The role of religion in the future South Australia was an important preoccupation of members of the various associations promoting the province in the 1830s. Many were members of Dissenting sects – the Protestant sects that had ‘dissented’ from the Established Church, or Church of England, from the sixteenth century. Known collectively as Dissenters, or Nonconformists, they constituted a much higher proportion of the early population of South Australia than in the other Australian colonies. Both Nonconformists and Catholics were subject to active discrimination in Britain from the time of the English Reformation, when Henry VIII split the Church in England from Rome, and this was only slowly removed. Dissenters only achieved the right to vote and to hold public office in 1828, Catholics in 1829, and not surprisingly, those involved in planning South Australia wanted to create a society based on principles of religious equality and liberty. Many also opposed state aid for religion and supported the ‘voluntary principle’, under which adherents were responsible for supporting their churches and clergy without the assistance of government.
Those arriving in South Australia in the first years came from five major Christian groups – Anglicans of the Established Church of England, Nonconformists or Dissenters, Roman Catholics, Scottish Presbyterians and German Lutherans (from 1838). There were also members of less orthodox Christian groups, including the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), the Unitarians and the New Church (Swedenborgians). The Nonconformists were further divided into Methodists, Primitive Methodists, Baptists, Congregationalists and a few smaller sects. All set about building churches, encouraging the English author Anthony Trollope to confirm the description of Adelaide as a ‘city of churches’ in 1872.