934 and 2010 over 230 men and women were trained and served as Church Army evangelists across Australia. A small sample of their work has included chaplaincy in industry, prisons, and schools, youth and children's work, aged care, hippie communes, inner city work, regional work, outback gold mines, and hostels of various kinds. The variety is vast, but the essential activity is the same: to introduce the simple gospel of Jesus to Australians - both the first Australians, plus those who've more recently arrived in the last two hundred and forty years! Countless lives have been transformed by the power of the Gospel through the lives and message of Church Army Officers, and through those who came to Christ through their ministry.
Training of evangelists (generally for a period of two years) was conducted first at Stockton, NSW, then Croydon, and finally Belrose. Additionally, Kihilla Christian Centre was used as a base to train leaders of 'Local Mission Bases' and it was also used to house a residential recovery centre.
We have produced interviews with four Church Army Officers, who were each commissioned in four different decades. These can be accessed via our website: Their stories highlight the legacy that Church Army has left across the landscape of the Australian Church.
Recently the Board of Church Army made the decision to close the operations of the ministry. Despite its closure, the legacy of Church Army's ministry is ensured, and many other like-minded groups and organisations are doing great work across our country. Perhaps it could be said that Church Army inspired some of what is happening today. To God be the Glory.