Thursday 14 May 2015

Forty Years in the Wilderness

'The Autobiography of an early Australian Baptist' is how the book is described - but John Chandler started life as an English one! As a young man he emigrated to Australia with his parents and (a fascinating social study) a group of members from a Strict and Particular Baptist chapel in Brighton. He goes on to give a rare firsthand description of the life of an 'ordinary' settler in the State of Victoria in the mid-1800s. Its value is demonstrated in that, though it was left to gather dust by Particular Baptists, it was rediscovered by secular historian Michael Cannon in 1990 and published out of historical interest. He however had no understanding of Chandler's religion and his lack of sympathy for it resulted in drastic editorial work. But at least, although with limitations, this honest and interesting account of the hardships and fortitude of the early white Australians was made public once again.
Those of us who have known of Chandler's book since the 1990s have long looked forward to a time when it might be published again in full, and his faith revealed in addition to his adventures. Gospel Standard Trust Publications (GS) have obliged at last, and with the input of considerable research, brought out a new and complete edition. The original book was scarce but came in two forms. They had different endings. It seems there was a 'diplomatic' version, glossing over some awkward aspects of contemporary church affairs, and also a longer no holds barred version! The new edition contains both endings and also supplies copious footnotes to provide explanations and contexts for many of Chandler's geographical and historical references, which otherwise would be lost on today's readers - especially English ones.
A foreword has been written by Annette Seymour, who is the wife of the current pastor of Zion Chapel, Hawthorn (a suburb of Melbourne) which Chandler was instrumental in founding. This aspect of the book is fascinating to students of Baptist beginnings and beliefs in Australia, but it is disappointing that the GS edition's footnotes give limited attention to it in comparison to the amount of detail provided on secular Australian history. For John Chandler was emphatically a Particular Baptist; his own striking experience of the sovereign grace of God led him to this conclusion. Indeed it is noteworthy that his Calvinistic theology was not an aberration - it had underpinned the labours of Henry Dowling, the founder of the first Baptist church formed in Australia in 1835. For more on him and Australia's Particular Baptist heritage refer to my five part Ryde Rediscovery Series. Ultimately, however, this is not a book of history or theology but a simple autobiography told in a compelling way, and it may be read with profit and pleasure by all ages from teenage years upwards.
'Forty Years in the Wilderness', by John Chandler, published by Gospel Standard Trust Publications, hardback, 288 pp including colour photos and other illustrations. Price £12 - very reasonable indeed.

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