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William Robertson Smith (1846-1894)

This section of the website includes Gordon Booth's Ph.D. thesis William Robertson Smith: The Scientific, Literary and Cultural Context from 1866 to 1881.

There is an online edition of the Early Correspondence of William Robertson Smith (from Student Days to Hebrew Chair: 1863 – 1870). These early letters, fully annotated by Astrid Hess and Gordon Booth, shed interesting new light on Robertson Smith’s upbringing and intellectual development and terminate with his youthful election to the chair of Hebrew and Old Testament exegesis at Aberdeen Free Church College in May, 1870.

There are also some additional papers relating to William Robertson Smith.

William Robertson SmithBorn at the Free Church Manse of Keig, near Alford in rural Aberdeenshire, William Robertson Smith was educated at home by his father (as were all seven children) before proceeding to Aberdeen University just short of his fifteenth birthday and subsequently to New College, Edinburgh, from 1866.

After a brilliant academic career, Smith was appointed to the Chair of Hebrew at Aberdeen Free Church College in 1870 at the age of 24.

Already identified as one of the leading Scottish intellects of his generation, WRS was among those commissioned to contribute major articles for the new edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1875-1889) but his advanced views quickly incited the wrath of Free Kirk conservatives, his article "Bible" proving especially inflammatory in its questioning of received opinion as to the literal truth and divine inspiration of the Bible.

Effectively charged with heresy, Smith faced a protracted trial at the hands of the Free Church General Assembly, eventually escaping in 1880 with no more than an admonition but finding himself dismissed from his Chair a year later, after resuming his EB articles. Smith then returned to Edinburgh as chief editorial assistant to Thomas Spencer Baynes, ultimately becoming editor-in-chief after Baynes' death in 1887.

In the interim, WRS had accepted the post of Lord Almoner's Readership in Arabic at Cambridge, eventually becoming Fellow of Christ's College, University Librarian and ultimately Professor of Arabic. Plagued by ill-health from childhood, Smith died prematurely of tuberculosis, like so many of his compatriots, in 1894. His published works include The Old Testament in the Jewish Church (1881); The Prophets of Israel (1882) and The Religion of the Semites (1889). All three books were initially presented in the form of lecture series addressed to lay audiences in Scotland. The first two disseminated public awareness of the "higher criticism", hitherto the province of Continental theology, which cast new light on the composition and history of the Hebrew Bible. His best-known book, The Religion of the Semites, became a foundation text for all later studies in comparative religion and anthropology, influencing amongst others Emile Durkheim and Sigmund Freud.

This web site welcomes questions, contributions and comments on all aspects of Robertson Smith's life and work. Send these to gordon@gkbenterprises.fsnet.co.uk.