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Early Life in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church

From almost as far back as I can recall, my spiritual influence has been Reformed.  I say almost, because as a child, my early memories begin in the Baptist church.

My parents were young Christians.  My father’s parents were and his mother still is, devout and sincere.  We moved into the Baptist church as it was the only conservative church in the small country town where we lived and I was born.  We later moved to the large city of Rockhampton and joined the local Baptist congregation.

The days with those people are marked by the Sunday School picnics and the moments outside the church after the services.  The highlight of one picnic was a trip to the coast on a train pulled by a steam locomotive.  It was a wonderful adventure.  I hung out the windows and could see the train snaking its way around the many curves and bends in the track.  Dozens of other children had their heads out of the windows too and by the smiles on their faces, it was obvious they were enjoying the sensations of soot and smoke and wind in the hair, as much as I was.

During a church service, I whispered to my mother that I thought it unusual that a man should be playing the piano to accompany the hymns.  At five or six years old, the only other person I knew who played the piano was my own mother.

After the services, in the right season, most of the young lads picked seed pods from the Tamarind tree growing in the church yard.  Inside the large pods are seeds the size of a marble coated in a sticky paste, which has a bitter-sweet flavor and quite refreshing in the hot tropical climate.

In the same period, two men, a minister and a student, were on a teaching mission.  They traveled the state of Queensland where we lived, speaking to the Brethren (or Congregational) churches.  My father, who heard through friends in that church, went to listen.  We heard nothing odd.  It was only later, after speaking to one of the men, he was told that the doctrine of Free Will was not Scriptural.  He went home after hearing the preacher and began looking in a concordance for verses that could prove the truth of Free Will.  To his surprise, he couldn’t find any such proof and began to doubt, but not enough to move him away from the belief that Christ had died for everyone.

At my young age, I knew nothing of most of these incidences of course, but depend very much on my father for the story.

Later, while listening to a radio broadcast, he heard the speaker talking about Election and was impressed enough to send away for a booklet that was advertised.  The booklet titled “The Fundamentals of the Faith,” was on the five points of Calvinism.

It didn’t answer all his questions and so he began to speak with others in the congregation about these “revolutionary” ideas.  Including the minister, some scoffed and said that Calvinists were trouble-makers and church-splitters.  They accused my parents of trying to seduce the people into false belief and of wanting to start a new church.

At this time in God’s providence, someone gave my father a book by Arthur Pink called “The Sovereignty of God.” After a short section, he would have nothing to do with the book but for some reason he did read it, and became a convinced Calvinist.

One day he introduced the subject of Election into a Bible study class and caused quite a stir.  Next Sunday the minister preached against Calvinism and wolves in sheep’s clothing and of Satan’s messengers coming as angels of light.  He spoke once on “two walking together in agreement.” My father rang the preacher to point out that Spurgeon taught Calvinism, which the preacher denied.  The Baptist church had a picture of Spurgeon hanging in their hall.  It was removed soon after.  With further talks, the minister suggested that to leave would be the best thing to do.

A split in the Brethren Church at the same time, caused by a long standing dispute, forced a small group to begin worship in a family home.  We began worshiping with them.  One young man who left with the group, attended the Baptist church for a short time and was asked to stop handing out Spurgeon’s sermons on “Sovereignty” to the people of the church.  So he also left and joined the group.  There was no organization; each had a say and articles were read from Banner of Truth books for a kind of worship service.  The two ministers spoken of earlier had returned to Tasmania from where they had come.  The name of one was Mr. Philip Burley.

A minister from the Christian Reformed Church in Brisbane heard of us and came to spend a week instructing the group further in the Reformed truth.  He had been trained under Prof. Berkhoff at Calvin College in the United States and his visit was enjoyed very much.

In Tasmania, the constitution of the Reformed Evangelical Presbyterian Church had been formed, ministers inducted, and a Rev. Turnbull was called to Rockhampton.  The most notable part of his visit for me were his identical twin boys.  Identical twins were a new and fascinating interest.  By drawing a question mark with a pen on one boy’s forehead, Rev. Turnbull helped us distinguish between them.

But for the newly formed congregation, a dizzying regime of learning began.  We had sermons and meetings four times a week.  Rev. Turnbull introduced us to Psalm singing without piano or organ.  From the Reformed churches of Scotland (whose origin dates to the sixteenth century) the doctrine of the Church, Presbyterian church government and other things were taught.  As for our little Sunday school, it became the Catechism class and the childish choruses became the Psalms.  Suddenly, my brothers and sister and I were taught the Shorter Catechism from the Westminster Confession of Faith.

The process of change caused us no trauma or stress and we simply accepted it as part of “life with Mum and Dad.” Even though the chore of learning the Catechism was tedious, it became routine enough to be like washing the dishes or chopping sticks for our wood stove.

We moved into a rented dance hall for the worship services.  Our first Psalm book was a thin paperback edition with a few selected verses lifted from the Scottish Psalter.  The hall soon became unsuitable because it was located on the corner of a busy intersection.  The traffic noise was very loud and downpours of rain drummed on the iron roof and drowned out the minister’s preaching.

We later relocated to a YMCA hall which was a real hoot for my brothers and me.  A climbing rope hung invitingly from the rafters and the sports store room was filled with all kinds of exciting treasures.  The hall was located on the steep bank of a river and provided a rich source of new territory to explore.  The main bridge across the river was nearby and green parkland stretched away on each side of the hall.  We were severely warned to observe the Sabbath but often the temptation to wander was more than active boys could cope with.

Under the hall held us in fascination, too.  It was a gymnasium for the YMCA rowing team.  But it proved to be a nuisance as well.  Even though we had been promised an uninterrupted hour for the service, the team would do weight training and boat repairs during the service.  The sounds of grunting men, dropped weights and hammering, came up through the wooden floor.

During the monsoon season, tropical rains flooded the river and overflowed the banks.  You could stand on the verandah of the hall looking out over the water, and see the flood waters rushing only a hand breadth under the floor.  At least the rowers kept away.

My brothers and sister were baptized in that hall into the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia (as it was now called), Rockhampton.

I was now about eight years old and thirty years later, thank God for His faithfulness and His wonderful covenant mercy.  We hadn’t heard of the Covenant of Grace then nor did we really understand the doctrine of Baptism.  All this was ahead of us and there would be much more yet and still is much to learn.  Indeed, the denomination had yet to learn how to govern as a Presbyterian church.  A Presbytery in Tasmania was a far-away mystery and about as well understood as the orbit of the moon.

The congregation in Rockhampton began small and slowly grew with the addition of a few folk.  We were the oldest children and felt the need for friends of our own age.  My parents were very aware of this need and took every opportunity to provide family outings and holidays away together.

We lived then, on the edge of the built-up part of town.  A creek was close by our home.  I made a small dinghy of a sheet of tin, and daubed it with pitch to stop the leaks.  It floated well and with a paddle, it was easy to get around.  The boat was only good for one boy.  My brother and I tested it together once and found water rushing into our pants and soon we were sitting on the creek bottom in the dinghy, with water up under our armpits.

The creek flowed down from the mountain and more than once we explored the stream to its source.  The mountain had steep sides and large boulders could be dislodged by scraping the dirt from under the bottom side.  Once set rolling, fair-sized trees were reduced to match wood as the tumbling boulder smashed into them.  It was very exciting to see a tree explode into a cloud of leaves and bark.  But now I won’t allow my young son to hit a tree with a stick for fear of damage to the tree.

We enjoyed many such adventures and cycled hundreds of miles on bikes in search of something different to do.  The climate allowed us to be active all year.  Even the winter days were warm and clear.

Rev. Turnbull returned to Tasmania, and my father was appointed as an “interim” elder.  Six months later, the student minister spoken of previously, Mr. Burley, came to preach to us.  After his studies were completed, two ministers from Tasmania came and ordained him into the ministry.  He remained for fifteen years before being called back to Tasmania.

During those years, Christian education was never a subject that came into mind.  All the children of the congregation went to the state schools.  If you were a child who attended a church school, you were considered to be “upper crust,” even a snob.

It was not until I had children, that we were led to see the need for God-centered education.  By then, the state education system was openly hostile to Christian values.

The state primary schools in the 1960’s, at least in the state of Queensland, were very sympathetic to Christian standards.  Every morning we had to recite the Lord’s Prayer and the teacher would read a chosen passage from the King James Version of the Bible.  For some children, it was probably the only time they ever heard the Bible read.  The classes assembled outside in the yard, stood to attention while the national anthem played over the public address system and the Australian flag was raised.  Then we’d all march into school to the time of a march tune played on the PA.

We didn’t wear shoes to primary school and stood in the dusty school yard with the tropical sun beating down on us.

Bare feet are very convenient for exploring the creek after school.  We caught “crawchies” (like a small lobster) and fished for eels.  It was painful to put on our shiny stiff shoes for church on Sunday.  The hours we spent after school were filled with fun and adventure.

Swearing was punishable by caning and smoking a cigarette put you dangerously close to expulsion.  Running in the hall made you an outlaw.  We had “Copy Books” for exercises in neat handwriting and were drilled in the rules of Grammar, sentence construction and spelling.  As part of the curriculum, many stories of classical time were given to us in “Readers.” These have now fallen out of favor but are still famous in Australia for their literary quality.  Their moral base was very often Biblical.

By the time I entered high school, the remains of Christian sympathy were barely evident.  We had RI (or Religious Instruction) every Thursday morning.  Our instructor was a godly old Presbyterian minister, who had the good of every child’s soul at heart.  The children for the most part aimed to see the end of the minister.  When the class got too hard to control, he would close his eyes tightly, sweep back a few gray hairs across his bald head in a gesture of desperation, and press on with his lesson, despite the noise and disorder.  When the bell rang, he scooped up his papers and scurried from the room.  I still feel very sad when I remember that lovely man being treated so disrespectfully.

From there, we might go to our Biology class and receive a dose of evolutionary theory.  I could raise objections about the absurdity of the idea, but it was a voice lost to careless thought.  It must have been a fairly recent teaching in the system, because there was not much literature available in defense of Creation at the time.  Evolution was not strongly promoted but it gained momentum.  The theory was readily accepted and I had some very lively arguments with the other students.

I used to think that if I could counter their stand on Evolution with arguments based on scientific evidence, I could win them over to Christianity.  Such is foolish pride.  I didn’t know then that belief in a Creator God was a work of His Spirit.

During the years, the church in Queensland would come together at a site on the beautiful coast near Rockhampton to hold Family Camps.  They were wonderful times of fellowship and fun and a great encouragement to a small and self-conscious church.  Families from other Reformed churches would sometimes visit and provided the opportunity to meet other young people.

On our first camp, the men and boys slept in a large tent while the women and girls slept in dormitories.  A late-season cyclone came near the coastline that year and nearly blew the tents away.  The rain swept in, driven by powerful winds, and tore at the tent ropes and dumped buckets of water over everything.  We spent the night in the dining hall of the camp.  The next year, a second dormitory was built and the male members enjoyed the relative luxury of a bed with a mattress.  Now the camps have become almost a tradition and every year a family camp is held around Easter time near to several congregations, to hear a series of studies by a guest minister over the four-day period.  We have enjoyed visiting ministers from many Reformed churches, including the Protestant Reformed.

The Evangelical Church has grown slowly and seen many changes both in the folk who have become members and in our understanding of Reformed doctrines.  In all its varied and short history, God has been with us and ever faithful in providing ministers to bring to us His word.  We can only marvel and give Him all the glory for His mercy to us.