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Sectarian Secularism? The Curious Case of Priests, Parsons and Politicians, and the Making of the 1880 New South Wales Public Instruction Act

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posted on 2023-03-27, 03:49 authored by Michael John McIntyre

This historical biographic enquiry is a hermeneutically influenced critical case study set within the context of the heavily contested ‘construction’ process of the ‘National, Secular, Compulsory and Free’ 1880 New South Wales Public Instruction Act. This specific historical context represents an Australian example of a typical Anglo-sphere mid-nineteenth century clash of mutually and fundamentally antagonistic Evangelical and Catholic religious discourses, and so provides a valuable opportunity to assess historical ‘sectarian’ conflict creation and resolution processes ‘at distance’. This study also reintroduces a ‘religious’ historiographic analytical lens to nineteenth century-focused social history research to produce a deeper and more authentic understanding of the ‘religious’ origins of powerful current social processes such as secularisation, in terms understood by those individuals and societies who shaped and transformed them over time. In this way, a more authentic narrative can be constructed of their historical trajectory, and so potentially provide indications of their future development. A philosophical hermeneutical approach based on the ideas of Hans-Georg Gadamer has been selected to frame this biographic study because of its potential to capture a more comprehensive image of the complexity of individual and socially shared perspectives, and the ways in which individuals interact with their varied social and geographic contexts. However, while the individual and social sensitivity of the hermeneutical approach has been demonstrated in numerous current medical and intercultural research contexts, it has infrequently been applied to historical studies because of the perceived difficulty in achieving effective intersubjective communication across the gap of time. Consequently, most historical research continues to function either through traditional structural analysis, or more recently through post-modern methods such as critical analysis. The argument in this thesis is that these approaches dehumanise individuals and societies into objects of research, while hermeneutic intersubjective communication retains humanistic respect by the researcher for the researched. By retaining and in fact accentuating this aspect, very careful re-construction of historical social and discursive contexts as well as individual social understandings through focused respectful ‘dialogue’ with remaining texts in whatever form, provides a valuable opportunity to better understand the historical ‘other’. The central biographic ‘subjects’ of this study are evangelical Baptist clergyman Reverend James Greenwood, and fellow evangelical Church of England clergyman Reverend Zachary Barry. This selection has been made because these two individuals played a central leadership role in the NSWPSL, the most significant civic pressure group promoting ‘secular’ public education in 1870s New South Wales. As well, they represented different ethnically influenced expressions of evangelical discourse, a discourse itself central to the formation of the nineteenth century Anglo-sphere notion of ‘secularism’, with the working-class Englishman Rev. James Greenwood as a ‘marker point’ of inclusive, ‘sympathetic’ secularity, and contrapunctually, the ‘Ascendency’ Irishman Rev. Zachary Barry as a marker of ‘suspicious’, exclusive, ethno/religious sectarianism. At a more individual level, a subsidiary purpose of this case-study is to examine the possible reasons for James Greenwood’s century-long absence from NSW educational ‘historical memory’, in doing so seeking specifically to re-claim this place for James Greenwood. Consequently, it is argued in this study that the effective exclusion from that memory of evangelical proponents such as Greenwood has partly been due to the historiographic ‘Whig’ privileging of the role of the secular ‘Great Man’ as ascribed in ‘official’ narrative biographies and ‘historical memory’, in this case to New South Wales Premier Henry Parkes, an image he himself very actively promoted. At a broader sociological and historical level, the explanatory inadequacy of the Liberal ‘Secularisation Theory’ in effectively ‘historically understanding’ the role evangelical discursive sub-texts played in the nineteenth century Anglosphere has effectively excluded the notion that historical ‘religious’ individuals such as James Greenwood, could genuinely promote any socially positive development such as universal public education. Beyond the redeeming of individual reputations, the addressing of this theoretical inadequacy is also viewed in this study to be socially necessary when viewed in the light of the recent ‘unanticipated’ resurgence of religion in the forms of Jihadist Islam, officially sponsored religious sectarianism in India and within the Islamic world, ‘political’ Evangelicalism in the United States, and the many political and social implications of the rapid rise of Pentecostalism, especially in the Catholic developing world as an apparent positive response to liberal ‘Globalisation’. It is argued in this thesis that, though a through historicised critical hermeneutic re-reading of nineteenth century educational history, a more effective process of identification of phenomenological traces of ‘diffused religion’ in present society is possible. The immediate potential social benefit of the findings of this thesis are as a contribution to the resolution of the recent historical misunderstanding of the term ‘secular’ within Australian ‘religion in schools’ educational debates, as well as to ameliorating broad civil conflict over ‘Islamic’ terrorism and the resultant political and social vilification of much of Australia’s Islamic population, as represented at a national level by anti-terrorism laws quite consciously targeted at Moslems of Arabic extraction, and at a more local level in particular by conflict concerning expansion of Islamic schooling in Sydney.


Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Introduction -- Chapter 2: Literature Review -- Chapter 3: Methodology -- Chapter 4: Reverend Zachary Barry -- Chapter 5: Reverend James Greenwood -- Chapter 6: The Public Contest for Secular Education -- Chapter 7: Conclusion -- Reference List -- Appendices

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis PhD

Department, Centre or School

Macquarie School of Education

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

Iain Hay

Additional Supervisor 1

David Saltmarsh


Copyright: The Author Copyright disclaimer:




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