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Christian origin of Australian financial institutions

By Michael Jensen - posted Tuesday, 12 June 2018

With the Banking Royal Commission bringing out fresh revelations of misdoings by the day, and with the laying of criminal charges yesterday against several senior banking executives in ANZ, Citigroup, and Deutsche Bank, the standing of our financial institutions has never been lower.

There's been evidence of woeful conduct, including allegations of bribery, selling insurance to those who can't afford it, charging fees to clients who are actually dead, and outright lying to regulators.

And this not was from no-name smaller banks operating out of a car boot.


This was the biggest and most trusted names in the pantheon of Australian banking: AMP, and the Commonwealth.

That's what we know so far.

In an era when our big corporations are more and more anxiously branding themselves as supporters of socially progressive causes, the reality is that they are hollow inside.

So you'd be shocked to discover that Australia's great financial institutions were founded by Christians who had a vision of their work as serving the greater good.

In 1877, when the AMP building's foundation stone was laid, the chairman John Smith spoke directly about the religious purpose of the AMP. He said to the assembled throng:

"… our institution is pre-eminently religious and benevolent. Are we not told on the best authority that a necessary characteristic of true religion is to visit the fatherless and the widow in the affliction? And does not this society signally fulfil that indication?"


Smith was quoting directly from the New Testament. He went on

"This society then enables a man to perform essential religious duties, and if not religious itself, it is the medium or instrument of religion in its members."

The AMP wasn't just supporting a popular cause. It was an instrument of social good. It could help you do your duty to look after those who need it most. You might go to church to hear the message of kindness and generosity to those in need, but you could find in the AMP the means to practice that faith.

Two of the founders of AMP, back in the 1850s, were notable Christians who had become prominent in other businesses in Sydney town: John Fairfax and David Jones, both members of the Congregational Church in Pitt Street (now Pitt Street Uniting).

Westpac, until the 1980s the Bank of NSW, was began in 1817 by a group of Christians led by Edward Smith Hall. Hall also founded the Bible Society and the Benevolent Society. He was a protégé of William Wilberforce, the great British anti-slavery campaigner, and was noted as an (often controversial) advocate for liberal values in the colony.

This father of Australian banking was committed to the equality of all human beings as made in the image of God, and also an understanding that we are deeply flawed. The bank was to be a bulwark against exploitation and corruption, for the common good.

What has been lost?

We've lost the notion that what social institutions need to accumulate is not capital, but trust. Trust is no longer a prized asset, to be guarded and nurtured. It is instead an opportunity to dupe consumers.

Our financial institutions have lost their original vision of service, which was inspired by the Christianity of their founders. Without a sense of duty to a higher being, these once-great vessels of probity and assurance have now become highly-mechanised and unscrupulous profit-engines.

The personal faith of our pioneers in financial services shaped a whole industry to the service of the nation and its people. Many of us scoff at the personal faith today. But given what we've just discovered about the current state of banking, maybe that faith wasn't such a bad thing after all.

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About the Author

Michael Jensen is the rector of St Mark's Anglican Church at Darling Point. He has a doctorate in Moral Theology from Oxford University.

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