Courier-Mail - Brisbane - Saturday, August 29, 1936

At Rochedale, 12 miles or so out of Brisbane, and just out of sight of the Pacific Highway, is the chief gathering place of a little band of preachers and 'saints,' who strongly repudiate every name but that of Christian, though their teachings have won for them the soubriquet of 'Go-preachers.'

They go out two by two to preach, leaving home and relatives, and giving all their property to needy preachers and the poor. They discourage the reading of all other books, than the Bible, and will not put their doctrines into print. Theirs, they declare, is the only highroad to God.

They claim that the word of God comes to man only through their preachers and, in support of their dogma, quote the text: “How shall they hear without a preacher?"

Others call them the Cooneyites, but they indignantly deny the name, and declare that an Irishman named Cooney, who was one of their foremost preachers 30 odd years ago, now has nothing whatever to do with them. The true “preachers'' hold no communication with him.

These people have no church buildings, but meet for worship in the homes of the ‘saints,’ their lay members. Their wandering preachers, about 12 of whom are at work in each of the Australian States and New Zealand, hold missions in tents and hired halls. Usually two men or two women go out together, one an experienced missioner and other a young trainee. Sometimes a man and his wife go together. Because of the difficulties of a life of itinerant preaching, however, the preachers rarely marry. The head of each house in which the 'saints' meet for family worship, in which several surrounding households join, is called a bishop, overseer, or elder.

Rochedale is the main centre of their work in Queensland. There they have buildings which form the nucleus of a big annual camp convention. I went as a stranger to the family worship in the home of a Rochedale bishop.

The old farm house, built on high stumps, hid its bare poles with crimson skirts of bougainvillea. As I walked up the track from the gate, I heard in the distance singing, and over the paddocks, a magpie fluted gloriously. Bird song and hymn and still sunny morning called to worship. The hymn stopped before I came near the house. I went in through a gate that made a gap in the bank of crimson and heard a voice in the deep tones of prayer.

Creepers hid the battening around the house stumps. A battened door stood open. A congregation of about 20 knelt on matting strips beside the long low stools to be found in most old farm homes. I stood near the door, waiting for the prayer to end. When the young man who was praying had finished, a young woman near him followed, and then a boy and an old woman.

The prayers were glad thanks to God for His great goodness to men, for His gifts of sunny mornings and hearts happy in His service, and before all other gifts for Jesus Christ, who showed men God and the love of God. They asked of Him grace, strength, and guidance, that they might follow Him worthily. They sought His blessing on themselves and on their preachers, that all men might learn of His simple way, and be won to walk in it. There were prayers or consecration, prayers of devotion and adoration, and humble petitions for mercy and forgiveness. Almost everyone in the little meeting offered a prayer, some only a sentence or two.

While I stood outside, undecided whether to wait or to go away, the head of the house, who was bishop or elder of the church meeting there, came out to me. When I told him I was a stranger wishing to attend worship of his church, he said I was welcome.

A Setting of Nature

He was an hospitable, genial old farmer, with a friendly, smile and hand shake. He took me in among the kneeling people, left me at a gap in the family circle, and went back to his place beside a little table on which were bread and unfermented wine.

When the prayers were ended, and we got up from our knees, I was able to look around me. The stumps of the house were the pillars of this holy place; the altar was the simple table with its plate of bread and glass of wine. The door was open to the sunny farm outside red soil, plots of pineapples, and rows of symmetrical orange trees, a cultivation paddock with the heat haze trembling over it, and the bush, behind, like mirage.

“Will someone suggest a hymn?” the bishop asked. A young woman gave a number, and the congregation, sitting, sang:

I listen to the Master's word,
And all my waking heart is stirred.
'Midst sin and strife I hear Him say:
'I will return; keep watch and pray.'

Though most despise God's lowly way,
Reject His love, and go astray,
Within my heart, one purpose burns:
To stand approved when He returns.

His love can full satisfy,
And needed grace He will supply
To keep me in the heavenly race
Until I see Him face to face;

His Way is best; I follow on,
Just where His bleeding feet have gone,
My one desire to worthy be
And fill the place prepared for me.

Members of the circle one by one, now an old man, now a girl, now a youth, gave short devotional talks, most of them only two or three minutes long, some even less. In their own figure of speech, each placed on the family table a loaf, a thought from the week's meditation and experience of the Christian way, that all might share the spiritual food God had provided.

Most of the messages were of quiet devotion. There were gaps of silence, in one of which a magpie came up to the door and peered in, his inquisitive head on one side. House swallows came in and out, circling over the heads of the worshippers as if they had not been there. Neither speaking nor singing disturbed them.

Simple Communion

When a longer silence showed that no one else wished to speak, the bishop took a piece of bread, and reminded the family of One who in a house in Jerusalem 2000 years ago took bread and brake it, and gave it to His disciples, saying, “This is My body which is given to you; this do in remembrance of Me.”

The bread was passed from hand to hand around the circle; and each ate a fragment and bowed in prayer. So, too, the wine was passed around, and all drank of it. I have not seen anywhere more simple or more reverent Communion than I saw in the family gathering beneath the farm house that sunny Sunday morning. A hymn of consecration was sung at the end, and the bishop's benediction sent the people out into the glorious day.

When later I took a photographer to get pictures of the 'family' church, I had to content myself with pictures of the farm house in which the church had met. The bishop and his flock were doubtful whether even these might be used without the authority of the preachers, an authority the preachers readily gave, though they refused to be photographed themselves.

Preacher at Work

The kindly bishop of Rochedale made me curious to hear the preachers of his faith, whom he and the flock esteemed so highly. Only through hearing them expound the Word of God, he told me, could mankind attain salvation. When I asked him what were the distinctive teachings of his Church, he referred me to the preachers for fuller explanation.

So that night I went to a 'gospel meeting' in the preachers tent at Wooloowin. Several cars were standing in the street outside. In the tent, which was about 25 feet in diameter, was the beginning of the congregation, a score or so of people, old and young, who increased to about 50, comfortably filling nearly all the seats, before the service started. A smoking kerosene heater near the centre pole took the chill out of the air. A fizzing petrol lantern hanging on a rope across the tent lit the place with white glare.

A venerable preacher with a close clipped pointed white beard, a Bible under one arm, and a hymn book in one hand, came through the tent entrance and went to a front seat facing the congregation. Despite 30 years of itinerant preaching, he still looked, and when he spoke, sounded, the school master he used to be.

“Well, I feel sure you will enjoy the meeting a lot better by helping it,” he said, “The way you can help is by joining in the hymns heartily.” He announced the first hymn in a voice that had a strong Irish flavour, despite almost pedantically careful English enunciation.

Stones on the Roof

A second hymn was sung, a young man, having announced, “We will just wait upon God in a little time of prayer,” prayed for Divine blessing on “Thy preachers, who have given up all.”

Another hymn was sung to the tune of 'Juanita.' The old preacher then said, “Young brother will speak to us, and after that a brother in the meeting who wants to sing will sing.” The young brother preached on a passage from the Book of Isaiah.

For punctuation, stones fell on the tent roof, and the preacher went out to investigate. As he put his head out the door there was a scatter, and the sound of boys' running feet. It was soon over, and the volunteer singer sang in a pleasant tenor:

Your life is one short season here:
Be careful what you sow.
Sow wheat, and you will reap the same;
Sow tares, and they will grow.

God’s harvest time will surely come,
With sheaves for you and me.
O, ask yourself the question friend,
'What shall the reaping be?'

Your days, though blooming like the rose,
Will reach the yellow leaf,
And seeds you sow, you'll one day reap
In sheaves of joy or grief.

In his sermon, on spiritual influence, the preacher said those called to be preachers of the way must not let any earthly ties hinder them, to the destruction of their souls; nor should any one shrink from entering God's way because of fear that someone near and dear might be called to leave home on service as a preacher.

Scorn of Buildings

In this way he preached the renunciation, which is the central feature of the 'Go-preachers' way of life. 'Give God what He asks of you and He will see that you have all that is necessary for you.' From among those who are converted in their missions and from the families of the saints, the preachers select promising young volunteers, men and women, to send out preaching. They must leave their homes and families, and give up everything they possess. They must apply literally Christ's words to the rich young ruler: 'Sell all thou hast, and give to the poor,' and go out penniless and homeless.

Although in principle the new preacher is free to distribute his goods to the poor as he pleases, in practice he usually gives it to the poor preacher who has been the means of his conversion. The preacher passes on to other needy preachers what he himself does not need, and, with the balance, helps needy lay members.

Voluntary contributions from the lay members are also left in the hands of the preachers to carry on the work.

The preachers had to account to no one but God for the administration of these funds, I was informed. They held the money in trust, and passed it on to others in need, often sending money across the world to poor preachers in other countries.

The rest of the world, including the other churches, was in such deadly peril of damnation, the preacher declared in his sermon, that the preachers sometimes were rough in their methods, like the two preachers who dragged Lot and his family from doomed Sodom.

The early Quakers' contempt for 'steeple houses' was nothing to this people's scorn of church buildings for the worship of God. They will preach the Gospel anywhere, in tent or hall, or under gum trees; but, for their private meetings for Communion, 'the breaking of bread,' nothing but the home of a 'saint' of their way will serve. They interpret, literally 'The Most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands,' from Stephen's defence before the Sanhedrin.

The gospel meeting ended, almost two hours from its commencement, with a hymn and a prayer by the old preacher. He prayed simply and fervently for blessing on God's glorious family, and for grace and strength for the preachers, that they might be a meditative, thoughtful, and consecrated people to lead the family in His way.

Despite their exclusive dogma, I liked the zeal of these nameless people, their simple family worship, and their unbounded confidence.