It is an interesting fact that although the history of Eltham dates right back to the beginning of Melbourne itself the story of the local Presbyterian Church spans only the past twenty-five years. There is considerable evidence to suggest that John Batman, the recognised founder of the great village metropolis, had his historic meeting with the Yarra Yarra aboriginal tribe close to the south-western boundary of the Eltham district near the point where the Plenty River flows into the Yarra, rather than at the Merri Creek, much closer to the city centre which was the once generally accepted location.
The district developed early because the ever-flowing stream gave practical access to the hinterland before the first roads were useable. Kangaroo Ground was settled earlier than the Eltham of today because the land was better for farming. The wily Scottish settlers were sagacious enough to go the extra three miles and settle on a broad hill facing a prospect without equal in the whole of the colony.
By 1851 there were some one hundred people living in Kangaroo Ground, comprising at least ten Scotch-Presbyterian families and others, while there was only about a third of that number resident in the present day Eltham locality. Kangaroo Ground was already conducting worship services and setting up a school as its forward looking citizens caused it to become the centre of a large district that stretched from Healesville and Kinglake to Lower Plenty. It became the gateway to the great Warburton and Healesville mountain ranges and the Baw Baws beyond. By 1875 two coaches left Kangaroo Ground each day for Woods Point at the top of the ranges and even went on into the impenetrable vastness surrounding Aberfeldie and Walhalla further to the east.
It was not until the 1930's depression that the Eltham Shire office was transferred from Kangaroo Ground, where it had stood for many years, to central Eltham, after the original building was destroyed by fire in suspicious circumstances. It had been becoming apparent for years that Kangaroo Ground was remaining a farming district and that the railway would gradually cause Eltham to become an outer Melbourne village and the appropriate place to set up the new Shire Office complex. A beautiful little Church of England building had been erected in Pitt Street, Eltham in the 1870's and a Methodist Church was located in the Main Road nearby that had been functioning for nearly as long, fulfilled the Protestant community's requirements for both church and chapel worship and precluded the drive to establish a Presbyterian cause in the locality.
Eltham was a beautiful rural landscape of mists, valleys and hills. It became the haunt of artists at the turn of the century and a nexus of the Australian Impressionist School, with the famous Walter Withers its earliest full-time resident painter in 1902. This condition lingered through the two world wars as its woodlands and sequestered valleys made it Melbourne's favourite picnic place. The citizens had taken on a colourful quality of living that differed from adjacent areas. They rebelled against the suburban lifestyle that was emerging around them in favour of rural peace and beauty. They started building mud brick houses, keeping the roads in an unmade condition and fighting for the retention of the indigenous tree growth and the voluntary replanting of the whole inner district with enthusiastic zest and determination. They were a united community, capable of looking beyond their boundary fence.
There was a small Presbyterian Home Mission Station at Montmorency, two miles to the west, where the Reverend R. V. Merritt, who was vice principal of the Melbourne Bible Institute for many years, conducted services each Sunday morning. Those Eltham residents who were privileged to sit under his gracious ministry around 1950 can still recall those wonderful times today. The general Eltham inhabitants however were intellectual rather than spiritual. There were writers, painters, philosophers and professors who adopted the district as the place to live because it differed from the rest of Melbourne suburbia. They were able to live without pretence and say and do what they believed instead of pretending to be what they were not. For this reason it was not very fertile soil in which to germinate even the liberal brand of Protestantism that was flourishing at that juncture in much Presbyterian Church life. To decide for Christ and the invisible church made one conspicuous. Even among the small numbers that clung to the local churches in that immediate post-war optimism, Christianity was accepted mostly for its social connotations provided it did not too seriously challenge the conscience. They were the brave new days of the early postwar era where Australia was achieving mature nationhood. Science was dominant and evolution was accepted without question almost universally. It was seldom indeed that one heard the claims of Christ spoken of with depth, courage and proper Bible teaching.
Montmorency was however an evangelical outpost under the ministry of the Rev. Mr. Merritt until 1957. A brick church hall had been erected in 1951 and an outreach was started in the district. Mr. Bruce Fraser who had come from West Australia, entered the ministry during this period. He and his wife formed an outstanding witness in the years that followed. He later returned to the West to Albany and became a leader of the Presbyterian cause in that State following the effects of the church union issue.
Mr. Merritt was relieved of his pastoral ministry in Montmorency when the Presbyterian Assembly adopted a policy of installing student ministers in Home Mission Stations and providing them with manses. His departure left a gaping hole in the evangelical cause that was the signal for Mr. David Graham to approach the present writer to see if the Rev. Mr. Merritt could be constrained to start a Home Mission Station in Eltham. David Graham had been a life time member at Kangaroo Ground and for many years its most active elder. He had sat under the ministry of Mr. Merritt when he had been a student minister serving the combined charge of Yarra Glen and Kangaroo Ground. However, the wide landscapes and pioneering isolation that had brought these localities together had changed. The preaching places were separated by a mountain range and a long distance that made the situation very difficult. It was just before the great proliferation of cars and both districts had gone backwards because of their agricultural pursuits which was to set them apart from the rapid expansion of Melbourne as it grew from one to two million people within little more than a decade.
Eltham's individual approach to suburbanisation made a union with Kangaroo Ground, which had fallen into limbo, a distinct possibility. A meeting was arranged at the home of Alistair and Margot Knox at York Street, under the Chairmanship of the Convenor of Home Missions, the Rev. Maclean Shugg, at which Mr. Merritt was appointed to make a canvass of Presbyterians. As a result of this there was a meeting on the 2nd March, 1958 and another on the 30th March, 1958, both at the home of Alistair and Margot Knox, for the purpose of forming an official congregation. A Sunday School was started under the guidance of Mr. A. Russell and the Church offerings were received by Miss Janie Knox. On the 2nd April a meeting was called for at the Knox home. The Kangaroo Ground Elders and their wives attended and Mr. Knox, Mr. Russell and Mr. Genger from Eltham. These three were elected to form a provisional committee, an essential if they wished to form a congregation. The Director of Home Missions informed the meeting that land had been set aside by the Presbyterian Church of Victoria in Batman Road and also ·a sum of £220 towards the erection of a building.
Mr. Genger offered his home in nearby Bible Street for Sunday services until a general purpose Church Hall could be built. It was decided to meet each Sunday at 10 a.m. for Sunday School and 11 a.m. for Church at his address. A letter from Presbytry declared that Eltham had been officially declared a congregation on 10th May, 1958. Preliminary plans for a building of Mount Gambier stone was submitted and agreed to on 11th June, 1958 and Messrs. Borland and Trewenack were appointed to act as supervising architects. A tender price for the Hall of 3200 pounds was agreed to on 12th October, 1958. Alistair Knox & Associates were the designers and builders.
The General Purpose Church Hall was duly completed and officially opened on 22nd March, 1959 and Mr. Merritt was appointed interim moderator and part-time pastor. The worshippers soon started to mature under his remarkable preaching and example. The adult congregation which grew slowly and was augumented by Peter and Marion Huggett and family who had been converted at the Melbourne Billy Graham Crusade which had concluded the Sunday before the Church Hall was dedicated. They have remained unchanged and unchanging in Eltham ever since. Another most important fact was that the Kangaroo Ground congregation was severed from Yarra Glen and became part of the newly-formed Eltham-Kangaroo Ground charge. Initially services were held at Eltham at 10.15 a.m. and Kangaroo Ground at 11.30 a.m. They were preceded by Sunday School an hour earlier at both preaching places.
Eltham was an unusual congregation. It did not follow the typical Church-going family pattern that was traditional around that period but was also strongly represented by individuals, a fact which manifested the non-conforming pattern of the surrounding district. Some people came and then left because it was felt it was too uncompromising. The seats and furniture were simple, the building plain, while the whole north side was glass that looked out onto an open space, a lawn and two or three yellow box trees. The songs of the native birds, the magpies, kookaburras and currawongs, also had the habit of mingling with the prayers and the quiet times of the service that allowed a fusing of the human voice with the Creator's colourful feathered choir in paeans of praise. The 19th Century concept of small lancet windows and cloistered congregations was giving way to the new freedom that followed the conclusion of World War II.
It was soon realised that there was a big difference between the freedom the world offers and the liberty of the spirit of Christ, and that is was important not to compromise between the two as many felt that the Presbyterian Church had during the previous quarter of a century. Our pastor's bible based ministry, assisted by the new impetus the Graham Crusade provided, set us off on an evangelical course which has never much altered. There was a determination not to compromise to gain numbers at the expense of a social church. It was realised that there could be no substitute for personal dedication, persistent discipleship, and prevailing prayer.
At the end of 1959, however, a student minister was appointed who had to be supplied with accommodation and our original pastor could no longer lead us. We were being left to exercise our own faith and our own resources. It was at this point that it became apparent that God's work is made perfect in weakness. Mr. Max Watson and the present writer were the first two Elders appointed from the eleven communicants before the student minister was installed in January, 1960.
Mr. Neville Place was a gracious appointee but he was greatly lacking in experience. It was evident that he needed us as much as we needed him. As a student he could give only part time to his pastoral duties and part time to his studies. This required the Elders and other interested people the opportunity to take a very active part in the church life.
The decade 1960-70 was notable for the youth work which came under their control and guidance. Marion Huggett and Alistair Knox started a youth group in 1959 which culminated in a camp at Carrurn during the Christmas holidays. The few participants were only 12 and 13 as there were no older teenagers attending the Church and Sunday School in that year. The next Christmas the camp was much bigger but there was still little spiritual depth in it or its members. It was the camp of 1961 that changed all that. It consisted of 56 campers and 10 leaders from both Eltham and Kangaroo Ground. At the outset it was boisterous, rowdy and worldly and quite beyond the leaders to bring it within acceptable Christian standards. Their organisation had been thorough, their prayer preparation sincere, but the whole result seemed a noisy shambles. In helplessness, five of the leaders sought the Lord on the fourth morning at 4 a.m. confessing their sins and inabilities and pleading that the Holy Spirit convict, convince and convert the camp. They prayed around John 15. 1 :8. The results were astounding. When the camp was getting ready for breakfast, the first conversion occurred. During the morning there were further conversions. As people were changed they prayed for their friends. A great calm settled over the whole campsite that owed nothing to man. They just looked on as the Spirit of God did His convicting and convincing work.
On returning to Eltham it was paramount to begin a nurturing program for the new believers. As most of them were from unchurched backgrounds, the Graham Crusade material was selected to assist their spiritual understanding. The group met each Sunday at 5.30 p.m. for prayer, 6 p.m. for singing, 6.30 for tea, 7.00 for worship and then off home at 8 p.m. The original group grew from 25 to an average attendance of 60 to 70 each week. Counselling for Conversion and Commitment became an almost weekly reality. David Graham, the leader from Kangaroo Ground, had had long experience in this capacity and Marion and Peter Huggett, together with the present writer, formed a basic group that encouraged the developing fellowship which became known as the Eltham Kangaroo Ground Youth Fellowship. It never became affiliated with the P.F.A. and was prevented from joining the Christian Endeavour Movement, although it endorsed its principles and concurred with its approach to spiritual matters. As its work and influence spread, it received opportunities to visit and speak to other youth groups. Teams of six or eight would be selected for these occasions and the remainder would remain at home so that the local necessities could still be met.
As the Outreach was to a predominantly unchurched community, young men and girls of all types were encountered. From time to time someone would get into trouble with the law and would have to appear in Court. The Fellowship would discuss the problem with the accused and commit the matter to prayer. On his agreeing to tell the whole truth to the bench the present writer would plead any mitigating factors such as family background, repentance and other relevant circumstances. Over the years the Fellowship never lost a case in Court. Even the most serious breach only resulted in a good behaviour bond. These bonds were never broken and the local police became so frustrated at this dilemma that they called the leaders the criminal's friends.
The main church grew slowly and remained somewhat apart from the youth activities. They saw the church from different points of view. The former viewed it more from a Sunday worship position and the latter more as a full-time commitment. The fundamental basis of all the youth work was prayer. Every meeting was undergirded with purposeful and directed prayer sessions. There was a prayer meeting each Monday evening for the adult leaders, some of whom came from other denominations and joined in the youth work. The youth group always commenced their Sunday meetings with a thirty minute prayer session.
Twice every year an outreach meeting was conducted by the Fellowship in the old Municipal Hall. It was inevitably preceded by one or two half nights of prayer, which were consistently attended by 30 or more young people and the adult leaders. Invitations would be handed out in the streets on Saturday mornings with the result that the hall would have no unoccupied seats when the meetings took place. There was always a response to the invitations made at the conclusion of the meetings. These nights took the form of showing a film with a Christian message and concluded with a direct challenge for conversion and commitment. One of our present elders was converted at one of these meetings.
In 1964 the Youth Fellowship decided to build a youth building on the church property. The opportunity occurred when the Diamond Creek Coffee Lounge became available for purchase and removal, an event occasioned by a road widening program which included duplicating the bridge over the Diamond Creek. The agreed sum was 50 pounds for the initial purchase and arrangements were made to work in conjunction with the local house removalist to cut the building into two longitudinal sections for re-erection.
Working bees soon achieved this part of the operation and then it was found impossible to shift the sections to their new destination because of the narrowness of the roads. When it finally reached the Church grounds it was only a dejected heap of timber walls, corrugated iron and broken glass and a source of embarrassment to the adult congregation. Undaunted, work began and foundation and stumps were placed to receive the floors and walls. The east wall was 40' in length and of heavy construction. It was stood up vertically one windy Saturday afternoon after a Mayday Call went out for volunteers who stood shoulder to shoulder heaving and pulling with considerable danger to life and limb. From that time it became a fairly normal project completely under the control of the Fellowship members. David Graham, the stalwart leader, spent more than one Saturday afternoon under the floors levelling and stablising them. They are still as straight and solid today as when he did them. It was agreed that no financial assistance would be sought as it was believed that spiritual work should not want for money. There was persistent prayer that the reconstitution of the structure would be paid for before it was completed. Only donations from Fellowship members and such other persons as the Lord prompted would be accepted. And so it occurred. The bank balance was in credit before the completion date and the great times of fellowship and the sense of God's blessing that were enjoyed during these activities were a high point of the fellowship activities.
At the adult level after Mr. Merritt's departure, there occurred a succession of interim moderators and Student Ministers. The first interim moderator was Dr. D. Merritt, the son of R. V. Merritt, who was the Minister at Templestowe in 1960. He was followed by the Rev. G. Bucknall in 1960/61 and the Rev. M. Rainsbury in 1962. Mr. Place's advent had stimulated the building of Stage II of the Church Complex. It consisted of a manse Stage I and an extension to the General Purpose Hall. An additional piece of land 50' x 200' was purchased from the neighbour on the north boundary and the plans for the extensions were prepared and contracts let with the minimum delay.
Mr. Place was succeeded as Student Minister late in 1962 by Mr. Alistair Hopkins who remained in that position until 1965. For a period after that time we had a no regular Student Minister but were supplied by the Presbyterian Church on a weekly basis. This unsettling situation was eventually resolved by the appointment of Mr. Jim Flavel, who would be entering the Theological Hall the ensuing year. He conducted services at both Eltham and Kangaroo Ground for several months and also performed a part time pastoral function. Mr. Flavel describes something of his experiences in this capacity.
The ensuing year saw the appointment of the Rev. W. L. Simpson in a similar capacity to Mr. Flavel. He was a retired Minister approaching 80 years of age but his commanding figure, snow white hair and deeply spiritual character made him a compelling personality with young and old alike. He had served as a soldier at Gallipoli and then became British Secret Agent No. 29. He spoke seven languages and was an outstanding scholar. He was later sent to Northern Israel and put in charge of some groups of Bedouins. His experiences, as dramatic as Lawrence of Arabia, held the Youth Group spellbound. The time had arrived when there was the numerical strength and financial ability for Eltham to become an Appointment Ministry.
By the latter half of the 60's an infectious spirit was affecting the whole Church. It had become an important issue to dissolve all debts quickly in order to become a fully independent charge and have the privilege of calling our own Minister. No stewardship program was ever undertaken to improve Church finances. The emphasis was on sacrificial anonymous giving. This lesson had been learned in 1961 when it appeared a suicidal course, but on that occasion positive prayer miraculously answered our needs. When the D day of our crisis arrived there was found to be more than six times the normal collection in the plate. There was always this sense of crisis and survival which kept us praying. In the youth work we could always call on the best men in Melbourne for special occasions as our own prayer life increased in confidence and assurance as time passed.
In 1966 a Selection Committee was formed to find a suitable person to fulfill this need. After some months it was agreed to approach the Rev. Doctor Wilfred Paton to invite him to fill the Eltham pulpit. He agreed and the formalities were observed so that he could be inducted in February 1967. Dr. Paton was the grandson of the Patons of New Hebrides fame and it was hoped his advent would be the source of a rapid development of all departments of the Church.
The coming of the Rev. Doctor Paton in 1967, however, produced a division in the manner in which the charge should operate. It is regrettable but essential to record here that there were differences which finally reduced the dynamics of the youth work in size and significance. Gone were the evenings when high powered motor cycles could be heard approaching from half a mile away and rather scraggy young men would whirl through the gates and skid to a halt in good time to sing, eat and worship. They were early days in the new youth society which was soon to affect so much of Western society. They enjoyed the fellowship and listened atrcntatively to the message. More than one was greatly changed by this association with the Fellowship. The traditionalising of the services was unable to find a response in these members of a new society. Dr. Paton, who suffered from ill health, was compelled to retire after only two years and his place was taken by the Rev. Robert Johnston who was much younger and more comtemporary with the Eltham congregation. Most of the original youth group had grown to maturity and gone their several ways that were available in those very prosperous times. Some married each other and moved to the four corners of the State.
The coming of the 1970's introduced a formidable problem to the Church, the problem of uniting with the Methodists and the Congregational denominations. The constitution of the Presbyterian Church being thoroughly democratic required that each congregation decide by ballot whether it would enter into union or remain Presbyterian. It was appreciated that Church Union would be good in principle but that it should not be embraced at the cost of doctrinal denigration. The basis of union was analysed by the Church with much diligence and concern. The general consensus of opinion was that the first rule of the Presbyterian Rule Book was jeopardised, namely that the Bible as revealed in the Old and New Testaments are the supreme rule of the Presbyterian Church, would need to be sacrificed for an outward corporate union. In addition there were moves afoot to limit the lay government of the eldership generally in favour of bishops and a more empirical ruling body which would be opposed to our Church's practice and experience.
The issue was argued across the continent and after two votes approximately two-thirds of the Presbyterian Church decided to unite and one-third to remain Presbyterian. Both the Eltham and Kangaroo Ground Churches decided after fairly close voting to remain as they were, but the division caused a numerical depletion especially in the Eltham congregation where it was a simple matter to attend the nearby Methodist Church. That denomination had been given no option but to become part of the Uniting cause. The Presbyterian Minister who succeeded Dr. Paton as the Minister appointed to the church elected to unite so that he had no option but to resign and we again became a vacant charge.
It was a time of new beginnings for the Church because the congregation had been reduced to about half its pre-union numbers, but when the excitement died down it was found that those remaining Presbyterian were soundly based and of good heart. Once again, the Lord met our need when the Rev. Mr. Stuart Calder was appointed as Pastor for a season. His ministry was loving and concerned for all sections of the congregation from the youngest to the oldest and it was matched by a remarkable consistency. He put himself unreservedly at the disposal of the flock at all times and the letters that still arrive each Christmas season to those who know him speak of a total commitment to his Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
A year later it was decided to pay the expenses of Dr. Edwin Norton to enable him visit us from the Mission in which he was engaged in the New Hebrides. This resulted in a favourable decision to ask him to take up a call which he subsequently decided to accept.
It was during this indeterminate period that the second phase of the Youth Fellowship emerged. Mr. Johnston had taken control at a time when the first Youth Group members were decreasing and many were leaving the district. The original leaders had been required to hand over control to the new full time pastor whose initial approach unfortunately did not meet the group's cosmopolitan needs and before long the Fellowship had virtually ceased to function. The second Youth Fellowship was formed under the leadership of Frank Maas and Robert Boyle. It soon became a lively self-determining group that developed the idea of a part time ministry headed up under Mr. Dick Austin who was studying theology. A house was rented to provide him with accommodation and part time employment as leader from these headquarters. Considerable money was allocated and a wider interest was taken in social affairs, a condition that became particularly relevant in the changing climate of the 70's. Eventually funds were withdrawn from this ministry and a substantial number of those concerned left the Church. One young woman who was under the influence of drugs became the object of their special attention and it is pleasing to report that she has since radically changed and become a deeply committed member of another congregation.
The great value of Dr. Norton's ministry was his implicit upholding of the Word of God during his entire sojourn of four years. His call had been an unusual one because the 100 communicants generally considered as a minimum to support a full time ministry was only 70 at that time in the aftermath of the union problems. However, every communicant supported the charge unequivocally and the Presbytry concurred with their desire. They were not to be disappointed. Financially the position became very viable and the word and sacrament were faithfully preached and administered.
In 1978 there occurred the untimely death of David Graham who had been such a stalwart of the evangelical 60's. This sad event coincided with a new and more traditionally based ministry. The Eltham Church comprised more than two-thirds of the combined congregations, and whilst Kangaroo Ground adhered to its country type ministry the younger suburban oriented partner was more innovative. It became subject to some criticism as it aimed to make the Church more understandable to the rapidly changing city oriented society of which it was a part, whereas those confusing currents had not much disturbed the tranquility of beautiful rural Kangaroo Ground.
In 1980 Dr. Norton accepted a call to Queensland and Eltham Kangaroo Ground sought a new Minister. Never was a call given and received and accepted with more alacrity. The usual time lapse that so often causes long delays in filling a vacant charge was entirely missing. The Rev. Mr. Reg. Matthews who had just returned from four years with World Evangelisation Crusade in France was installed in less than three months, an almost unbelievably short time to negotiate such an essential but time consuming system of a call to a pulpit. This occurred during the Church's 21st year. Time had made the congregation much more family orientated. Two of the Church's members were about to study for the Ministry. More of the maturer members were coming from the professional classes and many of their children were following their leads. The congregation had become more secure and predictable. There was a clear evangelical doctrine from the pulpit. The Rev. Reginald Mathews preached with great clarity and power. He adopted the principle of systematically going through books of the Bible. The Church was receiving spiritual sustenance of a high order and at the same time there was great energy and purpose. No congregation could ask for more.
The rough edges that were part of the early Church were being rounded off and there were few empty pews on Sunday morning and good congregations at night. After about three years, however, an almost imperceptible decline was perceivable in the quality of church life. It was as if the congregation was being overfed and doing too much external and too little internal exercise. The prayer meetings that had been such an essential in the past became more peripheral.
There had never been more unity and co-operation in the congregation, but the malaise that so easily causes an affluent Western society to become self-centred has to be constantly guarded against. The very fact of a lack of crises can lull into a false sense of security. We should not underestimate the subtlety of the enemy nor forget 'That all who will live Godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer perseuction'. It is this superficial sense of well being that tends to make our prayer lives ineffective and the good to become the enemy of the best.
There has never been a period in history like the 1980's with its instant worldwide communication systems, computer chip organisations and nuclear threatened societies. As a Christian Church we have to decide what our role should be to prevent us developing a middle-class club psychology. The great Presbyterian thinker Dr. Schaeffer warns of the evangelical disaster that can engulf the Church. Another thoughtful Christian author asks whether the Christian Church can survive in Australia. It must be realised that the cancer of materialism can eventually cause the life blood of true faith to coagulate altogether. Australia is already regarded as a postChristian society. At the present time the greatest growth is among the aboriginals. The great movements in Korea where there are single congregations of up to 370,000 must cause us to question why we remain so static. There is one great reason for this dilemma. It is the barrier of an ineffectual prayer life. In Korea there have, for the past thirty years, been regular Prayer Meetings of up to 5,000 assembling weekly at 5 a.m. and praying in unison. Whatever it sounded like did not prevent God from blessing them enormously. Our only recourse is to take Solomon's prayer to heart: 'If my people who are called by my name shall humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from the wicked ways then will I hear from heaven and forgive their sins and heal their land' (2 Chron. 7.14).
The first 25 years of the Eltham Church have been eventful and have shown the truth of this statement.
At times we have been,
But we can Thank God that,
We now stand at the threshold of a future that has to choose between complacency and challenge. To survive we need to restore a fervent prayer life that is involved with the lostness of the lost in India, Africa, South America and the Islands of the sea as well appointed way of doing his work has always been through prayer. In the past the Christian faith has always grown in the fires of testing and lapsed in times of ease and affluence because, 'The Kingdom of God is not in word but in power' (1 Cor. 4:20).
This is the hour to take to heart: Our Churches crest of Moses' burning bush and embracing its motto (Nec tamin consumebatur), which means 'burning but not consumed.'