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David Stow Adam (1859–1925)

by Don Chambers

This article was published:

David Stow Adam (1859-1925), theologian, was born on 9 February 1859 at Langside near Glasgow, Scotland, son of George Adam and his wife Jane, née Constable, schoolteachers. His parents were founders of Langside Academy, where David was educated. He matriculated at the University of Glasgow in 1874 as an arts student (M.A., 1881; B.D., 1884; D.D., 1912), and completed his course with distinction in philosophy, mathematics and Greek. In 1881-85 he studied theology at the Free Church College, Glasgow, topping his exit class. In summer 1884 he read theology at Erlangen University.

The main framework of Adam's thought came from his philosophical education within the Hegelian-inspired tradition of the University of Glasgow. He taught logic and metaphysics at the university in 1881-84 and Hebrew at the Free Church College in 1885-86 when he was also assistant minister at St John's Free Church, Glasgow. Edward Caird described him as 'one of the most distinguished students of his time'.

Late in 1886 Adam was ordained Free Church minister at Banchory-Ternan, Kincardine, in 1890 he went to Kelso, Roxburgh, and in 1895 he became minister of St Andrew's Free Church, Greenock. As devout parish minister of these most fervent and orthodox Free Kirk congregations, he still managed to combine his Hegelian world-view with a staunchly Scottish Evangelical theology. In 1890 he had married Grace, sister of (Professor) W. P. Paterson; they had five sons and a daughter.

In 1907 Adam was appointed to the chair of systematic theology and church history at Ormond College, Melbourne; his references from Principal T. M. Lindsay of Glasgow, Edward Caird and Paterson had crushed those of local candidates. He arrived with his family on 5 February 1908 and was inducted on 11 March. His predecessor, Murdoch Macdonald, had been appointed in reaction against the Glaswegian liberalism of Charles Strong. Adam's portrayal of Hegel as saviour of the faith was hence courageous if theologically vulnerable. His uncompromising public rejection of the theology of Thomas Chalmers, and his assertion that Christian doctrine must adapt itself to modern philosophical truths and to local conditions, at whatever cost to orthodoxy, raised Presbyterian eyebrows.

Adam was a pioneer of Australian ecumenism: he was president of the embryonic Council of Churches in 1910 and the main author of the earliest 'basis of union' for Methodists, Presbyterians and Congregationalists. His breadth contributed much to the success of the infant Melbourne College of Divinity of which he was first registrar, but annoyed the narrowly denominational Professor J. L. Rentoul. However, it did not prevent Adam writing on the superiority of Presbyterianism's conciliar form of church government. From 1916 he was a chaplain with the Australian Imperial Force.

Adam was a keen golfer and interested in fishing and boats. Cycling was a hobby 'from the days when he possessed a penny-farthing machine'. Late in 1924 he began a tour of Chinese, Japanese and Korean mission stations. He intended to visit his missionary daughter and to see Asian Christianity at first hand and so fit it into his picture of God's self-revelation in world history. While in Canton, China, he contracted typhoid fever and pneumonia, and died on 31 January 1925. His amiable nature, mental vigour, adaptability and unselfish commitment were hard to replace. Adam was survived by his wife, four sons (one of whom, (Sir) Alistair, became a judge of the Supreme Court) and a daughter.

Adam's publications included Cardinal Elements of the Christian Faith (London, 1911), Presbyterianism (Melbourne [1913]), Christianity and War (Melbourne, 1915) and A Handbook of Christian Ethics (Edinburgh, 1925).

Select Bibliography

  • Presbyterian Church of Victoria, Proceedings of the Commission of Assembly, Nov 1927, and Proceedings of the General Assembly, May 1925
  • Presbyterian Messenger (Victoria), Jan-Mar 1908
  • Argus (Melbourne), 3, 9, 13 Feb, 21 Mar 1925
  • D. Chambers, A History of Ormond College, 1881-1945 (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1966)
  • book of newscuttings, Church Union collection, D. S. Adam papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • private information.

Citation details

Don Chambers, 'Adam, David Stow (1859–1925)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 23 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


9 February, 1859
Langside, Renfrewshire, Scotland


31 January, 1925 (aged 65)
Guangzhou, Guangdong, China

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