An abbreviated History of the Adelaide Society of The New Church

church buildingFor those who have not previously heard of The New Church it comes as a considerable surprise to learn that it is “one of the oldest continuous religious bodies” in South Australia and that in the late 1800’s, when it was at its numerically strongest, it was in the mainstream of organized religion in Adelaide. Certain of the State’s then senior civil servants were members of the New Church, including the Surveyors-General, George Woodroofe Goyder and his successor, William Strawbridge. In 1896 the Chief Justice, Samuel Way, officiated at the opening of the newly-built Church hall.

The Adelaide Society of the New Church was formally established in 1844 by Jacob Pitman, brother of Sir Isaac Pitman, of shorthand fame. Both brothers were members of the New Church in Bristol, England and devoted readers and followers of the theological writings of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772).

Whilst it is its incorporated name, “The New Church” is in fact short for “New Jerusalem Church” or “New Christian Church”. Swedenborg wrote of a new spiritual age breaking in over the world; a new Christianity; and that the vision of the New Jerusalem in the book of Revelation, chapters 21 and 22, accurately and beautifully heralds and describes this when it is understood according to its inner spiritual meaning.

Even during his life time Swedenborg’s religious writings attracted widespread interest though he never attempted to found a separate denomination and hoped that the new teachings would be taken up within the existing Christian Churches. They were at times but much more generally shunned and in 1787 a group of individuals, convinced of their truth, founded the organized New Church. Centres sprung up throughout Britain and books and pamphlets published.

Looking for better opportunities, as most Colonists were, Jacob Pitman immigrated to South Australia with his wife and then family of 2 small children, arriving here in May, 1838. Pitman had in his possession a full set of Swedenborg’s theological writings plus other related books, including a Liturgy and Hymn book. On fine Sundays, on board and throughout the voyage, he had led worship and must have advocated the doctrines of The New Church since another passenger, William Holden (previously a Calvinist), converted, became a life-long member and, in reality, co-founder of the Adelaide Society.

The first public services of worship, held weekly from July 7th, 1844, were at the home of Jacob and Emma Pitman, in the living room of their modest home in Rundle St., East. There were just 4 adults present at the first Service, plus children. Yet a year afterwards 14 adults were in regular attendance. In 1847, there being no prospect of otherwise obtaining a Minister, and under instructions from officials of The New Church in Great Britain and with its sanction, William Holden ordained Jacob Pitman.

Jacob Pitman marble & Baptism FontIn 1848, because of increasing numbers, Services began to be held in the Oddfellows’ (Commercial) Schoolroom, located between Franklin St. and Weymouth St. These arrangements proved unsatisfactory and added urgency to the move for the Church to acquire its own premises. On July 11th 1850 a little Church, costing 250 pounds to build, was opened in Carrington St, “just around the corner from King William St.” Much had happened in 6 years.

But these were still early days for the Colony of South Australia and times of fluctuating economic fortunes. In 1859 Mr. Pitman felt compelled to re-locate inter-state and resigned as Minister. Fortunately a new Leader was available, Mr. E. G. Day, who presided both as Lay Leader and, subsequently, as an ordained minister, for 34 years. Under his leadership, in 1872, the Church moved to handsome new premises in what was then Hanson St., (now Pulteney St.). Receiving no salary from the Church Rev. Day augmented his income by conducting weddings, as many as 166 in 1892, alone, when in fact he was 82, “more” it is said, “than any other minister in the Colony at the time”.

At the advanced age of 83 and with failing health, Mr. Day retired in early 1893 and died in November of that same year. In 1895 Rev A. E Beilby arrived from Blackpool, England, to be the new minister. During his short 3 year pastorate a hall was added to the church, opened in May 27th, 1896 by the Chief Justice, Samuel Way, and attendances doubled to an average of fifty or sixty.

Following Mr. Beilby’s return to England in 1898 the Rev. Percy Billings served as minister from 1900-1905. His pastorate was notable for his energy and missionary efforts but ended amidst difficulties and doctrinal controversy. From 1906 to 1931 the Adelaide Society of The New Church was without a paid minister, the regular congregation also declining “as older members died and few newcomers joined”.

In 1931 the newly-ordained Rev. C. D. Brock “a man of boundless energy and unquenchable enthusiasm” was appointed Minister even against an uncertain financial situation for the New Church, locally and Australia-wide. (Bear in mind that the world by then was well into the years of the Great Depression). Ten years later, in 1941, and the Second World War well under way, Mr. Brock resigned as paid Minister having accepted a clerical position in the armed Services. However, he continued to serve the Church as Leader and then as Honorary Minister until 1954, all of 23 years.

church stand with bible

In that same year, 1954, and following on from Mr. Brock’s ministry, Mr. A.S. Watson was appointed Lay Leader, serving two periods as such, from 1954-1969 and from 1975 to 1982.In 1965, during Mr. Watson’s leadership, the Church in Pulteney St., (formerly Hanson St) was compulsorily acquired by the then Tramways Trust and Services were thereafter held in rented premises, at the then headquarters of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, “Willard Hall”, at that time located in Wakefield St.

In 1969 Australian-born Rev. Ian Arnold, with his wife Margaret and young family, arrived in Adelaide from England where he had trained and served a first pastorate, to become the new Minister of the Society. His early years and focus was the re-location of activities to new premises, purpose built, at 287 Oaklands road, Marion, opened in 1971.

Following the departure of Mr. Arnold to Sydney in 1975, the Society again being without a Minister, Mr. Watson resumed the Leadership until the arrival in 1982 of the Rev. Richard Keyworth (a New Zealander) with his wife Gill and their family. Mr. Keyworth’s pastorate of 7 years saw a resurgence of new interest, which continued into the ministry of his successor, Rev. John Teed, who served from 1990 to 1995, until his retirement. In 1994 the Society celebrated its 150th anniversary, the dedication of an extension to the Social Room, specifically for Sunday School purposes, coinciding with that event.

During 1996, an ‘interim’ year, Mr. Frank Hussey who with his wife Shirley had joined the Church in the mid-1980’s, served as Leader. In January 1997 Rev. Ian Arnold returned to Australia from Britain where he had served for 6 and ½ years as Principal of The New Church College, Manchester, to become again the Minister of The Adelaide Society. Several months after again taking up the work in Adelaide Mr. Arnold was also appointed Principal of the fledgling Australian New Church College.  Whereas in the past it had been the custom for students for the ministry to train in Britain, now for the first time training in Australia was made available. On November 4th, 2001 Adelaide-based Martin Pennington was ordained in Adelaide by the President of The New Church in Australia, Rev. Julian Duckworth.

When Rev. Ian Arnold took up a position in Brisbane Church in 2003, a newly ordained student from the College, Rev. David Millar served from 2003 to 2008. Then Mr Millar took over the College when Mr Arnold retired. Mr Frank Hussey then became Leader again, with Rev. Millar taking Services part-time, as he was still resident in our Manse.

When Mr Frank Hussey retired as Leader in 2013, then Mrs June Johnson was nominated Leader. June was baptized as a baby into the New Church and always a member, serving on the Committee for the Adelaide Church since 2005 as Secretary


  1. A History of The New Church in Australia 1832-1980 by I.A Robinson
  1. Emanuel Swedenborg and The New church in South Australia by David Hilliard, published in the Journal of the Historical Society of south Australia, Number 16, 1988