Whereas the people of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland and Tasmania humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God, have agreed to unite…
Preamble to the Australian Constitution
Laurence Rentoul, the clergyman, so loved an argument he was known as “Fighting Larry”. He was a crushing opponent, all the more formidable ‘for the absence of any restraint’, and his pen ‘was a weapon of destruction.’
He found an outlet for this ability when he arrived in Melbourne in 1879 on the eve of a fierce battle between Presbyterian moderates and liberals. Initially minister for St George’s Church in East St Kilda, his vehement attacks on the liberal Charles Strong of Scots Church helped him gain a professorship at Ormond College where he lectured for more than forty years. Consistency never bothered “Fighting Larry” too much. For example he opposed the Boer War saying it was European capitalist rivalry, then urged conscription for World War One. He was a pacifist but served as chaplain-general to the army in World War One. He was for Irish Home Rule and against the Irish Free State.
His many causes included religion in government schools and Australian citizenship. He defined Australian citizenship in terms of an evangelical Christian morality. He argued during the debates on Federation that the constitution must recognise God. The first attempt to acknowledge God in the Australian constitution was defeated at the Adelaide sitting of the 1897-98 constitutional convention despite church groups pestering delegates with petitions. Edmund Barton argued that the whole mode of government, the whole province of the state, was secular: ‘render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s’.
The following March at the Melbourne constitutional sitting, churches and individuals (such as Rentoul) renewed their petitions and lobbying so successfully that the amendment was carried on the voices. It was moved by Patrick Glynn, a Catholic from Adelaide who later served as attorney general under Deakin.
The hobbies of this fire and brimstone preacher were gardening reading, fishing and he published three volumes of verse. His home was at College Crescent, Carlton. His daughter Ida became famous for her popular children books with their luminous fairy illustrations. In personal dealings Rentoul ‘showed courtesy and kindness’. He collapsed and died at Spencer Street Station after apologizing for the inconvenience to the porter who tended him.