Small Religious Groups In Australia

The Standard Edition of the CD-Rom, Australia’s Religious Communities: A Multimedia Exploration, has 28 religious groups on its menu. Among these, 16 are major Christian denominations, 6 other religious groups, 5 families of religions and no religion. Together, these covered the religious identity of approximate 17.4 million Australians and every group with more than 5,000 people identifying with it according to the 1996 Census. The Professional Edition of the CD-Rom details another 90 small religious groups with less than 5,000 people identifying. What are these groups and where have they come from?

The list we have prepared for the Professional Edition has its origins in a database of new religious movements which was developed by Dr Rowan Ireland at LaTrobe University in 1996. We are most grateful to Dr Ireland and his team which compiled the list, contacted religious groups and gathered information about them.
Dr Ireland’s list concentrated on groups which had come to Australia within the last fifty years, although it did include some much older groups. To that list, we added some ancient world religions which are represented in Australia by just a few people and some small Christian denominations, such as the Religious Society of Friends. We checked the detailed list of religious groups prepared by the Australian Bureau of Statistics from the 1996 Census. The other major source was the work of Rowland Ward and Robert Humphreys, published in Religious Bodies in Australia: A Comprehensive Guide. We have not included all the bodies mentioned in Ward and Humphreys, but only those whose continued existence we have been able to verify independently either through direct contact, the availability of census statistics or through the telephone book. We have sought to contact all the organised groups in the list, checking with them the information that we had obtained from these various sources. Most of them have responded to our requests and have provided such information.

Ancient World Religions

Among the ancient world religion which are included in Professional Edition are Zoroastrianism, Shintoism and Taoism. Zoroastrianism is probably 3000 or more years old and was the major religion in Persia. Having been largely superceded by Islam in that region, Zoroastrianism was kept alive in a part of India. Recent immigration has brought some Zoroastrians to Australia.

Taoism is an ancient religion of China, while Shintoism is a development of ancient tribal and animistic religious beliefs in Japan. A religion with a thousand years of history is Druse. Drawing on some themes from Christian and Islamic sources, along with its own teachings, the Druse faith is found in some parts of Syria, Lebanon and Israel, and has come to Australia with recent immigration.

In many places around the world, people may practise several ‘layers’ of religious beliefs drawn from different sources. For example, in many parts of the world, ancient animistic beliefs in a world populated by spiritual beings associated with a range of living and other natural objects such as trees, rocks and rivers continue to be held. Belief that the spirits of one’s ancestors are still around and should be respected are also common in many places. Such beliefs are overlaid with the philosophies of Buddhism, and sometimes with Christian or Islamic beliefs.

For many people, Confucianism a moral code and instructions about the ordering of society. Confucianism is also combined with Buddhism and other beliefs. Thus, the small numbers of people in the 1996 Census who described their religion as ‘animism’, ‘ancestor worship’ or ‘Confucianism’ represents only a very small proportion of the people for whom these traditions form part of their religious heritage.

Modern Immigrant

Several more modern religions from Asia have arrived in Australia largely through immigration. Caodism arose in Viet Nam around 1920. A Vietnamese man claimed to have contact to a great spirit, Cao Dai. Sukyo Mahikari is a Japanese religion based on claims of revelation of the light of the Creator God received by a Mr Yoshikazu Okada. Tenrikyo is another Japanese religion, established in the late 19th century, by Nakayama Miki who claimed revelation of the divine.
More recent is Subud, which arose out the extra-ordinary spiritual experiences of Muhammed Subuh Sumohadiwidjojo, a Javanese man. The movement has spread internationally since World War II.

Small Denominations with a Christian Heritage

Religious Society of Friends

Since the Reformation there have been a number of movements which have resulted in the formation of new denominations. Those central to the movement have generally been large, while, in general it might be said that the groups which have taken more extreme positions have remained smaller and more peripheral.

On the periphery of the Reformation itself, in the 17th century, was the Quakers or the Religious Society of Friends. They took more seriously than most the reformation idea that the spirit of God could inspire all people. Consequently, the saw no need for ordained clergy or prepared services of worship. Rather, in worship, the group gathered to wait for God’s spirit to guide them. The Religious Society of Friends continues to be a small but active group in Australia.


In the 18th century, many Christians sought to combine new understandings of the natural laws on which the world operated with their Christian beliefs. Some found it hard to reconcile ideas such as the Trinity within that context, and for many, the idea of the miraculous seemed incongruous with the evolving understanding of science. Some of these people developed Unitarian ideas, identified by the rejection of the idea of the Trinity. For many years, there have been a few churches in Australia which have been explicitly unitarian.

The Holiness Movement

The end of the 18th century saw revival, led by the teaching of John Wesley and leading to the formation of the Methodist Church. A renewal of Wesleyanism in the late 19th century, particularly in the United States, stressing the need for the holiness of Christians, led to the formation of several new denominations which are now represented in Australia. These include the Wesleyan Methodists, the Church of the Nazarene and the Christian and Missionary Alliance. (Another denomination which emerged out of the holiness movement and renewal of Wesleyan ideas was the Salvation Army.)

Apostolic Churches

Another Christian movement of the early19th century arose from the teaching of Edward Irving, originally a Presbyterian minister. Irving believed that it was important to recover the faith of the early church. For him, this meant recovering the miraculous gifts of which the New Testament speaks, such as the gift of speaking in tongues and of prophesy. Irving also believed that the Christ would come again to the earth in the near future, and that people needed to prepare for that. Most churches were not at all open to the idea of the ‘miraculous gifts’ being practised, and consequently a new denomination was formed, known as the Catholic Apostolic Church. Irving’s followers looked for the patterns of worship in the traditions of the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic churches. The ideas spread to Europe and to other parts of the world. However, disagreements over leadership of the group led to several different denominations being formed, two of which are found in Australia including the New Apostolic Church and the Apostolic Church of Queensland.

In many ways, the teaching of Irving pre-empted a variety of themes from which later emerged a great variety of other denominations. The emphasis on miraculous gifts emerged again with the Pentecostal churches. The emphasis on returning to the New Testament patterns of church life emerged in the churches of the restoration movement including the Brethren, the Churches of Christ and the Christadelphians. The emphasis on the second coming of Christ emerged again in the Seventh-day Adventists and the Jehovah’s Witnesses amongst others.

Millennial groups

The Seventh-day Adventist church emerged in the United States in the latter half of the 19th century. It also stressed the holiness of its followers, the ‘restoration’ of the importance of Old Testament teaching and rules, and the coming again of Jesus Christ to the earth. A more extreme expression of some of these ideas was found in the World Wide Church of God which developed from the teaching of Herbert W. Armstrong in the 1930s. The World Wide Church of God has since moved considerably in its teaching to a more traditional evangelical stance, but has splintered in the process.

A quite different approach to the second coming of Christ was taken by a German group which sought to prepare for the second coming by establishing communities in Israel. This group, known as the Temple Society, was expelled from Israel, and some of its members found their way to Australia.

Christian Science

While some new denominations which emerged in the late 19th century and early 20th century in the United States emphasised holiness, others stressed the idea of healing and wholeness which Christianity offered, often with a emphasis on spiritual healing. Among these were Christian Science, inspired by the teaching of Mary Baker Eddy and the Unity School of Christianity.

Other 20th Century Groups with a Christian Heritage

The Ratana movement which developed from the experiences of healing of a Maori man by the name of Tahupotiki Witemu Ratana in the 1920s, also combined Christian teaching with a special emphasis on healing.
The Jesus movement of the 1970s has come and largely gone. People caught in the enthusiasm of that movement have entered various denominations, and have encouraged the growth of the charismatic movement in Australia. However, one small specific remnant of that movement remain. The Family, formerly known as The Children of God, has put into practise the communitarian ideals of that movement.
Another modern movement which has arisen from Christian commitment which has not found a place within pre-existing churches and denominations is the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Churches. This Fellowship has sought bring together groups of gay Christians.

The Spiritualism Movement


While the Unitarians of the 18th century grappled with Christian faith and science in one way, another approach was pioneered by Emanuel Swedenborg. Swedenborg was a greater thinker who influenced a range of developments in science as well as theology. He believed that science and theology could be reconciled, but did so within the context of emphasising the distinctiveness of the spiritual and material realms. Swedenborg was influenced strongly by some special religious experiences and visions which confirmed, for him, the new directions in his thinking.
Followers of the teaching of Swedenborg developed societies and churches through which his teaching could be studied and his expressions of religious faith practised. A family of closely connected churches in Australia associate themselves directly with the teaching of Swedenborg including the New Church in Australia and the Church of the New Jerusalem.

Blavatsky and Olcott and Theosophy

Ideas of the division between spiritual and material realms were taken a step further by Helena Blavatsky and Henry Olcott who both lived in New York in latter part of the 19th century. They believed that there was some spiritual truth in most religions, and were attracted to the Eastern religions of Hinduism and Buddhism as providing insights into the mystical and spiritual dimensions of life. At the same time, they believed that the spiritual dimension of life could be examined scientifically. There were natural spiritual laws which were known by some of the ancient and Eastern religions, which could be discovered and which people could put into practise in order to find harmony with the divine principles.

Blavatsky and Olcott began the Theosophical movement which first found its way into Australia late in the 19th century. Due to differences of emphasis and authority of leadership, the Theosophical movement has developed a range of expressions. In particular, Rudolf Steiner, developed expressions of Theosophical ideas which gave greater importance to Christianity, and expressed in Anthroposophy. W. C. Leadbeater, a former Anglican minister, combined Christianity and Theosophical ideas in the formation of the Liberal Catholic Church. Alice Bailey, on the other hand, stressed the more esoteric side of Theosophy, giving rise to several groups including the Arcane School, the Sydney Goodwill Unit of Service and the Australian Transmission Meditation Network.


The ideas about there being a spiritual world and that it was possible to make contact with that spiritual world were developed by the Spiritualists. The ideas of mediums being able to communicate with the spirit world had been around in various ways for a long time. However, interest in such ideas took off in the mid 19th century in the United States. Seances and mediums became popular. For some people, these ideas were of peripheral interest, while for others they became a fully-blown religion which regular services at which contact with spirits might be made and moral teaching about how one’s actions which influence the spiritual sphere which one’s spirit would enter at death.

While spiritualist ideas have been in Australia since the mid 19th century, there has been renewed interest in them as expression of some New Age ideas. There are several groups in Australia which continue the traditions of spiritualism. These include the Aquarian Spiritualist Centre, the Church of Spiritual Unity, the Church Universal and Triumphant, and the Victorian Spiritual Union.

Secret Knowledge

Some groups have focussed on the idea of there being ‘secret spiritual or esoteric’ laws or rules which would provide the key to a life in harmony with the divine or with divine forces of the universe. Such ideas have emerged at various times in history. The Gnostic Sects of the 2nd century AD could be described in such a way.

Another group emerged in Germany in the 17th century, claiming to follow the teach of Christian Rosenkreuz who had lived 200 years earlier. This group, which became known as the Rosicrucians, claimed they had secret knowledge which was available to initiates and which could lead to people living a more satisfying life. Several groups exist in Australia which have developed from Rosicrucianism including the Rosicrucian Order (or AMORC) and Lectorium Rosicrucianum.

Similar emphases on secret knowledge made available to initiates and allowing them to live a more fulfilling life can be found in a range of other groups in Australia, such as the Holy Grail Movement which originated in Austria in the 1920s, the Builders of the Adytum, Gnostic Institute of Anthropology and the International Metaphysical Ministry. A recent American expression is The Foundation of Rosa Mystica. Two Australian groups which were founded in the 1990s in Australia with an emphasis on recovering ancient secret knowledge include the Gnostic Apostolic Church and the Path of the Heart Movement.

Scientology was founded by L. Ron Hubbard in the United States, the first Scientology Church started in 1954 in Los Angeles. Scientology. It believes that salvation is found through the full development of human’s innate spiritual capacities. Hubbard developed processes of auditing, a form of spiritual counselling, through which this development of the spiritual nature could occur. This counselling might be described as a process in which spiritual awareness is developed.

Eckankar was established in the United States in 1965 by Paul Twitchell, claiming that Eck was the essence of God as revealed by ancient religions. Eck is seen more as a life force than as a personal being. It draws on various religions, but particular on spiritualist traditions.


Aleister Crowley, born in England in 1875, has had a significant impact on a range of new religious groups. He was interested in secret knowledge not as a means of self-fulfilment but as a means of controlling situations. He explored spiritualism, magic, and witchcraft. He wrote several books which have become ‘Bibles of the Occult’ describing the apparent origins of beliefs in ancient Egyptian divinities and other ancient religions, rites and rituals, festivals and orders. Crowley encouraged people to ‘their True Will’ and to do it. An extreme expression of the sort of things Crowley taught can be found in Satanist groups.
Several small groups in Australia reflect directly the influences of Crowley, including Ordo Sinistra Vivendi, Ordo Templi Orientis, the Temple of Set and the Temple of the Vampire.

Nature Religions

Crowley has had some impact on emergence of witchcraft, neo-paganism and the nature religions. Many of these groups claim that they continue ancient beliefs and rituals which have their origins in pre-Christian times. Many involve an acknowledgement of gods in nature and rituals through which the passing of the seasons of the year are celebrated.

According to the 1996 Census, about 10,000 Australians identified with neo-pagan religions, and as a group, they are discussed in the Standard Edition of the Australia’s Religious Communities. However, several specific groups appear in the Professional Edition. These include the Church of All Worlds, the Pan Pacific Pagan Alliance and Rune-Gild.

Modern Eastern Religions

The religious heritage of India has always been open to new ideas being taught and new religious groups emerging. While some philosophical ideas such as those of karma and reincarnation are pervasive, Indian religion has generally affirmed that there can be many ways of expressing religious truth and many practices through which religious truth can be found. Consequently, various teachers or gurus will develop their own paths.

In the 1960s, a new level of interest in Eastern religious teaching spread through the Western world. A variety of new gurus emerged, and a host of yoga and meditation schools were established, each with their own meditation techniques, yoga positions and mantras.

A range of groups can be found in Australia. Some of these claim to be encompassing religions, such as the Hare Krishna movement, while others claim merely to provide meditation techniques and not religions at all.


These small religious groups can be classified and grouped in a range of ways. (See, for example, the discussion by Rowan Ireland in Bouma 1999 and the form of classification in Ward and Humphreys.)

Why have such a great number of groups emerged? Part of the story has to do with the extent to which a religion can ‘carry’ the experiences, the values and the beliefs of a culture. The middle class which emerged at the time of the Renaissance could not contain its interests within the established churches in Europe, and a range of new denominations arose, including the Baptists, the Congregationalists and the Religious Society of Friends. Again, at the time of the Industrial revolution, new religious expressions have emerged.

Particularly since the end of the 18th century, there has been wave after wave of religious movements seeking solution to the human condition in an emphasis on holiness, or on the restoration of church structures of the New Testament times, preparation for the Second Coming of Christ, or on the personal experience of God through ‘miraculous gifts’. From each of these movements has emerged a variety of new denominations or religious groups.

When new groups emerge, there is immediately the potential for fragmentation. Many groups have emerged around the teaching of a charismatic individual, such John Wesley, Emanuel Swedenborg or Edward Irving. Yet, as successors take on leadership, there are often struggles of authority leading to divisions which may last for centuries.

A variety of religions have emerged as people have sought, in a variety of ways, to combine the traditions of religion, the theories and findings of science and deep personal experiences which are indicative of spiritual realm of reality.

Since the 1960s, the religious turmoil has been particularly great. Many have rejected the well-established traditions and structures of religion. People’s experiences of life often accompanied by cynicism of traditions and institutions, people’s new-found sexual freedom, their desire for extra-ordinary experiences have led them in search of new possibilities. Among the places where people have searched are pre-Christian European nature religions, Eastern religions and spiritual or occult religions. A multitude of small religious groups have emerged as a response. Whether many of these continue into the future, or whether most fade away as rapidly as the generation which explored them, remains to be seen.

Philip Hughes

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