Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Ned Kelly and the Wesleyan Preacher

At left is a remarkable image of the death mask made from Ned Kelly's actual features and displayed at the wax museum in Bourke St in 1880. This is from the interesting Kelly archaeology site Two Huts

A little known story of Ned Kelly is his death row encounter with the Wesleyan preacher John Cowley Coles. The story is told in the generously titled book The Life and Christian Experience of John Cowley Coles Giving the History of Twenty-seven Years of Evangelistic Work in the Colony of Victoria, Australia and elsewhere, principally in connection with the Wesleyan Methodist Church, also chapters on the doctrine of entire sanctification and the enduement of power, with an account of the social conditions and mode of life of the diggers in the early days of gold digging in the same colony, written (at the request of many of his friends) by himself (London: Marshall Brothers and Melbourne: M. L. Hutchinson, 1893). Boy, they really liked long book titles in those days! Coles held services for the inmates of the Melbourne Gaol and members of his Band meeting were keen to know if he would be visiting Kelly. He applied to the governor of the gaol “as representing a Christian Church” but the governor said, “No, Kelly is a Catholic and has his own minister.” Not to be put off so easily Coles and his Methodist friends prayed that “the Lord would open the cell door” in order that he might “enter and see Kelly, in order to talk with him about his soul.”

Soon after at the conclusion of one of the prison services, a warder approached Coles and asked if he would like to see Kelly. He said he would but that the governor would not allow it. The warder told him there was a regulation that any prisoner who requested it could see the minister who had been conducting the service. The warder went to see if Kelly wanted to speak with Coles and was told that he did and that he had heard every word of the service from his prison cell. Here is the fascinating description Coles gives of Kelly. "This man by no means looked a ruffian. He had rather a pleasant expression of countenance. He was one of the most powerfully built and finest men that I ever saw. He treated me with great respect, listened to all I had to say, and knelt down by my side when I prayed."

As for Coles’ ministry approach to Kelly here is how he describes his advice to the captive bushranger. "I refused to hear anything from him about his bushranging exploits, but I kept him to this – that we might die any moment. I might not live another half-hour; but if he did not die before he was sure to be executed on a certain day, and that he was a sinner standing in need of a Saviour…He evidently wanted me to think that he did not care for his position, and that he would see it out like a man."

This was some time after the 22nd September, 1880. Coles spoke with Kelly again, this time for “about a minute or two” on the 7th October, along with the Rev. R. Fitcher, who conducted the service that day. Kelly was “heavily ironed, going to the exercise yard.” On the 20th October, after preaching at Kelly’s request, Coles accompanied Kelly to his cell. Coles had preached from the text “Prepare to meet your God.” Immediately he set him straight on his purpose in such visits. "Do not think, Kelly, for one moment that it is out of any foolish curiosity to see you that I have sought these interviews with you; nothing of the sort. Indeed, I wish I could be spared the pain of seeing an intelligent young man like you in such an awful position. My sole object in speaking to you this morning is to impress on you the fact that you have a soul to be saved, or for ever lost; that Christ died for the chief of sinners, and if you will but be sorry for your sin and confess it to God and ask for mercy for Christ’s sake, He will have mercy on you."

Kelly’s response shows a remarkable openness and an exercised conscience as he reflected on his bushranging exploits. "I have heard all that you said this morning…I believe it all. Although I have been bushranging I have always believed that when I die I have a God to meet…When I was in the bank at Jerilderie, taking the money, the thought came into my mind, if I am shot down this moment how can I meet God?" Coles and Kelly then knelt side by side and prayed together. Upon standing Kelly crossed himself and thanked the preacher for his ministry. This was the last time the two men spoke together. Before long Kelly went to the gallows. Coles did not attend the execution. "I could have done the man no good by doing so,” he reflected, “and was saved the pain seeing a fellow creature ushered into the presence of God.”

This is a touching portrait of a little known instance of pastoral care in a moment of personal crisis. Kelly the penitent Catholic Christian kneels beside Coles the forthright Wesleyan preacher, the two men together calling upon God to grant mercy to a fallen sinner.

If you enjoyed this blog entry you might also enjoy the following: Ned Kelly and the Anglican Bishop; The History Wars; "Wiping Out" the Aborigines and The Proposition


Ludicrousity said...

Great stuff Glen. I've never heard that story. It's very interesting. I'd love to know the real story behidn Ned Kelly one day. Who he really was, what his motives really were!

Ross said...

That's quite a story. It reminds me of a devotional I read this morning on Luke 7:36-50. One of the implications of this passage is that even though we're unworthy of God's mercy, He gives it to us anyway.


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