Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Fairbairn, Patrick

FAIRBAIRN, PATRICK, D.D. (1805–1874), theologian, born on 28 Jan. 1805, at Hallyburton in the parish of Greenlaw, Berwickshire, was son of John Fairbairn, a farmer. After some education at parish schools, he entered the university of Edinburgh in 1818, and became tutor in the family of the Rev. Thomas Johnstone of Dalry. Influenced greatly by his mother, he entered on the usual course of study for the ministry, and was licensed to preach in 1826. He spent some time as tutor in the family of Captain Balfour, a large proprietor in Orkney, and in 1830 he was presented by the crown to the parliamentary parish of North Ronaldshay in the Orkney Islands. The people had the reputation of being wild, and even ‘wreckers,’ but a marked improvement was effected through Fairbairn's devoted labours. At the same time he carried on a careful course of specific study, and gained a thorough acquaintance with Hebrew and German. In 1836 he was translated to Bridgeton, Glasgow, where one of the new churches, erected under the auspices of Dr. Chalmers, had been placed, and in 1840 to Salton in East Lothian, the parish of which Dr. Gilbert Burnet had been minister. Attached to the principles of the free church, Fairbairn left the established church in 1843, and became minister of the free church in the same parish. In 1845 and 1847 he published the first and second volumes respectively of a work entitled ‘The Typology of Scripture,’ the design of which was to settle definite principles for the interpretation of the symbolical parts of the Bible.

In 1853 Fairbairn was appointed by the general assembly of the free church professor of divinity in their theological college at Aberdeen. While he was in this office the university of Glasgow conferred on him the degree of D.D. In 1856 he was transferred to the free church college of Glasgow, and on 4 Nov. he was appointed principal. In 1865 he was elected moderator of the general assembly. In 1867 he was appointed one of a deputation to visit presbyterian churches in the United States. He was one of the company for revising the Old Testament scriptures, attended most of the meetings till near his death, and bestowed on his work much careful study. He died very suddenly on the night of 6 Aug. 1874. He was twice married, first, on 27 March 1833, to Margaret Playfair Pitcairn, who died 9 Dec. 1852.

Fairbairn was one of the most systematic, laborious, and persevering of students. In connection with Clark's ‘Biblical Cabinet’ and ‘Foreign Theological Library’ he translated in whole or in part several works from the German, the most important of which were Hengstenberg's ‘Commentary on the Psalms,’ and the same author's ‘Commentary on the Revelation of St. John.’ In addition to his ‘Typology of Scripture,’ he published:

  1. ‘Jonah, his Life, Character, and Mission,’ 1849.
  2. ‘Ezekiel, and the Book of his Prophecy,’ 1851.
  3. ‘Prophecy, viewed in its Distinctive Nature, its special Functions and Proper Interpretation,’ 1856.
  4. ‘Hermeneutical Manual, or Introduction to the Critical Study of the Scriptures of the New Testament,’ 1858.
  5. ‘The Revelation of Law in Scripture,’ being the Cunningham Lectures for 1868.
  6. ‘The Pastoral Epistles of St. Paul,’ 1874.
  7. ‘Pastoral Theology; a Treatise on the Office and Duties of the Christian Pastor’ (posthumous), 1875.

Fairbairn likewise discharged the laborious office of editor of the ‘Imperial Bible Dictionary,’ and contributed many important articles to the work.

In his exegetical works Fairbairn showed not a little of the assiduity of the Germans, controlled, however, by cautious judgment and profound regard for the system of evangelical doctrine. He was greatly esteemed among his friends for the uprightness and genuineness of his character, his friendly disposition, and unaffected bearing. Of a very powerful physical frame and commanding appearance, he was always ready for the humblest acts of service, and as a professor was alike honoured and loved by his students.

[Scott's Fasti, pt. v. 411–12, pt. iii. 445; biog. sketch prefixed to Pastoral Theology, by the Rev. James Dodds; personal knowledge.]

W. G. B.