Beginnings – a leap of “great faith”

On 13 September 2021 Emmanuel College attains super-centenarian status, reaching the privileged age of 110 years. As part of the super-centenary celebrations, the College will be publishing a series of articles looking back and looking forward.

While this series is not intended to be a definitive history of the College, we will be retelling important stories from significant windows of time in the past 110 years. In doing so, we hope our community enjoys these glimpses into the “making” of Emmanuel.

So, we begin with the Presbyterian Church and the handsome, dimple-chinned, man of faith Reverend Dr Ernest Northcroft Merrington MA (1876-1953), the driving force behind the founding of the College. In doing so, we give thanks and reflect on the truth of our name chosen by him: Emmanuel — “God with us”.

Emmanuel’s vision, as stated by our Board, is to enrich lives through a world-class living and learning experience, and our tradition and history point to a long and successful journey towards that vision. This philosophy was affirmed by Merrington in the early days of the College’s existence. He encouraged students to “help mould the traditions of the College, by loyalty and co-operation, by service whilst in residence and by public spirit in the profession of life after we have left”. Merrington cautioned against the “dead weight of tradition”, noting that “traditions must be tested wisely and well … [to ensure] the usage is beneficial to the community. And if the custom or tradition cannot bear the weight of legitimate criticism — let it go without a qualm.”

In the late nineteenth century education was a major focus in Queensland. In 1870 the colony, under the Premiership of Charles Lilley, was the first in Australia to introduce free education. Subsequently, the State Education Act of 1875 established the basis for Queensland’s system of free, secular and compulsory education.

The Presbyterian Church had been advocating for a university in Queensland since 1887. With the establishment and founding of The University of Queensland in 1909 and 1910, the church’s focus on education and scholarship was validated. The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church resolved, first, to establish a Presbyterian College “on the lines of St Andrew’s, [at the University of] Sydney” and, subsequently, to found a Theological Hall for divinity students to train for the ministry, noting “the need of well-qualified ministers in this age of educational progress”.

Reverend Dr Ernest Northcroft Merrington MA

Led by Merrington, the minister of Saint Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Brisbane city’s Ann Street, the Presbyterian Church’s Queensland College Committee were in a (in his words) “determined mood” to “do or die” at their meeting of 6 June 1911.

Merrington and the future College Councillors, with £856 raised from parishioners and supporters, then took a leap of “great faith and no little courage” to purchase a property to house the as yet unnamed and unconstituted college. By providence or chance, the former home of the late education advocate, Premier, and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Queensland Sir Charles Lilley was for sale. Sydenham — a two-storey stone house situated on “the highest and healthiest part of Wickham Terrace” and in proximity to UQ in George Street — was purchased for £5,500.

Emmanuel College on “the highest and healthiest part of Wickham Terrace” Brisbane, Queensland

The General Assembly met again on 13 September 1911. Three short months after the “do or die” meeting, the name Emmanuel — “God with us” — was chosen; the College and Theological Hall constitutions were adopted; and the College Council, with Merrington as inaugural Chairman, was established. The officialities were completed with the letters patent, creating the College body corporate, issued on 7 October and Emmanuel’s affiliation with UQ approved on 8 November that same year.

Thus, Emmanuel College was a reality, and with that came another reality — money. Merrington willingly took up this figurative cross to bear and, no doubt accompanied by a literal cross, embarked on a fundraising trip around Queensland. He departed Brisbane on 22 October 1911 “by the northern mail train” to personally appeal to “Presbyterian congregations … for the purpose of bringing before the people the claims of the College and the fund of £25,000 needed for its equipment, maintenance, and endowment”. This pilgrimage took him as far north as Cairns and as far west as Winton; he returned home to Brisbane in late November with “promises of about £3,000”.

Newspaper clipping from The Telegraph, 14 Oct 1911, about the fundraising trip around Queensland

By any measure, Merrington’s vision, faith, courage, perseverance and selfless are extraordinary. Servant leadership can be a somewhat abstract concept. By his actions, Merrington embodies servant leadership. Leading and toiling – all in service of God, the Presbyterian Church, the Queensland community, education, and the young people who would benefit from college life. Merrington set the example that our students would follow throughout the years. They have continued the College tradition, while as students and as alumni, by serving the community and using their talents and time to help people and causes — “by loyalty and co-operation, by service whilst in residence and by public spirit in the profession of life after we have left”.

On 13 March 1912 Emmanuel College, together with Theological Hall, opened. There were five students in residence along with the Principal, Reverend John Meiklejohn MA DD. Originally from Scotland, Meiklejohn came to Brisbane from Melbourne, where he had been a professor of Systematic Theology at Ormond College. He had also been the first Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Australia when it was federated in 1901. Meiklejohn served as Principal until 1914 without remuneration at his request — another of Emmanuel’s leaders for whom service was the highest priority and greatest reward.

The new College’s motto was Fiat Lux – let there be light. This light would be all but snuffed out with the outbreak of war in 1914.

Guests at the Opening of Emmanuel Presbyterian College, Wickham-terrace – The Brisbane Courier, 18 May 1912