EJANZH: McGregor review of Prentis

Malcolm D. Prentis, Science, Race & Faith: A Life of John Mathew, 1849-1929, Sydney: Centre for the Study of Australian Christianity, 1998, pp.240. ISBN

Reviewed by Russell McGregor

Insofar as John Mathew is remembered today, it’s for his studies of Aboriginal origins, society and culture. Most notable is his speculative ethnological work, Eaglehawk and Crow, published in 1899, in which he argued for the tri-hybrid origins of the Australian Aborigines as an amalgam of Dravidian, ‘Papuasian’ and Malayan racial groups. It was a controversial theory in its own day, and Mathew’s reputation as one of Australia’s pioneer anthropologists was, and remains, overshadowed by those of his more illustrious contemporaries, Baldwin Spencer, Frank Gillen, A. W. Howitt and Lorimer Fison. Malcolm Prentis’s biography goes a long way toward reinstating Mathew as a significant figure in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Australian anthropology. Prentis carefully specifies that he is not trying to portray his subject as an ‘unrecognised genius’. Rather, he reveals Mathew as a significant contributor to debate about Aborigines and shows how recognition of this fact might help broaden our understandings of a period in Australian anthropological history commonly characterised as one of unfettered social Darwinism.

Prentis reveals Mathew as far more than merely an early amateur anthropologist. As befits a biography by the premier historian of the Scots in Australia, Mathew was a Scot. Arriving in Australia in 1865, he worked for five years on his uncle, John Mortimer’s, sheep station, Manumbar in the Burnett district of Queensland. After a short, and apparently unsuccessful, stint as a gold digger at Gympie and Ravenswood, he became a teacher on the Darling Downs and in Brisbane. Responding to a call to the Presbyterian ministry, he moved to Victoria in 1876 to study at the University of Melbourne and Ormond College. After graduating with honours in both the BA (1884) and the MA (1886) he became a Presbyterian minister, briefly at Ballan then, from 1889, at the Melbourne parish of Coburg.

Through to his death in 1929 his churchmanship was active and engaged, Mathew serving on numerous committees and councils, becoming Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria in 1911 and Moderator-General of the Presbyterian Church of Australia in 1922-24. Never ceasing in his scholarship and learning, he was awarded additional degrees: BD from the University of St Andrews, Scotland, in 1892; BD ad eundem gradum in 1913 and DD in 1924, both from the Melbourne College of Divinity.

All this is recounted engagingly by Prentis, giving due attention to the social, intellectual and theological issues of Mathew’s times. Fittingly, he gives particular prominence to the disputes that bedevilled the Presbyterian churches of the nineteenth century. Prentis’s account of Mathew’s theological training in the 1880s provides keen insights into the ways in which the tussle between the orthodox Church of Scotland and the Free Church of Scotland was played out in the colony of Victoria.

Mathew emerges from this biography as a man of high moral principle firm social duty. Prentis’s achievement is to engage the reader sympathetically and appreciatively with his subject – which is no mean feat, for Mathew embodies so many of the qualities widely held at a discount today. He was an exemplar of the middle-class values of hard work, frugality, sobriety, self-improvement, personal piety, family responsibility, social morality, imperial loyalty and so the list goes on.

Yet, at least in Prentis’s rendition, he does not conform to the stereotype of the Protestant establishment figure or the dour Scots Presbyterian. Scholarly, devout and serious-minded he certainly was, but he was a man of wide interests and sympathies, who sought to engage creatively with the many intellectual, religious and social challenges of his day.

He was among the many evangelical Christians of the late nineteenth century who worked through a reconciliation of Darwinian evolution with his own faith; he protested the injustice of white treatment of Aboriginal people; he encouraged the study and writing of Australian literature; he sought the union of all Protestant faiths into a grand Evangelical and Christian Church of Australia; his ecumenism extended even to limited cooperation with Catholics (though not with what he called ‘petty sects’, Seventh Day Adventists and the like).

As an anthropologist, Mathew was sidelined by the heavyweights of the day, Fison, Howitt and Spencer, all of whom had the patronage of powerful overseas figures including Lewis Henry Morgan, E. B. Tylor and, especially, James Frazer. Prentis explains how these anthropologists maintained something of an intellectual ‘closed shop’ in Australia in the decades either side of 1900, and how thereby the repute of John Mathew was diminished.

Partly the quarrels were over matters of theory and interpretation. Mathew rejected the Frazerian naturalistic explanation for the origins of religious belief (though he avoided entanglement in the dispute between Frazer and Andrew Lang on this score, which did entrap some other amateur anthropologists of the day). He also opposed the ‘group marriage’ theory of the origins of Aboriginal social organisation, probably for its implication that the holy institution of matrimony was no more than a natural development from a primitive state of licentiousness (though Prentis doesn’t explore this issue).

But more than theoretical disputation was involved. The Fison-Howitt-Spencer triumvirate engaged in personal invective, academic politicking and manipulation to maintain their preeminence in the discipline. (It’s comforting to see that some academic traditions, at least, have since been maintained.) Lorimer Fison seems to have had a particular animus toward Mathew, for reasons that Prentis skates rather lightly over. He suggests that Fison was inordinately sensitive to criticism and that it ‘is very likely that denominational and College rivalry was also at work’. The sectarian tension hinted at here (Fison was Methodist) could have been elaborated.

Prentis provides a fine portrait of Mathew as an anthropologist and as a churchman. His rendition of other aspects of his life is not always so satisfactory. And this is significant, for Prentis makes a point of identifying Mathew within the Scottish tradition of a ‘lad o’ pairts’, an ‘all round man’. We are told that Mathew had a deep attachment to the Australian bush and an abiding passion for literature, but these receive only cursory treatment in the final chapter. We’re told too that ‘the greatest joys of his life came from his marriage and his family’, but this isn’t reflected in the number of pages devoted to them, again relegated to the final chapter. Indeed, it is unfortunate that the final chapter is the weakest, giving an appearance of a grab-bag into which everything that doesn’t fit the main themes of scholarship, ministry and anthropology has been shoved.

Of course, book length is always a consideration, and not everything can be covered as comprehensively as the biographer and/or the reader may wish. Yet the impression of dealing with too much too cursorily in the final chapter could have been obviated by taking a sharper editorial pen to the earlier ones.

Chapter One recounts in unnecessary detail John Mortimer’s experiences as a pioneer pastoralist and the state of Aboriginal-European relations in the Burnett district in the 1860s. After Chapter Two comes a lengthy ‘Excursus’ on the Aboriginal bushranger Kagariu, alias Johnny Campbell; although Mathew knew Campbell personally, and wrote a biographical sketch of him, this isn’t adequate justification for the twenty pages of text devoted to him. Such detours may be acceptable – indeed desirable – if space were available, but not at the expense of abbreviating the exposition of other important aspects of Mathew’s life. Moreover, the attenuated treatment of his interest in nature and literature, his family life and his loyalty to Empire subvert Prentis’s avowed intention of presenting his subject as an ‘all round man’.

There are some other issues I would have liked to have seen developed here. Like his attitude toward alcohol. Prentis remarks that Mathew was a total abstainer who was ‘strongly opposed’ to alcohol, but never develops it beyond that. Yet there is a rich historiography of the anti-alcohol (misleadingly called ‘temperance’) movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, interpreting it from stances ranging from a feminist assault on a masculinist culture to an attempt to secure middle-class hegemony over a recalcitrant working class. One might expect that a middle-class, totally-abstaining, Scots-born Moderator-General of the Presbyterian Church would have had something to say about the highly vocal campaigners against the drink trade, whose crowning achievement was the six-o’clock swill. There’s no mention of it here.

Prentis makes no secret of his admiration for Mathew. In his introduction he seems to be unduly concerned that his admiration will be mistaken for adulation and his biography misread as hagiography. He needn’t be concerned; this is no hagiography. It’s a sympathetic appraisal of a man who embodied the values of the late Victorian middle class, perhaps in an exaggerated and distinctively Scots-Australian fashion. He didn’t just embody these values; he lived them. Hard work, piety, social responsibility, mental and moral improvement: these were not mere ornament or pretence or public facade for John Mathew. They were, as Prentis makes clear, the reality of his everyday life. And Prentis’s achievement is to convey this, yet still portray a man of humanity and humility.

Russell McGregor, School Of Humanities, James Cook University