John Harris | 13 Mar 2023
A passionate lover of bringing the Bible to lonely people in lonely places
When John Harris walks into the library at St Mark’s Theological College in Canberra, he is in his natural habitat. He spends several days a week here, researching and writing. All who walk past him say hello. Many stop him in the hallways to ask him what he’s working on next. Because there’s always a ‘next’ for John Harris, a Bible translation consultant with Bible Society Australia.
John has been retired for almost 20 years, but in that time, he has done some of the work he is most proud of.
There was hope and there was sorrow and there was joy. – John Harris
He recently completed a book about Lachlan Macquarie, the Governor of NSW from 1810-1821, and his wife, Elizabeth, who played a significant role in the early colonies in her own right (including establishing the Bible Society in NSW). This book, Judging the Macquaries, was a shortlisted finalist in the Australian Christian Book of the Year awards.
And he has just overseen the launch of the Auslan Digital Bible Project. About 22 years in the making, the project has translated several books of the Bible into Australian sign language and made them available online for free for the first time.
Harris is best known for authoring One Blood, a landmark study of 200 years of Aboriginal encounter with Christianity. Published in 1990, it offered many Australians their first insights into Aboriginal Christianity, and their first exposure to the brutal truth that Christian missionaries played a role in both the best and the worst treatment of Aboriginal people during the 19th century.
The influence of One Blood, and the story it told of hope and horror on Aboriginal missions run by Christian missionaries, cannot be underestimated. At the time it was published, Harris was criticised in some quarters for being too sympathetic to the Christian missionaries, but he says he believed it was important for someone with his background to write the book.
Harris’ parents were missionaries to Aboriginal people, and Harris spent the first years of his life on an Aboriginal mission on Groote Eylandt, off the coast of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. In the preface to the first edition of One Blood, he writes, ‘I have been writing this book for most of my life.’
‘This is a warts-and-all book written by someone who loves the church, understands mission, and knows where it went wrong,’ Harris tells me. ‘It’s written by someone who understands why it went wrong but is willing to say so. And I also saw the good things.’
He believes the book played a major role in prompting Australian church denominations to make official apologies to the Aboriginal people.
‘It was published around the time the churches were really just starting to come to grips with the true impact of the Stolen Generation and all that went on in the early years of European settlement. It was important for people to hear the churches say sorry for their part in that. And, sometimes, to hear the churches say it first.’
‘There was hope and there was sorrow and there was joy. But yes, there was a lot of tragedy and there was a lot of blood. And, of course, the words ‘One blood’, that’s from the old Bible, the King James: “God hath made of one blood all nations to dwell upon the face of the earth,”’ explains Harris, referencing Acts 17:26.
You don’t put people’s names on Bible translations. It’s the word of God – not my words. – John Harris
‘That’s a much better phrase than the modern Bibles where it says something like, “God has made all people one.” It’s very wimpy. “One blood” is visceral; it’s DNA. ‘We are all human; we human beings share DNA. It’s why “one blood” is such a powerful image.’
Harris says he spent almost his whole life collecting material for One Blood, and that has not stopped. He is currently working on a third edition, to update the book with all that came after it was first published, including then-prime minister Kevin Rudd’s national apology in 2008.
‘You become your book – you can’t help it. People introduce me and say, “This is John Harris, he wrote One Blood.” It gave direction to my life, I suppose. The rest of my career was in some way going to be connected with Aboriginal people.’
In 2010, Harris was awarded a prestigious Lambeth Degree from the Archbishop of Canterbury – a Doctor of Divinity – in recognition of his ‘outstanding contribution as a Bible scholar and translator, his advocacy on behalf of Aboriginal Australians and his unstinting endeavours to raise awareness of indigenous issues within the church and the wider Australian community.’ The degree, which Harris rolls out over his dining table in his home on the outskirts of Canberra, is certainly a source of pride – an affirmation of a life of service.
Yet some of the things John Harris is most proud of in his life are things he can’t (and won’t) put his name to. After writing One Blood, Harris joined Bible Society – like his father before him – working as director of its translation and text division, responsible for work in Indigenous Australian and Pacific Island languages.
‘You don’t put people’s names on Bible translations. It’s the word of God – not my words. You never have a translator’s name on it,’ he tells me matter-of-factly.
Harris says of all the translation projects he has been a part of – and there are dozens – working with the Nyoongar people of Western Australia on their Bible has had the greatest impact on him.
People in those communities working on Bible translation projects give their whole lives to it. – John Harris
In his capacity as head of Bible Society’s translation team, Harris was approached by Nyoongar women Vivienne Sahanna and Lorna Little. They asked for help translating the Lord’s Prayer into their language so they could take copies of it on little cards into a local prison, where Vivienne visited the many Aboriginal inmates.
‘She told me that there are angry men in the jail who would never talk to a Christian about Christian things. But she said they all took a copy of the Lord’s Prayer in Nyoongar.’ That was, in part, because of the rarity of finding written materials in their own language. But also, says John, because the Lord’s Prayer in Nyoongar was a symbol of respect for their language. ‘It told them their language was real, that it mattered. And the Lord’s Prayer in Nyoongar also said, “God speaks your language”.’
The Nyoongar language is in danger of being lost, says Harris, who has viewed Bible translation work in the language as a ‘revitalisation project’. Decades of government policy which forbade the use of the Nyoongar language in schools and homes meant a generation of Nyoongar children grew up unable to understand their traditional language.
As a result, the Bible translation project in the Nyoongar language has taken several decades and continues to this day. The Gospel of Luke was published in Nyoongar in 2014, and work is under way to complete the Old Testament Book of Ruth. It’s work Harris feels so passionately about that he has chosen to continue with it into his retirement.
‘I’ve only chosen to be involved in [translations] for lonely people in lonely places, wanting the word of God in their village languages. Or damaged people in Perth, like many speakers of Nyoongar, who want the word of God to remind them that God was always present through all the tragedy. People in those communities working on Bible translation projects give their whole lives to it. And it’s a privilege to work with them.’
I’ve been adopted there and feel I have family [in Vanuatu]. I even have a chiefly rank! – John Harris
Another such project is the Havai New Testament. Harris has been heavily involved in the translation work for the people of Ambae in Vanuatu for more than 20 years. He was approached by village chiefs Joseph Mala and Rev. Charles Tari to pick up the work of martyred Australian missionary Charles Godden, who began to translate the Bible into the Havai in the 1890s – the language of the Lombaha people on the northeast of the island of Ambae. Godden was killed in 1906 and the translation work was all but forgotten.
It took 20 years to complete the New Testament in Havai, which was almost entirely done by volunteers who live off the produce of their gardens and livestock that they kept in jungle clearings.
‘Often the only time they found to work on Bible translation was late at night by candlelight or hurricane lantern,’ says Harris.
Havai is another of those ‘small languages’ in a remote part of the world that Harris has been drawn to for much of his life. Harris travelled to the island several times a year, every year, during that time. ‘I’ve been adopted there and feel I have family there. I even have a chiefly rank!’
On the day of the Havai New Testament’s dedication, Harris describes the lively and colourful procession through the jungle, where he followed the chiefs dressed in ceremonial garb and watched as the chiefs handed the Bible over to the villages’ teenagers as their gift to the next generation. The young people were the ones who carried the Bible into the church.
Harris’ voice breaks as he tells me the story, one he has told many times before.
‘The ceremony to launch the Havai New Testament was one of the most deeply meaningful moments of my whole life,’ Harris said.
His memories of the ceremony are shadowed by what has happened to the people of Ambae since 2014. Just three years later, the island was destroyed by a volcano. Two metres of ash covered the island. The ash was so thick and heavy, it razed the church. The people of Ambae have been resettled on other Pacific islands.
‘It’s human life, really – joy and tragedy so close together. One might ask: why after such a blessed occasion would God allow this to happen? But it’s not God who allowed that. We live in a fallen world, where there are fractures in the geology of the world just as there are fractures in the genetic makeup of human beings. So we have illness and disaster and tragedy. None of that will be healed until creation welcomes its redeemer back.’
I had an incredibly warm and happy childhood, and the Bible was always there. – John Harris
For most of his life, Harris has had a ‘burning desire for all people to know God, through Jesus.’ Such a love was given to him by his parents – Len and Margarita Harris, who served as missionaries with the Church Missionary Society (CMS) on Groote Eylandt before World War II, where Len began translating the Bible into Wubuy, a language widely understood along the Arnhem Land coast.
‘My parents, of course, loved the Bible. My father was a Bible translator, and they were great lovers of the Bible. I had an incredibly warm and happy childhood, and the Bible was always there; it was always on the dining room table,’ he said.
Harris learned to read from the Bible, he says, recalling how as a fidgety boy in church he was handed a big black Bible by his mother and encouraged to find the capital J's. ’Find Jesus, Johnny. Find Jesus,’ she would say to me. And I’d go and find the capital J's in the back of the Bible [the New Testament] and it would always be Jesus! ‘I still remember that. It was very good advice, you know. If life gets a bit difficult, find Jesus. I hear my mother saying it, even now.’
The influence of Harris’ parents can be seen throughout his life. As well as a Bible translator, his father was a lover of language. His mother was a teacher. Combining their passions, Harris became a teacher and soon found himself a teaching post on the island of Kiribati in the Pacific, close to the Equator, which ignited Harris’ lifetime love affair with language.
‘I think, in the way God does things, it gave me a love of the Pacific, and a love of languages – if I didn’t have that already. I loved learning the Kiribati language, I loved writing schoolbooks in language; I loved learning to read the Bible in Kiribati.’
I think Bible reading is on the decrease among Christians. We’ve got too many platforms now … – John Harris
After marrying his wife, Judy, he spent several years teaching in remote Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory, where he took on his first Bible translation work.
After 50 years as a Bible translator, Harris fears the church today is not as committed to the Bible as it used to be.
‘I think Bible reading is on the decrease among Christians. We’ve got too many platforms now, and I think deep Bible study and a love of the Bible has suffered from so much choice. And, yes, I think little languages that haven’t got the Bible can be lost in such a connected world,’ says Harris.
He is quick to add that much of the world does have access to the Bible in their ‘heart language’ – their mother tongue. ‘That’s a positive thing! We do well to remember how much work has been done. There’s probably only five per cent of the people in the world who don’t have access to a Bible in the language that speaks to their heart. But those are the people that I have a heart for. Because that’s what my dad did,’ Harris says.
Harris says he is hopeful that others will take up the mantle to ensure Bible translation work continues in the future. ‘I want to see people from within these communities take over the work for themselves. As they become Christians, and as people’s education increases, I want to see them doing it for themselves. They might not need so much help.’
But one thing is certain for John Harris: as long as plenty of people still need to know Jesus, there’s always more work to be done.
‘People need Jesus. That’s what we need. And that’s what the Bible tells us. That story needs to be in all of the languages. It needs to be everywhere. Especially in a world that wants to move away from the church, and often deservedly so. They want to turn away from the sins, the arrogance of a church that has gone off track. But the Bible is not the church. The church is full of sinful human beings. The Bible is the word of God.’