EJANZH: H. Carey, a Reply

A Reply to Richard Ely’s review of Believing in Australia, by Hilary Carey

Religious historians are, in my experience, an exceptionally polite and generous group. In fact, during my current term as editor of the Journal of Religious History, I have only once been subjected to a less than completely amicable correspondence with an author whose work was not accepted for publication. I suppose it takes a certain kind of luck for this author to appear as the reviewer of Believing in Australia for this journal.

With vigor, Ely has listed my errors, real, misconstrued, implied and, more than once, concocted. For drawing my attention to so many of these, I thank him and hope I have the opportunity to correct them in a future edition. I would note, however, that in a small compass it was simply not possible to provide detailed state by state accounts of even the major Christian denominations active in Australia in the last 200 years. There is only so much which the reader of a general history of Australian religions will want to know, even about Tasmania. Many of the errors to which he points such an accusing finger (such as my failing to indicate the smaller percentage of Catholics in Van Diemen’s Land than in New South Wales in the colonial period, or to distinguish the first Wesleyan Methodist visitors from the first officially appointed missionaries, or that some churches supported primary but not secondary schools) exist at a level of detail beyond that which my study could possibly be expected to support. In addition, Ely inflates his case by some crude mis-readings of my argument. Having stated, for example, that Menzies ruled over a society which in its rhetoric defended a “fortress Australia” I go on in the next sentence to make the very point which Ely asserts as his own, namely that Menzies in fact oversaw a time of great change precipitated, as I argue throughout the chapter, by post-war immigration.

Beyond a patient listing of errors of fact, Ely claims that my book suffers from methodological “opacity” and ignorance of the broad intellectual currents out of which Australian religious society was seeded. Here I must object. Believing in Australia is a small book with a large ambition, namely to introduce non-specialists to the major currents in religious history considered as an international discipline, including recent work in the ethno-history of Australian Aboriginal religions, women’s history and the sociology of religions, particularly as this relates to new religious movements. I suspect that Ely’s failure to perceive the sources of my methodology, or to dismiss them as “axe-grinding,” is largely a reflection of the specialisation of his own reading. The division of Christian denominations in Australia into what I designate “Established,” “Evangelical” and “Catholic” strands is not, for example, some arbitrary reification but an extension, as is clearly indicated in my notes, of a scheme used effectively by religious sociologists to analyse current trends in Australian religious life.

Perhaps my purpose would have been clearer had the publisher allowed me to retain a longer subtitle, namely “A Cultural History of Religions in a Settler Society.” As outlined in the introduction, I make an extended argument that religions in Australia have reflected the experiences of waves of migrants rather than indigenous forces. But it is nonsense to interpret this, as Ely so wrong-headedly insists on doing, as reflecting a belief that only Aboriginal religions are “real” or that religion has been only a minor factor in Australian history. The mutability and transformation of religions in Australia is totally compatible with their powerful historical impact on the broader society. This is a major argument of my book.

Ely’s objections are largely devoted to the issues discussed in just one chapter, the first, and a few pages of the second. He reserves his most strident criticism for my supposed failure to acknowledge the special status of the colonial churches deemed to be established in the United Kingdom. Here, with respect, I believe Ely may be suspected of gallantly defending the dignity of his own denominational tradition. But the bulk of the evidence, and indeed the mass of the numerous historians who have commented on this point, not to mention the colonial bishops themselves, is against him. If the Anglicans and Presbyterians enjoyed a brief period in which they could claim some, but, self-evidently, not all, of the privileges of established churches back home, this was surely abandoned with the passing of Governor Bourke’s Church Act.

The narrow reading that Ely has imposed on Believing in Australia does not contribute to our common discipline. I appreciate the opportunity provided by the editors of this Journal and the flexibility of the electronic medium to make a reply.