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Rev William Miller (c.1815-1874), of John Knox Church, Melbourne

Rev William Miller (1815-1874) of John Knox Church, Melbourne

Rowland S. Ward


William Miller (1815-10.08.1874) was a minister of the Free Presbyterian Church of Victoria who served the John Knox Church, cnr Little Lonsdale and Swanston Streets, Melbourne 1851-64, and had early involvement with Scotch College.

Miller’s name is spelt Millar in church records prior to his arrival, and he himself appears to have briefly used that spelling, but very soon followed the more common usage. He is not to be confused with a contemporary, Rev William Baird Millar/er (ca.1808-1868), who was a minister of the United Presbyterian Church of Victoria 1851-53 who held no charge but engaged chiefly in teaching.

Life and ministry

Miller was licensed by the Free Church of Scotland Presbytery of Linlithgow on August 14, 1849, married Mary Brisbane in March 1851, was ordained for Melbourne, Victoria on April 17, 1851 and arrived in Melbourne on September 11. He was received by the Free Presbyterian Church of Victoria on September 22, and appointed to the oversight of the John Knox Church in Swanston Street, its founding minister James Forbes having died the previous month. His ministrations were so acceptable that the congregation soon extended a call to him, which he accepted, and he was inducted into the charge on December 16, 1851.

Miller laboured faithfully as a minister of the Free Presbyterian Church of Victoria, and was spoken of as “highly esteemed”, “possessing good abilities”, “amiable in character” and “commanding the love and respect of the community”. However, he did not have the vision or capacity of James Forbes.

Scotch College

Miller had arrived in Melbourne the same day as Robert Lawson (1826-1869), the rector appointed by the Free Church of Scotland for the Academy planned by James Forbes and later known as Scotch College. On November 9, 1851 the Free Presbyterian Synod appointed Miller Convener of the Academy Committee (the other members were the members of the Session of John Knox Church), and so he may be regarded as the first Chairman of the College Council. Scotch began in the premises of Chalmers’ Free Church School in Spring Street (between Londsdale and Little Lonsdale Streets) in October 1851, moved to the SW corner of Spring and Little Collins Streets in 1852 and to East Melbourne in 1854. In 1853 Miller, along with Rev Duncan MacDiarmid Sinclair (1816-1887), Rev John Tait (1809-60), John Armstrong (1810-1857) of Bush Station and Archibald Bonar, merchant, were appointed the first trustees of the East Melbourne site of Scotch College.

Robert Lawson was a very competent educationist but resigned during 1856. David Baillieu in his book Hills of Home: A Life of Robert Lawson (Melbourne University Press 2009) offers a plausible reconstruction of his resignation in the difficulties Lawson faced in the complex years following the discovery of gold, discipline issues of squatters’ sons and aspects of his management. Lawson adroitly managed the situation to his advantage taking a majority of Scotch pupils with him to a school he conducted in Nicholson Street, Fitzroy for about a year before finally establishing a school at Mount Blackwood near Bacchus Marsh on property he had bought in 1854. Aspects of his exit as well as his increasing addiction to whisky did not reflect well on him. [Ultimately he commited suicide by jumping from a ship.] Miller was replaced as Convener of the Academy Committee by Adam Cairns 1857. Baillieu claims this drove Miller into the anti-unionists’ camp, but this does not correspond with the facts as Miller was already there.

Church Union

In 1853, Miller was appointed to the church committee which was to investigate and potentially negotiate the basis for union with the various Presbyterian denominations in Victoria. A union between the FPCV and the CS Synod was drafted but by 1856 Miller opposed further negotiations due to disputation over the doctrinal standards, legislative basis and ministerial supply. The John Knox congregation supported this stand by resolution at a congregational meeting in August 1856. Of his own denomination, “he hoped they would have grace and courage to maintain their own integrity and consistency by refusing all further negotiations until this point (i.e. the legislative basis) should be conceded.”

Miller and several other opponents of union on the proposed basis were expelled by the majority in April 1857, a perfectly illegal act promoted through a motion of 26 paragraphs by Dr Cairns, who was of hasty temperament and could not bear to have his judgment questioned. A minority synod of the Free Presbyterian Church of Victoria, of which Miller became the moderator on April 14, continued. It became the only Free Presbyterian Synod when the majority, with the blessing of the Free Church of Scotland, entered into the union with the Church of Scotland and the majority of United Presbyterians to form the Presbyterian Church of Victoria in April 1859 on a new basis drawn up in 1858.

Funds were raised to send Miller to Scotland to represent the interests of the minority at the May 1860 Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland. The Assembly would not receive him as a deputy of the Free Presbyterian Church of Victoria, but only as one of a body “calling itself” the Free Presbyterian Church of Victoria. This he declined. On the advice of friends, he appealed to appear by way of petition as an individual. The Assembly urged reconciliation and reunion, yet did not do so in Scotland at this time. The kind of three-way union that occurred in Victoria in 1859 did not occur in Scotland until 1929 with a first stage in 1900.

The rebuff by the Free Church Assembly did not help stability in the Victorian Synod, and this was aggravated by the May 1861 Free Church Assembly undertaking, by a vote of 341 to 64, to recognise the minority only if they ceased to claim they represented the position formerly occupied by the Free Presbyterian Church of Victoria. In May 1864 the Free Presbyterian Synod divided down the middle and Miller took the side of those who thought union with the Presbyterian Church of Victoria was now appropriate. At the close of the year he submitted his resignation from the ministry of John Knox Church, citing the poor health of his wife, although the difficult congregational situation must also have been relevant. The congregation sided with those opposed to union but ultimately joined the union church in 1867 through the influence of a visiting Scottish minister, Rev J.O. Dykes.

The original building erected in 1848, like many of the period, was not well built. On February 13, 1863 the foundation stone of a new building dsigned by Charles Webb was laid. The building was reoriented to face Swanston Street, incorporated some of the bricks of the old and is probably very similar in its Gothic style  to the original. The contractor was Peter Cunningham and the cost was £4,000. It was opened by Rev William McIntyre of Sydney on July 26, 1863. The balance of the land fronting Swanston Street was sold for £1,700 to assist in the rebuilding. The mortgage on the building was held by Rev Allan MacVean of Brunswick FPC who joined the union in 1867 as did the congregation. In 1879 the congregation was disolved and in 1881 the building was sold to the Church of Christ who still occupy the property.

Return to Britain

Miller returned to England about March 1865, where he served the Presbyterian Church at St Helens, Merseyside for some years, before he retired to Callander in Scotland. He suffered an angina attack at the Railway buildings in Callander where he died, age 59. His wife survived him. No children have been identified.

His publications were: Letter on the Position and Necessities of the Free Presbyterian Church of Victoria, to the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland (Glasgow 1860, 32pp); Victorian Pulpit #5 (sermon, Melbourne n.d. [186-]; Free Presbyterian Church in Victoria (reprinted from Paisley Herald, Glasgow 1861, 20pp); Presbyterian Union in Australia – To the Editor of the Scottish Guardian (Glasgow 1861, 2pp); The Edinburgh Presbytery and the Australian Union (reprinted from The Witness, Edinburgh 1861, 12pp); Union in Victoria. Additional Extracts with remarks.. [Edinburgh 1861, 4pp]


* The Free Presbyterian Church of Australia by James Campbell Robinson, [W.A. Hamer, Melbourne, 1947].

* The Bush Still Burns by Rowland S. Ward, [Melbourne, 1989].

* Address on the Present Position of the Free Presbyterian Church of Victoria delivered at the Close of the Meeting of Synod on 18th April 1865, by the Moderator with Relative Correspondence etc. by Rev. Arthur Paul, [Walker May, Melbourne, 1865].

* Minutes of John Knox Free Presbyterian Church, Swanston Street 22/11/1846-1/08/1865, [PCEA Archives, Wantirna, Vic.]

* Minutes of the Synod of the Free Presbyterian Church of Australia Felix (afterwards Victoria) from June 9, 1847 [PCV Archives, Melbourne]