Churches – Presbyterian

Churches – Presbyterian

The worship of God is not confined to a building and so the opening of a church building in 1908 was not in fact the commencement of a Presbyterian Church for this locality – even though it is a point in time to date anniversaries.

The first services in the Presbyterian form that are known to have been conducted in Sydney (rather than in Beecroft) were held by the political convict Thomas Muir of Dundee Scotland. He conducted them as an elder of the Church of Scotland. He arrived as a convict in 1794 and escaped from Sydney in 1796. The first regular services were held in the home of Thomas Arndell who, in addition to holding land at Missionary Corner (now Thompson’s Corner), had his home on the Hawkesbury River where a small chapel was built near his home in 1803 at Ebenezer Mount.  These services were led by James Mein who had been a seat holder at the Presbyterian Church at Covent Garden London.  Under his leadership the families worshipped “by singing the Psalms of David in the Scottish metrical version, reading the holy scriptures with a sermon from some Puritan divine and commending themselves to the Divine blessing in extempore prayer to God, agreeably to the hallowed customs of their native land.” In truth this church started more as a form of common Protestant Christianity than as strictly Presbyterian [1].

The first Presbyterian minister did not arrive in Australia until 1822 and this man, Rev Archibald McArthur, was located in Hobart, Tasmania.

A chapel was built by the convicts at the Pennant Hills Timber-getters settlement (for which see elsewhere on this website) and that may have had Presbyterian services.

For Beecroft, closer settlement did not occur until well after the timber getting establishment closed in 1831, as this took place when the State Government sold part of the Field of Mars Common to pay for new infrastructure in the form of the northern railway. Land sales east of present day Hull Road in Beecroft and Boundary Road in Pennant Hills started to occur from 1887.

Following these land sales a Presbyterian Minister (Rev Dr David Bruce) was appointed to conduct services from Hornsby although his parish covered the broader area north of what we now know as St Leonards. A Minister based at Thornleigh (Rev William Herbert Drewett) was inducted in that parish in 1901. Two years later David McCall called a meeting on 7 March 1903 at his home at what is now 142 Copeland Road East, Beecroft to consider forming a Presbyterian Church in Beecroft. The first service was then held by Rev James Marshall (with Rev J Kemp-Bruce of Wahroonga preaching) on 5 April 1903 in the Ravenhurst School Hall which stood roughly where the car park behind the liquor store on the corner of Mary Street and Beecroft Road is now located. The building was little more than a single room shed [2]. The Committee of Management was shortly established comprising 6 men and 7 women. David Robert McCall (a senior public servant in the NSW Police) and James Imlay Forsyth (headmaster of Beecroft Primary School) were appointed the first elders [3].

Early steps were taken to build the church. On 17 December 1903 a congregational meeting agreed to purchase the land upon which the church was subsequently built. The Sunday School commenced meeting in 1904 with 17 children – the sign of a new village with new families [4]. In 1905 the church relocated from the hall to meet in a more public space – the School of Arts.

Following the departure of Rev Drewett in 1906, parish boundaries were altered to create a charge of Beecroft, Thornleigh and Carlingford and Rev John Alexander Rainy Brotchie was appointed the first Minister of this new parish. He was inducted on 26 February 1907 in the Thornleigh Presbyterian Church. Brotchie was a Scot from Kintore born in 1848 and who had arrived in Australia in 1883, 2 years after his ordination [5].

At the induction of Mr Brotchie he told the story of a person who was “climbing in Switzerland, and on reaching the top of a very high peak the guide stepped aside that [he] might be the first to plant his foot on the hard won heights. Exhilarated by the thought of the splendid view that was about to open before him but forgetful of the high gale that was blowing, he stepped up eagerly and stood upright at the summit. But the guide pulled him down with an exclamation: ‘You are not safe except upon your knees!’ He (Mr Brotchie) was not safe except on his knees and he trusted his hearers would be there too and that God’s good cause would be abundantly blessed. Mr C A Dobbie pleased the audience very much by reciting ‘When Mother cooks for company. And ‘Dad’ and Mr C McKern entertained them with several gramophone selections which were much appreciated” [6].

The building for the Beecroft Presbyterian Church was commenced on 19 September 1908 and was opened on 13 February 1909. The choir sang Praise the Lord, Oh Jerusalem and there were two solos by Miss Harker. The inside was 50 x 25 with seating for 150 and the roof was lined with Kauri. Mr G L Macready reported that there was a mortgage of 500 pounds with the total expenditure being 875 pounds.  Its architect was William Nixon, who lived in Malton Road, and the builder was Mr W Brown of Ashfield. The sandstone for the foundations was locally quarried and donated by George Frederick Willis, the father of David John Willis of the Boer War Memorial. Willis was a member of the Church of England (now Anglican) church [7]. While still in the planning stage for the building, it was not long before a disagreement arose. This concerned the merit of having a vestry contained within the building. Disagreements over buildings are scattered across the history of this, or any, church. Before the building was finished Mr Brotchie died. In his will he left a gift of 250 pounds (out of a total estate worth 1,686 pounds) towards the building of a church – if it included a vestry. The building of the church, with vestry, then proceeded apace. A bequest of almost twice the Minister’s annual stipend does seem a fine tradition for any church and a ready means of resolving a dispute. The sudden death of Mr Brotchie at the age of 59 years led Session to call the building The Brotchie Memorial Church. The foundation stone was laid by Mrs Lily Chorley who said that she and her husband “had always been supporters of all church movements in the district and would ever be so, so long as they lived there” [8].

In 1907, there were 20 communicant members at the quarterly communion service and 70 children on the Sunday School roll. The church was growing and by May 1909 it had 37 communicants (and 83 church attendees), further growing to 57 communicant members in 1915. In 1925 a new branch church was opened in Normanhurst [9] (it having a different session from 1930) and then 6 decades later, in 1982, a further church was formed by Beecroft at Cherrybrook.

Following the death of Brotchie, in 1908, a new Minister was called to the parish. He was Archibald MacFarlane Ogilvie who was born in Scotland and had migrated to Australia for health reasons. He had served in Bathurst and Manilla before coming to Beecroft. His origin in Scotland was therefore the same as Brotchie. The third Minister was an Irishman. Of subsequent Ministers one was born in South Africa and another in the United States. Indeed it was not until 1957 that the church had its first Australian born Minister.

Mr Ogilvie was active in the community and was a member of (amongst other groups) the Literary and Debating Society and President of the Music Club. He served in the Parish during two World Wars and so undertook the very sad duty of informing family members of the death of family members. He was very much a part of Village life.

Music was an important part of church life. An anthem was especially composed for the opening of the church in 1909. Mrs Chorley commenced as church organist and a musical Esther was performed by the choir in that same year. 

In contrast to the growth of the church in Beecroft this was not happening elsewhere in the parish, with the branch church in Thornleigh discontinuing its evening service in 1910 [10]. The growth of the congregation in Beecroft allowed it to increase the size of the stipend in 1911 as well as pay off the cost of the building and to purchase a new organ. A lamp was erected over the entrance gate [11]. In 1917 the building of a hall in Welham Street (now a pre-school) commenced with a view to accommodating the burgeoning youth work. This hall opened in 1918 and a second neighbouring hall was subsequently built to meet the needs of the church. In 1974 the current hall, on the church site, was built and named in memory of Robert Vicars – a great benefactor and active member of the church. Stained glass windows were also installed in the church in memory of Robert and Violet Vicars. The current hall was specifically designed with the intent that it be used for music concerts. As is noted elsewhere on this web site this did not eventuate to the extent that had been anticipated due to the opening of the Sydney Opera House. The hall was opened by the Governor, Sir Roden Cutler.

Originally the main service of the church was held in the evening and a regular morning service was not commenced until 1913.

It was also not until the 1940s that the church owned a manse – again a point of considerable controversy across any church’s history. The earlier Ministers leased or owned their own homes. In 1913 Rev Ogilvie purchased a house on the corner of Copeland Road and York Street. Between 1930 and 1933 he lived in ‘Roseville’ 163 Copeland Road East [12]. To enable the building of a church-owned manse, Mr Robert Vicars donated the land for the first manse (on the corner of Beecroft Road and Welham Street) in 1935 and the house was built in 1941. Subsequently this manse was sold and an existing house was purchased to further consolidate church buildings on the one enlarged site. The current manse was extensively renovated in 2019.

Life at the Presbyterian church for at least its first half century was dominated by local events: of Sunday School, ladies events, flower shows.

Youth work was a particular emphasis of Ogilvie and under his leadership camps, picnics and youth activities flourished. He established a preparatory school for the Presbyterian Ladies College in Beecroft – although the school later changed to become the Anglican school known as Arden [13] This was part of an initiative within the Church at the time to overcome a perceived ‘spiritual malaise’ and the decline in the involvement of youth in the Presbyterian Church post the First World War. With youth work a priority for Ogilvie, this led to his strong support for these initiatives. One of the ways the Church sought to do this was to establish Presbyterian schools. These schools were said to be “regarded as much-vaunted symbols of success in an otherwise lacklustre church.” Presbyterian schools were therefore established in Goulburn, Knox College at Wahroonga and under the strong advocacy of Ogilvie, as well, in Beecroft. At the school’s first prize giving in December 1922, the Prizes were presented (and an address delivered) by Dr Samuel Angus of St Andrews College, University of Sydney who was also a strong supporter of the work of the Church amongst students. Dr Angus returned to the school in 1925, when it was noted that Professor Angus had been ‘closely connected with the school at its commencement’ [14].

Angus’ advocacy for work with young people was followed by a ‘spiritual mission’ at St Andrews Presbyterian Church Hornsby, Easter 1922. Then in January 1923 Angas addressed a Student Christian Movement Conference held at The Kings School, Parramatta at which his ‘sparkling wit and epigram’ was much enjoyed by the university students present. The then Secretary of this group was Garfield Barwick [15]. At the last student conference, Angus talked of how Christianity was ‘bigger than the Bible’ and that they should not deify a book that was human-made with images of a deity often repugnant to true Christianity. Students should not be afraid to subject the Bible to the recognised methods of literary and historical criticism. [16].

Angus was invited back to preach in 1928 at Beecroft, and on that occasion “a girl in New South Wales had … in 1928 [said that] her ideal of life was tennis all day and dancing half the night. By chance she went to a church meeting at Beecroft, and the presenter happened to be Dr Angus. She said that, like a flash from God, she heard a message and she had been converted” [17].

The views being promoted by Angus led to considerable controversy within the Church at large and eventually in the 1930s a ‘heresy’ trial. Beecroft was therefore, even if only tangentially, involved in these initiatives and then turmoil, of the broader Church community.  

While the Church was hugely impacted by the First World War, and not just in a loss and a disenchantment of youth, the same impact cannot be seen following the Depression or the Second World War. The Church was continuing to grow and by 1948 the number of communicants had reached 128. Church organisations continued to grow especially with a well established and strong ladies group and its youth work. However despite growth in numbers (rising to 194 communicant members in 1958) the church was financially struggling in the mid-1950s.

By the late 1950s and into the 1960s numbers continued to further steadily grow even further. This can be linked with the work of the Billy Graham Crusades. In particular, these evangelistic outreaches meant that a Senior Bible Class for young adults was first formed in Beecroft.

From a ministry perspective, seeking to address the needs of new families entering the district as a result of the housing developments of the 1950s and 1960s was high on Session’s agenda. This effort to grow the church population based on a growing population in the suburb was repeated in the time of Rev Andrew Williamson from around 2015 when Beecroft was again entering its third housing boom with units and closer development for over 50 year olds burgeoning.

The loss of youth at the end of Sunday School was a significant issue in 1952 – as it was again in the 1990s. The growth of the Ladies Guild and then the PWA were areas of much strength and support. In the 1950s the Church, under the Rev Harold Durbin, first started looking outside of Beecroft to develop, in a significant way, new areas of activity, as it supported Meals on Wheels and the Marella Mission Farm at Kellyville.  Other activities like Christmas meals for those without a family to go to or even discussion groups that transformed into the Beecroft Forum are the heirs of this tradition. The communion roll reached its largest numbers, approaching 300, at this time.

In 1967 the Presbyterian Church in NSW formally allowed for women to be elders [18] and from the 1970s Beecroft ordained women such as June Astridge and Helen Charlton to this office.

So often the question of women being ordained has been linked in the latter half of the twentieth and into the twenty first centuries with so-called ‘liberalism’ within the Protestant Christianity.  What is understood by ‘liberalism’ can vary according to context but is often defined by how literally the Bible is to be understood. For most of the twentieth century Beecroft was considered to be a ‘liberal’ church. This characterisation is based on a broader perspective of how the Protestant churches in Sydney might be viewed. A recent discussion of how changes in Sydney church history over the last half century or so by church historian Dr M Hutchinson, has moved away from this use of the term ‘liberal’. Instead of talking about the different types of Protestantism using the traditional descriptions of either Bible based or liberal or descriptions of churches as “word centred or experiential in nature” he argues that it might be more helpful in understanding what happened in the churches to refer to the different perspectives of “alternating mobilisations of bonding and … bridging …forms of social capital” [19]. By this, I understand him to be concentrating on either primarily what helps the church members in their inter-relationships consolidate as a cohesive group or to build their cohesiveness though a common effort of building social capital.

In looking at these broad characterisations of Protestant Church life in Sydney generally, from the 1960s onwards one of the consistent and on-going strands to the debate has been the role of women in the church. There are differing views as to whether this debate on the role of women is an illustration of the differing perspectives identified by Dr Hutchison, or the perspectives of Bible (ie the paramountcy of particular verses) versus liberal (ie the Bible should be understood as providing a broader narrative) or instead whether this debate is unrelated to the broader question of characterisation of Protestant Church life. On this last view, in grappling with these times, one historian of this debate (N Mannix) supports the third position and argues that the debate on the role of women in the church at this time should not be viewed as central to other contemporaneous Church events, and instead she seeks to separate the critical debate in the NSW Presbyterian church in 1993 with charges against the Rev Dr Peter Cameron for questioning the infallibility of the Bible (in a talk which also addressed the issue of the role of women) from the concurrent debate on women. She argues that the so-called ‘heresy’ trial cannot be seen as connected, other than by time, with the debate on women but rather based only on inherency of the Bible [20].

By way of contrast, and looking especially at Beecroft and its then Minister, following the 1991 decision of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church to close the door for women to enter the Ministry, Rev James Mullan who was the then Minister at Beecroft said (in that same year) “the Bible only becomes the Word of God when its word are read and heard through the ears and eyes of faith” [21]. Later in 1993, Mullan was quoted as saying that the Presbyterian Church was “afflicted with fundamental literalism which was reducing the church to a sect” [22] and on another occasion that Presbyterians had a “calling to convert the political, economic and social life of the nation” [23]. At this point in time, Beecroft was (using the scheme of Hutchinson) clearly aligned with experiential or bridging mobilisations of the Protestant Church rather than the word centred or bonding. This stance of Mr Mullan was taken during his consideration of the question of whether women should be ordained, as well as other positions to be adopted by the Church, and so illustrates how the debate on women might be seen (as Cameron similarly said that it was) as part of a broader characterisation of what was driving Church life. The heresy trial centred on the inherency of Scripture but the church’s stance on women, and why Cameron made his comments about inherency, were part of a broader change in the position of the Presbyterian church.

It is therefore of no surprise that the comments of Mullan were reflected in a perspective of the broader Presbyterian church that Beecroft was more liberal, or more interested in social capital, than a number of the other Sydney Presbyterian churches. The position of Beecroft was however also changing and was starting to more closely align with the Presbyterian Church in NSW. Thus, in 1994, Beecroft had fallen into line with the broader Presbyterian Church when one of its elders (Harry Wallace) was accused of personal heresy when he spoke in favour of Cameron even though Session of the Beecroft church had previously written to Presbytery supporting Cameron [23].

What church life should look like was a critical issue that impacted on all Presbyterian churches (including Beecroft) at this time. This was because between 1972 and 1977 there were votes across Australia as to whether Presbyterian Churches would combine with other Protestant Churches to form a single new church or to remain a continuing Presbyterian Church. The then Minister in Beecroft, James Mullan, was staunchly opposed to the proposed union with the Methodist and Congregational Churches and instead even talked of leaving the door open to a possible link with the Anglican Church [24]. Mullan thought that theological conservatism exercised only a ‘minor influence’ in the decision of the NSW Church to stay outside of the union. He did however also remained concerned that the future of the Presbyterian Church outside of union would either be as ‘a latitudinarian, inclusive and socially-concerned church’ or ‘an authoritarian, exclusive and self-regarding sect’ [25]. The congregation at Beecroft had much discussion on these issues and in the end voted to continue as a Presbyterian Church. Amongst other impacts, this did effect the decision-making of the amalgamation of churches within the local area for the new Uniting Church – for which see the entry on this web site for the Uniting Church.

Concurrently with these debates Glenburn, a co-located development for the over 50s was also started in the late 1970s as an important and vital ministry of the church. Ms June Astridge took leave of absence as an elder to allow her time to concentrate on this development. The development of aged care as a critical role of a local church was also reflected in parishes in Gosford, West Wyalong and Chatswood [26]. For Beecroft this was seen as a practical demonstration of how a Christian church should operate.

During the time of ministers Durbin, Mullan and Levine there was a growth in discussion of public theology and social justice. This was demonstrated in individual church members personally funding a range of overseas works and the development of the Beecroft Forum, started by Harry Wallace (with some initial assistance by his fellow elder, John Piper) as a parish discussion group and then grown by Harry and Pat Wallace to be a significant forum for the debate of Christianity and public issues for up to 280 people meeting at Pennant Hills Golf Club to hear, and debate with, leading national and international speakers. Under Rev Paul Cooper, while links were strongly maintained in the form of people involved, any formal links between the Beecroft Presbyterian Church and this activity were severed [27].

As noted above, a branch church was planted at Cherrybrook and has subsequently grown into a parish in its own right. In 1984 the branch church of Cherrybrook had 51 communicants [29].

By the 1990s the local primary school had over 56 different nationalities enrolled. Session, chaired by Rev Paul Cooper, made significant changes in seeking to grow services, to be even more inclusive of all peoples whatever their country of origin and have activities that were family focussed. This became particularly evident in the 10.30 service which was more family oriented. ‘Prezzie Bees’ (for pre-school children and mothers) was formed by Mrs Megan Cooper (who had an extensive career in early childhood education especially with KU Children’s Services) and activities for primary school students in particular blossomed. The 10.30 service grew. Home groups were started and an evening service existed intermittently. The number of paid staff grew to its largest number in the history of the church. Cooper adhered strictly to a biblical approach to ministry that was word centred (while in extra parish activities played a critical role in Presbyterian Social Services and the development of the Presbyterian Theological College) and as such was a clear demarcation between the earlier ministries of Mullan and Levine, in particular.

There continued to be an undercurrent of while possibly not liberal theology but certainly anti-conservatism when one of the elders noted with strong opposition, that one couple removed the Union Jack from the Honour Roll for the duration of their wedding ceremony [30].

Amongst the groups growing within the church it is noted that while fellowship for young people and women (under various names and organisational structures) has been a strong feature of the church from its establishment, similarly structured groups for men have not had a similarly successful continuous history. While it is the case that eldership in the church and other areas of leadership have largely been the domain of men, a Men’s League was not established until the 1950s and did not survive for a long period. A new men’s ministry group was formed in 2016 and support for growth in men’s ministry has been one element of the work of Rev Paul Harris as he leads a new strategic vision for the church. Like Cooper and Williamson before him, Harris adheres to a word centred ministry while maintaining active roles in the broader church.


1901-1906       W H Drewett

1907-1908       J A R Brotchie

1908-1940       A M Ogilvie

1940-1956       S Watson

1956-1964       H G Durbin

1966-1973       H Perkins

1974-1987       J Mullan

1987-1997       D Robson

1998-2003       M J Levine

2004-2013       P F Cooper

2015-2018       A W Williamson

2019                P Harris

[1]        M Hutchison Iron in our Blood Ferguson Publications, Sydney, 2001) p8

[2]        Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate, 11 April 1903 p.8; 13 June 1903 page 10

[3]        Beecroft Cheltenham History Group Beecroft and Cheltenham: the shaping of a Sydney community to 1914 (privately published, Beecroft, 1995) p 228

[4]        Beecroft Cheltenham History Group Beecroft and Cheltenham: the shaping of a Sydney community to 1914 (privately published, Beecroft, 1995) p 230

[5]        For the departure of Rev Drewitt see Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate 30 June 1906 p. 10. For extensive biographical details on Rev Brotchie see: P F Cooper “The Goodlet and Smith Brotchie Memorial Stained Glass Windows” unpublished 2 June 2019

[6]        Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrower Advocate 9 March 1907

[7]        Evening News 15 February 1909 p8; T McCaskell One Great Hour (Beecroft, 2000) p14.

[8]        Beecroft Cheltenham History Group Beecroft and Cheltenham: the shaping of a Sydney community to 1914 (privately published, Beecroft, 1995) p 230. More information on the Chorley family is found elsewhere on this web site.

[9]        Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrower Advocate 30 October 1925 p3. Thornleigh separated from the parish of Beecroft in 1929: see P F Cooper “The Goodlet and Smith Brotchie Memorial Stained Glass Windows” unpublished 2 June 2019 footnote 1.

 [10]      Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrower Advocate 17 September 1910 p 8

[11]      Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrower Advocate 17 September 1910 p 8

[12]      Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate 20 September 1913 p 8; John Sands Ltd Directory 1930-1933 for Beecroft.

[13]      For the story of Arden see elsewhere on this web site.

[14]      Sydney Morning Herald, 18 December 1922, p. 11; 8 October 1925 p. 14

[15]      For more on the life of Barwick, see elsewhere on this website under People.

[16]      S E Emilsen A Whiff of Heresy: Samuel Angus and the Presbyterian Church in New South Wales (UNSW, Kensington, 1991) pp 128-30.

[17]      Sydney Morning Herald 20 September 1933, p14

[18]      N Mannix “Women’s Ministry” in P F Cooper and D A Burke (eds) Burning or Bushed: The Presbyterian Church of Australia 40 years on (Eider Books, Stanhope Gardens, 2017) p 155. Mannix was co-ordinator of women and children’s ministry at Beecroft between 2007 and 2011.

[19]      M P Hutchison “The Ghosts of old beliefs: social capital theory and evangelical history” (2019) 2 Lucas 14, 29 at p 42.

[20]      N Mannix “Women’s Ministry” in P F Cooper and D A Burke (eds) Burning or Bushed: The Presbyterian Church of Australia 40 years on (Eider Books, Stanhope Gardens, 2017) p 159-161

[21]      P Barnes “The Process of Church Union in Australia” in P F Cooper and D A Burke (eds) Burning or Bushed: The Presbyterian Church of Australia 40 years on (Eider Books, Stanhope Gardens, 2017) p 18

[22]      The Canberra Times 4 July 1993 p1

[23]      The Canberra Times 12 September 1979 p3

[24]      Minutes of the Session of Beecroft Presbyterian Church, 9 May 1994.

[25]      M Hutchison Iron in our Blood Ferguson Publications, Sydney, 2001) p360

[26]      quoted in P Barnes “The Process of Church Union in Australia” in P F Cooper and D A Burke (eds) Burning or Bushed: The Presbyterian Church of Australia 40 years on (Eider Books, Stanhope Gardens, 2017)  pp 17-18

[27]      P F Cooper “Presbyterian Social Services” in Paul F Cooper and D A Burke (eds) Burning or Bushed: The Presbyterian Church of Australia 40 years on (Eider Books, Stanhope Gardens, 2017) p 169

[28]      For more information on the Beecroft Forum see the separate article on it, elsewhere on this website.

[29]      Beecroft Presbyterian Communicant Roll 1972-1985

[30]      Minutes of Session of Beecroft Presbyterian Church, 13 November 2001.