Aborigines Sunday: The Christian origins of NAIDOC week

This week is NAIDOC week across Australia, celebrating the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

NAIDOC originally stood for ‘National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee’. What many don’t realise is that it was Aboriginal Christians that started NAIDOC week. Specifically, it was the initiative of an Aboriginal Christian, William Cooper, who asked the churches to start praying for aborigines on what would become known as ‘Aboriginies Sunday.’

Up until the 1960’s Australia’s indigenous people were not Australian citizens even though they had been born in Australia and their ancestors had lived here for generations before white settlement. They weren’t allowed to vote, weren’t counted in the census, and had fewer rights than white Australians.

William Cooper was taught to read and write by missionaries and came into a personal relationship with Jesus. He was also an activist, a unionist, a serious Bible reading, church going Christian. Cooper believed that the best thing that had happened for Australia’s first people’s was the Christian missions. He believed that all people are made in the image of God and are children of God, and would argue passionately from the Bible that aboriginals ought to be treated as equal citizens in this country.

In 1935, Cooper, who had founded the Australian Aborigines League, drafted a petition to go to King George V asking for special aboriginal electorates in the Australian Parliament. Cooper presented then Prime Minister Lyons with a proposed national policy for aborigines. This was rejected.

When the request fell on deaf ears he co-ordinated Aboriginal marches through the streets of Sydney and Melbourne on Australian Day 1936, called ‘The day of Mourning.’ Cooper then sought help from his friends in the church to establish ‘Aboriginal Sunday,’ to pray for the success of missions and ‘the uplift of the dark people.’ It quickly caught on. The first ‘Aboriginies Sunday’ was 28 January 1940. Eventually, almost all churches had special prayers for the aboriginal peoples on the Sunday before Australia Day.

That ‘Aboriginies Sunday’ down the track was shifted to later in the year and now a full week, ‘NAIDOC week.’

It seems tragic to me that this doesn’t seem to have any real presence in Protestant Churches today, especially when Christians in the past through the missions have played an extremely prominent role in caring for aborigines and advocating for them. And while we (Christians) have forgotten much of this the aboriginal leaders haven’t. They are very aware of the past role that Christians played in their community lives several generations ago.

Here’s a few prayers Sandy Grant has pointed me to that you might like to use to wrap up NAIDOC week. Or lets use the old title, and call it ‘Aborigines Sunday’.

From the Sydney Anglican Prayer Book:

A prayer for indigenous Australians

Creator God,

you made from one man all nations and determined where each should live.

We bring before you the indigenous people of Australia.

We acknowledge the history that has damaged the relationship between them and later arrivals to this land.

Thank you for the steps that have been taken on the journey towards reconciliation.

Deepen this process among us.

Guide national and community leaders to speak the truth in love, to seek justice with mercy and to care for those who are disadvantaged.

Strengthen indigenous church leaders to shepherd your flock faithfully, and strengthen all indigenous Christians to be salt and light in their communities and in the whole nation.

Give indigenous and non-indigenous believers grace to demonstrate the new family you are making in Christ

out of people from every nation, tribe, language and people, through Jesus Christ our Lord.


Or there’s this one, a Collect for Reconciliation. (For those unfamiliar with Anglican terms, a Collect is a brief prayer, which gathers together or ‘collects’ certain concerns appropriate to a particular occasion or issue.) This prayer was written by Bishop Arthur Malcolm (Australia’s first indigenous bishop) and his non-indigenous wife, Colleen.

Lord God,

Bring us together as one.

Reconciled with you and

reconciled with each other.

You made us in your likeness;

You gave us your son, Jesus Christ.

He has given us forgiveness from sin.

Lord God,

Bring us together as one.

Different culture, but

given new life in Jesus Christ;

Together as one, your body,

your church, your people.

Lord God,

Bring us together one.

Reconciled, healed, forgiven,

Sharing you with others,

as you have called us to do.

In Jesus Christ,

let us be together as one.


Dominic Steele will be speaking to Christian aboriginal leader Stephen Atkinson and Matt Busby Andrews about these issues between nine and midnight this Sunday night on 2CH.

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