Martha Turner Webster - Early Australian Unitarian Minister
Updated: Jun 6, 2022
Martha Turner the sister of Henry Gyles Turner was born in London in 1839 she was sent to Dijon in France for three years to improve her education and according to her brother developed high intellectual skills.
Martha was an adventurous woman travelling to Australia in 1870 to see her brother and liking the country decided to stay. At that time the Unitarian Church had no minister and Gyles Turner was part of a panel of lay preachers who took over the services while they searched for another minister. Gyles being a busy banker and lacking confidence in his abilities found writing and delivering sermons an onerous task. When Martha arrived he looked to her to assist him and soon Martha was writing his sermons and when need arose she also commenced to deliver the sermons she had written.
By 1873 it had become clear that the church was having difficulty finding a new minister and the congregation requested that Martha take on the role and be inducted as the full time minister. It appears from letters and comments she made to others that Martha did this with some reluctance, being concerned at how she as a woman she would be received by the women of the congregation. This is not a comment on those women but more a comment on the times. According to Dorothy Scott who wrote the “Halfway House to Infidelity” the history of the Melbourne Unitarian Church, women were unable to become members until 1860 when women were allowed membership but not permitted to become officers, the rules were changed 1871 to allow female officers but it says something of the times and attitudes that it took another 20 years until 1891 before a woman became an office bearer, so it was that in 1873 Martha Turner was appointed the minister answering to an all male committee, becoming the first woman minister of religion in Australia and possibly Britain. It says quite a lot about the free thinking more liberal members of the Melbourne Unitarian congregation that while being reasonably conservative living people, members of the establishment of their city, they were still progressive enough to break a huge barrier that existed for many years to come well into the next century for other protestant religions.
Along with having an adventurous spirit Martha clearly had a sense of the irony of her position as well as a strongly developed sense of humour, which is shown by her choice of reading during her inauguration service on November 23rd 1873 when she choose to read from 1st Corinthians chapter xiv in which occurs the verse “Let your women keep silence in the churches”.
The novelty of her induction as the first woman minister drew a large crowd including the press, who suggested that it was “somewhat unusual”.. Her induction was covered by all the Melbourne dailys, it was said that she was not a woman of fashion, one paper took the opportunity to take a swipe in general at Unitarians, the Argus which was at the time more supportive of liberal thought and therefore not as malicious as the other newspapers, reported as follows-:
The preacher was plainly attired in black, her manner is quiet, ladylike,
perfectly self-possessed and free from any demonstration of any kind...
... there is no obtrusive womanhood about her to urge the idea of sex and
its special characteristics on your attention.
Not one paper commented on the substance of her sermon. It seems that when it comes to women leaders in Australia somethings don’t change.
Catherine Spence commented on Martha Turner
She was the first woman I ever heard in the pulpit. I was thrilled by her
exquisite voice, by her earnestness and her reverence. I felt as I had
never felt before that if women are excluded from the Christian pulpit you shut out
more than HALF THE DEVOUTNESS THAT IS IN THE WORLD...I felt how
much the world had been losing for so many centuries.
Martha Turner and Catherine Spence were close friends writing to each other regularly, and visiting each other Martha travelled at least twice to Adelaide to visit Catherine Spence who also commented the Martha was a great support and example to her.
Visiting Unitarians from Britain, Florence and Rosamund Hill were also impressed by her.
Martha performed marriages and consecration of children.
Martha continued as Minister till 1878 when at the age of 39 she married a friend and colleague of her brothers John Webster, at the Melbourne registry office. From his diary Gyles Turner appears to be surprised by the marriage and somewhat put out. He immediately asked her to resign her post as he considered it unseemly that as a married woman she continue in that role, including receiving the ministerial stipend. Martha agreed. However the congregation would not accept her resignation and asked her to continue which she did until 1883. Yet another barrier broken by those free thinking Unitarians.
It is good to remember what this era was like for women who still did not have the right to vote and it had only been in 1871 that women in Britain had been granted the right to possess property and to keep their earnings. Throughout these years the church including her brother had from time to time continued to look for a male minister. I wonder how that made her feel.
In 1883 Martha finally resigned she and her husband then undertook a lengthy trip back to England and Scotland where Martha was asked to preach at many Unitarian Churches her good reputation having preceded her.
In another part of her story Martha and John Webster returned to Australia and took up a selection of 60 uncleared acres in the thick forests of the Strezlecki ranges in Gippsland near the hamlet of Budgeree over the hills and a winding unmade road from Boolara where the rail line petered out. Who knows what this intellectual woman and her banker husband were thinking when they did this. The venture failed and in the financial crash of the 1890s they lost most of their property. Their cottage was a kit home brought all the way from Britain, which still stands and is inhabited to this day
Craving intellectual stimulation of the church and Melbourne Martha would often make the day long exhausting journey to Melbourne. Quite a trip, by gig over an unmade twisting precarious road to Boolara A risky trip in Winter. and then slow train to Morwell and then a further slow train to Melbourne.
Her later years found her deeply involved in the movement for women’s suffrage. She attended the inaugural meeting of the Victorian Women’s Suffrage Society in Melbourne and spoke at many meetings on this and other issues, including a number throughout Gippsland. She also continued to give sermons at the the Melbourne Unitarian Church. Martha died at her brothers in St Kilda after a period of ill health in 1915, at the age of 77.
We have a very poor photo of Martha. Would she have considered herself a heretic, maybe not, certainly she was not a heretic within her own chosen Unitarian religion, but within society Martha Turner is a heretic in that she did not conform with the views of her time, in her choice of religion, which was different to that she was raised in, as a woman in her use of her prodigious intellectual abilities, in her pursuit of rights for women, in her determination to be adventurous and her acceptance of great change, and her free liberal thinking.
She was truly a remarkable woman and deserves the recognition of this church and the wider community.
I would like to thank historian Anne Morgan and her husband Patrick of Boolara for their assistance when researching Martha Turner Webster
Compiled by Margaret Williamson
Links - https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/turner-martha-4762