A monthly series showcasing different expressions and experiences of the role of a Pastor’s spouse. Stories span from the archives to the present. We invite you to contribute your story by emailing John Sampson at email@example.com
Episode 1 – Circa 1885 onwards
Sarah Ann Richmond Phelan – A good wife
In April 1881, the Rev J S (James) Harrison came from England to Victoria and joined up with the Rev Edward Isaac to form a mission team that held evangelistic meetings throughout Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia and Tasmania. Little did they know that they would both marry the same woman.
In early 1884, Rev Harrison was invited to the pulpit at Aberdeen St and brought his Tasmanian wife with him. While at Aberdeen St, he continued with his evangelistic meetings, teaming up with other evangelists of the day such as the renowned Mrs Amelia Baeyertz who drew enormous crowds, especially on the goldfields. But in Feb 1887, as his health was declining, he resigned and returned to England.
Meanwhile, in December 1884 the Rev Isaac was appointed to the pastorate at Brunswick Baptist Church. It was a challenging call as the church had just endured a very turbulent period in its history.
On March 31st 1885, Rev Isaac married Sarah Phelan, the daughter of Mr & Mrs E Phelan of Talbot. She was welcomed to the church at a tea meeting and given a fine clock to mark the occasion. Everyone was in high spirits as the meeting closed with three cheers for ‘the pastor and his better half’ and it was reported as ‘being the most pleasant meeting the church had held for some time’.
Mrs. Isaac (née Phelan) was soon in charge of the Young Women’s Bible classes and by 1887 these were flourishing. She was also recognised as a fine soloist.
In 1895, Rev Isaac moved to George St Baptist in Fitzroy. At his welcome he referred to his wife as ‘the pastoress’, clearly showing the importance he placed on her role as his spouse; but the term did not stick. In 1896/97 he was honored as the President of the Baptist Union of Victoria. In February 1902 he left George St, preaching his final sermon in July.
After a settled existence for 18 years they were on the road again, with a short-term appointment at the Evangelization Society of Victoria for whom he conducted missions throughout the state, before they headed back to England.
When he left for England his wife, Sarah, was acknowledged as follows:
‘This short sketch of our brother’s career would be very incomplete without reference to Mrs. Isaac, who has been a real mainstay to him. She has proved herself to be a true helpmate indeed. How much of his success is owing to her hopeful and buoyant character no one is able to say, but that her cheerful temperament has largely contributed to it, no one who knows her will deny’.
But the English climate played havoc with Sarah’s health so that they returned to Australia, settling in Launceston on 31 Dec 1904 where he accepted a position at Reed’s Christian Mission Church in Launceston. Six years later he resigned, and they began a period of moving around to short term pastoral appointments.
They moved to New Zealand to positions in Dunedin and St Claire, before moving to the Sydenham Baptist Church in October 1910. In 1911 he had a short pastorate at Mount Gambier before moving to Williamstown. Finally he was appointed to Albert St in 1916 and served here until his death on Dec 30th 1918.
Sarah wrote an article for the Australian Baptist while at Albert St, in which she made the following observations:
‘People set a very high ideal for the minister’s wife. She has many domestic duties over and above those in a private home. She cannot get help due to the high cost of wages for maids, the high cost of living and low stipends. Her children and the life of the home are her responsibility. She is expected to visit the sick.She is expected to take a Sunday school or Bible class. And she is expected to foster missionary activity in the church.’
In 1922, we get a glimpse of another side of Sarah. She was corresponding with Rev Harrison at the time, who she had known earlier and whose wife had since passed away. He was looking for a new church and she gladly helped by putting an announcement in the Australian Baptist saying that he intended to return to Melbourne in October 1922 with his son. If any churches were interested in securing his services she would be pleased to ensure that he got their correspondence.
But her plan did not work out as Rev Harrison secured a position at Bristol St Baptist in England and started there in January 1923 with a salary of £400 per annum.
Soon after, however, we find that she had another announcement in the paper in Jan 1924. This one gave the good news that he had arrived in Melbourne at the end of 1923, that they had married and were living in her house at 180 George St Fitzroy. I suspect that when it came to marriage she was not the passive object of Rev Harrison’s quest but took the initiative.
In August 1927, Rev Harrison and his wife, Sarah were welcomed to the pastorate of Hawthorn West, where he served for eight and a half years until his death on 30 Nov 1935.
Sarah died on 10th April 1947 and her obituary in the Victorian Baptist Witness reads as follows
‘Mrs. Harrison, widow of the late Rev. J. Harrison, whose final charge was at Hawthorn West Baptist Church, passed to her rest recently at her home in 180 George. Street, Fitzroy. Had she lived a few days longer she would have celebrated her 89th birthday. A lady of very gracious disposition, she has graced many manses and has now been called to grace a mansion of Light. Her two husbands were comrades in the Gospel and both were attracted to her at the same time. The Rev Isaac first won her and for many years she was his helpful partner. After his death the Rev. J. Harrison renewed his quest for her and for many years she proved an able and glad companion during his later ministries. After his death she continued her membership and services at Hawthorn West Baptist Church where every progressive gospel movement immediately won her approval’.
What is your experience of being a pastor’s spouse? If you would like to contribute to this series, please email firstname.lastname@example.org