Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Smith, William Robertson

596119Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 53 — Smith, William Robertson1898John Sutherland Black

SMITH, WILLIAM ROBERTSON (1846–1894), theologian and Semitic scholar, born at New Farm, Keig, in the Vale of Alford, Aberdeenshire, on 8 Nov. 1846, was eldest son of William Pirie Smith, free church minister of Keig and Tough, a man of intellectual vigour and learning, who had formerly been a teacher in the West End Academy, Aberdeen. Robertson Smith's mother, Jane, was daughter of William Robertson, who for many years had been head of the same academy. Smith's literary and scientific tastes declared themselves at an early age. He never went to school, but, with a younger brother, George, was educated at home by his father with a view to entering Aberdeen University. He was elected to a bursary there in November 1861, obtaining at the close of his undergraduate career the town council's medal for ‘the best student.’

At a very early age William definitely chose the ministry of the free church of Scotland as his vocation, and this deliberate choice was greatly strengthened in his deeply religious and conscientious nature by the death of his brother and constant companion George within a few weeks after his graduation in 1865. Illness compelled William to postpone entering New College, the theological hall of the free church in Edinburgh, till November 1866; but the interval was devoted partly to the study of German (in which he ultimately acquired great proficiency) and partly to successful competition for the Ferguson scholarship in mathematics, open to all Scottish graduates of not more than three years' standing. At New College he was a most important contributor both in essay and debate to the work of the theological society. As a theological student he passed two summers in Germany. In 1867 he was at Bonn under the roof of Professor Schaarschmidt, whose lectures in philosophy he attended, as well as those of Lange, Kamphausen, and Koehler in theology. Plücker, the eminent mathematician, he also met, and with Plücker's assistant, Klein, he formed an acquaintance which afterwards ripened into close friendship. The summer of 1869 was spent at Göttingen, where he heard Lotze in philosophy and Ritschl and Bertheau in theology. By Ritschl especially he was powerfully and permanently influenced, pronouncing his lectures on theological ethics ‘by far the best course of lectures he had ever heard;’ Ritschl, on the other hand, bore written testimony to Smith's ‘zeal for science, many-sided knowledge, and extraordinary versatility.’ During the last two winters (1868–9 and 1869–70) of his theological course in Edinburgh he held the post of assistant to Professor P. G. Tait, professor of natural philosophy in the university, and in connection with his work in the physical laboratory he published more than one paper that attracted some attention in the ‘Proceedings’ of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, of which he became a fellow. Another important influence belonging to this period of his life was that of John Ferguson McLennan [q. v.] (‘one of the best friends I ever had,’ he wrote in 1883), whose researches in primitive social institutions always had a strong fascination for Smith, and gave definite direction to much of his own work at a later period.

In May 1870 a vacancy occurred in the chair of oriental languages and exegesis of the Old Testament in the Free Church College of Aberdeen. Smith was chosen by the assembly to fill the post. His inaugural discourse, ‘What History teaches us to look for in the Bible’ (published in November 1870), indicated the lines that he proposed to take as a professor. In 1875 he was appointed a member of the Old Testament revision committee, and while actively fulfilling the duties attached to his chair, he found time to attend regularly the committee's meetings in London, as well as to prepare numerous articles and reviews, or summaries of contemporary continental literature, for publication in the theological quarterlies. The summer of 1872 was again spent in Göttingen, mainly in working at Arabic with Lagarde. Lagarde assured his pupil at the close of the session that he had nothing more to teach him. At Göttingen he now became personally acquainted with Wellhausen, and saw something of Benfey and Clebsch. In the course of the summer he also had some intercourse with Riehm, Diestel, and Fleischer.

When, in 1870, arrangements were made for the issue of a ninth edition of the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica,’ the editor, Professor Spencer Baynes of St. Andrews, invited Smith to contribute on subjects bearing upon biblical criticism, and especially on that of the Old Testament. The subject was a somewhat delicate one; in no department had the interval between the eighth and ninth editions been more fruitful in new questions or in new answers. Apart from the controversies connected with ‘Essays and Reviews’ (1860), and with the writings of Bishop Colenso (1863 et seq.), much valuable work had been subsequently done by foreign scholars—Graf, Nöldeke, Kuenen, and others. With the work of the latter very few in Britain were familiar. Smith was thoroughly competent as a scholar to deal with modern biblical theories, and at the same time his position and character were supposed to guarantee that any articles written by him would, while stating the latest results of scholarship, be so framed as to avoid needless offence to those who still clung to the time-honoured traditions of the churches, which were still taught in the colleges. The article ‘Angel,’ by Smith, in vol. ii. of the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica,’ and that on ‘Bible’ in vol. iii., both appeared in 1875, and almost immediately it became known that they were regarded by men of influence in the free church with suspicion and dislike. A committee was appointed by the assembly of 1876 to investigate the articles; its report, laid before the assembly of 1877, was so hostile that, availing himself of a constitutional privilege, Smith found it necessary to demand a formal trial by ‘libel’ (indictment) for his alleged heresies and errors. The proceedings that followed were protracted and involved. As a result, Smith practically ceased to be an acting professor in 1878. Eventually the entire series of his ‘Encyclopædia’ articles—‘Angel,’ ‘Bible,’ ‘Chronicles,’ ‘Canticles,’ ‘David,’ ‘Eve,’ ‘Haggai,’ ‘Hebrew Language and Literature,’ as well as an article on ‘Animal Worship and Animal Tribes’ in the ‘Cambridge Journal of Philology’ for 1879 (a study in totemism)—were challenged as being written in such a way as to suggest to the reader that ‘the Bible does not present a reliable statement of the truth of God, and that God is not the author of it.’ After various vicissitudes the written indictment in all its forms disappeared, but its place was taken by a vote of want of confidence, followed by his summary removal from his chair in June 1881.

Long before this ignominious ending of a harassing discussion it had dawned upon Smith that he was occupying a somewhat false position, and as early at least as January 1879 he wrote to an intimate friend that he would willingly retire from the chair if by so doing he could secure a peaceful ending of the whole controversy. But he went on to say that he felt it due to certain friends to carry on the struggle to the end, as there could be no doubt that his abandonment of the field would only be taken as an encouragement to a repetition of similar prosecutions in the case of others. The net result of the famous ‘case’ with which his name is still intimately associated in Scotland consisted in the liberalising influence, the force of which is not even yet spent, which it enabled him to exert on all classes of the community. His debating speeches, delivered in the course of the proceedings, often rose to a high standard of eloquence, and his ‘Answers’ to the libel were most instructive and informing. In the winter of 1879–80 and again in 1881 he delivered in Edinburgh and Glasgow by request two series of popular lectures, which were afterwards published as the ‘Old Testament in the Jewish Church’ (1881; 2nd edit. 1892), and ‘The Prophets of Israel’ (1882; 2nd. edit. 1895). As a mark of the sympathy that was widely felt for him during the anxious proceedings, a valuable gift of Arabic books and manuscripts was publicly presented to him in Edinburgh in 1881.

Immediately after his dismissal Smith accepted an invitation to become colleague to Professor Baynes, now in somewhat failing health, as editor in chief of the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica,’ and he consequently transferred his residence from Aberdeen to Edinburgh. He threw himself into his new duties with characteristic energy; and it was to his clearness and breadth of outlook, as well as to the painstaking care in the management of details, that the successful completion of the work in 1888 was largely due. By the consent of all who came in contact with him, and especially of those who were in daily communication with him in this connection, he displayed a combination of qualities such as is rarely met with in work of this kind, demanding, as it does, knowledge of men as well as of subjects, and skill and tact in dealing with both. Nor did he edit merely; the articles he himself contributed were both numerous and important, including such subjects as ‘Levites,’ ‘Messiah,’ ‘Prophet,’ ‘Priest,’ ‘Sacrifice,’ ‘Tithes,’ as well as articles on most of the books of the Old Testament.

In spite of the labour involved in seeing the concluding twelve volumes of the ‘Encyclopædia’ through the press in the course of seven years (1881–8), Smith fully maintained his interest in Semitic subjects, and found time for much work in that direction. The Arabic studies he had carried so far in the early years of his professorship in Aberdeen he had already extended during the years of his ‘suspension,’ the winter of 1879–1880 being devoted to a prolonged stay in Egypt with a visit to Syria and Palestine, while that of 1880–1 was spent in Egypt and Arabia, mainly in Jeddah, but with a somewhat arduous excursion into the interior as far as Taif, of which he published an account in the ‘Scotsman’ newspaper. On the death of Edward Henry Palmer [q.v .], lord almoner's professor of Arabic at Cambridge, he, on the suggestion of his friend, Professor William Wright (1830–1889) [q. v.], applied for the vacant post, and the application, which was supported by testimonials from practically all the specialists in Europe—including De Goeje, Guidi, Kuenen, Von Kremer, Spitta, Wellhausen—was successful. The letter announcing his appointment reached him on new year's day 1883.

Although the somewhat light duties and correspondingly light emoluments of his new office did not demand or greatly encourage residence at the university, Smith nevertheless decided to settle there, and Cambridge was his congenial home for the rest of his life. For some time he was the guest of Trinity College, where he had rooms in the master's court, but from October 1885, on his election to a fellowship at Christ's, his residence was in the fellows' buildings there. The lord almoner's professorship he held till December 1886, when he was elected to the chief librarianship of the university, vacated by the death of Henry Bradshaw. This in turn he exchanged in 1889 for the Adams professorship of Arabic in succession to William Wright.

Apart from his ‘Encyclopædia’ work and the duties of his other offices, he found time to see through the press in 1885 a work on ‘Kinship and Marriage in Early Arabia,’ the substance of which had been delivered as professorial lectures. And in 1887 he was appointed by the Burnett trustees to be their lecturer in Aberdeen for 1888–91, the subject assigned being ‘The Primitive Religions of the Semitic Peoples, viewed in relation to other Ancient Religions, and to the Spiritual Religion of the Old Testament and Christianity.’ Three series were delivered, but only the first was published, under the title ‘Religion of the Semites: Fundamental Institutions’ (1889; 2nd edit. 1894). In 1892 he issued a second and finally revised edition of his ‘Old Testament in the Jewish Church.’

Though never of robust appearance, he enjoyed uniformly vigorous health until 1890 (he was an ardent pedestrian, and no despicable mountaineer); but early in 1890 obscure symptoms, suggesting the presence of a grave constitutional malady, began to show themselves. Gradually their true character became apparent. After a prolonged struggle, carried on hopefully to the last, for the most part in unobtrusive silence, and always with the most delicate and thoughtful consideration for others, the end came, at Christ's College, on 31 March 1894. He was buried in the churchyard of his native parish, when a noteworthy tribute of respect was paid by his former fellow citizens and fellow parishioners, as well as by numerous representatives of the scholarship of England and Scotland. Smith was the recipient of many academic distinctions. He was created M.A. of Cambridge, LL.D. of Dublin, and D.D. of Strasburg.

Intellectually Smith was characterised by a singular quickness of perception and power of generalisation, combined with unwearying patience in treatment of details. He often spoke gratefully of his father's training in accuracy, and still more in rapidity, of work; but his power, in every investigation, of seizing the essential and dismissing the irrelevant was entirely his own. His ready command of every subject he had once mastered made him in private a brilliant conversationalist and in public an effective and convincing speaker. If in the earlier period of his public life circumstances had made him rather a populariser and apologist or ‘mediator,’ he ultimately took his rightful place as an investigator and pioneer, and the originality of the researches embodied in his later works is cordially acknowledged by all whose own labours in the same field have given them a right to judge. Many pupils and fellow workers have borne testimony in their books to his generous help and encouragement.

Smith bequeathed some oriental manuscripts to the Cambridge University library, and all the rest of his books to the library of Christ's College, Cambridge.

Two portraits were painted by Sir George Reid, P.R.S.A. One, dated 1875, is now in custody of his mother, Mrs. Smith, in Aberdeen, but is destined (by Smith's will) for the combination room of Christ's College, Cambridge. The second portrait, painted in 1896, was placed by subscribers in the common hall of Free Church College, Aberdeen.

[Information from the family; personal acquaintance since 1865.]

J. S. B.