Now we return to the story of Alma
As soon as a hut was built the brethren gathered to share in the Lord's Supper. Members were:- John and Robert Lawrie, Mrs R.Lawrie, Jane Lawrie (who became Mrs R.Harkness), and George Hammond. About a year after this Robert Harkness joined the little group. They were then meeting in Robert Lawrie's house but soon moved to John's. After experiencing a couple of good seasons, John put up a barn which, being fairly large, was used as a meeting place. Shortly after this the church grew rapidly, on account of more migrations from the south and also the church's influence in the district. Additions included A.Greenshields, J.Watson, John Hammond and their families, James McGregor, J . McLachlan, D, Finlayson and W.Howard. In 1862, the old chapel, (later to become a State schoolhouse, and still stands today), was built.
The first chapel was built under great difficulties as everything had to be carted long distances, even the water to mix the mortar. John remarked at one time, "If all the water that was used had been frozen it would have made a chapel in itself."
Robert Harkness was born in 1834, of Scotch Baptist parents, in Sanquhar, Dunfrieshire, Scotland. Sanquhar was amongst the first churches in the south of Scotland to adopt the views of the restoration movement advocated by the Campbells and others. Harkness emigrated to Sydney in 1853 with the Crawford family. He went to the Victorian diggings at Bendigo and then to Campbell's Creek. It was here he became interested in the Bible, but becoming ill in health he joined the Crawfords at Point Sturt and later boarded with George Duke in Adelaide. Duke's Christian life impressed Harkness so much he confessed the faith in his Lord and was baptised by Henry Hussey. Through the influence of John Lawrie, Robert agreed to go to Alma and work for him. Eventually Robert married John's eldest daughter and took up farming on his own. He was a cabinet maker by trade and was a big help in building the new chapel, doing all the wood work, including the beautiful seats.
The Howard family were English and most successful farmers, a very musical family and a great help to the district and church to which they belonged.
James McLachlan was born near Strathavin, Lanarkshire, Scotland, in 1842. He was brought to Christ in the Scottish revival of 1858. He emigrated to West Australia in 1862 but saw no future for himself there and came on to South Australia arriving with his young wife and baby daughter with only two half crowns in his pocket. When coming up to Port Adelaide McLachlan prayed that he might meet a Christian man who would employ him. Robert Harkness who had a good crop that year went to the labour office a few hours after James applied for employment and hired him immediately. McLachlan and his family went to Alma and lived with the Harkness family for five years. Robert Harkness said it was sometimes hard to get men to work but with James McLachlan the trouble was to keep him from working too hard, and so it was all through his life. Whatever he put his hand to he put his whole energy into it and soon became a most successful and prosperous farmer. He was also a thorough Christian gentleman. He was most popular in the district and was persuaded to stand for Parliament where he served his district faithfully until ill-health forced him to retire.
David Finlayson was another Scotsman who came to Alma in its early days as manager of the Alma general store then owned by Harkness, Lawrie and McLachlan. When it changed hands he opened a business at Baker's Corner, about half-way between Alma township and Hamley Bridge, and when the scrub country to the west was opened up he moved to Owen where he carried on a successful business for many years. He was assisted by a most capable wife. Whenever anyone was sick or in trouble they would go to Mr and Mrs Finlayson for help and it was never refused even if it was in the middle of the night. Hard times came to Alma and many of the people left for better pastures. Some of the descendants who hung on were well rewarded with coming of super as Alma became one of the best wheat growing districts in the State.(l)
During 1865-1866, H.S.Earl travelled through the country districts of South Australia.
On Lord 's Day, September 9th preached on Alma Plains, about fifty miles north of Adelaide, and near the residence of Bro. John Lawrie, formerly of Kilmarnock, Scotland. The building was crowded by an attentive audience about three hundred, some of them having travelled more than thirty miles to attend the meeting. . . The following Lord's Day I preached at Willunga, We have no church in this place . . .(2)
The membership of the South Australian churches was recorded in the Harbinger, September 1865. (3)
T.J. Gore was South Australia's most eminent speaker before the turn of the century. Another notable preacher of the time, James Webb came to South Australia in June 1867, and resided at Stirling East where he conducted his main work. But his intention was also to visit at intervals Alma Plains, Auburn and Two Wells. Early the following year Webb reported a visit to Alma where he had good meetings and although there weren't any additions to the church he believed the people were greatly encouraged. He found the people had been going through a difficult time having to cope with an outbreak of diphtheria, a number of the families losing children.
After living at Alma for about ten years John Lawrie felt the opportunities for evangelism in his near neighbourhood pretty well exhausted. Membership at the time, August 1868, was 60.
Anniversary tea meetings were a real occasion of outing and country hospitality. One Friday in October 1868 was no exception. People came from all over the area and as there were too many to fit into the chapel the speaker Thomas Porter of Hindmarsh stood on a wagon and gave a short speech. But as night was drawing on all who could squeezed into the chapel.
It was customary for a number of speakers to address these meetings. John Lawrie was frequently on the same platform as T.J.Gore, T.Magarey, P.Santo and other prominent men of the time. Lawrie travelled to Hindmarsh December 1869 and joined as one of the speakers to farewell Bro.Kidner who was leaving on a short visit to England. John was one the speakers at Milang's first anniversary February 1870, and also at Two Well's first anniversary, March 1870.
John was pleased to report that eleven young people from the Alma Sunday School were immersed and added to the church in May. Training in the Christian life and development of spiritual gifts were of utmost importance to John. Aside from Sunday School, the Alma church had Adelphian Societies and training sessions for members of the church. Here some of the devoted young people had good opportunities of improving their gifts and acquiring Biblical knowledge. In respect to Sunday School teachers he said,
they should be competent to instruct their scholars so thoroughly that in time they will be qualified in their turn to become school masters. The church is Christ's school or college: the whole doctrine of Christ is to be learned there from the Bible; valuable help is now to be had from other books. Every-one who has got light or knowledge is enjoined not to hide it, but to set it up, like a lighted candle on a table, to give light to all the family. That man who seeks for knowledge for himself alone will never know much: but he who digs for truth for the advantage of his fellows will grow in knowledge... Then, if our churches be for ever learning, and do not become competent in time to become teachers, the Word of God cannot run throughout the world. (4)
These words were written in relation to the churches co-operating particularly with a State evangelist. John had always had this dream of itinerant preachers, being a strong advocate during his years in Scotland.
Despite some of Lawrie's earlier misgivings that the Alma church had come to the end of its evangelistic opportunities, the church continued to grow. By August 1871 he was able to report that the congregation had unanimously agreed to pull down the old chapel and erect a new one to seat twice as many people.
Early the next year John addressed the annual meeting at Reeves Plains where he related the "history of the Church of Christ since his connection with it, having had some thirty-seven years' experience."
Twelve months after the decision to build a larger chapel, John reported the membership at Alma had increased to 99. On their new building he said,
We have now been three first days in our new chapel, As brethren may feel interested to know the financial position, the total cost in money outlay has been nearly £350. All the cartage has been done by the members, and a great deal of work that we could do conveniently. If all had to be paid for, I calculate a total cost of £500 or thereby, thus we are left with a debt of £100 which we propose to liquidate if the Lord favour us with a good harvest . . . The sitting accommodation in our new chapel will be over 200, the area is exactly double that we had in our old chapel. (5)
There was a good harvest the next year and the debt was wiped out. In fact there followed a number of good seasons and the church prospered correspondingly. The church also built a schoolmaster's residence nearby to house the preacher who also carried out the extra duties of providing the children with a general education.
For many years John regularly preached at Two Wells, Mallala, Reeves Plains and at Alma, only relinquishing his great love due to his aging years and deteriorating health. (Around Alma he was always referred to as the 'Preacher'. On one occasion a young man came to John and said he wanted to talk to him about a problem he had. "Yes, what is it?" asked John. "Well", said the young man, "someone has been saying things about me that I don't like". All the advice he got from John was, "Well, if it's lees it dus nae matter, if it's the truth it mae be bad!")
Other prominent men he preached alongside were: H.Warren, J.Colbourne, R.Woolcock, G.Day, J.Hales, R.C.GiImour, S.Kidner and H.Hussey. Lawrie joined with other speakers one evening in April, I874, to farewell T.J.Gore, a very dear friend of his who was leaving on a short trip to America.
A news item appeared in the Australian Christian Pioneer four months later relating the acknowledgment of the work of John Lawrie at Alma.
From the commencement of the Alma Christian church Bro. Lawrie has been unwearied in his labours as a proclaimer of the truth and a teacher in the church; and he now occupies the honourable position of a father in a church of about 100 members. A book-shelf and a few choice volumes were presented to him ...Bro. Lawrie in acknowledging the gift, said that in this act of kindness the brethren had taken him by surprise. He then favoured us with an account of his religious history.
A scroll was also presented to John and its inscription began,
While rejoicing in the fact that the Disciples of Christ form one common brotherhood we, nevertheless, feel it our duty to give due honour to those who are employed in teaching and watching over the interests of the church...
(Signed) William Howard, Robert Harkness, James
McLachlan, Richard Woolcock. Alma, 1st July, 1874. (6)
John was a delegate to the Preliminary Co-operation meeting of Churches of Christ, March 29th. 1875. His concern for the country churches was indicated in his plea that evangelists should work in the new agricultural areas where people were moving to live.