Julia Steed And The Hessian Tent

This month is women’s history month and as we celebrate the stories of inspiring and inspired women around the world and throughout history, I think it’s important that we recount the stories of women who have made a difference for God in their sphere of influence. Sometimes the most inspiring and empowering stories can be found in the most obscure places. Like a hessian tent set up in Broken Hill, New South Wales, Australia in the year 1889.

The tent was home to the Steed family, originally from South Australia but recently moved to Broken Hill, New South Wales. Joseph and Julia Steed found themselves living in a makeshift home in a small frontier mining town in the middle of the Australian Outback by choice rather than circumstance. In 1886 they had attended a series of evangelistic meetings held in Norwood, South Australia and had been drawn to the truths that had been preached there. Julia had heard about the meetings from her midwife Elizabeth Semple.

Julia was so convicted by what she heard that she decided to be baptised in June of 1887. Joseph, though drawn to the message, hesitated. He ran a booming and extremely lucrative business as an interior designer alongside his father and some of the messages he heard during the meetings seemed to be at variance with his business interests.

In fact, they cut deeply across them.

One of the more prominent issues was most likely the Sabbath. Running a family business in partnership with family members who didn’t have the same views on the Sabbath most likely made things complicated as did the prospect of having to shut down his business during the Sabbath hours.

Joseph held back for a year and continued to study the Bible, finally choosing to be baptised in 1888. After his baptism, Joseph’s life took a completely different turn. Separating himself from the family business he chose to engage in the work of preaching the message that had made such a difference in his life.

This meant a significant drop in the family income and a significant change in their living conditions. Enter the hessian tent in the middle of the Australian Outback which became their home in 1889. Julia chose to place herself beside her husband as an uncomplaining partner and teammate on the new adventure they were embarking on. They had three children and Joseph decided to travel between Adelaide and Broken Hill on a bicycle selling literature from door to door. This meant that he was rarely at home.

In fact, his presence in the home was so rare that one day Julia overheard her children telling the neighbour’s children that their father was dead. Distressed she wrote to her husband “come home, your family thinks you are dead!”

Life in the Australian Outback in the late 19th century was not easy. Broken Hill is a frontier mining town located 500 kilometres to the south-east of Adelaide, the capital of South Australia and the closest major city. Sydney, the capital of New South Wales is over 1000 kilometres away. Broken Hill is surrounded by a semi-desert landscape which means that winters, though mild during the day time can become frosty overnight and summers are sweltering, with the dry, baking Australian desert wind often blowing up dust storms and bringing with it swarms of thick, black flies. They wouldn’t have had the luxury of electricity and running water and the closest hospital would have been in Adelaide, which was a long train ride away.

And all of this in a tent which incidentally is also where Julia gave birth to their fourth child.

It wasn’t an easy life but it was a life she chose on account of her commitment to seeing the gospel spread across Australia.

Faithful And True

In 1893 the Steeds moved their tent to Scott Creek in the Adelaide Hills and here Julia found a friend in Ann Scragg. The two women came together as spiritual sisters to support and encourage one another as they raised their children for God. During their time in Scott Creek Ann’s young son, Walter became extremely ill. Ann called for Julia who immediately recognised the illness. Julia had lost one of her own children to a similar illness and she understood that if Walter didn’t receive the medical attention he needed that he too would die.

Grabbing the young child Julia cradled him in her arms and carried him five kilometres to the main road hoping and praying that someone would drive by and agree to give them a ride to the train station. By the grace of God a man soon rode past and gave them a lift in the back of his wagon to the station. They got there just in time to catch the weekly train to Adelaide where Walter could get the medical help he so desperately needed.

Julia Steed saved Walter Scragg’s life and he grew up to become a pastor and conference president in the Seventh-Day Adventist church and his children went on to become faithful workers for God as well.

The Steed family adventures didn’t end there. Joseph traded in his bike for a peddle paddle boat which he and his son paddled up and down the Murray River spreading the gospel in the towns along the way. Later they spent time in New Zealand and also became the first evangelists to be sent to Samoa.

The Steeds lived a vibrant, colourful and meaningful life filled with adventures that made a difference in people’s lives, not just in the present but for eternity. They made a difference in the ways that mattered most.

Julia’s story is so intertwined with her husband’s that it may seem to be obscured but the truth is it is not. Her investment as a homemaker, a wife, a mother, a friend, a spiritual sister and a mentor left a significant footprint in the early work of the Seventh-Day Adventist church in Australia.  

Her contributions may seem small but they were not. Neither were they easy but a love for God and a love for His work propelled her forward and produced in her an extraordinary amount of grit, tenacity and perseverance.

Writing about her Ellen White described her as “a lady of rare character”

This may be the first time you’re hearing Julia Steed’s story. I think it’s important that you do. Her story is a tribute to the challenges and rewards of being faithful in the ministry that God has called us to wherever that might be, however lowly and humble the place may be and however gruelling the work may be.

May we learn to be a true and faithful witness for Jesus wherever he has placed us and may stories like that of Julia Steed’s inspire us and empower us to look to Jesus for the grace to keep on going.

Further Reading

  • Bews, A. (2018) – Pedalling The Gospel: The Joseph and Julia Steed Story

Suki Goonatilleke lives in Melbourne, Australia with her husband and two daughters. She is passionate about winning people for Jesus and has served in full-time ministry at Gateway Adventist Center. Her current ministry endeavors include being a stay-at-home mom by day and writer by night.