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Robert Steel (1827–1893)

The many friends of the Rev. Robert Steel, Ph.D. and D.D., and the public generally will learn with regret that the reverend gentleman died at his residence, St. Leonards, North Shore, on Monday, after an illness, to which, reference has been made from time to time in our columns, extending over several weeks. Dr. Steel has been the minister of the Presbyterian congregation worshipping in Macquarie-street, and afterwards in St. Stephen's Church, Phillip-street, Sydney, since 1862, and was well known throughout Australia, while in Britain and America the mention of Australian Presbyterianism calls up his name. In N.S.W. his name is a household word; and members of other churches and the public generally have learned from his frequent appearances on public platforms and on public occasions to regard him as a foremost representative of the Christian Church. Dr. Steel, though English by birth, was a Scotsman by parentage and education. He was born at Pontypool, Monmouth, in 1827. In early life he removed to Ayrshire, Scotland, and received the rudiments of his education in the parish school of Ochiltree and in Ayr Academy. In 1843 he entered King's College and University, Old Aberdeen. Thence he went to the New College, Edinburgh, where he studied logic, philosophy, and theology. In 1851 he was licensed to preach by the Free Church Presbytery of Irvine, in which town he labored as a missionary from 1848 to 1852. He then became the assistant minister of Blairgowrie, and afterwards occupied several important charges until his removal to Sydney in 1862, he having received the previous year, from the University of Gottingen, the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. Not only in ministering to his own congregation, in which he was eminently successful, but in numerous other ways, was his great ability and tact shown. He threw himself with ardor into the movement for the union of the various sections of Presbyterianism in New South Wales, and had a large share in bringing about the union formed in 1865. He was unanimously elected in 1867 the third Moderator of the General Assembly, the duties of which office he discharged with the greatest satisfaction for two years. He took an active part in the establishment of St. Andrew's College, and was elected to the first place among the clerical members of the council. He was for a series of years elected also by the General Assembly as one of the tutors, taking the department of Church History and Pastoral Theology, and was appointed President of the interim Theological Faculty. He was also one of the committee of Cooerwul Academy, Bowenfels. At the opening of each of the three Colleges of the Presbyterian Church, St. Andrew's in 1876, the Ladies' College in 1891, and the Scots College in 1893, Dr. Steel took a prominent part and delivered suitable addresses. As a platform speaker the deceased minister was very popular, and frequently spoke on the great questions and interests which are connected with practical Christianity, both in the Presbyterian and other Protestant Churches. His popularity as a preacher on special occasions led to his visiting a large number of religious centres and taking part with various denominations on festive and other events. In the movement for the federation of the Presbyterian Churches of Australia and Tasmania, Dr. Steel took the greatest interest, and at the instance of the Federal Assembly he prepared a revised Directory of Public Worship which was greeted with much approval a year ago. For missions to the heathen he showed a noble zeal, and in many ways greatly advanced the mission cause, while for a quarter of a century he acted as agent for the New Hebrides Mission. He also was a prominent supporter of the British Foreign Bible Society. No outline of Dr. Steel's many-sided life would be complete which omitted to notice his love of books, and his relation to the literature of the day. It has been said of him that he was an omnivorous and incessant reader, and it may with equal truth be said that his fecundity as an author has been remarkable. He has written many books, and his contributions to periodical literature are beyond enumeration. Forty years ago he assisted in starting the well-known British Messenger, and in 1858 originated Meliora, a high-class quarterly review of social science in its ethical, economical, and ameliorative aspects. Before leaving England he was a contributor to numerous periodicals, such as the Quiver, the Magazine for Sunday Schools, &c. When he came to N.S.W. he did not cease from literary activity. For nine years he was editor of, successively, the Presbyterian Messenger, and the Australian Witness, and was a frequent contributor to the columns of the Presbyterian. He was also Australian correspondent of the Missionary Review of the World, issued in New York and London, under the editorial care of Dr. Pierson, who recently supplied the pulpit left vacant by Mr. Spurgeon's death. He had also been, by request, a contributor to the Encyclopaedia of Missions and to the Picturesque Atlas of Australia. But space fails us in giving even an outline of Dr. Steel's literary work. Suffice it to append a list of his more permanent publications: Doing Good (1858); Lives Made Sublime (1861); Samuel the Prophet (1859); Burning and Shining Lights (1864); The Christian Teacher in Sunday Schools (1867); The New Hebrides and Christian Missions (1880), the result of his visit to the Islands; Achievements of Youth (1890); The Shorter Catechism, with Analysis (1885).

The subject of this brief sketch was also a man of keen observation, and in the acquisition of knowledge or its communication he travelled considerably. In 1880 he left Australia for a tour round the world, respecting which our Presbyterian contemporary said recently: "On that tour he travelled throughout the United States and Canada, attending the General Assemblies there: He visited the British Isles, attending the centenary convention of Sunday schools in London, and the General Assembly of the Welsh Presbyterian Church at Cardiff. After an extended tour through Britain and Ireland, he went through Holland, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Egypt, and Palestine." The information he acquired was freely given, and the late Doctor was not only a writer but a "frequent lecturer, both in his own church and on public platforms. Very many subjects have been treated in a popular manner, especially his travels in Egypt, Palestine, America, and Scotland. Several of these have been illustrated either by lanterns or by diagrams."

By his own congregation the departed minister was deeply loved and greatly revered. The services he personally rendered, reaching to all the departments of church life, and the associations which sprang up and grew with a ministry of over 30 years, cannot be over estimated. "His genial disposition, smiling greeting, dignified courtesy of manner, charitable temper, liberal spirit, and real kindness of heart endeared him to all his friends;" but the circle of esteem and Christian friendship extended far beyond his own immediate congregation. By his services to the church he so dearly loved locally and throughout the colony, by young and old, by rich and poor, Dr. Steel was a man greatly and deservedly beloved, and he will be greatly missed. He was 66 years of age.

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Citation details

'Steel, Robert (1827–1893)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 27 May 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]


15 May, 1827
Pontypool, Monmouthshire, Wales


9 October, 1893 (aged 66)
North Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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