Christianity was first introduced to the Kaurna of the Adelaide plains by two German Lutheran missionaries, Clamor Schürmann and Christian Teichelmann, who arrived in South Australia in 1838. Financial support came from the philanthropist George Fife Angas, not government sources. Christianisation of Aboriginal peoples, while co‑terminous with colonisation, was not an initiative of the colonial government.

1840 - 1870

Lutheran missionaries were among the earliest colonists at Encounter Bay (Victor Harbor, 1840), southern Eyre Peninsula (Port Lincoln Aboriginal School, 1840), and the Far North (Killalpaninna, 1866), but followed land settlement in the far west (Koonibba, 1898). The only mission that had ongoing support from the colonial elite was the (Anglican) Native Training Institution (Poonindie, 1850), established by Archdeacon (later Bishop) Matthew Hale with the strong support of the Bishop of Adelaide, Augustus Short. The tradition of Protestant missions continued with the Aborigines’ Friends’ Association mission at Point McLeay (Raukkan, 1850), and the establishment of Point Pearce (also spelt Pierce) on Yorke Peninsula in 1868.

Some nineteenth-century missions formed the basis for long-lived Aboriginal communities. Missions were among the few places in the southern part of the state where dispossessed and displaced Aboriginal people were welcomed. Nevertheless, the primary aim of missions was Christian evangelism. They judged their success by the number of conversions made and the maintenance of Christian congregations.

1900 - 1970 

Missions continued to be established in the twentieth century. The Lutheran Church maintained its involvement on the west coast at Koonibba and Yalata (established 1952). The Presbyterian Church under the forceful persuasion of Charles Duguid founded a mission at Ernabella among the Pitjantjatjara in 1937. Most twentieth-century missionary work was undertaken by evangelical and non-denominational bodies, particularly the United Aborigines Mission (UAM). The UAM ran missions on minimal budgets in many parts of the state. These included Ooldea Soak north of the east–west railway line (established in 1933, it displaced Daisy Bates’ self-styled mission work at Ooldea railway siding); Nepabunna in the Flinders Ranges (1929); Swan Reach (1925), which moved to Gerard on the River Murray (1945); and Finniss Springs (1939). Most focused their efforts on the children, establishing schools and children’s dormitories in an attempt to separate children from parental and family influences. Children’s homes were also established for orphaned and ‘neglected’ Aboriginal children, including Colebrook Home, first opened by the UAM in Oodnadatta in the Far North (1924), then moved to Quorn (1927), then Eden Hills (1944) and finally Blackwood (1972) in the foothills east of Adelaide. Children taken from their Aboriginal families and sent to dormitories and children’s homes formed part of what has become known as the ‘Stolen Generations’. Church and missionary organisations supported and assisted these policies.

By the 1950s an increasingly important aspect of government-backed assimilation policies was the absorption of Aboriginal people into the general community, and a recognition that this could not be achieved without improved living conditions. As private organisations lacked the funds to improve housing, education and health care, government took over and secularised the administration of missions. At the same time Aboriginal people were encouraged, and in some instances forced, to move away from segregated communities into towns. In the late 1960s and early 1970s government policies of self-determination at both state and federal levels led to the establishment of Aboriginal-run community councils on what had previously been mission and government-administered stations. Yet the influence of missions has survived and is reflected in contemporary Aboriginal communal and Christian identities. Fifty-two per cent of Indigenous people in South Australia identify as Christian. Many of these, as well as their non-Christian relatives, have communal identities closely aligned with ex-mission stations such as Nepabunna, Koonibba and Point Pearce.

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P Brock, Outback Ghettos (Melbourne, 1993)

C Mattingley and K Hampton (eds), Survival in Our Own Land (Sydney, 1992)

J Harris, One Blood (Sydney, 1990)

T Swain and D Bird Rose, Aboriginal Australians and Christian Missions (1988)

C Stevens, White Man’s Dreaming (Melbourne, 1994)