In 1893 the Reverend Samuel Hector Ferguson and his wife Myra arrived in Northcote to replace Duncan Fraser as the minister at the Northcote Presbyterian Church. At the time the church’s congregation was in a demoralized state but Ferguson’s arrival, along with the completion of the new church in James St in 1894, caused a massive swell in church attendance. Ferguson was a tall, handsome Scotsman whose sermons were well received by the congregation. So well received in fact that, concern the new church would not be big enough to accommodate the crowds he was attracting, soon emerged.
Given his popularity, it’s not surprising that there was a massive sensation when Ferguson was charged with heresy by the North Melbourne Presbytery in March of 1899 for the publication of his controversial book "Spiritual Law through the Natural World". Melbourne’s media was always keenly interested in any cases of heresy, and this was no exception. The newspapers made particular note that the public gallery was full of more ladies than usual. A hearing in April of that year resulted in the Presbytery suspending Ferguson and appointing a Reverend D. McKenzie of Collingwood as a temporary replacement to which the ladies present "plainly exhibitied their annoyance".
Ferguson would not go quietly however, and he told his congregation on a Wednesday night service just after ”the high handed action taken by the Presbytery was contrary to the laws of common justice”, and that he intended to continue to conduct Sunday services at the Northcote Town Hall. He told his parishioners “they had a minister who was utterly fearless and ready to act in the way of right and truth, regardless of consequences, knowing that such a course would be triumphant in the end”. The media attention no doubt helped to produce some of the largest attendances for church services that Northcote had ever seen. People were even turned away from Reverend Ferguson’s evening service as the hall was too full. The Presbyterian Church attempted to counter this by sending some of their most popular preachers to conduct the regular services and while these were also well attended, commentary in the Leader Newspaper suggested that many in attendance were not the usual parishioners of the church.
The Presbyterian Church was now in virtual chaos. Ferguson decided he would offer his resignation to the Presbytery in the hope that this would restore order, but the Presbytery would not accept his resignation, preferring to have the satisfaction of removing him from the church themselves. Despite this, Ferguson continued to preach to a large congregation at the Northcote Town Hall under the banner of the Independent Presbyterian Church.
The initial popularity of the new church suggested that it may be a precursor to bigger things, but its popularity was short lived. It was dependent on the strength and personality of Hector Ferguson and when he departed for England in 1900 the new church faced the first of several crises that would see its popularity dwindle.
Hector Ferguson had discovered that he had an amazing power to cure all forms of disease, barring contagious ones, and that the cures were almost always permanent. This new found power had been the reason he left Australia for England and was also what brought him back in 1903 after his abilities had not been as well appreciated in England as he hoped. Unfortunately for Ferguson, neither he nor his church were able to grab the attention of the public like they had in 1899 and after his death in 1909 the church lasted just three more years, and those were with a very modest congregation.
For further information read the attached lecture entitled "Heresy at Northcote Presbyterian Church " (courtesy of the author, Rev Dr Rowland S. Ward)
The Northcote Leader, April 8 1899
Lemon, Andrew. (1983). The Northcote Side of the River. North Melbourne: Hargreen.
HERESY OR TRUTH? THE REV. H. FERGUSON'S BOOK THE REV. D. S. MCEACHRAN IN ACCUSATION. INTERESTING PROCEEDINGS. (1899, March, 10). South Australian Register (Adelaide, S.A. 1839-1900), p6.