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Farewelling Rev Bill Edwards: a life lived in service to Aboriginal people

NEWS | Tess Holgate

Thursday 30 July 2015

**Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned that the following story contains images of deceased persons.**

Bill was ordained in the Presbyterian Church in 1958, and served as Superintendent at Ernabella Mission from 1958 to 1972.

“He played a significant role in the training and mentoring of a number of Aboriginal church leaders in the Pitjantjatjara region”, says Paul Eckert, a translation advisor with the Remote and Indigenous Ministries Team of Bible Society Australia.

He held a selection of ministry positions in Western Australia and South Australia between 1972 and 1980 when he moved to Adelaide and was a significant part of the pioneering Aboriginal Studies programme at the University of South Australia.

Bill Edwards conducting the Ernabella Mission Choir, Scots Church, Adelaide March 1966. Source: Photograph from Bill Edwards collection. Courtesy Ara Irititja Project Netley, South Australia.

Bill Edwards conducting the Ernabella Mission Choir, Scots Church, Adelaide March 1966.
Source: Photograph from Bill Edwards collection. Courtesy Ara Irititja Project Netley, South Australia.

Once in Adelaide he advocated for Aboriginal people in the courts and in hospitals, providing translation and interpretation services when needed.

Ernabella Mission was a sheep station when the Presbyterian Church took over the lease to establish its mission there in 1937. Their approach was radically different to other missions across Australia.

Often the image is given [that] the missionaries went and we kind of did away with their traditional things and we imposed, but in actual fact at Ernabella there was minimal interference and we spent a lot of time just talking to people.

On an ABC Compass program in 2011 Bill said, “the Pitjantjatjara people in those days lived in what we would call a camp situation. They lived in small groups.

“They would come up to the mission for employment and the craft and sheep work and building. And that sheep work was maintained by the mission and it became very much the foundation of our economic structure.”

Born in rural Victoria in 1929, Bill first started in Christian ministry in the late 1940s. His first visit to Central Australia was in 1955 where he met some Ernabella people. After that, he started to do a little bit of reading about the outback and found he had a deepening interest in Aboriginal work.

Bill Edwards and Andy Tjilari, 2012, a lifelong friendship. Source: Photograph from Bill Edwards collection. Courtesy Ara Irititja Project Netley, South Australia.

Bill Edwards and Andy Tjilari, 2012, a lifelong friendship.
Source: Photograph from Bill Edwards collection. Courtesy Ara Irititja Project Netley, South Australia.

The Secretary of Missions in the Church sent him to Ernabella in 1958.

As part of the Australian Rural History Project, Bill Edwards was interviewed in 1997 and said of his time in Ernabella, “I found the people just friendly.

“But there was always, I guess, problems. I mean, sometimes those people [in surrounding towns] would’ve wondered what on earth were we doing with those “blacks”. Our life was so centred on the Aboriginal people that this would provide a bit of a barrier at times.

“Often the image is given [that] the missionaries went and we kind of did away with their traditional things and we imposed, but in actual fact at Ernabella there was minimal interference and we spent a lot of time just talking to people. There was a lot of just informal interaction. So while the people didn’t have formal councils or ways of making decisions regarding the running of the place, there was a lot of that informal feedback coming in. And generally, I think people were happy.”

He expressed an embodiment of the Gospel, that respected the culture and language of Indigenous people and worked in solidarity for justice and reconciliation.

Deidre Palmer, Moderator of the Uniting Church in South Australia said, “We give thanks to God for Bill’s life and service to Christ and the Church. In tributes to Bill, many have described him as an inspiration through his ministry with Aboriginal people, particularly the Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara people. He expressed an embodiment of the Gospel, that respected the culture and language of Indigenous people and worked in solidarity for justice and reconciliation.”

The funeral will be held on Monday August 3 at 10:30am at Pilgrim Uniting Church in Adelaide.

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