The Church of Christ, Illawarra Road: why it’s important

The Church of Christ is an important part of the history and heritage of Marrickville and the Inner West. It is important for its rarity, intactness, landmark qualities in the streetscape and its community links through the local and regional area.

While many in Marrickville express no religious affiliation (39% in 2016 Census) (Update: 48.6% in 2021 census), Christianity has played a major role in our area’s development. Just as today, where Marrickville has a reputation for dissent, it has a history of dissent in its Christianity.

Marrickville’s first street was Chapel Street, named after the Primitive Methodist Chapel (demolished) built there. Primitive Methodists, an offshoot of the Wesleyan Methodists, sought a renewed spirit within Christianity away from the more institutional style of the established churches. The ‘primitive’ referred to simple or original practices in Christianity. The church came from, and was directed towards, the working class and in England, at least, was instrumental in the development of trade unions and the labour movement. 

The Church of Christ was born at about the same time with similar ideas but drew most of its members from the self-employed, shopkeepers and middle class. 

In the early 19th century, an international movement called the ‘Restoration’ was underway with leaders such as Barton Stone (USA) and Thomas and Alexander Campbell (Britain). They rejected received doctrine and the various Christian denominations. They wanted a return to the early church where everyone was a Christian (not a Roman Catholic, a protestant, or Eastern Orthodox and so on). They used the New Testament as their primary guide and inspiration and believed that each congregation was its own authority. They also believed in total immersion baptisms by consent, that is, when people were capable of recognising their sin and addressing it. With these beliefs they were the forerunners for many of the Christian churches we see today. 

I offer the above summation with due respect to the churches and their members, to give others some idea of the beliefs of the people I am talking about in this article.

An early congregation arising from these ideas met in the back of Albert Griffin’s grocery shop in Sydney town in 1852. But when Mr Griffin set off for the goldfields in 1856, most of the congregation began meeting in the house of Joseph Kingsbury Snr at 26 Francis Street, Newtown. Kingsbury had been baptised into the church through immersion in Cook’s River in 1853 and came to be recognised as the “grand old man” of all the Australian Churches of Christ.

Joseph Kingsbury Snr in old age. From ‘Jubilee Pictorial History of the Churches of Christ in Australasia’, A.B. Maston 1903.
Eliza Davies from frontispiece of ‘The Story of an Earnest Life’.
Eliza had a remarkable life.

We know a little about the group that gathered at his house from a book written by Eliza Davies (a Church of Christ member or Disciple of Christ) who visited them.

“I found my way out there [Newtown] one Lord’s Day, and at the house of Mr. K [ingsbury] I found ten or twelve persons… I introduced myself to them by showing Mr. Campbell’s letter [an introduction from Alexander Campbell] …They were delighted to ask and be answered about a man whom they had heard of, but of whom they knew nothing. They called themselves “Campbellites” [considered derogatory or even a form of blasphemy by Eliza] and gloried in the name. They called themselves “Primitive Christians” also, and they were primitive enough; they were forty years behind the times. They …had those who did not believe in paying a preacher, nor in building a house to worship in, nor in having family worship. After supper, they exhorted one another, and exhorted others to believe their theories. They made no converts from the world. They agreed to disagree on many points, but they were one in abusing the sects, and drawing down upon themselves the contumely [insolent/insulting language and/or treatment] of the whole community, not undeservedly …. 

(From The Story of an Earnest life: A Woman’s Adventures in Australia and in Two Voyages Around the World, Central Book Concern, Cincinnati, 1881.)

It should be noted that Eliza has a reputation for bluntness and exaggeration from this book, if not a little snobbishness.

Notwithstanding the community’s “contumely”, those in the group who did believe in building a house to worship in built a church for 300 on King Street, Newtown in 1867, subsequently demolished. Then “through the labors and personal influence of Bro. Kingsbury” a large beautiful building named the Enmore Tabernacle in Metropolitan Road, Enmore was built in 1886. This was unusual as generally the churches were deliberately plain.

The Tabernacle and it’s congregation effectively  became the centre for the movement in NSW. In fact, American church member,  John T. Brown, writing of the church in Australia in 1904 stated that the Enmore Church was “one of the most efficient and powerful churches among us in the Southern Hemisphere”. 

Church of Christ Tabernacle, Metropolitan Road, Enmore.
Now occupied by the Enmore Fijian Seventh-Day Adventist Church.
Photo: Taken 2018. From www.churchesaustralia.org

Joseph Kingsbury Snr was not only significant within the church, he was also a significant figure in our area. An Englishman who had arrived in NSW in 1838, he was both a vet and a doctor. He set up practice (of both) in Newtown and lived there the rest of his life. As Enmore was on the border of Newtown and Marrickville he was able to serve on both councils. He was Mayor of Newtown from 1864 to 1870. 

Joseph’s son John was a draper and can lay claim to being the progenitor of two retailing empires. A young Marcus Clark, member of the church and later a benefactor, began his retail life working for John in his shop on today’s Broadway. While there he bought (in instalments) the drapers shop of Kingsbury’s other son, Joseph junior, which was in King Street, Newtown. From there Clark went on to create the company for which he is famous. His retail emporium at 827-837 George Street (now occupied by Ultimo TAFE) is NSW heritage listed. 

When John decided to sell his drapery shop he sold everything – lock, stock and barrel – to  Joseph and Albert Grace, the Grace Brothers. In a short time the brothers bought adjoining properties and built the large building we know today as the Broadway shopping centre.  This building is also considered a landmark building in Sydney.

Many of the Enmore congregation moved out of the city to rural areas and established new congregations. Two of these ‘rural’ areas were Petersham and Marrickville, but they developed because people did not want to travel into the city or Enmore to attend church. 

The Petersham ‘Tabernacle’ after 1915.
Inner West Council Library History Services
The Tabernacle is unrecognisable today.
Google Maps, November 2019

In 1884, church members began holding meetings in the Petersham Town Hall and through evangelism built up a congregation. They were so successful that tenders were invited for the building of a church in 1885. This church needed to be enlarged in 1915. At the beginning of the 20th century the Churches of Christ went through a boom period with congregations growing rapidly. According to the Church’s website total membership grew from 24,000 in 1901 to 54,500 in 1921.

However, the Petersham congregation slowly diminished and today the church building has been sold and altered beyond all recognition. 

Church members who lived in Marrickville began meeting in the home of John Hunter in View Street, rather than going to Enmore. They pooled their money and received help from Enmore to establish a church of their own. After four years they were able to buy land on Illawarra Road and build their church. The small wooden building, which was described as a “schoolroom”, was opened on 21 January 1894. Over the next few years they added to the “schoolroom” so that it could seat 150 people. Although the congregation was never large and they relied on Enmore for moral, practical and financial support, they were able to erect a larger building in 1912. This is the building we know today.

From Jubilee History of the Churches of Christ in Australasia, A.B. Maston 1903.
The woman missed out (second from right) may be Mrs Samuel Denford from the Petersham Church. Doubly ignored, her name is not given in the Jubilee History.

The church was designed in what is known as the Arts and Crafts style. People may see it as ordinary in appearance but we must remember that this was the preference of the congregation who did not seek ostentation. Its plain appearance tells us something of the people who built it and worshipped there. The architect was Alfred Gambier Newman, a well-known church architect, and a number of his buildings are on local heritage registers in other council areas. 

Internally, it has a beautiful wooden truss roof and a full immersion baptismal pool. The pool was built in 1940 when the building underwent renovations and replaced an earlier one. Many of its internal features were donated and bear the names of church members who had sustained the congregation for many years.

Open wooden truss roofing. The bracing under the trusses forms a half oval.
The diamond shaped metal features are for ventilation.
Photo: Hector Abrahams Architects, 389 Illawarra Road, Marrickville,
Heritage Assessment Version 1.3, 18 May 2020

But it is not just the architecture and the building type – or the great and the good people connected with it – that are important. It is the church’s place in the development of Marrickville and our landscape.

As was noted in the last heritage report on the site, 389 Marrickville Road is the last Church of Christ on a main road in our area. As Marrickville marched down Illawarra Road from its foundation in Chapel Street, it destroyed the churches that lined the road.

105 Illawarra Road, corner of King St – Wesleyan Methodist Church, 1884 (demolished)

Wesleyan Methodist Church c1900
Same site and angle today.
Google Maps, July 2019

295 Illawarra Road, corner of Calvert St – Presbyterian Church, ‘ St Andrews’, 1893 (demolished)

Image: Marrickville Presbyterian Church Golden Jubilee 1888-1938, Page 3
Same site and angle today.
Google Maps, July 2019
“Take [the road to] paradise and put up a parking lot [and toilet].” – Joni Mitchell

346 Illawarra Road, corner with Warburton St – The Warren Methodist Church, 1907 (demolished)

The Warren Methodist Church.
Image: Inner West Council Library History Services.
The same site and similar angle today.
Google Maps, July 2019

389 Illawarra Road, facing Greenbank St – Church of Christ, 1912 (To be demolished) (Update: The church building and the house beside it were demolished in the last weeks of November and the first weeks of December 2021).

Photo: Facebook

388 Illawarra Road, corner of Warren Rd – Congregational “Roseby” Church, 1871 (Safe at present) 

Roseby Memorial Uniting Church
Image: Australian Christian Church Histories

The Church of Christ sits with a group of houses and shops as it has done for 100 years. Almost the last in a line of religious buildings that span 165 years. It stands as a testament to the growth of Marrickville physically, socially and in its spiritual and cultural beliefs. But for how much longer?

Rod Aanensen, September 2020

5 thoughts on “The Church of Christ, Illawarra Road: why it’s important”

  1. Great article. Very sad to see these lovely buildings disappearing. I grew up in Marrickville and walked past the church that replaced the Warren Methodist Church, the Church of Christ and the Congregational Church on the way to school.


  2. Thank you Rod for this history. My father was the Minister of the Church of Christ, at 389 Illawarra Rd, between 1961 and 1968. I was the youngest (born 1957) of six children. We lived in the Church manse at 32 Grove St which is the street at the first corner to the right of that photo.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. A good article. Thank you.

    As the former pastor of the now closed Baptist Church, meeting cnr Calvert and Silver Streets, I had a long standing and friendly relationship with the final three or so pastors of the Church of Christ, and have been sad not only to see it go, but to think of the lack of vision on the part of denominational leaders in Wesleyan. Presbyterian, Baptist, Churches of Christ and other fellowships which has allowed these losses to occur.

    I read recently that, if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly. All the churches have struggled and none has reached its full potential, but all have had a positive role in the community, and those functions are now lost.


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