The first Australian Scriptures

Lun ellin Jehovah an pornum an Narrinyeri: pempir ile ityan kinauwe Brauwarate, ungunuk korn wurruwarrin ityan, nowaiy el itye moru hellangk, tumbewarrin itye kaldwamp.

You have just read the most famous verse of the Bible, John 3:16. It’s most likely the sentence translated into more languages than any other sentence ever written.

Here you are reading it from the first Scriptures published in an Australian indigenous language – Ngarrindjeri. And 2014 is the 150th anniversary of that publication in 1864. The full title was Tungarar Jehovald; Extracts from the Holy Scriptures in the language of the tribes inhabiting the lakes and lower Murray and called Ngarrindjeri (Narrinyeri) and English.

It included extracts from Genesis, Exodus, Matthew and John, along with the Lord’s Prayer. The introductory page states it comes “From the Translation of Mr George Taplin, Missionary Agent of the Aborigines’ Friends’ Association, at Point Macleay. First published in 1864 by the South Australian Auxiliary of the British and Foreign Bible Society; reprinted in 1926, with further reprints in 1986, 2009, by The Bible Society S.A.” You can read it online here via Issuu.

Australian_$50_polymer_frontIf you look on our $50 note, you will see a small church to the left of the portrait of David Unaipon, the famous Ngarrindjeri inventor, spokesman on aboriginal affairs, writer and preacher. (Some of Unaipon’s inventions included an improved hand tool for shearing sheep, and a centrifugal motor, though he was never able to commercialise his ideas.)

The church on the $50 note is located at Point Macleay, or Raukkan in the indigenous language, in the Coorong, South Australia. Here Unaipon’s father, James Ngunaitponi, was based.


James Ngunaitponi

James Ngunaitponi was the first Christian convert of a Scottish Free Church missionary, James Reid, who later drowned. He then laboured with the missionary George Taplin. With Taplin’s enabling, he began a “Scripture readership” among lakeside camps. A Scottish sponsor, Henrietta Smith, paid for a small stone cottage for Ngunaitponi, and for a writing desk, and vested a lifetime annuity of £100 in his name, which helped sustain his work.

Taplin was truly interested in Ngarrindjeri society and culture. He learned their language and used it in preaching. In translating Christian Scriptures into Ngarrindjeri, Taplin relied heavily upon Ngunaitponi. Taplin also published invaluable anthropological studies. His papers on philology and ethnology were acclaimed in Australia and abroad. Despite his sympathy with the local people and their traditions, Taplin believed Christianity should be adopted, and along with it, Europeanization. As a result he helped undermine indigenous social structure and received opposition from conservative tribal members. But they had been dispossessed before his arrival, and by helping them become literate and numerate and to acquire trades he enabled them to survive in European society. Today hundreds of their descendants remain in Australia; their durability can largely be attributed to Taplin.

The Australian Dictionary of Biography concludes,

He was a compassionate Christian and a courageous fighter.

As for James Ngunaitponi, he was the first Aboriginal deacon in the church, and died a respected indigenous leader. We can thank God that they pioneered the first published translation of Scripture into an indigenous Australian language.



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