Ian Hughes, New South Wales Regional MeetingJames Backhous (1794-1869), Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The James Backhouse Lectures were instituted by the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Australia on the day it was established, January 1, 1964. They have been delivered during Australia Yearly Meeting in January each year, with a few exceptions to this pattern. The lectures delivered at Yearly Meeting have often not been readings of the published text, but this review deals only with published lectures (see note below). Most lectures (60%) have been delivered by Australian Quakers, and the lecturers from other parts of the world were selected and invited by Australian Quakers. This series of 47 James Backhouse Lectures may reflect some patterns in Australian Quaker thinking.

I read through the 47 lectures and noticed that some lecturers wrote about their individual spiritual experience, and others took a collective focus, or discussed the Society as an organisation. While reading the 1994 lecture, Di Bretherton’s phrase ‘action motivated by spirit’ leapt out to me as a theme, not only of her own lecture, but in the series as a whole. As I read the other lectures, I realised that while most lectures referred to both ethical action and spiritual reflection, each lecture had a main theme which was one or the other.

The main themes I identified were:

1. Spiritual reflection with a collective or organised, collective focus (14 lectures): This includes reflection on contemporary science, in which the traditional scientific principle of objective third-person verifiability is expanded to include inquiry into subjective experience. This includes inquiry into spirituality and related topics. I understand this category to refer to forms of living experimentally. Lecture topics I identified with this category are:

  • Reflection on The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) as an organisation, 5 lectures (1980, 1982, 1985, 1993, 2010);
  • Reflection on comparative religion, 3 lectures (1974, 1997, 1998)
  • Reflection on science, including science and religion, 2 lectures (1966, 2008);
  • Reflection on evolution, 2 lectures (1964, 1987).
  • And one lecture each with the main themes of reflection on literature (1999) and reflection on collective worship (2009).

2. Spiritual reflection with an individual focus (9 lectures): This includes lectures with a main focus on the inner experience and spiritual life of Friends. In my understanding this category relates to individual experience of the light within.

  • Individual reflection on witness, by which I mean testimony or ministry about individual spiritual experience, 6 lectures (1971, 1972, 1973, 1978, 1981, 2004);
  • And one lecture each on individual reflection on the spirit (1965), on being present (1967) and on education (1968).

3. Action on social issues with an individual focus (23 lectures): by which I mean lectures which have as a main theme economic, political, and cultural or other action which individual Quakers could take to address significant social, ecological or other problems.

  • Action about race relations, including racism and Australian Indigenous affairs, 5 lectures (1969, 1991, 2000, 2001, 2006);
  • Action for peace at a national or international level, 4 lectures (1984, 1986, 1996, 2005);
  • Action about post-colonial issues, not including race relations, 2 lectures (1976, 1977);
  • Action about earthcare, 2 lectures (2007, 2011);
  • Action about feminist issues, 2 lectures (1983, 1989);
  • Action about Quaker Service, 2 lectures (2002, 2003);
  • One lecture each with a main theme of action in relation to national or military security (1970), ageing (1975), overpopulation (1979), conflict resolution (1988), Australian politics (1990) and international relations (1995).

The main theme of one lecture was ‘action and spirit’. In her 1994 lecture, Di Bretherton writes of a ‘synthesis of thinking’. She continues: ‘If, in the Quaker community, we allow a split to occur between those who are seen as spiritual and those who are seen as activists then we risk losing the core of our faith’. I interpreted this as a statement of a living theory of that both action and reflection are fundamental to Australian Quakerism.

When my coding of these themes was completed, I was surprised to count 23 of the 47 lectures as explicitly talking about ‘reflection’, and 23 as explicitly about ‘action’, with one lecture coded as explicitly about both ‘action and reflection’ . Of course, coding is arbitrary, and others may have coded differently, but in my reading, the lectures illustrate a striking balance between action towards social justice and reflection on spiritual lives.

As I read I noted references to previous Backhouse lectures. The number of references listed in each lecture ranged from 0 to 85. They covered a wide range of sources, including scripture, Quaker literature, scientific reports, poetry, novels, and more. From a total of 991 references, 27 (2.7%) were to previous Backhouse lectures. Thirty-five lectures (74%) did not refer to any Backhouse lectures, and 4 lectures (8.5%) referred to more than one. There is a trend towards more references in later years, but it is not clear to me that the Backhouse lectures represent significant input to Australian Quaker thinking. Further analysis of the reference lists could reveal that other sources (perhaps The Bible, or Quaker Faith and Practice published by Britain Yearly Meeting) have been strong influences.

Of the 47 lectures reviewed 19 (40%) were delivered by lecturers from overseas (7 from USA, 4 from Britain 2 from each of New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and South Africa and one each from Germany and Japan). Of the 28 (60%) Australian Lecturers, 6 were from each of Canberra and NSW Regional Meetings, 5 from Tasmania and from Victoria, 2 from each of Queensland and South Australia, one from Western Australia, and one lecture was delivered by Young Friends associated with various Regional Meetings.


There was no 1971 Backhouse Lecture, but an address given in place of the Backhouse Lecture has been included in this review. The tenth Backhouse lecture was delivered in August 1973, during the meeting of the Friends World Committee for Consultation, instead of 1974. The 1980 lecture was not published, but some Australian Quaker libraries have a photocopy of a typescript, which has been included in this review. At the time of this review, the 1992 lecture was not published and was not available to me. The full text of most James Backhouse Lectures may be downloaded from http://www.quakers.org.au/displaycommon.cfm?an=1&subarticlenbr=29


Bretherton, D. (1994). As the mirror burns: making a film about Vietnam. Hobart. The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Australia Incorporated

The Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain. (1995). Quaker Faith and Practice. London: The Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain.

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