Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Thom, William Cumming (1898–1979)

by Joan Mansfield

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

William Cumming Thom (1898-1979), Presbyterian minister and college principal, was born on 6 July 1898 at Aberdeen, Scotland, son of Charles Lumsden Thom, nurseryman's carter, and his wife Jane Ann, née Forsyth. William was educated at Gordon's College and the University of Aberdeen (M.A., 1917; B.D., 1920; Ph.D., 1924; D.D., 1948). Enlisting in the Royal Field Artillery on 6 August 1916, he served in France and was commissioned on 9 April 1918 in the Royal Garrison Artillery. He was Hugh Black resident fellow (from 1920) at the Union Theological Seminary, New York, where he graduated master of sacred theology in 1922. Ordained minister in 1923 by the United Free Church of Scotland, Thom was called to Carnoustie. At King's College chapel, Aberdeen, on 15 March 1923 he married Helen Allan Sorley (d.1965). He ministered at Wellpark Church, Glasgow, from 1927 and transferred to Lauriston Church, Edinburgh, in 1931.

In June 1938 Thom took up appointments as principal of St Andrew's College, University of Sydney, and, at the Theological Hall, as Hunter-Baillie professor of Oriental and Polynesian languages and professor of Hebrew and exegetical theology of the Old Testament. His plans for a new building to house more students had to be postponed due to World War II. The Presbyterian women's college, of which he had dreamed, gave way to a sportsfield in St Andrew's grounds, but he drew satisfaction from creating a chapel.

Thom took a firm line, expelling students for unsatisfactory behaviour and reimposing fines for missing daily prayers. His commendable attempts to reform the college's entrenched fresher practices (which ranged from minor duties to humiliation and a degree of violence) caused resentment and offended growing demands for student autonomy. The presence of ex-servicemen not only made the student body more complex, but also led to a challenge to the college's inadequate system of discipline. Perceived as authoritarian and tactless, Thom contributed to a crisis which climaxed at the notorious meeting in August 1947 when some students fused the lights and threw eggs at him. Thereafter, he struggled to maintain his position. During leave of absence in 1948, he attended ecumenical conferences in Amsterdam and Geneva. On his return to Sydney it was clear that he had lost the confidence of the college council and he resigned in 1949.

In June 1951 Cumming Thom (as he by then styled his surname) accepted a call to St David's, Haberfield. It had a strong middle-class congregation to which he gave vigorous, well-regarded leadership. A forceful preacher and a liberal theologian, he encouraged interdenominational links at Haberfield.

The Presbyterian Church in Sydney welcomed Thom as a scholar and a Scot. Familiar as a preacher, broadcaster and contributor to the New South Wales Presbyterian, he was active in the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church and its committees, and was also a church trustee. In 1955 he was elected moderator. As convenor of the assembly's Christian unity committee, he was deeply committed to the organic union of the Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian churches. Although his work on a basis of union was superseded, he regarded his support for Christian unity as his most valuable contribution to the life of the Church and Christianity in Australia. By 1965 his health was declining. He retired from St David's at the end of 1968. After several years he returned to Aberdeen, where he died on 25 March 1979. His two sons survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • R. I. Jack, The Andrew's Book (Syd, 1989)
  • Minutes of Proceedings of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Australia in the State of New South Wales, 1938-69
  • New South Wales Presbyterian, 13 July 1938, 14 June 1939, 1 May 1940, 27 July 1951, 20 May 1955
  • St David's Church, Haberfield, St David's Review, June 1952, Apr 1954, Jan 1956, Jan 1958, Feb 1962, June 1965
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 19 Mar 1938, 4 Jan 1955
  • F. Chisholm, St Andrew's College—A Three-Cornered Conflict 1938-50 (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Sydney, 1983)
  • St David's Church, Haberfield, minutes of sessions, 1951-68 (Uniting Church Archives, North Parramatta, Sydney).

Citation details

Joan Mansfield, 'Thom, William Cumming (1898–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/thom-william-cumming-11839/text21187, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 25 July 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Cumming Thom, William
Birth

6 July 1898
Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire, Scotland

Death

25 March 1979
Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire, Scotland

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence
Occupation