THRELKELD, Lancelot Edward (1788-1859)

John Harris

THRELKELD, LANCELOT EDWARD (b. London, England, 20 Oct 1788; d. Sydney, NSW, 10 Oct 1859). LMS Missionary and Bible translator.

An out-of-work actor, Threlkeld was converted in his early twenties. He married Martha Goss in 1808. In 1814, LMS accepted Threlkeld as a candidate. After briefly studying theology and medicine, he was ordained on 8 Nov 1815 at Leitchfield's Chapel, Kensington. The Threlkelds left for the Pacific Islands in 1816. Threlkeld's independent personality caused conflict with the older missionaries, but he worked amicably with John Williams at Raiatea. The Threlkeld's child died, and when Martha also died in 1824, Threlkeld sailed for England to seek another wife. En route to Sydney he met Daniel Tyerman and George Bennet, the LMS deputation to the South Pacific missions, who offered him the task of commencing a mission among Aborigines at Lake Macquarie, NSW. In Sydney, Threlkeld accepted the position, marrying Sarah Arndell, daughter of Thomas Arndell (q.v.): they had five children.

Threlkeld set about the construction of his mission station with determination, devoting as much time as possible to learning the Awabakal language. He employed convict labour to establish agriculture, and encouraged the Aboriginal people to join in the farming activities. LMS London had no idea of the difficulty and expense of their undertaking and, furthermore, Threlkeld's reports were filtered through the pessimistic Samuel Marsden (q.v.). Unjustly accused of too liberal use of LMS funds, Threlkeld was dismissed in 1828. Scarcely deterred, Threlkeld continued his work, obtaining from Gov Darling a grant of land across Lake Macquarie. He named the next mission 'Ebenezer', receiving some modest Church of England and government financial support. With the untiring help of Biraban, his Awabakal informant and teacher, Threlkeld published notes on Awabakal in 1827 and a grammar in 1824. He wrote and published forthright annual reports, and vigorously defended Aboriginal people in the courts.

Unable to maintain his mission on the small church and government grants, Threlkeld engaged in commercial activities. This led to the unfair criticism that he was working for his own benefit on government land. He successfully prosecuted a libel case against John Dunmore Lang (q.v.), but obtained damages of only one farthing. He successfully grazed his own stock and, in 1840, opened a first coal mine in the Lake Macquarie district. Threlkeld and Biraban completed the Gospel of Luke in 1830, the first book of the Bible to be translated into an Australian Aboriginal language. They then translated Mark, parts of the Book of Common Prayer, and commenced Matthew, but around them massacre, European diseases and despair were rapidly destroying the Awabakal people. 'The thousands of Aborigines ... decreased to hundreds, the hundreds have lessened to tens, and the tens will dwindle into units before a very few years have passed away.' (Annual Report, 1841).

One bright moment for Threlkeld followed a visit by the Quaker researchers, James Backhouse and George Washington Walker in 1836. They informed the LMS of his tireless work and the costly nature of the isolated mission. The directors of LMS apologised to Threlkeld acknowledging his 'vigilance, activity and devotedness' to Aboriginal people and regretting their mistrust fourteen years earlier. It was all too late. Ebenezer was almost deserted, the governor withdrew his subsidy and the mission closed in 1841. Threlkeld moved to Sydney to be pastor at the Watsons Bay Congregational Church and later at the Sydney Chapel for Seamen.

During his Sydney ministry, Threlkeld devoted much energy to championing Protestantism, writing copiously in a polemical, anti-Catholic vein. He is best remembered, however, for championing Aborigines, defending them against their detractors and promoting the use of Aboriginal languages. The significance of Threlkeld's linguistic and ethnographic notes and publications are such that A P Elkin lists him as one of the founders of social anthropology in Australia. His translation of Luke's Gospel was not published until 1892 as a kind of linguistic curiosity, 33 years after his death. What Threlkeld called his 'system' was remarkably advanced in missionary strategy. 'First obtain the language, then preach the gospel'. (Threlkeld to Bannister, 27 Sept. 1825). It was to be more than a century before mission societies generally accepted the importance of preaching the gospel in the language of the people.

ADB 2; Ben Champion, 'Lancelot Edward Threlkeld ...' JHRAHS 25 (1940); Niel Gunson, Australian Reminiscences and Papers of L.E. Threlkeld (Canberra, 1974); J Harris, One Blood (Sutherland, 1990)

SELECT WRITINGS: Specimens of a Dialect of the Languages of the Aborigines of NSW... (Sydney, 1827); An Australian Grammar (Sydney, 1834); A Key to the Structure of the Aboriginal Language (Sydney, 1850)



Electronic Version © Southern Cross College, 2004

Content © Evangelical History Association of Australia and the author, 2004