The history of Baptist work in Hobart goes back a long way. On 14 June 1835 in a small dwelling in Elizabeth Street in Hobart Town, the first Baptist church in the Australian colonies was formed. A chapel on Harrington Street opened a few years later, on Sunday, 21 March 1841. The church was both a Strict and Particular (Calvinist) Baptist church where the Lord’s Table was closed to those who had not been baptised as believers. In time the work petered out. A number of the congregation came part of the new “open” church on Elizabeth Street, the Hobart Baptist Tabernacle, the Hobart Baptist Church of today. Some who transferred to the ‘Tab” became key leaders in the church for many years. The chapel building was used from time to time by the “Tab” as it was now theirs to use and it was eventually sold with the money used to construct a new church in Moonah
In the late 1860s the religious devotion and commitment of Perth graziers, William Gibson Senior and his wife Mary Ann, to the London Baptist preacher, the Rev. Charles Spurgeon, became the catalyst for the resurgence of Baptist belief and life in Tasmania. They became the prime financial benefactors to a Baptist new beginning in Tasmania, including the work in Hobart. Their staggering wealth gained from their highly sought after world famous Scone Merino stock paid for the passages of the Baptist pastors from Spurgeon’s College who had accepted the offer to minister in the colony.
In 1869 the first Spurgeon man arrived. A decade later the man who would be Hobart Baptist Church’s pioneer pastor, Irish born preacher, the Rev. Robert McCullough, arrived, and after a number of years in Longford, he commenced in Hobart, in 1883, supported by the Gibson’s financial commitment. His preaching was a clear, straight-forward atonement theology. By now the Gibsons had built tabernacles at Deloraine and Longford with others to follow at Launceston, Sheffield, Promised Land, Latrobe and Devonport. In Hobart, to begin with, both the Gibsons and their son gave £450 ($180,000 today) towards a schoolroom after they had purchased the land in Elizabeth Street for £950 ($400,000). The schoolroom was completed in 1885 and stands behind and adjoining the stately tabernacle.
For Gibson Senior, once the schoolroom was completed, it was now time to erect of a large church in the capital. Plans of the Stockport Baptist Church, Manchester, England, were obtained and submitted to architect George Fagg to ascertain if they could be adapted to the site. It was one the newer class of Baptist Church building in England and Gibson’s approval of the plans included a cheque for £1000 ($400,000). The letter accompanying the cheque read in part, “The money would not build a palace, but it would build something better than a barn!” His son also forwarded his cheque for £1000 ($400,000). This was in keeping an earlier promise by William Junior to match pound for pound the giving of his father. In all, the Gibsons gave £3,500 ($1,400,000) towards the work in Hobart.
The contract to erect the edifice was awarded to the contractors, Stabb Brothers. The foundation stone was laid on 5 October 1887, in the presence of about 300 people. A bottle was placed underneath the stone containing a copy of the “Day Star”, “The Mercury” and “Tasmanian News”, and a parchment scroll. The Tabernacle was opened for worship on 20 January 1889 with Rev. McCullough still the pastor of the church. McCullough was followed by the Rev. Morrison Cumming from Bury St. Edmunds in England but he remained only six months. He was followed by Scotsman, the Rev. James Blaikie. The church had now grown to a membership of 167. The finances were in a sound and healthy condition, the Sunday school was well attended and the Christian Endeavour Society had a membership of 100. The church’s third branch church was at Constitution Hill.
Rev. F.W. Boreham was the next Pastor in 1906 and he was one of the most outstanding preachers the church has ever seen. He put the church on the map as it were, not only in Tasmania but in Australia. Although he came to a church with deep divisions, his preaching captivated the congregation and the church saw itself in a new light. It was the wording and the creativity of his messages, rather than his theology, that made the difference. During his time the membership nearly doubled, from 180 to 320. He had been plucked from relative obscurity in a small town in New Zealand. He made Hobart Baptist church and Hobart Baptist church made him!
After a decade the Rev. E. Herbert Hobday was inducted into the pastorate and he sought to inspire members and adherents to strive to bring all society, as well as the individual, into conformity with the teachings of Jesus. The Rev. Donavan F. Mitchell, B.A., was welcomed in 1923. He was the first non-Spurgeon College man and his ministry lasted only four years. He was followed in 1930, by the Rev. Harold Hackworthy, who was the church’s first Australian-born pastor. His work among the young men of the church was particularly successful. In 1941 Australia was at war and the Rev. Edward Roberts Thomson was in his first year at the church. With preaching being his primary gift, again the church heard powerful and thoroughly evangelical addresses. Roberts Thomson was also strongly ecumenical and long discussions took place with the Church of Christ in Hobart with the idea of forming a single church, but this did not eventuate.
By the 1950s the church was in a more prosperous stage of its life and gradually the dreams of improving and beautifying the buildings came to fruition. These included the sound-proofing of the entrance, the re-arranging the layout of the seating and aisles, and carpeting of aisles. In 1960, the pipe organ was replaced with some of the original pipes reconditioned and included to make a total of 1,728 pipes. Built at a cost of approximately £15,000 (including new choir seating and certain necessary structural alterations), it was formally dedicated to the glory of God on Sunday 13 November 1960.
In 1951, the church was near the peak of its influence in Hobart. It again had a dynamic Pastor in its midst, this time in the Rev Merlyn Holly, BA, son of a coal miner from Wales, U.K. Holly as a child had experienced first-hand the social unrest in his home country. Australia too was seeing the continued change in its social values. While the first couple of years at Hobart were disappointing to Holly, the church remembers him as the one who left a record unequalled in the history of the church. He was followed by the Rev. Ron Rogers in 1963 and he left in early 1965 to become Principal of Morling College, Sydney. The church continues today.