The religions of the Aboriginal peoples who lived in South Australia for at least 30 000 years before European settlement had a central place in the social order. While there were no specialist ‘religious’ institutions, religion penetrated all areas of life, expressed through stories about the ancestor spirits of the Dreaming, rituals and symbols.

Colonial Foundations

From the 1830s South Australian religion has been dominated by Western Christianity. Five major Christian groups arrived in the colony: Anglicans of the established Church of England; English denominations outside the established church, known collectively as Dissenters or Nonconformists; Roman Catholics, mostly Irish; Scottish Presbyterians; and German Lutherans. In addition, from the beginning there were adherents of several small bodies regarded as on the fringe of Christian orthodoxy: the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), the Unitarians and the New Church (Swedenborgians). The first non-Christian European religious group in the colony was the Jewish community, which founded a Hebrew congregation in 1848. Afghan followers of Islam built the first mosque in South Australia (and Australia) at Marree in the Far North in 1888.

Dissenters, who had achieved the right to vote and hold public office in Britain in 1828, were prominent among the planners of South Australia in the 1830s. They wanted to create a colony based on the principles of religious equality and liberty. There would be no established church or state aid to religion so that all religious denominations would rely upon the voluntary support of their own members. From the early years Methodists, Baptists and Congregationalists had a strong public presence and comprised the largest number of regular churchgoers. Together they formed a much higher proportion of the population than in any other Australian colony. This is why the historian Douglas Pike described colonial South Australia as a ‘Paradise of Dissent’. In 1872 the English writer Anthony Trollope referred to Adelaide as ‘the city of churches’ (Edwards & Joyce, p643), an expression still being invoked 140 years later.

Some Features of Religion in South Australia

The religious culture of South Australia was derived mainly from the United Kingdom, for the colonists wished to reproduce as far as possible the models of church life that they had known at home. Developments in theology, church decoration and styles of worship usually followed the British churches, but a decade or so later. South Australians also depended upon the home churches for a supply of clergy: the Anglican and Protestant churches until the First World War, the Roman Catholic Church until the 1940s. At the same time, it was generally realised that colonial society was different and that old methods and structures had to be adapted to the needs of the new environment. Lay people assumed a more important role in church life. Many settlers were attracted by the idea of ‘common Christianity’: that all (Protestant) Christians were united on fundamentals, separated only by secondary points of doctrine and church government. Popular anti-Catholicism was widespread but, partly because of the relatively low proportion of Roman Catholics in the colony, sectarian conflict was rare. Very few colonial South Australians admitted publicly that they had no religious belief. Almost everyone expected to be married and buried by Christian clergy. The first freethought meetings were held in Adelaide in the 1870s, but organised unbelief remained small, fragmented and marginal.

The principal religious institutions in South Australia during the nineteenth century were the local church, the Sunday school and the church school. At the end of the century about 40% of the population regularly attended church or Sunday school. Churches of several denominations existed in every community. They were important centres of social life, surrounded by clusters of organisations and sporting clubs that embraced every age group. After the introduction of free, compulsory and secular state education in 1875 the Protestant churches gave up their primary schools but maintained a small number of fee-paying secondary schools that were intended to produce the future leaders of society. Roman Catholics created a separate network of schools with teachers drawn mainly from Irish religious orders of teaching nuns and brothers.

All the churches assumed that South Australia was a Christian society and that its institutions and legislation should reflect Christian principles. Their members were active in political life. The first public controversy in which religious and political issues were intertwined concerned state aid to religion, which was strongly opposed by those churches that derived from English Dissent. It was introduced in 1846 by Governor Robe but lasted only six years. In the latter decades of the nineteenth century the Protestant churches became active in the defence of moral and social standards, which they saw as under attack, especially with regard to Sunday observance, gambling and the sale of alcohol. Through sympathetic politicians they had some success in maintaining restrictive legislation in these areas until the 1960s. Subsequently the influence of the churches has waned. On most public issues they usually contain within themselves a diversity of opinion.

In all churches, women predominated among church attenders but took a small role in public religious life. Until the mid twentieth century the main areas in which they were able to undertake full-time church work were as overseas missionaries, deaconesses and (in the Roman Catholic Church) religious sisters. Women were admitted to lay offices in Protestant churches from the 1890s. They were first ordained to the ministry of the Congregational Church in 1927, the Methodist Church in the 1960s and to the priesthood of the Anglican Church in the 1990s.

Religious Trends Since the Second World War

The religious composition of South Australia since the Second World War has been largely shaped by patterns of immigration. With the arrival of migrants from Italy and other parts of Catholic Europe, the Roman Catholic Church lost its predominantly Irish character and expanded numerically so that by the 1980s it had become the largest denomination in the state. Since then, Catholic migrants have come to South Australia from Vietnam and many other countries. In 2011 over one half of the Catholic population of Adelaide were not of an English-speaking background.

Migrants from eastern Europe brought with them the various national Orthodox churches, the largest being the Greek Orthodox. With fewer United Kingdom migrants coming to South Australia, the number of adherents of the Anglican and Protestant churches has declined as a proportion of the population. Since the 1970s, when migration began from South-East Asia, and later from the Middle East, China and South Asia, thousands of adherents of the major world faiths have settled in South Australia. Adelaide now has sizeable Buddhist and Muslim communities, Sikhs, Hindus and Baha’i. In 2011 adherents of the major non-Christian religions comprised 4.3% of the state’s population.

Since the 1960s the trends in South Australian religion are local variations of movements occurring elsewhere in Australia. Many traditional forms of Christianity have declined while the various Pentecostal denominations have expanded. The largest of these is the Assemblies of God. Although self-described Pentecostals number only 1.2% of the population, their level of commitment is high and they are the second largest body of Sunday church attenders. Influencers Church in Adelaide (previously called Paradise Community Church) is a mega-church, one of the largest congregations in Australia. Pastors and members of this church, keen to protect and promote conservative values in legislation and public policy, were prominent in the formation in 2001 of the Family First Party.

There has been a significant increase in the variety of religious groups outside traditional institutions. These include new religious movements such as scientology, paganism, ‘New Age’ religion and other expressions of spirituality. This has been accompanied by the emergence of a substantial minority who claim to have no religion. In 2011 they comprised 27.6% of the state’s population, the highest percentage in Australia.

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Edwards, PD & RB Joyce (eds), Australia (Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 1968; Trollope, Anthony, London: Chapman & Hall, 1873)

Gibbs, RM, Under the burning sun: A history of colonial South Australia, 1836–1900 (Adelaide: Southern Heritage, 2013), ch. 15

Hilliard, David & Arnold D Hunt, ‘Religion’ in The Flinders history of South Australia: Social history, ed. Eric Richards (Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 1986), pp194–234

Hilliard, David, ‘Religion in Playford’s South Australia’ in Playford’s South Australia: Essays on the history of South Australia, 1933–1968, eds Bernard O’Neil, Judith Raftery & Kerrie Round (Adelaide: Association of Professional Historians, 1996), pp253–74

Hilliard, David, ‘The city of churches’ in William Shakespeare’s Adelaide, 1860–1930, ed. Brian Dickey (Adelaide: Association of Professional Historians, 1992), pp61–86

Pike, Douglas, Paradise of dissent: South Australia 1829–1857 (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1957)