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Bertram Russell Wyllie (1894–1986)

by Reginald Barrett

Bertram Russell Wyllie (1894-1986), Methodist clergyman, was born on 9 May 1894[1] at Barrington near Devonport, the eldest of six children of farmer, James Wyllie, and his wife, Mary Ann (nee Russell), whose Wesleyan families had arrived in northern Tasmania in the 1860s.[2] He left primary school at 13 to work on the family farm,[3] became a local preacher in the Sheffield Methodist circuit[4] and, at age 22, enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force.[5] He saw action as a private with the 15th Machine Gun Company[6] in the third battle of Ypres and at Villers-Bretonneux, Peronne and the Hindenburg Line.[7] He returned to Tasmania in August 1919.[8]

Having obtained deferment on account of war service,[9] he was accepted as a candidate for the Methodist ministry in February 1921.[10] After matriculating at the University of Melbourne, he entered Queen’s College and graduated Master of Arts (1924)[11] and Bachelor of Divinity (1926).[12] He was ordained at Wesley Church, Melbourne, on 4 March 1926[13] and served for the next three years as travelling secretary of the Australian Student Christian Movement (SCM) in which he had been active at the university, including as Melbourne branch president in 1922.[14] As travelling secretary, he visited universities throughout Australia to further and consolidate the work of the movement and to pursue its tradition of liberal theology and Christian outreach.[15] In 1928, he was an Australian representative at meetings of the World Student Christian Federation at Mysore, India.[16]

His first circuit appointment was at Swan Street, Hobart, where he became minister in charge in 1929.[17]  He later served as superintendent at Hamilton, Victoria (1934-39)[18] and Yarra Street, Geelong (1939-43).[19] On 8 March 1933 at Adelaide, he married with Methodist forms Mabel Gertrude Jenkin, the younger daughter of engineer William Herbert Jenkin.[20] She was a teacher at St Margaret’s School, Melbourne,[21] having graduated from the University of Adelaide[22] where she was an active member of the SCM.[23]

In April 1943, Wyllie succeeded Rev L. E. Bennett as master of Wesley College at the University of Sydney.[24] “The Methodist” newspaper reported that the new master had “a magnetic personality, a most friendly spirit, a well-trained and resourceful mind and an ardent gift of leadership” and, through his work with the SCM, had “exercised a deep influence and enjoyed a wide popularity in the universities of the Commonwealth”.[25] Wyllie knew the college well.  He had resided there as vice-master during 1928 while attached to the SCM.[26] A tall man with a ready laugh, he gained the respect of the all-male student body who saw him as forthright and firm yet fair.[27] They dubbed him “The Ram” and, in a gesture of unconscious affection, adopted that animal as their mascot.[28] He put the chapel and its daily service at the centre of college life.[29]  While attendance was never compulsory, students knew that it was advisable, particularly after some infraction.[30] He promoted the traditional Methodist values of Sunday observance[31] and abstinence from alcohol.  Throughout the 22 years of his principalship, alcohol was forbidden in the college, a rule that sometimes led to friction.[32]

Within the university, he aligned himself again with the SCM, becoming state chairman and Australian vice-chairman in 1944.[33]  The movement had consolidated its role as a spur for social justice and political involvement, with a conviction that being a Christian brought with it commitment to socially conscious involvement in the life of the nation, the region and the world.[34] This accorded with Wyllie’s own practical Christianity which, firmly rooted in scripture, was based on a progressive theology that rejected conservative fundamentalism[35] and brought Bible study to bear on the problems of daily life.[36] He was to lament in later life the SCM’s “death by poisoning from neo-liberal theology”.[37]

During his visit to India in 1928, Wyllie had been briefly a guest of Mahatma Gandhi.[38] Gandhi’s philosophy of peace and non-violence became a recurring point of reference in his prolific preaching and writing.[39] This and his involvement in the Council for Civil Liberties[40] and Rotary International[41] reflected his belief that Christian values could be found in non-Christian settings.  One theme to which he constantly returned was world peace.  Deeply affected by the horrors of the first world war, he spoke out strongly against the forces that led to the second and roundly condemned the advent of nuclear weapons.[42] As early as 1931, he advocated greater support for the League of Nations in opposing rearmament.[43] As the second world conflict progressed, he warned that the peace would be hollow without determination to eradicate unemployment and other social ills that had been among its causes.[44] In the wake of the deployment of atomic bombs in August 1945, he joined with two other prominent Methodists in warning that if the Allies persisted on that course – one he later said had inflicted permanent moral injury on mankind[45] – they would suffer a devastating blow to their claim to moral leadership.[46]  

In 1943, more than half the college’s student rooms were occupied by the Royal Australian Air Force.[47] Wyllie was commissioned as a chaplain with the rank of flight lieutenant.[48] In the postwar period, he sought out and welcomed as members of the college a cohort of returned service personnel[49] and, after 1951,[50] a growing number of Colombo Plan and other students from Australia’s northern neighbours.[51] During the 1960s, he oversaw extension of both the chapel and the dining hall and the construction of a new wing containing accommodation for a further 50 students, an undergraduate common room, and a library.[52]

He served[53] as secretary (1955-56) and president (1957) of the New South Wales Methodist Conference, chairman of the Central Sydney Methodist District (1957-64), a member of the Joint Commission on Church Union (from 1957), state chairman and federal vice-chairman of the Australian National Committee for the United Nations (through which he was instrumental in establishing UNICEF in Australia), a member of the executive (1947-65) and chairman (1964-65) of the Australian Council of Churches, a member of the board of the Methodist Overseas Mission, and (from 1956)[54] chairman of the Australian Board of Vellore Christian Medical College, South India, with which he had a long association in company with Dr Reginald Walker. 

Wyllie retired as master of Wesley College at the end of 1964[55], aged 70.  He remained active, including as Deputy Chancellor of the university, a position he occupied from 1966 to 1969,[56] after election to the senate by graduates in 1954.[57] His membership of the Australian Broadcasting Control Board’s advisory committee on religious programs continued into the 1970s.[58] Survived by his wife, their daughter and two sons,[59] he died at his home at Greenwich, Sydney, on 5 September 1986[60] and was remembered at a service of thanksgiving in the Wesley College chapel six days later.[61] The wing added to the college in 1961 is named for him,[62] as is a scholarship awarded annually to a student who would find it difficult to attend university without financial assistance.[63] Joshua Smith’s portrait, which was short-listed for the 1963 Archibald Prize,[64] hangs in the college.[65]

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Citation details

Reginald Barrett, 'Wyllie, Bertram Russell (1894–1986)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 13 June 2024.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012