Hilary Carey Lecture

26 June 2018


Hilary Carey 

Babylon, the Bible and the Australian Aborigines: missionary networks and theories of racial origin in the nineteenth century

A public lecture by Hilary Carey, Professor of Imperial & Religious History, University of Bristol; Conjoint Professor of History, University of Newcastle, NSW and 2018 UWA Institute of Advanced Studies Visiting Fellow.

[God] hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation
(Acts 17:26. KJV)

Until challenged by Darwinian evolution, Christians believed on excellent biblical authority that ‘all nations of men’ were God’s creation and there could be no fundamental division between them. From this it followed that all the extraordinary cultural diversity exhibited by the peoples of the world disguised an essential unity: they were ‘one blood’. This talk will examine the work of the Scottish schoolteacher Dr John Fraser (1834-1904) who sought to prove that the languages of the Australian Aborigines demonstrated that they were descended from the Dravidian peoples of southern India and were, ultimately, Babylonian in origin. Fraser’s views were published as part of his 1892 edition of the works of the missionary Lancelot Threlkeld (1877-1859) which was prepared as part of the New South Wales contribution to the World’s Columbian exhibition in Chicago in 1893. Fraser was both an able linguist and a skilled editor but those who have encountered the important work of Lancelot Threlkeld and his collaborator Biraban through his edition have found his biblical arguments distracting, if not bizarre.

This lecture will consider John Fraser as a representative of a Calvinist rear guard who sought to use the science of linguistics to defend the literal and scientific value of biblical narratives. Far from being a marginal figure, Fraser was at the centre of an extensive network of missionary linguists seeking to harmonise  knowledge of Pacific and Aboriginal languages with scriptural deep history.

Hilary Carey is Professor of Imperial & Religious History at the University of Bristol and Conjoint Professor of History at the University of Newcastle NSW. She is a religious and cultural historian. Her major research interests lie in the history of religion and imperialism particularly within the transnational boundaries of the nineteenth-century British empire. She is interested in big historical questions such as how religion serves to tie empires together (or tear them apart) and connections between church and state in an imperial context. At different times she has written on the history of religious orders, missions and missionaries, missionary linguistics, the history of the colonial Bible and the settler histories of churches and colonial missions in the British World. Her major books include God’s Empire (CUP, 2011) and the co-edited collections, Religion and Greater Ireland (MQUP, 2015), Church and State in Old and New Worlds (Brill, 2011) and Empires of Religion (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008). She has recently completed a history of religion and the campaign to end convict transportation in the British settler empire for CUP.