Preacher to outlaw: Notorious bushranger provides insights into country’s religious history

12 JANUARY 2023

Preacher to outlaw: Notorious bushranger provides insights into country’s religious history

A Charles Sturt academic’s research has revealed how an infamous Australian bushranger’s journey from a preacher to a life of violent crime can provide insight into people’s actions and the religious history of Australia.

A Charles Sturt University graduate has investigated how an infamous Australian bushranger’s religious beliefs can provide insight into his behaviour.

Research by Dr Matthew Grubits (pictured, inset), a Charles Sturt graduate, focuses on the life of Andrew George Scott, aka Captain Moonlite, during his time in Australia, and how religious belief influenced the outlaw's outlook and relationships.

Dr Grubits lives in Tasmania and completed his PhD research through Charles Sturt’s School of Theology with supervision from academics from St Mark’s National Theological Centre in Canberra. He is now an Adjunct Research Associate with Charles Sturt’s School of Theology.

Scott was born in Ireland and lived in New Zealand before arriving in Australia in 1868 when he was in his early 20s. He lived in Australia until he was hanged in 1880.

Captain Moonlite committed his first robbery on May 8, 1869 at Egerton. He was eventually caught in 1879 at Wantabadgery Station, near Wagga Wagga. He was originally buried at Rookwood Cemetery in Sydney but was reinterred at Gundagai in 1995.

Scott began his career in Australia as an unlicensed lay reader for the Church of England. Dr Grubits explores whether Scott had a genuine faith and if so, what happened in subsequent years.

Dr Grubits attempts to answer the question - what happened to cause a young man who began his time in Australia as a preacher to end up hanging as a bushranger?

“I suggest that Scott's claim that he was sincere about his own religiosity is generally supported,” Dr Grubits said. 

“He took his obligations as lay reader seriously and met the expectations of his religious community. He gave up the position of lay reader on the Sunday following the Egerton Bank robbery and is not known to have been part of a church community again.”

Documents written in his condemned cell, prior to his hanging in 1880, contained numerous references to Christian belief. They were discovered about 100 years later in the Mitchell Library in Sydney.  

In later years, he criticised Christians, including the judiciary, police and prison authorities, for not showing him ‘Christian mercy’.

“The standards, therefore, by which Scott judged people's conduct towards him continued to be shaped by his understanding of Christianity,” Dr Grubits said.

“Though Scott left the church and became disillusioned with the conduct of many of those whom he took to be Christians, his outlook was shaped by Christian belief up to his death. 

“Exploring Scott's religious belief also points to the Egerton bank robbery being a pivotal moment in his life.”

Dr Grubits said these findings are crucial in understanding not only Scott’s actions but the influence of Christianity and religious beliefs in Australia at that time.

Historian Russell Ward claims that typical bushmen, including bushrangers, were ‘sceptical about the value of religion’ and, therefore, it is assumed that religion would not have had much influence on bushranger Scott.

“My study indicates that understanding the religious beliefs of historical subjects - even bushrangers, criminals, and outliers - is essential to adequately interpreting their words and actions,” Dr Grubits said. 

“In recent years, Australian historians have begun to pay greater attention to the religious beliefs and worldview of their subjects, and my study is part of this movement.”

Dr Grubits said a history PhD fills ‘a gap in literature’. Scott was a figure of public attention for a decade through the colonies of Australia and New Zealand. In more recent years, he has become a forbear for gay and queer Australians because of his relationship with his mate James Nesbitt.

“His sexuality has been discussed but his religion has not,” Dr Grubits said.

“But it requires consideration if we are to arrive at an adequate understanding of Scott. This then leads into the discussion about religion being overlooked in the lives of Australian historical subjects and the need to pay regard to it.”

Dr Grubits is working towards revising his dissertation for publication in book form and securing funding for his next research project about the history of Christianity in Australia.

“Unfortunately, there are limited opportunities for those of us wishing to undertake historical research at the academic level - which is reflective of an underappreciation of the importance of the study of history - and the humanities generally,” he said.

Media Note:

To arrange interviews with Dr Matthew Grubits, contact Nicole Barlow at Charles Sturt Media on mobile 0429 217 026 or

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Wagga Wagga Charles Sturt University Religion and Ethics