The story is simple. The happening is unique.
It illustrates the way in which the Christian gospel can
profoundly penetrate and radically re-orient Australian people.
Australian Christians have often thought that revival was ‘just around the corner’ (Wilson 1983:26). However, since the mid 1960s the prevailing trends in Church attendance in Australia have shown a steady decline, apart from the growth of the Pentecostal Churches (Chant 1984:219-224). Without doubt Pentecostals have had many new conversions but it can be argued that the new growth is also transitional – dissatisfied people coming from mainline denominations. But, have there been any signs of genuine revival in recent times?
Ian Murray (1988:333) writes, ‘The Christian past of Australia has largely vanished out of sight. Not surprisingly, many have drawn the conclusion that the country has no Christian history of which it is worth speaking.’ However, this paper outlines an episode of Australian Christian history which is well worth retelling.
The story is simple. The happening is unique. It illustrates the way in which the Christian gospel can profoundly penetrate and radically re-orient Australian people.
Ministry at Wudinna
Wudinna. This was the Rev. Deane Meatheringham’s first appointment following his training at Wesley College. The town is somewhat isolated, being situated about 250 kilometres west of Port Augusta on the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia.
‘What a depressing picture the Wudinna Circuit must have presented to the young, enthusiastic probationer, Rev. Deane Meatheringham and his new bride, Rosslyn, as they arrived in 1967 to live and labour there’ (Curnow 1977:81).
The district was known to be one of the hardest Methodist circuits in the state, and hard for others also. At one time the residents in nearby Minnipa quite literally ran the Anglican minister out of town.
Deane Meatheringham began by preaching the basic doctrines of the Christian faith. He attempted to form small Bible study groups but this didn’t arouse any interest (Meatheringham 1981:3). At best, the Wudinna congregation consisted of about 40 to 50 members. About 8 families were regulars. By October 1967, the numbers attending Sunday services were actually down to about 9 or 10 people, and most of those were reluctant even to speak of spiritual matters. The status quo prevailed.
Even so, Meatheringham persisted with his preaching and teaching. ‘He pounded the gospel, the grace of God,’ remembers Marj Holman. In November 1967 he preached a sermon at Minnipa entitled ‘God has acted; we must react.’ He invited a formal response and much to his surprise three women who only haphazardly attended church came forward. For the regular worshippers, this occasioned a slightly embarrassing end to the service, but it also marked the beginning of an outbreak of groups in which many people expressed an unprecedented desire to learn and grow in their faith.
The three women were eager to become involved in confirmation classes, and they invited some of their friends to join the class at Mount Damper. About 15-20 people had attended the first teaching group in which the preparation for confirmation took place. Then, early in 1968, another confirmation class began with others who had been affected by Meatheringham’s preaching and teaching of the gospel. Studies were given on the meaning of baptism and also on justification by faith. A continual stream of people found their lives renewed as they happily put their trust in Jesus Christ.
The Leighton Ford Crusade came to Adelaide from 31 March to 7 April, 1968. Participation in and prayer for the Crusade was commended to all Methodists, ‘in the strongest possible terms’, by the President of the Methodist Conference, the Rev. Merv Trenorden. About 150 people attended the hall in Wudinna to listen to Leighton Ford via a land-line. An appeal was made and again people came forward. Soon after, when Merv Trenorden came to Wudinna to preach for the Confirmation Service, he was astonished by the activity which was taking place.
Twenty new converts were confirmed. People who had held nominal roll membership for years were experiencing Christian conversion – new birth. A group of teenagers had responded to the gospel. In October, 1967, the Wudinna Youth Group had joined with Glen Osmond Baptist youth for a Church camp at Crystal Brook. This had been a significant time for several of them. A vibrant Christian Endeavour group was formed and lead by Meatheringham. The Churches of Christ people were welcomed as associate members of the Methodist Church. People were starting to ask for Bible study groups and there was a growing hunger for Christian teaching and literature (Curnow 1977:81).
Wudinna has known many hard times and had experienced a severe drought in 1959, but interestingly enough locals recall how 1966, 1968 and 1969 were particularly good years. The country flourished, the economy was buoyant and it was a very busy time for farmers. At this time, the Jehovah’s Witnesses had been quite active within the area and it is not insignificant that people were very aware of ‘the law’ and of morality. However, the people here were largely unaware of and unaffected by the charismatic movement which was making some impact within the Australian churches. In this sense, the message of unconditional grace was being sown in well-prepared and virgin soil.
Mission at Wudinna
Meatheringham was authorised by his local 1968 September quarterly meeting, to make enquiries concerning a mission. As a result, the former overseas missionary, Anglican minister and Principal of the Adelaide Bible Institute (now the Bible College of South Australia) the Rev. Geoffrey Bingham, was contacted and he agreed to come. Meatheringham sought Bingham’s advice regarding preparation for the mission. It was recommended that prayer groups be formed. A total of 12 groups soon began meeting around the circuit.
The Wudinna folk also had a strong desire to be trained in some way. This happened through the Lay Institute For Evangelism (L.I.F.E). It was a wing of the Department of Evangelism in the Church of England Diocese of Sydney. Rev. Geoffrey Fletcher was the Director. The L.I.F.E. programme was designed to teach lay people ‘how to present Jesus Christ, how to avoid religious jargon, how to overcome anxiety in sharing, how to answer questions, how to avoid arguing’ and so on. Deane Meatheringham led the studies.
The enthusiastic desire to participate in these training courses was beyond anyone’s expectation. Sixty people came along to listen to the hour long tapes and to take part in the drill. A telegram was hurriedly sent off to Sydney: ‘Rush Twenty Extra LIFE Manuals to Wudinna S.A.’ While some folk did become Christians or were renewed through these programmes, they were primarily times of preparation for the mission.
The mission was planned for 24-31 August, 1969, and was a joint venture of the five congregations in the Wudinna Methodist Circuit. The few Churches of Christ families in the district were also closely associated with the Methodist Church. The Anglican parishes of Elliston and Streaky Bay joined in encouraged by the Rev. Dennis Crisp, the Anglican Minister from Elliston. It also had the support of the Lutheran Church. The Catholic Priest at Minnipa, Father Wesley Heading indicated his personal enthusiasm and prayerful support by sending Meatheringham a telegram prior to the mission. A combined Methodist-Anglican committee consisting of 8 members was elected to promote and make arrangements for the programme.
The mission was entitled FREE INDEED. The theme was taken from John 8:36, ‘If the Son therefore shall make you free, you shall be free indeed.’ It was well advertised using posters, personal and printed invitations, and through the use of articles written for local papers. As it was intended to be a ministry of the body of Christ it was agreed that no offerings be taken up at meetings.
Geoffrey Bingham came to Wudinna with a team of 11 students from the A.B.I. They played an active and significant part in the worship services and shared their own personal testimonies with the locals. Bingham was no newcomer to missions, nor to revival. He brought wisdom and experience with him. At one time he was the minister of a strong, dynamic congregation which sometimes attracted up to 1000 people at Holy Trinity Church, Millers Point in Sydney. Historian Stuart Piggin described him as probably the most successful young minister in Sydney during the 1950s (Lecture, 1992).
In 1957 Bingham had gone to Pakistan as a missionary (Loane 1988:90). Then in 1961 he founded the Pakistan Bible Institute and during a nine year teaching career from 1957-1966, witnessed two great waves of revival in this predominantly Muslim Country (Bingham 1992:95-120).
Bingham came to Wudinna not give revival messages, but to simply preach from the Bible. The messages were solid teaching about bondage to sin and Satan and the powers of darkness and the flesh and the world and so on; and the true freedom which Christ gives from such powers. Bingham is a powerful preacher. He has a commanding presence and a winning sense of humor.
The huge turnout for the first meeting at the Minnipa Anglican Church startled the organisers, impressed the visiting preacher and surprised the crowd of about 150 locals who came to hear him. ‘No one gets West Coast people to come out if they don’t want to,’ observed John Kammermann.
But this was a phenomenon which continued throughout the week of the mission. The atmosphere was expectant, people listened intently and many who attended were people no one even expected to be interested in Christian things. One well known local businessman who was an avowed atheist and communist attended more than one of the meetings!
On the first Sunday morning in Wudinna, the Church was so packed with 200-300 people that the ministers had to tip toe through the sanctuary in order to get past the overflowing masses of people. Many folk were crammed into the porch and some were even forced to listen from the windows outside.
At the service at Koongawa on Sunday afternoon, Ruth Toy, the organist, who usually put out about 6 chairs for the congregation, added enough extra to allow for the mission team! By the time the meeting began, the entire hall was filled with about 100 people. Ruth Toy was stunned. Not surprisingly, she was one of those who was deeply affected by the mission. She experienced such an amazing conversion, that her husband approached Rev. Bingham and asked him what he had been doing with his wife. When Bingham asked what he meant, the husband replied ‘Well she was a chain smoker and she stopped smoking and she was a pretty powerful swearer and she doesn’t swear a word and she was a very angry woman and I don’t see any anger.’
Things like that happened one after the other. All meetings were extremely well attended. Kyancutta Hall on the Monday night had 200-300 in attendance.
Wudinna local Marj Holman vividly remembers how she was completely renewed through the mission. Both young and old, those who had been pew sitters for many years, plus those who had been newly drawn into the church scene, repented, were brought to tears, brought to their knees, received forgiveness and were given new life and unimaginable joy in the Spirit. Some were amazed that even their headaches were healed immediately. Yet, there seemed to be no pattern at all to the way in which God was moving.
On the Monday night at Kyancutta as Bingham was preaching, he could hear strange noises going on during the meeting. He had been fighting to get his words out. He couldn’t see anyone’s mouth open and it struck him that it was a demonic phenomenon. He had previously witnessed meetings like that in Pakistan, and so he said, ‘Satan, in Christ’s name we rebuke you, and command you to leave this meeting.’ There was a loud bang. People sat there a little bit astonished at what had happened, but, the whole place was absolutely quiet.
People later remarked that up until that point they had felt their minds were very scrambled and they couldn’t hear what the preacher was saying. It had not made sense, people couldn’t hear rationally. But at once, everything changed and the preaching was full of power. Many people remained behind after this meeting and refused to go home until they had spoken with someone about becoming converted to Christ.
Impact of the Spirit
John Dunn, one of the students on the mission team, testified to being healed of a longstanding problem during the week of the mission. He also recalls some of the unusual events: A farmer who had not been coming to the meetings, although his wife did, was out on his tractor when great conviction came upon him and he got down in the dust and gave his life to the Lord. A woman believed she was healed of a kidney complaint in one of the meetings, and tests at the hospital the next day showed that there was no longer any problem with the kidney. Many were converted. There was also great opposition. Some shouted back or walked out as Geoff was preaching.
John Kammermann was another local Wudinna farmer who became a Christian at this time. He was a man who had previously listened thoughtfully to preachers, but had always known that he had insufficient resources within himself to sustain a commitment to Christ. However, this mission was different. He had a strong desire not to attend the meetings at all, yet somehow he was compelled to go.
‘I remember that by the time we got to the Sunday service,’ he recalled wryly, ‘there were only seats right down the front under the preachers nose. However in the wisdom of God that’s where you get a good look at the conviction of the messenger! I was convinced that he knew God. If he could know God like that then maybe I could as well.’
The reality of God’s presence and the singing in the meetings was quite extraordinary. It was something John and others had never expected. He recalls how the truth and words of one particular song kept coming back to him: ‘Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days, all the days of my life. And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever, and I shall feast at the table set for me.’
In many ways the situation and the events of those glorious days defies both explanation and description. God was at work graciously revealing himself, giving to each what they needed. It was remarkable, and somewhat unusual, to see the way in which children would happily go to sleep on the seats of motor vehicles or on the floor of the meeting halls. Bingham (1992:99) comments on this same phenomenon during revival in Pakistan.
Some folk surprised their own friends and relatives, as they deliberately broke normal patterns of behaviour and hurried off to be in time for the meetings. ‘I think our parents thought we were a bit strange,’ recalled Kay Kammermann.
The gift of the Spirit
On the Saturday night Bingham taught concerning the Holy Spirit. He made the point that the Father was pleased to give the gift of the Holy Spirit to those who asked. He said, ‘What the cross cleansed, the Spirit comes to fill.’ The assurance given was that God was true to his Word and that he delighted for the West Coast folk to receive his gift. Many did.
‘God was in the place forgiving the sin of our past godlessness, and giving the gift of His Spirit,’ John Kammerman remembered. ‘Even now that memory still evokes emotion.’
The promise of a rich future from God’s hand was something many could not contain. The atmosphere at the meetings could neither be explained or induced. People felt the presence of the Lord and had the expectation that all was well with them on account of that Presence.
At the end of the meetings crowds of people would just sit silently in wonderment for half an hour not moving. One woman was so settled in her seat a member of the mission team invited Bingham to meet her. She spoke in a voice of wonderment saying ‘I never knew he loved me like that!’
Deane Meatheringham reported, ‘We couldn’t get people to stand up and leave. This is the closest I have come to seeing things we read of in Acts or in John Wesley’s Journal.’
There was a woman who had heard the Christian message many times before. For years she had experienced the agony of various shoulder aches and pains. Some time after the mission, she stood up in Church and told how as she was sitting down milking the cow one morning it dawned on her what the Word of God had been saying to her for years. And that was that she was free! All her aches and pains went and she was liberated.
Other occurrences were similar to those decribed in the New Testament such as Acts 2:13 where newly Spirit-filled believers were described as drunk. One man, Trevor Gerschwitz, was so excited and effervescent when he called in to speak with his Lutheran Pastor, Ron Wilsch, on the way home from one of the meetings, that the Pastor later commented that if he hadn’t known him better, he’d have sworn he was drunk.
One burly farmer approached Bingham one night and said, ‘My wife and I made decisions when we were teenagers, but I’ve never seen her like that. I want what she’s got. You’ve got to give it to me.’
Bingham explained that what she had was freedom and that he could not give it to him; only Christ could do that. So one night the man stood in a prominent place at the back of the great mob at Minnipa while Bingham preached. All of a sudden he put his hand up and waved at Bingham as much as to say, ‘It’s happened you know; I’ve got it, this freedom’.
One night after the meeting, a local man, Ron Holman, ‘fairly stoic by nature,’ went and sat down beside Bingham. When asked what he thought of the meeting, Holman replied that he thought it was all right.
Bingham recognised that here was a man who generally didn’t seek conversation, so he said to him ‘Have you ever received the gift of forgiveness?’
Holman replied, ‘No I haven’t.’
Bingham then asked him if he wanted to. The reply was blunt: ‘Why do you think I’m sitting next to you?’
Within a few minutes he was absolutely liberated. Holman has since had quite a history of helping on mission teams, and regularly having witness and ministry.
The mission included a civic luncheon and visits to schools. Each day the mission team would meet for prayer. Throughout the week there were also numerous small informal gatherings for meals and discussions all across the 80 mile circuit, as well as a Saturday afternoon picnic, where people took the opportunity to talk more intimately with one another. Numerous folk sought out Bingham to ask him further questions concerning his messages.
Many beheld a previously unseen phenomenon – West Coast men actually had their Bibles out while they were cooking the BBQ – and were more interested in the message of the Bible than the food on the fire. But what was so strikingly unusual about all this, was that it seemed so natural.
Bingham notes that revival should be natural.
We need to understand God’s purpose for history. We need to see why, and how, revival is essential as a phenomenon in the course of history. We need to understand its goal. When we do, then the whole subject of revival is removed from the theoretical area, from mere human theologising, or human attempts at manipulating God into action. It comes into the realm of necessary action. We discover, in fact, that the word ‘revival’ in one sense covers the whole of the action of God in history. The principle of giving life, sustaining it and renewing it – that is, revival – is the work which God is about continually’ (1983:ix).
This was not religion but life. People were free indeed. Consistent with Bingham’s style, the mission had been free of gimmicks and tricks aimed at manipulating people. From one point of view, there was no need for it, it was an evangelist’s delight. ‘People were getting converted hand over fist,’ and this left a deep impression upon everyone.
The climate was such that in fact ‘someone could have got up to skull duggery,’ John Kammermann noted. The West Coast community had seen their fair share of entertainers, hypnotists and spiritualists. Bingham was aware of the pitfalls of such an atmosphere and was well acquainted with his own powers as a speaker. On the Wednesday night at the Wudinna Hall, in his concern that people not be manipulated, he gave a demonstration of the effects which could be induced by a speaker. He deliberately vocalised a hissing noise. The whole gathering reacted and a loud clunk was heard as everyone’s feet hit the floor together. People have commented how thankful they were that the potential of the situation had been publicly exposed and recognised. A clean, clear atmosphere prevailed.
The last planned meeting on the Sunday afternoon was quite amazing. There were well over 400 at the meeting. People came from as far away as Ceduna and Cummins. Many have said it was like the first Pentecost but without tongues.
Of the final night Bingham said, ‘Like a great rain of beauty and silence and joy, it just descended on the whole congregation. It was quite remarkable. I’d have called it a very gentle but a very powerful outpouring of the Holy Spirit. And I can remember the joy in the worship and praise that night.’
During the mission there had been no appeals for people to come forward. There had been no pressure applied. But there had been an astonishing response. Children and people right up to those in their seventies, and many from each age group, had been deeply moved.
At the close of the final meeting, people wanting to talk with someone about faith were invited to move about halfway down the hall and enter into the supper room, where the team and other local folk were waiting to help. Over 50 people were counselled by those who had been prepared for the task.
In the weeks, months and years that followed the mission, God continued to reveal his love to his people at Wudinna. The mission had been no seven day wonder, but folk continued to be converted to Christ (Curnow 1977:82-83).
During the week immediately after the mission, John Kammermann arrived home from work keen to share with his wife Kay the details of a marvellous encounter with God, which he had experienced while shearing a sheep. In it he had understood anew the dynamic truth of God’s love. ‘It was not that God is love AND sent his Son; but rather IN the sending of his Son, God is love.’
How might that be communicated to a farmer in a shearing shed? As he recounted the somewhat unusual, yet seemingly natural happening, Kay quickly replied, ‘Guess what? The very same thing happened to me today while I was hanging out the washing.’
Many enriching conversations took place. Neighbours would sit down together somewhere out on the boundary fence of their large properties and go through the great events of salvation together, or read and ponder the words of Scripture while working on a tractor.
There had been something like 31 home groups in the week leading up to the mission. Some of these now combined and turned into Bible studies. The Ladies Guild virtually became a Bible Study Group (Curnow 1977:82).
Meatheringham was untiring in his efforts to nurture his people. This included writing a counseling booklet entitled ‘Christianity is Christ.’ As a Pastor he moved well among the community and encouraged people to continue in their faith. There were 61 confirmees during his 5 year term at Wudinna (Curnow 1977:83). Pastoral letters were written to teach, exhort and encourage people. The instruction given was clear and simple. People were enjoined to accept their salvation joyfully, live by faith in Christ, read the Bible diligently, pray earnestly and worship regularly.
Following the mission the Wudinna folk regularly sent teams of young preachers out to places like Haslam and Streaky Bay to help out. Families and groups would often get into cars with all their kids, and they would sing from chorus books all the way to and from their destination. Many people opened their lives and homes to one another. Spontaneous sharing of meals took place and people loved to gather together in homes after Church. There was a general air of excitement in the Church and people eagerly heard the Word from Deane and guest preachers.
One of the leaders, when praying during the mission ‘saw’ a large heap of leaves and a strong gust of wind scattering them all over what seemed a map of Australia. This was interpreted as indicating that lots of people touched by God would be moved on into many parts of this land; and it happened that way. Many people moved in later years to Western Australia, Victoria, Queensland and other parts of South Australia.
A consolidating mission entitled WE REIGN IN LIFE was organised in 1972 with the circuit now being pastored by the Rev. Ian Clarkson. Bingham and another team of students returned to lead the mission and the important question put to the Wudinna folk was taken from Galatians 3:3 ‘Having begun in the Spirit’ where are you now?
There had in fact been some difficulties within the church community since the time of the first mission. Some had sought to place greater emphasis upon the role and work of the Holy Spirit, and this caused divisions. One group broke away and later became the Christian Revival Crusade (C.R.C). To this day, hurts are slowly being healed.
After the first mission, it was natural enough that reports of revival soon began to circulate. Fellow pastors were eager to discover what techniques were used. When faced with this question at the Annual Methodist Conference, Deane Meatheringham made the now famous reply: ‘We organised a mission and God got out of hand.’
In a report on the happening, Meatheringham concluded: ‘Some people might say that we have had a revival. But in such arid days as ours I think this is exaggeration. We have seen the sparks of revival, and possibly the beginnings of even greater things.’
Apart from the movement in Pakistan, Bingham describes this event as the second closest thing to revival he has seen. The closest being what began at the Garrison Church in Sydney and spread from there to other churches during the mid 1950s.
This was the episode of Christian life which took place at Wudinna in 1969. In manifold ways the story continues to unfold in the 1990s.
Bingham, G. C. (1983) Dry Bones Dancing. Adelaide: New Creation Publications.
— (1985) The Day of the Spirit. Adelaide: New Creation Publications.
— (1985) Christ the Conquering King. Adelaide: New Creation Publications.
— (1992) Twice Conquering Love. Adelaide: New Creation
Chant, B. (1984) Heart of Fire. Adelaide: The House of Tabor.
Curnow, E. A., ed. (1977) Faith on the Western Front. Aldis.
Loane, M. L. (1988) ‘Geoffrey Cyril Bingham’ in These Happy Warriors. Adelaide: New Creation Publications.
Meatheringham, D. (1981) Gospel Incandescent. Adelaide: New Creation Publications.
— (1969) Pastoral Letter: ‘The Assurance of God’s Word.’
— (1969) Pastoral Letter: How to Succeed as a Christian.’
— (1969) Report of Mission Held at Wudinna, August 21-31.
Murray, Ian. H. (1988) Australian Christian Life from 1788. The Banner of Truth Trust.
Piggin, Stuart (1992) Lecture: ‘Piety and Politics in Australia in the 1950s,’ given to ‘Australian Religious History’ class at Flinders University (S.A.), on 21 May.
Wilson, B. (1983) Can God Survive in Australia? Albatross Books.
(c) Trevor Faggotter
© Renewal Journal 4: Healing (1994, 2011)
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