William Guthrie Spence: Acting justly, loving mercy, walking humbly

by Annie Hamilton 

The crack as the first musket went off was like a clap of strange thunder. 

‘Gid doon, boyo! Thair feering …’ A rough hand thrust Bill to the ground. He could hardly understand the Irishman’s words. Then he realised what he’d heard: ‘Get down, boy! They’re firing …’ 

A volley of shots roared out. Bill poked his head up long enough to stare in disbelief as unarmed men fell in front of the soldiers’ fire. There was screaming from somewhere in the distance: ‘We don’t have no weapons!’ 

But it didn’t seem to matter. The officers ordered the soldiers to fire again. 

The smoke, the violence, the blood, and, above all, the terrible injustice of the day imprinted itself on Bill’s mind forever. 

Bill was a young boy the day he witnessed these events, which would become famous in Australian history as the ‘Eureka Stockade’. 

Bill was to grow up to become famous himself. He, William Guthrie Spence, played a very important role in the Federation of Australia, transforming the country from individual colonies into one unified nation. He was also one of the greatest union organisers in Australia’s history and one of the most vocal supporters of the Australian Labor Party in its earliest days. 

The Eureka rebellion on the Victorian goldfields had helped shape his thinking about justice for workers and fired him up to work towards the creation of the Australian Worker’s Union (AWU). However, that wasn’t the only thing that ignited his passion for fairness in the workplace. For William Guthrie Spence, there was only one real role model for justice, and it wasn’t anyone who’d been involved at Eureka.  

It was Jesus. 

In 1892, Spence wrote: ‘New Unionism was simply the teachings of that greatest of all social reformers, Him of Nazareth, whom all must revere.’ 

As well as working to help establish trade unions to protect workers’ rights, Spence was also a Methodist church preacher and Presbyterian elder (leader in the church). He was strongly influenced by the words of the prophet Micah: 

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8, NIV Bible) 

William Guthrie Spence constantly argued for the labour movement to be based on the values of Jesus. He was a Christian socialist, and although he supported standing up strongly for people’s rights, and this often led to unavoidable conflict, he always stressed the need to negotiate and reconcile whenever there had been conflict and confrontation. In 1891, he said he thought going on strike was ‘barbarous’ and that he did not believe in holding strikes at all. However, he also knew that working people had to organise themselves to support each other and defend their rights, or they could be exploited.  

His strong Christian beliefs led him to decide that the use of force was never the best way forward. In all that he did for workers’ rights, he always hoped that employers and unionists would come together as equal human beings and work out their differences in a mutually respectful manner, with concern and consideration for each other’s situations.  

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