Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement/Cunningham, John
CUNNINGHAM, JOHN (1819–1893), historian of the Scottish church, son of Daniel Cunningham, ironmonger, was born at Paisley on 9 May 1819. Educated at two preparatory schools and the grammar school in Paisley, he matriculated at Glasgow University in 1836, and earned high distinction in a curriculum of four sessions. In 1840 he became a student in Edinburgh University under Sir William Hamilton and Professor Wilson, and was gold medallist with both, besides gaining Wilson's prize for a poem on 'The Hearth and the Altar' (Brown, Paisley Poets, ii. 117). Completing at Edinburgh his studies for the church of Scotland, Cunningham was licensed to preach by the presbytery of Paisley in the spring of 1845, and, after a short assistantship at Lanark, was ordained in August of that year parish minister of Crieff, Perthshire. Holding this charge for forty-one years he became one of the leaders of the church, his pulpit ministrations and his ecclesiastical and public work evincing distinct individuality, freshness, and vigour. He was prominent in promoting the act of parliament which opens appointments in the church of Scotland to members of all Scottish presbyterian bodies, and he also helped strenuously to secure the act which simplifies for ministers and elders the signature of the confession of faith. He was a pioneer among Scottish theologians in advocating the introduction of instrumental music into church, and the 'Crieff organ case' in the church courts of 1867 stirred much excitement and controversy. He ultimately won, and the example was soon widely followed.
Crieff becoming a fashionable health resort, the handsome church of St. Michael's, with a new organ, was substituted for the old parish church, and presently an assistant was appointed to lighten the work of the minister. Active for the welfare of his parish, Cunningham was chaplain of the local volunteers from 1859 to 1888, and for forty-two years he was a trustee and governor of Taylor's Educational Institution, Crieff. In 1886 he was chosen moderator of the general assembly of the church of Scotland, and in the same year he was appointed principal of St. Mary's College, St. Andrews, in succession to Principal Tulloch. He received the degree of D.D. from Edinburgh University in 1860, and that of LL.D. from Glasgow in 1886. Trinity College, Dublin, also conferred on him its honorary LL.D. in 1887. He died at St. Andrews on 1 Sept. 1893, and was interred in the cathedral burying-ground.
Cunningham married, in 1846, Susan Porteous, daughter of William Murray, banker, Crieff, and was survived by her and two sons and two daughters. The younger son, Dr. D. J. Cunningham, became distinguished as professor of anatomy at Dublin University.
In 1859 Cunningham published in two volumes 'Church History of Scotland,' carrying the narrative to 1831. In a second revised edition (1882) he reaches 1843, characteristically describing the Free Church secession. Displaying due narrative power and discrimination, and strengthened and illuminated by courageous individuality of opinion and relevant flashes of humour, Cunningham's 'History' is a work of abiding interest and authoritative value. 'The Quakers, an International History,' appeared in 1869; 2nd edit. 1897. Metaphysical from his youth, and an occasional contributor of philosophical articles to the 'Westminster' and 'Edinburgh' Reviews, Cunningham published in 1874 a suggestive but not specially convincing treatise which, however, he thought his best book entitled 'New Theory of Knowing and Known.' He was the author of two numbers in the renowned 'Scotch Sermons' of 1880. In his Croall lectures on 'The Growth of the Church,' 1886, he recognised the potency of evolution in ecclesiastical development, discrediting at the same time the prelatical theory of the divine right of ministers.
[Private information; Scotsman, 2 Sept.; Athenæum of 9 Sept. 1893; personal knowledge.]