According to historians of early 20th century Australia, around the time of World War I, many members of the “chattering classes” were anxious concerning the perils confronting nation-building efforts on the Island Continent. Dredge the newspapers of the era and one encounters a litany of hand-wringing over “national fitness”, “race purity”, “racial interbreeding” or the fragility in the remote Australian outposts of “white European culture”.

Elite paranoia hit new heights when contemplating the agricultural nation’s apparent failure to prevent the propagation of feeble-minded, defective or medically inferior Australians. The journalist T.W. Heney, the first local-born editor of The Sydney Morning Herald, voiced this concern in a 1926 article in The West Australian which scolded the perceived inconsistency which made it “a national object worthy of our utmost attention to breed the best cattle, horses, sheep, pigs, poultry, flowers, wheat [and] vegetables” yet neglected the need “to cultivate our own race”. While lamenting that he mightn’t live to see it, Mr Heney looked forward to a time when at every Royal Agricultural Show there “will be acclaimed not only a splendid cow or pig or horse” but also “the most beautiful children and the finest family in the State”.

In airing his views, Mr Heney signalled the rising Australian impact of the eugenics movement, a nebulous pseudoscientific coalition of amateur cranks, academic do-gooders, health bureaucrats and pointy-headed wonks wanting to achieve radical social change to ensure “higher levels of national hygiene”. Their intentions crystallised at the first International Eugenics Congress, held in London in 1912, which explored such measures as life segregation of the unfit, compulsory sterilisation, restrictive marriage laws, eugenic education campaigns, state involvement in marriage partner selection, the promotion of contraception, infanticide, euthanasia and even polygamy for people with “superior bloodlines”. According to historian Maria Quine, the congress was significant because it revealed that eugenicists were willing to “discuss openly measures that clearly ran contrary to existing law and custom in most countries”.

As Princeton historian T.C. Leonard noted in his recent Illiberal Reformers (2017, PUP), “In the first three decades of the 20th century, eugenic ideas were politically influential, culturally fashionable, and scientifically mainstream.” Showing its appeal across the political divide, leaders from the right, left and centre wove “race improvement” themes into the fabric of daily discourse. In the same way as 21st century people signal their virtue by supporting measures to allay climate change, during the interwar period people earned cosmic Brownie points by publicly decrying “the unfit” and the toll they take on future societies.

The rising influence of eugenics tested the faith and valour of church leaders across the world. After all, the Church is called to witness to the Lord Jesus Christ who, according to the New Testament narratives, shunned every noxious presupposition upon which the eugenic worldview rested. Hence, far from despising the medically imperfect, Christ went out of His way to engage with them every day.

Space allows just a few examples, yet recall how when describing the events of Holy Week, after telling how Christ cleansed the temple of profiteers, Matthew adds a key detail lacking from the parallel accounts: “And the blind and the lame came to Him in the temple, and He healed them” (Matt 21:14). Or, in Luke 14, just after healing a man with congestive heart failure, Christ told His extraordinary Parable of the Banquet, among the most potently anti-eugenic texts of all times. Finding his dinner invitations refused by the excuse-making upper-crust, “the master of the house became angry and said to his servant, ‘Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame’.” (Luke 14:21).

Eugenicists loathed the concern for the needy that Christ bequeathed to His followers, viewing it as an obstacle blocking their social ambitions. Their outlook is seen in sentiments expressed by D.H. Lawrence, the transgressive British novelist who was adored within English Lit classes at high schools in my youth. In a letter written in 1908, Lawrence crudely inverted the Parable of the Banquet: “If I had my way, I would build a lethal chamber as big as the Crystal Palace, with a military band playing softly, and with a Cinematograph working brightly, and then I’d go out in back streets and main streets and bring them all in, all the sick, the halt, and the maimed: I would lead them gently, and they would smile at me.” In the 1930s, when I.G. Farben factories made cyanide-releasing Zyklon B capsules for use in Nazi gas chambers, they followed a script not unfamiliar to the cultural vanguard across the English Channel.

We might imagine that the churches of that era boldly withstood these mad eugenic impulses. Unfortunately, however, in mainline Protestant churches of all theological stripes, the moral vision enthroned within Christ’s Kingdom was incapacitated as progressive clergy fell prey to the Virus of Eugenic Obsessions. Within Australian Protestantism in particular, vocal church leaders throughout the Federation began urging their denominations to support bold pro-eugenic measures. Hosting the formation of the first Australian eugenics society in 1911, Adelaide, our dear old “City of Churches”, emerged as a leading antipodean centre of eugenic activism. Historians have speculated that as a key centre for Lutheran migration, Adelaide was susceptible to ideas imported from Germany, then a hotbed of theological modernism and eugenic thought.

Several prominent South Australian clergy encouraged the fledgling cause, including J.C. Kirkby, a noted Congregational minister from the seaside parish of Port Adelaide. His forceful eugenic views are displayed in a February 13, 1912, opinion piece in The Register, now The Adelaide Advertiser, in which he argued that governments should rate eugenic objectives above either management of State finances or labour reforms, since “the supreme question for the community is hygienic”. Kirkby proceeded to lambast conventional “curative medicine” which merely addressed the medical needs of “the diseased, broken, weak, and deformed”. He broodingly wondered whether traditionally-minded doctors might be doing more harm than good since they served “to weaken the fabric of humanity as a whole”. Their efforts to heal the sick fell afoul of sound eugenic theory because “alas, many of those diseased weaklings preserved in existence by medical skill are allowed to become parents, and so to produce a type of feeble and diseased human beings”.

Scholars of 20th century liberal Protestantism often identify two wings to the movement, with the “hard Modernists” who repudiated all tenets of historic Christianity on the left and the “Evangelical Liberals” on the right who typically upheld most key concerns of historic Nonconformist theology. According to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, the Reverend Kirkby was a noted church leader who inhabited the latter rather than the former grouping; in its estimate, “he was devoted to ‘The Theology of the Glorious Blood’ and steadfastly opposed to higher criticism of the Bible.”

What drove this respected Adelaide pastor into his mad, eccentric obsession with eugenics in old age? The hint of an answer is supplied by his entry in the Biographical Dictionary which suggests Kirkby embraced an unstable belief system which tried to marry “an open-mindedness towards Darwinism” to the old orthodox Congregational faith. The embarrassing newspaper trail that reveals his appalling biomedical bigotries to subsequent generations leads to the same conclusion that Icarus likely reached during his famous ascent from Crete; as the sun’s heat began melting the wax attaching the feathers to his arms, Icarus finally realised that some things just can’t be done.