In 1860 a young aboriginal man known as Pepper came to faith in Jesus Christ. He chose the name Nathanael for his baptism, conducted by the Moravian missionary F. William Spieseke at the Ebenezer mission in North-West Victoria.
John Harris reports that Nathanael Pepper’s baptism ‘created a sensation in Melbourne and overseas. He was widely, but incorrectly claimed as the first Aboriginal Christian. Certainly, his was the first truly public conversion. A huge thanksgiving rally was held in St. Paul’s Swanson Street, Melbourne, and chaired by the Governor, flanked by leading churchmen, judges and politicians of the colony’ (One Blood, loc.3616).
Though Nathanael Pepper was not the first Aboriginal Christian he was most likely the first Aboriginal evangelist to Aboriginal people. Within days of his conversion, John Harris reports ‘Pepper was evangelising the other Aborigines, travelling throughout the district to wherever they were camped.’
On 18 January 1860 Spieseke wrote in his journal about how he felt following Pepper’s conversion:
I spoke with him, prayed with him, wept, shook hands and parted. It was to me like a dream and yet it was reality. How I felt and how I spent that night I cannot tell. I was afraid at the thought, how this tender plant of Divine grace is exposed to so much that can hinder the growth thereof, how old customs, flesh, the still wicked heart, the world and what therein is – how all this will strive to get the upper hand, and to check this plant in its first bud and springing up.
I was afraid. I wanted to go after him and speak more to him, but I did not and gave him over in my humble prayer into the careful hands of the heavenly Gardener (Harris, One Blood, loc. 3570)
This morning, at Austinmer Anglican Church, I interviewed Peter, great great great… grandson of Nathanael Pepper. Together with his wife Alice they are members of our church along with their three children.
If I ever have the privilege of meeting F. William Spieseke I would be very glad to say to him, ‘Sir, your prayers were answered, your fears unfounded, the heavenly Gardener has tended this plant through generations, for his glory.’
And if I ever have the privilege of meeting Nathanael Pepper, I hope that, united and restored in Christ, we could share together our love of this land and share stories of the triumph of the gospel over the tragic events of our history. I hope and pray I would have positive stories to tell.