Bethesda Mission (1866-1881)

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version
Prepared by: 
Regina Ganter and Lilia Vassilief

Bethesda was the first mission to be set up in the separate colony of Queensland. It was one of the very few missionary ventures in Queensland during the 1870s. Typical of that period, it hovered precariously between an unfunded mission and a commercial enterprise with cheap Aboriginal labour. Its founder Pastor Johann Gottfried Haussmann had been a colonist at Zion Hill mission. Bethesda mission operated more or less for seventeen years, directed at the spiritual and material requirements of the surrounding German and Aboriginal population in the Albert-Logan region. It did not result in any conversions to Christianity of indigenous people.

 

 

 

 

The missionary paradigm in Queensland in the 1870s

 

Since the 1850s missionary endeavour in the Australian colonies had come to a practical standstill. The exception was the Catholic venture at New Norcia (Western Australia) starting in 1846. The first Queensland mission at Zion Hill (1838-1848), of which Haussmann was a founding member, had worked reasonably well because it had a large core of staff, like later New Norcia. If nothing else, Zion Hill resulted at least in the successful settlement of a number of the lay missionaries, although they had to eventually purchase their blocks like anyone else.

 

The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel failed at Somerset (Cape York, 1867-68), and the Methodists failed at Fraser Island (1871-72). The dominant idea then became that Aboriginal missions should be conducted in association with productive work. The underlying principle was that missions had to be self-supporting, since neither the government nor the settlers had a strong enough interest to finance them. At any rate, getting Aboriginal people to settle in one place and engage in productive work seemed the best way to civilize them – to make them behave as much as possible like Europeans. This idea was shared by both German and English evangelists.

 

This idea left the field open from highly collectivist ventures, which strove to get indigenous people to become collective entrepreneurs on a world market, to exploitative capitalist ventures, which employed indigenous people as cheap labour in a colonial commercial enterprise. While the London Missionary Society encouraged copra production in the Pacific, lay missionary Zillmann at Zion Hill mooted a cotton growing missionary company in 1861.[1]

 

Hausmann picked up on this idea with a mission on the banks of the Albert River at Eagleby south of Brisbane. He named it in reference to the healing miracles associated with the Bethesda pool in Jerusalem. In 1866 this initiative was the lonely beacon of missionary endeavour in the young colony of Queensland, the first to be established since responsible government in 1859. Ten years later, Catholic father McNab obtained 3,000 acres at Durundur (1877-1905), and Tom Petrie started an unsuccessful ‘fishing establishment’ at Bribie Island (1877-78).

 

In this period all such efforts were undertaken by inpidual men acting in isolation, and government funding in a British colony was more likely to be forthcoming to British initiatives. A commission of inquiry into Aborigines in Queensland chaired by the Anglican Bishop Hale in 1877 practically ignored Bethesda and Haussmann’s Nerang Creek Industrial Mission. George Bridgman at Mackay (1873-1885) attempted to train Aboriginal people as a replacement workforce for the emerging sugar industry to stem the tide of indentured Pacific Island labourers. This idea was picked up by the Moravian leader Friedrich Hagenauer on a tour of North Queensland in 1885. It added a political dimension to the mission effort and appealed to the Queensland government. As a result the missionary effort in Queensland was re-ignited with the entry of German Lutheran (see Bloomfield, Cape Bedford/Hopevale, Mari Yamba).

 

 

 

An economic opportunity at Logan

 

The developing sugar industry of the 1860s in the Logan-Albert area presented industrious German settler-agriculturalists with attractive economic opportunities. As a result, a rapid proliferation of small-scale sugar plantations appeared along the banks of the Albert River. Bethesda Mission connected to the economic boom, and registered as the sugar trading company of J.G. Haussmann & Son (referring to the younger son, William Benjamin). The business venture was underwritten by £5000 of personal assets attained during Haussmann’s Victorian years, and the ‘property consisted of an allotment in the town of Brisbane, certain lands on the Logan and on the Albert River and at Nerang… also some head of cattle’.[2]

 

 

The Beenleigh plantation sugar mill on the Alber River, 1870s
Source: Picture Australia, Logan West Libary

 

 

Bethesda was full of activity as work-operations commenced to establish a functional sugar plantation. They systematically cleared the land surrounding the mission of its woodlands, cultivated the ground initially for subsistence crop-planting such as corn, and set in motion long- term arrangements for sugar-cane planting. In 1872, sugar growing commenced and Haussmann purchased sugar-cane crushing machinery (which was soon to be outdated). The financial outlay to secure the machine came at great personal cost to Haussmann with one-third of the £2000 payment financed by cash, and the remaining two-thirds secured by the mortgaging of his Albert River land.[3]

 

On the grounds of Bethesda Haussmann also established a church to serve the spiritual needs of the local German settlers: ‘I serve a number of Germans here in Bethesda with the word of God and the Sacrament.’ The church was named “Mission Church” and formally opened on Christmas Day 1867: ‘It is 40 foot and 20 foot wide and built of kiln bricks, a real honour for the congregation’.[4]

 

The inflow of settlers, mostly German migrants, into this newly released area turned the Logan/Albert River into a new frontier pocket. Haussmann’s Bethania parish had just rejected him as ‘too unconventional’, and his son John returned from Germany as an ordained priest in 1866. The time was right to ‘begin again where we ceased years ago’, to commence another mission.[5]

 

On the 18th January 1866, a group of recently ordained Gossner pastors – John Haussmann Junior, Langbecker, Burghardt, and Guhr- arrived at Bethesda to assist in the mission work.[6] However, their stay was brief as they soon became involved in ecclesiastical ministry in Queensland.[7]

 

Haussmann described Bethesda’s setting in the Lutheran church journal Australischer Christenbote:

 

about 20 English miles from the capital city Brisbane, is situated the Mission farm, Bethesda. The place is ideal for a Mission station. In the environment there are still quite a goodly number of natives. The station is fairly removed form the large centres of population, as well as from the degrading hotels. We rejoice and take courage.[8]

 

 


 

This barn the site of the German Mission Station called 'Bethesda' is believed to have been built in Pastor Haussman's era. 

 

 

 

Source: Picture Australia

 

 

 

 

 

Mission to Aborigines

 

Haussmann proclaimed as his primary aim in creating Bethesda to function as a ‘heathen mission’ to the local Aboriginals in the wider Albert-Logan area:

 

my main tasks shall be, provided the Lord permit me to live, to do Mission work amongst the poor heathen. This was the reason I actually came to Australia.[9]

 

Indeed, there was a sense of recommencing where they had left off. In January 1866 a large corroboree of about 200 people was held nearby, and Haussmann met up with a number of grown and bearded men whom he had known as children: ‘Father, don’t you know us?’ They had attended his school at Zion Hill. ‘Naturally the joy was mutual that we saw one another again. Our station was visited daily.’[10]

 

The Yugambeh of the Logan and Albert rivers had started to gather around Bethesda since November. (Wherever missions were established in Australia, Aboriginal people understood very quickly that Christmas was an excellent time to visit – there would be festivities, ceremonies and an all-pervading spirit of gift giving.) Haussmann seized the opportunity to draw up a contract with the ‘chief’: ‘I would give him a weekly five shillings and rations’ which would keep his family, relatives and friends.’ Presumably Haussmann expected some work to be performed in return. But he also ‘began to speak to them about the well being of their souls’, gathering them daily under a tree for hymns and prayer and reading from the New Testament, with a subsequent explanation. Experience in other parts of Australia suggests that Aboriginal people understood the payment to be for their attendance at these tedious and incomprehensible prayer meetings, and therefore patiently allowed the long speeches to wash over them. At Bethesda, they also spurred Haussmann on, ‘they even promised to be different people’.[11]

 

 

On Sundays the Yugambeh people at Bethesda received clean clothes to attend services held in German for two hours, sitting ‘quite still and with great devotion’. After the service they told Haussmann: ‘Father, you have preached mightily.’[12] If they asked what his sermon had been all about he would launch into further explanations.

 

At the Christmas 1866 gathering Haussmann had given them a small illustrated booklet, and they expressed their appreciation and asked him to come with them into their camp and further explain the booklet. (Whether out of genuine curiosity, or with a view to ‘overtime’ payments, or indeed to introduce him to some elders, is uncertain.) He did so, and ‘suddenly King Rohma (apparently the chief of the tribe) took this booklet and showed the picture of Jesus Christ crucified.’[13] Haussmann clearly took this as an indication that the sacrifice of Jesus for all sinners was being understood, and used this vignette to call for donations for the mission. The accounts of Aboriginal reaction to public floggings in Port Jackson during Governor Phillip’s time suggest, on the contrary, that Aboriginal people felt disconcerted at the violence perpetrated by white people on each other. They certainly had no tradition of human sacrifice.

 

His biographer Janette Nolan thinks that Haussmann was unduly optimistic about his efforts. Bethesda’s missionary program involved practical assistance involving food and clothing distribution, temporary provision of accommodation, instruction in reading and writing, and teaching of the Christian faith through daily gatherings.[14] But there never was a single baptism, indeed there had not been a baptism of an Aborigine in Queensland yet. The Lutheran focus on ‘first fruit’ was proving fruitless.

 

There were some promising candidates initially. From October to December 1867 one Aboriginal name, called Jack, attended Haussmann’s instructions regularly and made progress in reading and writing. He addressed Haussmann as ‘Papo’ (the German Papa for Dad) and expressed the desire to teach his own people about the Bible. In January 1868 he went to visit his people, taking a copy of Luther’s small Cathechism with him, and promised to return and bring others to the mission. He does not reappear in Haussmann’s reports. 15] 

 

Later in the same year, Haussmann reported that Kingkame (or Kingkema, or Kingcame), whom he had known as a young man thirty years before, brought his family to attend devotions each day, and he desired to become a Christian.[16] Kingkame acted as a mediator for the establishment of Haussmann’s outrigger initiative, the industrial mission at Nerang Creek (1869-1879), before any sugar growing had even got off the ground at Bethesda.

 

At some time in 1869, a contract was made with a group of Nerang Creek people who stayed at the mission for several weeks to pay for land clearance: ‘clear 10 acres of land, to burn the wood so that corn can be planted. All this is to be done for £1 an acre’.[17] 

 

Other than that, Haussmann’s contact with indigenous people at Bethesda was occasional, and often nobody came for months. Aboriginal visits were opportunities in which Haussmann could proselytise, and engage the ‘visitors’ in paid work. Haussmann’s first report about the mission had referred to six natives at the mission, and in 1870 he reported that there were about 15 souls at the station, for whom huts had been erected near his home. His kitchen was used as dining room and to conduct services. ‘Here the natives can see actually what it means to live as a Christian and pray as a Christian’.[18] Thereafter, mission activities at Bethesda are rarely mentioned.

 

 

 

Settler Apathy

 

Community support for the mission was lukewarm. In 1867 he wrote to J.D. Lang that all he could raise was £20. In 1869 at the Harvest Thanksgiving Festival (the German tradition of the Erntedankfest) £3 were raised. At the first mission festival in 1870 (held on the festival of Epiphany, 6 January), he raised £3.14s. Neither the Gossner Mission nor the local Lutheran communities vested much interest in his efforts, nor indeed did the Queensland government. The Victorian government at least handed out blankets and rations. Haussmann’s son John left in mid-1869 to commence work among the Tweed River Aborigines for the Presbyterian Mission Committee in Sydney. Carl Schirmeister (pastor at Zion Hill) and Ernst Heiner (pastor at Ipswich) - both trained theologians with some reservations about the Gossner training – doubted Haussmann’s missionary and business capacities.[19]

 

Haussmann’s mission was not constituted under any arrangement. He essentially used the Lutheran newsletter published in Melbourne as an avenue to distribute reports about the mission, and (unsuccessfully) to raise money. He undertook to send a balance sheet with income and expenditure every year to the Christenbote.

 

No one need get the idea that the assistance given by donations for the Missions comes to my hands. The money which ahs been collected in the last two years is in the hands of the Treasurer of the Mission committee, and at the next meeting of the committee, it has to be decided how this money is to be spent.[20]

 

The mission was conducted on private land, without the cumbersome committee structure that led to the failure of other missions. It operated without interference - and without support. Haussmann defended himself against considerable mistrust:

 

Father Gossner himself, did not work under any Mission Society’. …. Now people can think of me as they like, I know that I stand in God’s grace in order to pursue a particular task until my Saviour calls me out of this life.[21]

 

In 1869 Haussmann put together a mission board, which consisted of one pastor ordained by himself (the Gossner-trained Friedrich Wilhelm Burghardt), the Gossner men Pastor Theodor Langebecker and Pastor Gottlieb Hampe, and the founder of ELSQ Pastor Ernst Heiner at Ipswich as treasurer. Putting one of his critics in charge of the budget was clearly a diplomatic move.

 

 

The godly mechanic

 

The commercial basis of Bethesda merely fulfilled the Gossner tenet of financial independence. Father Gossner had forewarned that missionary endeavours had to be self-supporting: ‘I promise you nothing; you must go in faith… And if you cannot go in faith, you had better not go at all.[22] Haussmann soon found that ‘the Gossner Mission is not able to support Mission work in Australia as it has its hands full with a Mission in India.[23]

 

Haussmann was a true Gossner disciple. The spiritual foundation of Bethesda was shaped by Haussmann’s Christian philosophy of the ‘godly mechanic’ derived from the evangelical training received at the Gossner Mission in Berlin.[24] It was part and parcel of the moral code of this evangelism to instil in the converts the pursuit of responsible economic activity.  Evangelisation, Christian teaching, devotional Bible-study, Christian-modelling, and paid labour all formed important parts of life at Bethesda. With unwavering conviction in mission-work as the medium by which to ‘Christianise’the local Indigenous people: ‘when they came to the Mission station we accepted them joyfully and proclaimed to them the Gospel and attempted to encourage them to work’.[25]

 

 

 

Economic failure

 

Having started sugar production in 1872, sugar prices fell in 1875, and three dry years (1875-77) added to the problem of rust attacking the crop. Debts increased, prices fell, and in 1881 Haussmann withdrew from the business, as his congregation dwindled, because of ‘some other scandals which offended many congregation members’.[26] Other sugar growers turned to safer crops, like arrowroot, maize or lucerne. (When Beenleigh was connected to the railway network in 1887, dairying became popular.) William continued the plantation, but without a missionary intention after his father withdrew from the venture. In 1884 creditors sequestered Haussmann’s home and church and crushing machinery at Bethesda.

 

The demise of Bethesda Mission occurred due to its inability to meet mortgage repayments on the sugar business company J.G. Haussmann & Son. The impact of falling sugar prices, rust infestation of Bethesda’s sugar-cane, the incompetency of the mission’s machinery, and competition from neighbouring mills combined to push the operation into an irreversible financial situation. Mission-work had been hindered by the discouraging progress of Indigenous conversion at Bethesda, and lack of financial support from the government and the wider Christian network.  

 

 


 

[1]Zillmann evidence to Select Committee on the Native Police in Queensland, 1861 Queensland Votes and Proceedings.  

 

[2]Nolan, J, ‘Pastor J.G. Haussmann: A Queensland Pioneer 1838-1901’, BA thesis, University of Queensland, 1964, pp94-96.

 

[3]Nolan, J, ‘Pastor J.G. Haussmann: A Queensland Pioneer 1838-1901’, BA thesis, University of Queensland, 1964, p.96.

 

[4]Lohe, M., ‘Pastor Haussmann and Mission Work from 1866’, Translation from Australischer Christenbote, Lutheran Archives, South Australia, 1964, p.2, p.5.

 

[5]Haussmann, Australischer Christenbote, November 1866 translated by Lohe, M. ‘Pastor Haussmann and Mission Work from 1866’, Lutheran Archives, South Australia, 1964.

 

[6]Lohe, M., ‘Pastor Haussmann and Mission Work from 1866’, Translation from Australischer Christenbote, Lutheran Archives, South Australia, 1964, p. 7.

 

[7]Lohe, M., ‘Pastor Haussmann and Mission Work from 1866’, Translation from Australischer Christenbote, Lutheran Archives, South Australia, 1964. p.7.

 

[8] Lohe, M., ‘Pastor Haussmann and Mission Work from 1866’, Translation from Australischer Christenbote, Lutheran Archives, South Australia, 1964. p. 1.

 

[9]Hausmann, Australischer Christenbote, February 1867 translated in Lohe, M., ‘Pastor Haussmann and Mission Work from 1866’, Translation from Australischer Christenbote, Lutheran Archives, South Australia, 1964.

 

[10]Hausmann, Australischer Christenbote, February 1867 translated in Lohe, M., ‘Pastor Haussmann and Mission Work from 1866’, Translation from Australischer Christenbote, Lutheran Archives, South Australia, 1964.

 

[11]Hausmann, Australischer Christenbote, February 1867 translated in Lohe, M., ‘Pastor Haussmann and Mission Work from 1866’, Translation from Australischer Christenbote, Lutheran Archives, South Australia, 1964.

 

[12]Hausmann, Australischer Christenbote, July 1869, translated in Lohe, M., ‘Pastor Haussmann and Mission Work from 1866’, Translation from Australischer Christenbote, Lutheran Archives, South Australia, 1964.

 

[13]Hausmann, Australischer Christenbote, February 1867, translated in Lohe, M., ‘Pastor Haussmann and Mission Work from 1866’, Translation from Australischer Christenbote, Lutheran Archives, South Australia, 1964.

 

[14]Lohe, M., ‘Pastor Haussmann and Mission Work from 1866’, Translation from Australischer Christenbote, Lutheran Archives, South Australia, 1964, pp2-3.

 

[15]Hausmann, Australischer Christenbote, January 1868, translated in Lohe, M., ‘Pastor Haussmann and Mission Work from 1866’, Translation from Australischer Christenbote, Lutheran Archives, South Australia, 1964 and Nolan, J, ‘Pastor J.G. Haussmann: A Queensland Pioneer 1838-1901’, BA thesis, University of Queensland, 1964,  p.100.

 

[16]Nolan, J, ‘Pastor J.G. Haussmann: A Queensland Pioneer 1838-1901’, BA thesis, University of Queensland, 1964,.p. 100, referring to Australischer Christenbote October 1868.

 

[17]Australischer Christenbote Lohe, M., ‘Pastor Haussmann and Mission Work from 1866’, Translation from Australischer Christenbote, Lutheran Archives, South Australia, 1964.

 

[18]Australischer Christenbote, Lohe, M., ‘Pastor Haussmann and Mission Work from 1866’, Translation from Australischer Christenbote, Lutheran Archives, South Australia, 1964.

 

[19]Nolan, J, ‘Pastor J.G. Haussmann: A Queensland Pioneer 1838-1901’, BA thesis, University of Queensland, 1964,  p.17.

 

[20]Australischer ChristenboteLohe, M., ‘Pastor Haussmann and Mission Work from 1866’, Translation from Australischer Christenbote, Lutheran Archives, South Australia, 1964.

 

[21]Australischer ChristenboteLohe, M., ‘Pastor Haussmann and Mission Work from 1866’, Translation from Australischer Christenbote, Lutheran Archives, South Australia, 1964.

 

[22]Gunson, W.N, ‘The Nundah Missionaries’ in The Royal Historical Society of Queensland Journal: Yearbook of proceedings’, vol. 6, no. 3, 1960-1961, p.519.

 

[23]Haussmann, Australischer Christenbote, February 1868, translated in Lohe, M., ‘Pastor Haussmann and Mission Work from 1866’, Translation from Australischer Christenbote, Lutheran Archives, South Australia, 1964.

 

[24]Lohe, M., ‘Pastor Haussmann and Mission Work from 1866’, Translation from Australischer Christenbote, Lutheran Archives, South Australia, 1964. p. 2; and Gunson, W.N, ‘The Nundah Missionaries’ in The Royal Historical Society of Queensland Journal: Yearbook of proceedings’, vol. 6, no. 3, 1960-1961, p. 518.

 

[25]Lohe, M., ‘Pastor Haussmann and Mission Work from 1866’, Translation from Australischer Christenbote, Lutheran Archives, South Australia, 1964, p.7.

 

[26]Nolan, J, ‘Pastor J.G. Haussmann: A Queensland Pioneer 1838-1901’, BA thesis, University of Queensland, 1964, p. 97 citing Jubilaeumsschrift.

 

Back to top

Member of Innovative Research Universities Australia