There is no reliable or sufficient history of the Rationalist Association in Australia. The history of ‘Free-Thought’ has been poorly written up in Australia. One of the significant reasons for the oversight is the lack of philosophical investigation into the thinking. The problem of schisms and confusion among the original organisers did not stop until dissent was rounded up into the more conventional and better organised British Rationalist Association (originally the Rationalist Press Association, 1885).
Nevertheless, the early Brisbane figures were very influential in the wider society. Heber Longman is known more commonly as the husband of the greater-noted Irene Longman. Longman was Director of the Queensland Museum (1917-1945). Samuel Brookes was the noted Brisbane newspaper proprietor and the co-founder of the Brisbane Literary Circle. He was the Member for the Legislative Assembly for Fortitude Valley (1886-1888). However, the most brilliant member of the Society was James Vincent Duhig, nephew of the Archbishop. In 1942-1943 Duhig with Clem Christensen founded the Meanjin Papers.
The ilk of these gentlemen was unfortunately placed under the shadow of Joseph McCabe. McCabe was a British polemic of Irish Catholic background, whose de-conversion from the Franciscan Order led to a fundamentalist quality in the early days of British-Australian rationalism. McCabe’s extreme anti-Catholicism and poorly-constructed secularism were popularly read from his tracts, not merely among secularists but also among devout Protestant fundamentalists. McCabe was lecturing in Brisbane on his Australasia tour, in 1906, 1913, and 1923.
The history of the Society extends back to the founding of the Brisbane Freethought Association in 1884, which reformed as the Freethought Literary & Debating Society in 1886. The history did not really formalise until the establishment of the Queensland Rationalist Press Association in 1909, with Samuel Wood Brooks as the Secretary, and George Fox as the Convenor. Like the freethinkers, there was a reformation only several years later, with the Queensland Rationalist and Ethical Society, established in 1914, with a new convenor. The first President was Heber Longman. The name was then abbreviated to the merely the ‘Rationalist’ label after Brooks had extended it from the Press name – perhaps those more into ethical thought and practice (e.g. in the tradition of South Place Ethical Society) were marginalised, this is only speculation (for further research, see comments in ‘Impact’).
Ray Dahliitz. Secular Who’s Who; Rosslyn Ives. Expanded version of a contribution given at the 'Secularism in the Modern World' conference, held in Melbourne on 31 October, 2015. [https://humanist.org.au/AusHumMag]
Dahlitz, Ray. Secular Who's Who: a Biographical Directory of Freethinkers, Secularists, Rationalists, Humanists and Others involved in Australia's Secular Movement from 1850 onwards, R. Dahlitz, Balwyn, Vic, 1994.
Further research is underway.
EVOLUTION A FACT. DR. DUHIG'S SURVEY. Other Theories Capricious. MELBOURNE, January 20. Queensland Times, Monday 21 January 1935, p. 7. NLA Trove