“And now dawn was beginning to break. From all quarters men saw a new light appearing: the sun itself began to rise at Ilbalintja, and flooded everything with its light. Then the gurra ancestor was minded to rise, now that the sun was mounting higher. He burst through the crust that had covered him: and the gaping hole that he left behind became the Ilbalintja Soak, filled with the sweet dark juice of the honeysuckle buds...”1
These vivid word-pictures come from the sacred narratives of the Australian Aboriginal peoples, whose ancient myths tell them that every part of the land echoes the creation event—that “Everything in the natural world is a symbolic footprint of the metaphysical beings whose actions created our world” (Lawlor). Australia is home to people with deep connections to their land—and what a land it is. The world’s flattest and driest inhabited continent, Australia also boasts alpine heaths and tropical rainforests. Australia has earned the designation of ‘megadiverse country’ for its remarkable variety of ecosystems, animals and plants.
The story of Aboriginal peoples on the Australian continent is about 40,000 years longer than that of European settlers. The Aboriginal settlers came to Australia from Southeast Asia, and for thousands of years, they and the land shaped one another’s stories. Europeans did not begin to settle in Australia until the 17th century. These settlers and their diseases decimated much of the Aboriginal community; not until the past century has that community begun to increase in number from year to year.
Today, most of Australia’s inhabitants have European roots. The island was famously settled in part as a penal colony; many areas, however, were free provinces, and the importation of prisoners was only a temporary phase in Australia’s development. With its promises of gold, pioneering opportunities in the outback, bustling port cities and more land than most Europeans could have imagined, Australia became the land of opportunity for millions of Europeans, especially from Great Britain. The six British colonies of Australia federated and, in 1901, became the Commonwealth of Australia—a land free from long-distance European rule yet still intimately connected to the Western hemisphere and its developments, economies and conflicts.
The Australian church has long been largely evangelical Anglican, though German missions played a large role in establishing Lutheranism and Presbyterianism as well. Australia’s strategic position has made it a base for missions activity throughout the Pacific region for centuries. Work among Australia’s Aboriginal peoples, historically overlooked in favor of ‘overseas causes,’ floundered until revival, particularly in the 1970s, paved the way for an Aboriginal church.
Today, Australia is among the highest-level missionary-sending countries (per capita) in the world.
- (1) “Karora Creates the World From Nothing (Australia)”; in Sacred Texts of the World, pp. 342-344. Eds. Ninian Smart & Richard B. Hecht.
- Voices of the First Day: Awakening in the Aboriginal Dreamtime, by Robert Lawlor