The Background to ‘Believing Criticism’ in the Free Church of Scotland

Main Article Content

Allan Harman


This article argues that the introduction of ‘believing criticism’ in the Free Church of Scotland in the 19th century was not just a sudden development in the 1870s. Rather, the seeds of it go back much further, even to the Disruption itself. Some inappropriate decisions of the Free Church General Assembly, among other factors, paved the way for A. B. Davidson to commence lecturing on Pentateuchal criticism. His student, William Robert Smith, was not so discreet, and openly espoused views that departed from the teaching of the Westminster Confession of Faith.  Dealing with him took several years, until he was relieved of his position in 1881, though not deposed from the ministry. By that time, ‘believing criticism’ was firmly entrenched in the Free Church.

Article Details

How to Cite
Harman, Allan. “The Background to ‘Believing Criticism’ in the Free Church of Scotland”. Reformed Theological Review 81, no. 3 (December 1, 2022): 202–227. Accessed April 21, 2024.


Alexander Black, The Exegetical Study of the Original Scriptures considered in connection with the Training of Theological Students (Edinburgh: Shepherd & Elliott, 1856).

J. S. Black and George Chrystal, The Life of William Robertson Smith (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1912).

Andrew Bonar and R. M. McCheyne, ed. Allan M. Harman, Mission of Discovery: The Beginnings of Modern Jewish Evangelism (Fearn: Christian Focus Publications, 1996).

Thomas Brown, Annals of the Disruption (Edinburgh: MacNiven & Wallace, 1892).

A. B. Bruce, Review of R. M. Wenley, The Movement of Religious Thought in Scotland, 1843-1896, in The American Journal of Theology, vol. 2. No. 2 (April, 1898), 478-479. DOI:

A. B. Bruce in ‘The Rev. A. B. Davidson, D.D., LL.D., Professor of Hebrew in the New College, Edinburgh’, The Biblical World, vol. VIII, no. 4, 1896, 257-264. DOI:

T. K. Cheyne, Founders of Old Testament Criticism (New York: Scribner, 1893).

Nigel M. de S. Cameron, ed., Dictionary of Scottish Church History and Theology (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1993).

T. H. Darlow, William Robertson Nicoll: Life and Letters (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1925).

G. C. M. Douglas, Isaiah One and His Book One (London: James Nisbet, 1895).

Andrew L. Drummond and James Bulloch, The Church in Late Victorian Scotland 1874-1900 (Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press, 1978).

John Duns, Biblical Natural Science, Being the Explanation of all References in Holy Scripture to Geology, Botany, Zoology, and Physical Geography, 2 vols. (London: William Mackenzie, 1863–68).

John Duns, Science and Christian Thought (London, 1866: reprinted Forgotten Books, 2019).

John Duns, Creation according to the Book of Genesis and the Confession of Faith (Edinburgh, 1877: reprinted 2019).

J. R. Fleming, A History of the Church in Scotland 1843-1874 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1927).

J. R. Fleming, A History of the Church in Scotland 1875-1929 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1933).

A. C. Fraser, Biographia Philosophia, 2nd ed. (Glasgow: William Blackwood, 1915).

W. H. Green, Professor Robertson Smith on the Pentateuch, reprinted by Kessinger Publications, 2007.

William Hanna, ed., Essays by Ministers of the Free Church of Scotland (Edinburgh: Thomas Constable, 1858).

J. Heyer, The Presbyterian Pioneers of Van Diemen’s Land: A Contribution to the Ecclesiastical History of Tasmania (Hobart: Presbyterian Church of Tasmania, 1935).

William Johnstone, ed., William Robertson Smith: Essays in Reassessment (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995).

John W. Keddie, Preserving a Reformed Heritage: The Free Church of Scotland in the 20th Century (Kirkhill: Scottish Reformed Heritage Publications, 2017).

John Keddie, James MacGregor: A Life in Old Scotland and New Zealand (Lulu: 2013).

John W. Keddie, Mission of Inquiry to Israel in 1839 and Its Consequences (Kirkhill: Free Church of Scotland (Continuing), 2021).

William Knight, Colloquia Peripatetica (Deep Sea Soundings): Being Notes of Conversations (Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas, 1863).

Stewart Mechie, Trinity College Glasgow: 1856 Centenary Volume 1956 (Glasgow: Collins, 1956).

J. H. Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (University of Notre Dame reprint, 2005, orig. date of publication 1845).

John Macleod, Scottish Theology in Relation to Church History since the Reformation, 2nd ed. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1974).

J. C. Robinson, Free Presbyterian Church of Australia (Melbourne: W. A. Hamer, 1947).

John Skinner, ‘A. B. Davidson’, The Expository Times 13 (1902), 248-251. DOI:

Alice Thiele Smith, Children of the Manse: Growing up in Victorian Aberdeenshire (Edinburgh: The Bellfield Press, 2004).

G. A. Smith, ‘The late Professor A. B. Davidson, D.D, LL.D.’, The Biblical World, 20/4, October 1902, 287-299. DOI:

Hugh Watt, New College Edinburgh: A Centenary History (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1946).

Rowland S. Ward, The Bush Still Burns: Presbyterian and Reformed Faith in Australia 1788–1988 (Wantirna: R. S. Ward, 1989).

Rowland Ward, A Short History of the Church in Scotland AD 300-2015 (Wantirna: New Melbourne Press, 2015).

Robert Sutherland, Presbyterian Church of Victoria (London: James Nisbet & Co., 1877).

Donald J. Witherington, ‘The Disruption: a century and a half of historical Interpretation’, Records of the Scottish Church History Society, Vol. XXV, Part 1, 1993, 118-153.