Queensland’s Bible in State Schools Referendum – 1910

Members of the executive committee of Queensland's Bible in State Schools League

The executive committee of the Bible in State Schools League. They were all men but this photo fails to convey the importance of the work of women in the campaign. Source: John Oxley Library

My honours thesis, Queensland’s Bible in State Schools Referendum 1910: A Case Study of Democracy, is now available to download from the University of Sydney eScholarship Repository. In it I explore a fascinating era of Queensland’s history where women, Labour politicians and the Protestant clergymen of the Bible in State Schools League were key participants in a public debate about whether Bible lessons should be reintroduced in Queensland’s state schools. These lessons had not been held in public schools since the introduction of Queensland’s free, compulsory and secular education legislation in 1875.

I loved doing the research. At times I was sitting in the Fisher Library at University of Sydney silently remonstrating with the politicians as they were debating the issue in parliament. At other times I was incredulous. The Legislative Council spent twenty-one hours debating the issue and this was after the referendum had been passed by Queensland voters! I was a bit suspicious of the Hansard recorder. The debate was rather sparse at around two o’clock in the morning. Was he taking a cat nap?

Women were instrumental in the campaign for the passing of the referendum. The Bible in State Schools League was in financial trouble and turned to women to help them out. Not only did women rescue the organisation financially through their fundraising, they wrote letters to newspapers, were part of delegations who visited parliamentarians about the issue and were conspicuous as they manned the polling booths on the day of the referendum. However, while researching this referendum I was mindful of the fact that women do not all think the same way. Sure enough newspapers such as The Worker had letters from women who opposed the introduction of Bible lessons and expressed their opposition to the referendum to the Bible in State Schools women at the polling booths.

The pain of the politicians regarding this issue was exposed many times. This was the era of sectarianism. The animosity between Protestants and Catholics in Australia was nasty. The Queensland government organised for the referendum to take place on the same day as the national election, but the Federal government was not keen on the election being marred by sectarian rancour. As a result Queensland government agreed to hold the state referendum at separate polling booths to the Federal election.

The religiously diverse Labour party held secular education as one of the key elements in their policy platform. The problem they had was another key plank of their platform was referendums. When the referendum passed the Labour members of parliament were aghast. They were torn by a conflict between two of their policy principles. Labour members of parliament did everything possible to obstruct the passing of the legislation which would allow schools to have religious instruction classes. Their opposition was futile and contributed to much bitterness in the parliament. The debates went on and on. Yes, I read them all – over forty hours of debate in both the lower and upper house after the referendum had passed. I was bored by the repetitiveness of the debate, but absorbed by the passion of those Labour politicians who refused to accept the reality of the situation.

Then there were the women in the galleries watching the debates. Women had only gained the right to vote in 1905. Their participation in political affairs was still a novelty. The male members of parliament were acutely aware of their presence and upset about it. These women were not the shy and retiring type. The Worker newspaper noted that from the public gallery “they audibly joined in as a chorus to the doxology, which forms part of the prayers with which all parliamentary proceedings are opened” (29/10/1910, p. 7). Were these the same women who contravened regulations and placed placards and thousands of discs inside a polling booth in Brisbane advocating a ‘yes’ vote in the referendum?

Reading these parliamentary debates late at night in the Fisher Library I could picture these scenes being dramatised for television. This was a political debate which challenged deep convictions held by people and therefore opinions were expressed strongly.

As I was researching this referendum I became intrigued by a Church of England clergyman who was one of the leaders of the campaign by the Bible in State Schools League. Reverend David Garland was a talented campaigner who had already been heavily involved in the campaign for changes to the law concerning religious instruction in Western Australian schools back in 1893. Garland worked energetically for the public causes he adopted throughout his life. He was also prone to having disputes with the bishops he worked under. This Anglo-Irishman with an Orange Order family background was an Anglo-Catholic who worked hard to maintain the League’s embrace of the different Protestant churches as well as taking pains not to antagonise the Catholics. After campaigning for religious education in state schools in New Zealand, Garland became an army chaplain and was an important figure in having Anzac Day recognised in both Australia and New Zealand.

I was very fortunate that while I was researching in 2010 the Brisbane Courier newspaper for the years 1906 to 1910 was being digitised. Each week I could access another group of issues of this critical newspaper for my research. This saved me hours in front of the microfilm reader and made it much easier for me to do a thorough search for articles than any previous researcher of this referendum. However, I always kept in mind that there were other newspapers and documents that were important for my research that had not been digitised. I spent days at the State Library of Queensland reading other newspapers on microfilm and reading the minute book of the Bible in State Schools League. The archivist for the Anglican Church in Brisbane made a wonderful discovery. She found the minute book of one of the many local branches of the Bible in State Schools League. This enabled me to gain a greater understanding of the campaigning of the League in the town of Warwick.

I enjoyed researching and writing about Queensland’s Bible in State Schools Referendum. I hope that I have piqued your interest. While my thesis is a piece of academic writing I hope that you will take the time to read it via the University of Sydney eScholarship Repository. I will be interested to read  your comments about it.

For a brief overview of this referendum including the questions put to Queensland voters please refer to my page ‘Religion in State Schools‘ on this blog. If you are interested in this issue you can read other posts I have written about this history here. For a good overview of the ‘free, compulsory and secular education’ acts in Australia I recommend you read Craig Campbell’s article in the excellent education history resource, Dictionary of Education History in Australia and New Zealand.


2 thoughts on “Queensland’s Bible in State Schools Referendum – 1910

  1. Was the Queensland’s Bible in State Schools Referendum of 1910 trying to get just the Bible into state schools? If so, the new testament, the old or both? And if it was trying to get more than Bible reading into schools, did they plan to introduce religious instruction classes for all students, regardless of their parents’ beliefs?

    Did this happen in any other state?


    • You will find more information about this referendum, including the question put to the voters on my Religion in State Schools page. That page explains how religious instruction by clergy was not allowed after the passage of the ‘free, compulsory and secular’ education acts in Victoria, Queensland and South Australia during the 1870s. South Australia had a referendum about his issue in 1896, Victoria conducted one in 1904. Queensland’s referendum was the only one that resulted in the reintroduction of these classes. You can see from the question put to Queensland’s voters that it was envisaged that parents would be allowed to withdraw their children from these classes if they wished.

      I have not researched how religious instruction was implemented in Queensland’s schools after the referendum. For a good overview of the ‘free, compulsory and secular’ education acts in each of the Australian colonies I recommend that you read Craig Campbell’s article, ‘Free, compulsory and secular Education Acts‘ which is available on the excellent Australasian education history resource, the Dictionary of Educational History in Australia and New Zealand (DEHANZ).


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