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2007-06, 354, Book Reviews, Neil A Radford, Secularism

Book Review – My Twenty Years’ Fight in Australia

My Twenty Years’ Fight in Australia by Joseph Symes.

Edited, with notes and an introduction by Nigel Sinnott.(Melbourne, Proxima Thule Press, 2007) 48pp $3 (incl. postage)(Available from NH Sinnott, 1/2 Davey St, Sunshine West, Vic 3020)

Joseph Symes, who is identified politely in the Australian Dictionary of Biography as a “secularist and publicist”, was a militantly and obsessively anti-Christian zealot who played a prominent part in the secularist movement in Australia, particularly in Melbourne, between 1884 and 1906. Originally trained in the UK for the Wesleyan ministry, he came to doubt his faith and refused ordination, and thereafter redirected his considerable energies towards the secularist cause. The vigorous rejection of all forms of religion was not always a popular position in late nineteenth century Melbourne, where the ‘puritan elite’ and their churches held strong sway and impressed their will on the general community.

Symes arrived in Melbourne in 1884 and found it smugly parochial and wowserish, governed by an austere code of nineteenth century social propriety. Through his speeches and writings he agitated against all religions and all sorts of authoritarianism, and for free speech, an uncensored press, the opening of art galleries and libraries on Sundays, and so on. He was vigorously opposed by the churches, both directly and through lobby groups such as the Lord’s Day Observance Society.

He did not mince words. “When I began my campaign [in Melbourne] I gave the people Atheism pure and simple, blank, white, unadulterated, unsophisticated Atheism. I had earnest work to do to damage and discredit the clergy and to redeem their dupes from the slavery in which they were held … and then I had to face a storm of abuse, calumny, and persecution of the bitterest and most unprincipled sorts, from the clergy, their dupes, and their tools in government offices.”

He was an eloquent and passionate speaker, but his views were sometimes more radical than many of his followers were prepared to accept, so in time many of his fights were internal ones within the Australasian Secular Association, as well as externally with churches and the governments which they influenced. Symes and his followers faced vigorous opposition from entrenched power groups who were outraged by the liberality of his ideas. He obviously did not suffer fools gladly, and as a fool was anyone who believed in religion, plus anyone who disagreed with him on any other matter, he managed to offend almost everyone. He twice stood for parliament but failed because (he claimed) priests warned their congregations not to vote for him.

The newspapers campaigned against him so he started his own, the Liberator (1884-1904), in which he wrote ascerbic and insulting editorials lampooning the clergy crudely and mercilessly. He says that these efforts were “met by bitter howls of execration in most quarters”. He was taken to court on several occasions, for charging admission to his lectures on a Sunday, for failing to register the Liberator properly, for lecturing in a marquee without the approval of the Board of Health, and other ‘offences’ designed to keep him quiet. He conducted his own defence, reading up on the law in the public library. He was mostly successful, but he did serve two weeks in jail for contempt of court. He had to sell his library and most of the furniture to pay his legal costs. The “Fight” in the book’s title is not an exaggeration.

He returned to the UK in 1906 and, apparently during the voyage, he wrote an account of his life and struggles in Australia. These were published in serial form in The Freethinker (London) between September and November 1906. Symes died in London in December 1906, aged 65, perhaps worn out by his Australian experiences.

His serialised account has not before been brought together, so we are indebted to Nigel Sinnott for doing so in this modest booklet which is published in association with the Council of Australian Humanist Societies, the Athiest Foundation of Australia, and the Freethought History Research Group.

Those who collect in the area of freethought, secularism and atheism, and even religion, will obviously want to add this book to their collections.But its (vigorously one-sided) picture of Melbourne society and power in the late-19th and early-20th centuries makes this account one of more general interest to social and religious historians.

Regrettably, it must be said that, useful though its contents may be, this is a rather amateurish production. There is no title page as such, apart from the flimsy cover, no ISBN, and it is the worst proof-read book I have ever come across. The review copy came with a sheet headed “Errata (3rd version)” listing nearly twenty errors, and in reading the book I have identified six more which I have pointed out to the editor for a possible 4th version. More than two dozen typographical errors in only 48 pages is too many.

Neil A Radford

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