Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Duncan, John (1796-1870)

DUNCAN, JOHN, LL.D. (1796–1870), theologian, was born at Aberdeen in 1796 of very humble parentage. Receiving a small bursary, he contrived to attend the classes of Marischal College, and showed promise as a linguist and philosopher. While a student of divinity, first in the Anti-burgher Secession and then in the Established Church hall, he was at one time troubled by religious doubts. After temporary employment as a probationer he was ordained on 28 April 1836 to the charge of Milton Church, Glasgow. On the occurrence of a vacancy in the chair of oriental languages in the university of Glasgow, he offered himself as a candidate, stating in his application that he knew Hebrew, Syriac, Arabic, Persian, Sanscrit, Bengali, Hindostani, and Mahratti; while in Hebrew literature he professed everything, including grammarians, commentators, law books, controversial books, and books of ecclesiastical scholastics, and of belles-lettres. His application failed, but his college gave him the degree of LL.D. in 1840.

On 7 Oct. 1840 the committee of the church of Scotland for the conversion of the Jews appointed him their first missionary to Pesth (Budapest). Here his labours, with those of like-minded colleagues, had a remarkable effect. The Archduchess Maria Dorothea, wife of the Prince Palatine, and daughter of the king of Würtemberg, was most friendly, and helped the mission in many ways. Duncan's learning and character attracted great attention; many pastors of the reformed church of Hungary were much influenced by him, and even some Roman catholic priests attended some of his lectures. Among his converts from Judaism were the Rev. Dr. Edersheim, now a well-known clergyman of the church of England, and the Rev. Dr. Adolph Saphir, of the English presbyterian church, London.

From Pesth Duncan was recalled in 1843 to occupy the chair of oriental languages in New College, Edinburgh, the theological institution of the Free church. Here he laboured till his death in 1870. For this office he was very poorly qualified in one sense, but very admirably in another. His habits utterly unfitted him for teaching the elements of Hebrew or other languages, as well as for the general conduct of a class. But ‘his vast learning, his still more remarkable power of exact thought, and, above all, the profound reaches of his spiritual experience, which penetrated and illuminated from within the entire range of his scientific acquirements, admirably qualified him to handle the exegesis of scripture, and especially that of the Old Testament.’ As a professor he was quite unique; his absence of mind, the facility with which he was often carried away by an idea, and the unexhausted fulness of thought he would pour on it, making his class-room a place of most uncertain employment, while his profound originality, his intellectual honesty, his deep piety, and childlike simplicity, humility, and affectionateness, could not but command the respect of every student. It was in conversational intercourse with minds trained to abstract thought that his power as a thinker chiefly appeared. The results of his thought were usually given in sententious aphorisms, much in the manner of a rabbi; while in concision and precision of language he showed the influence of Aristotle. He had very little faith in the achievements of philosophy; its constructive power was very small; it could never raise man to the heights to which he aspired. He relied for the discovery of truth on the voice of God which he claimed to have heard in the scriptures.

Duncan wrote very little. He edited in 1838 a British edition of Robinson's ‘Lexicon of the Greek New Testament;’ published a lecture on the Jews and another on protestantism, and contributed a lecture on ‘The Theology of the Old Testament’ to the inaugural volume of the New College, Edinburgh. A volume of sermons and communion addresses was published after his death. But such contributions were no fair sample of the man. Much of him may be learned from the ‘Colloquia Peripatetica’ (1870) of Professor Knight of St. Andrews, a favourite and most admiring student, who, living under the same roof with him for two summers in his student days, took notes of his conversation, and has reproduced many of his most characteristic sayings. This book has passed through several editions (5th ed. 1879).

Duncan died on 26 Feb. 1870, aged 74. He married Janet Douglas, who died 28 Oct. 1852.

[Life of the late John Duncan, LL.D., by David Brown, D.D., Professor of Theology, Aberdeen 1872; Recollections of John Duncan, LL.D., by A. Moody Stuart, D.D.; Colloquia Peripatetica, by Professor Knight, LL.D.; the Pulpit and the Communion Table, edited by D. Brown, D.D.; Disruption Worthies; personal acquaintance.]

W. G. B.