Culture //

Radical faith: The student movement goes to church

Exploring the history of the Australian Christian Movement

Artwork by Nick Harriott Artwork by Nick Harriott

Many see Christianity to be tied to social conservatism. While this may be true at USyd, where many Christian societies hold socially conservative views, it is not true for the most part. History has shown that there has been and will likely always be a diversity of Christian belief.

At USyd, around the 1900s to 1990s, there was the Australian Student Christian Movement (ASCM). Previously known as the Australasian/Australian Student Christian Union (ASCU), the ASCM was the only national organisation of undergraduates until the creation of the National Union of Australian University Students (NUAUS) in 1937. Interestingly, the ASCM helped create the NUAUS, now known as the NUS.

The ASCM provided a space for rational debate on political and theological issues. The USyd branch of ASCM, Sydney University SCM, fought for social change while conflicting with both fundamental atheists and other Christians.

During the interwar period, Samuel Angus who was a USyd professor in the faculty of theology at St Andrew’s College, helped direct the modernist debate from within the SCM. Angus was an outspoken liberal theologian questioning the virgin birth, physical resurrection and ascension of Jesus, leading conservatives in the Presbyterian Church of Australia to accuse him of heresy. Given the liberalness of SCM, a fundamentalist break-away group formed in 1919, meeting privately as the Bible League, and publicly forming in 1930 as what we know today to be the Evangelical Union (EU).

At the same time, the SCM also had to deal with ‘Andersonians’ and the Freethought Society; followers of the newly appointed and influential philosophy lecturer Professor John Anderson. During 1930-31, the Andersonians decried religion, claiming it to be incompatible with science and philosophy. In May 1931, at a Freethought Society meeting, a speaker attacked the historicity of Jesus. When the Freethought Society denied a request that it should hold another meeting to address the ‘Christian position’ on this matter, the SCM in June 1931 instead held its own meeting inviting Samuel Angus to respond. This to-and-fro between Andersonians and SCM culminated at a Union debate in September 1931; the topic was ‘that the Christian Union is not a free-thinking body’.

Although ideological conflict with Andersonianism would persist for another thirty years, it did not stop SCM for working with their perceived rivals in student activism.

Unlike the EU’s individualistic understanding of faith and spirituality, the SCM understood Christian duties in a more social sense and encouraged its members to be socially conscious. SCM members established and were
a significant part of Labour Clubs (now the Labor Club) at Sydney and Melbourne. Members of SCM believed the whole church, not any individual church or denomination, represented the model human community, and so their duty was to create an ideal heaven on Earth.

So, while the EU was largely apolitical, in 1933, the SCM united other student societies to create an anti-war campaign group. By 1935, the group ran a successful Peace Ballot, which attempted to discover students’ attitude towards war (this can be found in Honi Soit 1935 Issue 13, with results in Issue 17).

History has shown the ASCM as a lay and grassroots student movement interested in changing the world. Its achievements include taking leadership of the ecumenical movement, with SCM members involved in the formation of the Uniting Church, as well as providing a space for women students, and opposing the White Australia Policy.

Furthermore, the ASCM has produced numerous academics, politicians and activists including Herb Feith (peace advocate and leading scholar of Indonesian politics), Frank Engel (collaborated for Indigenous rights) and Marie Tulip (Australian feminist highly involved in the Women’s Movement).

What is important to remember is this progressivism was not mutually exclusive, or incompatible with the ASCM’s Christian outlook.

For example, the Alternative Handbook for students, made by the La Trobe University SCM, characterises their support for gay and lesbian rights and willingness to challenge traditional ideas regarding sex roles, divorce, marriage and the family as stemming from their Christianity: “… After all, Jesus was not a pious moraliser nor a man of the Establishment, but a radical, and Christianity in essence (if not always the institutional church) is neither reactionary nor confining but rather a message of genuine liberation.”

Note on terminology: During the ASCM’s history there have been times when both union and movement have been used. The official change was during the 1930s, however, given this confusion and for ease of reading I have simply used ‘movement’.

Filed under: