In 2013, Eric Metaxas published a collection of biographical sketches titled 7 Men: And the Secret of Their Greatness. It was a big hit. I saw it in airport bookstores everywhere.
I’m sure there’s great benefit in reading about the moral fiber and spiritual greatness of men like George Washington, William Wilberforce, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but founding a nation, abolishing slavery, and attempting to assassinate Hitler all seem a bit beyond us mere mortals.
I tend to get more inspired reading about God’s greatness when it’s revealed through bumbling klutzes and flawed characters. People more like me.
So, I’m launching a series of cheeky blogs entitled, 7 BROKEN MEN, looking at how God uses even the biggest screw ups for his glory.
Our first broken man is none other than the founder of the first Baptist church in Australia, Rev John McKaeg. And, boy, was he broken! Terribly so. My heart can’t help but go out to him. And yet God graciously deigned to work through him, the dear man.
McKaeg was a fiery Scot from the nonconformist tradition. No bowing and scraping to bishops for him. He liked his religion direct from the Bible and not mediated through any church hierarchy or the like. This didn’t go over so well in staunchly Presbyterian Scotland so he soon found himself exiled and serving in the Baptist churches in Ireland.
The change of scenery didn’t do much to make his erratic approach to life and faith any more palatable. He was a failure in his early pastoral efforts and was eventually kicked out of the Baptist Irish Society. Several of his colleagues thought him “quite mad”.
Historian Ken Manley described him as having “a smattering of education, a love of controversy, a histrionic eloquence, and a determination to preach Christ as best he could.”
He might also have been an alcoholic.
And so, like much of the flotsam and jetsam of British society, John McKaeg eventually washed up in the colony of New South Wales, having decided to try his (largely bad) luck in far-flung Australia.
He arrived in Sydney in 1830, unsupported and uninvited, but ready to launch the colony’s first Baptist church. By this point the Church of England, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian and Methodist churches were all established.
For a man known for his love of booze, there’s more than a touch of irony to his decision to hold the first Baptist service on Australian soil in the Long Room of the Rose and Crown Inn on 24th April 1831. A local solicitor who was present described McKaeg’s preaching this way:
“He was not as sober as he might have been.”
In a town dominated by Anglicans and Catholics, an inebriated fiery Scottish preacher was a novelty. And I don’t mean that in a good way. It wouldn’t have helped his entrée into Sydney society that his preaching was often against Catholic and Anglican practice, particularly their conduct of infant baptisms. When he conducted the first Baptist (adult) baptisms in Sydney Harbor on 12 August 1832, a large crowd gathered to heckle. When two of the women being baptized went to get changed behind a rock a couple of peeping toms embarrassed them, much to the amusement of the crowd.
Nevertheless, three weeks later, there were three more baptisms. But this time a heckler swam underwater to pull McKaeg’s legs out from under him as he stood waist-deep in the harbor preaching the doctrine of believers’ baptism. When the crowd drove him off by pelting rocks at him, McKaeg conducted future baptisms armed with a tree branch. After preaching a particularly fiery sermon to the heckling crowd about the ills of the conformist traditions, he returned to shore to find that someone had stolen his shoes.
In September that year, McKaeg made a successful application to Governor Bourke for a grant of land to build a church. The land was free but McKaeg had to raise the funds for the building. Things get a bit murky here. He claimed one of his fellow fundraisers had lent him money to buy a tobacconist business. Some have questioned whether he misappropriated funds intended for the church building. In any case, he lost the lot and ended up in debtors’ prison.
In prison he was caught gambling.
By this time the fledgling Baptist congregation had had enough. They petitioned England for a replacement minister to be sent out. In John Saunders they got the polar opposite of John McKaeg. Thoughtful, teetotal, moderate and well educated, Saunders steadied the little Baptist ship, and raised the money necessary to build the sanctuary McKaeg had dreamed of.
In 1836, Bathurst Street Baptist Church was officially opened. Today, John Saunders is lauded as its first minister.
Shortly after Saunders’ building was opened, McKaeg, alone and overlooked, destitute and unwell, cut his own throat with a razor, severing his windpipe, but failing to kill himself. He subsisted as a mute pauper, a preacher without a voice, until he died around 1844 (nobody is sure).
Today, Baptists are among the most activist and engaged Christians in Australia. It’s the movement to which I’ve given most of my adult life.
A generally conservative movement, they tend to keep quiet about the fact they were founded by a boozy firebrand with a gambling problem who moonlighted as a tobacconist and who started their first church in pub.
Yep, God is good!