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Samuel Angus (1881–1943)

by Alan Dougan

This article was published:

Samuel Angus (1881-1943), theologian, was born on 27 August 1881 at Craigs near Ballymena, County Antrim, Ireland, eldest son of John Cowan Angus, farmer, and his wife Sarah, née Harper. He attended Craigs National School and was privately coached in Latin by his great-uncle William Cowan. He went on to the Collegiate School, Ballymena, then won a scholarship to Queen's (University) College, Galway, affiliated to the Royal University of Ireland (B.A., 1902; M.A., 1903).

Angus decided to study for the ministry of the Presbyterian Church and enrolled for the divinity degree at Princeton Theological Seminary, United States of America, and also at Princeton University (M.A., 1905; Ph.D., 1906). His local minister, Dr G. R. Buick, wrote to his friend Woodrow Wilson, then president of the university, commending his protégé. Angus found Wilson aloof, but recognized a great classicist in A. F. West, head of the postgraduate classical school. He worked on North African Latin Christianity and Greek inscriptions and philosophy. Although he also completed the seminary's course, including honours Hebrew, he refused to devote himself full time to theological studies and forfeited the seminary's degree and a scholarship of $100 a year.

Angus tutored privately in classics at Princeton and lectured at Chautauqua, New York, then worked on Hellenistic Greek and New Testament criticism at Hartford Theological Seminary, Connecticut, and spent a semester at Marburg, Germany. In 1907 he married a widow Katherine Duryea, daughter of J. E. Walker of New York. It was a most happy marriage although she was for many years an invalid. From 1910 Angus regarded Edinburgh as his headquarters where he found academic community with many distinguished scholars, but from October to January 1912 he attended the theological faculty at the Humboldt University of Berlin. He then delivered the Gay lectures at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Kentucky. Later in 1912 the United Free Church of Scotland licensed him as a probationer for the ministry and he was appointed chaplain of the Scotch Church in Algiers. He visited classical sites in North Africa and Greece and vividly depicted his experiences there in his short volume of memoirs, Alms for Oblivion (Sydney, 1943).

In May 1914 the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of New South Wales elected Angus by 105 votes to 55 to its chair in New Testament exegesis and theology within the faculty of theology, St Andrew's College, University of Sydney. He was ordained by the Presbytery of Sydney and inducted as professor in March 1915. He settled into a house at Turramurra.

Angus carried on research into the Graeco-Roman mystery-religions and their influence on the development of early Christianity. The result was two notable books, The Mystery-Religions and Christianity (London, 1925) and The Religious Quests of the Graeco-Roman World (London, 1929). He had already in 1914 published The Environment of Early Christianity. He accepted many visiting academic appointments in the United States and received honorary degrees from the Queen's University of Belfast (D.Litt., 1923), the University of Glasgow (D.D., 1924) and the Assembly's College, Belfast (D.D., 1929). He continued to publish scholarly books and articles. At the University of Sydney he was a councillor of St Andrew's College from 1926, curator of the Nicholson Museum of Antiquities and was prominent in the foundation of the board of studies in divinity in 1936.

Angus found his faculty academically and theologically conservative; it had attracted only one truly professional theological teacher, Andrew Harper. By its standards Angus's theology was radical. He had increasingly reacted against conservative lecturers at Princeton seminary and was deeply impressed by the European 'higher criticism' of his formative years. Following Harnack, he contrasted 'the religion of Jesus' with 'the religion about Jesus', to the latter's detriment; through critical study of the New Testament documents, he believed that the original message and figure of the historical Galilean could be discerned. The historicity of the virgin birth, the physical resurrection of Jesus and the ascension were questioned, as were current interpretations of the atonement. When he made a belated acquaintance with Karl Barth and H. E. Brunner, he scorned them as reactionaries. He was attracted by the Neo-Platonists, especially by Plotinus, and by F. D. E. Schleiermacher's notion of divine immanence, and was convinced of the need for personal religious experience. Angus became the friend and colleague of other liberal Protestant theologians in the 'Heretics' private discussion club which he helped to found in 1916. He co-operated with them formally in the united faculty based at St Andrew's College. As a teacher he influenced and inspired many young men of the post-war generation, but his teaching aroused much opposition and public criticism in his own and other churches.

Angus's orthodoxy was questioned first in the Presbytery of Sydney and later in the 1932 General Assembly of the Church. His colleagues at the Theological Hall mostly rallied to his support. The affair became a cause célèbre for the next decade, involving much time in church courts, presbytery, the New South Wales and Australian general assemblies, and the latter's judicial commission. Many pamphlets were written, and attempts made at compromise and reconciliation. Significantly, and partly because of Angus's personal charm and undoubted religious devotion, no formal legal charge of heresy was ever laid. War, especially after 1941, diverted the Church's attention. Angus's wife had died in 1934 and he suffered facial paralysis that impaired his speech. The case concluded in 1942 when the Church's procurator, Bryan Fuller, Q.C., successfully moved in the Australian assembly, that 'all communications dealing in any way whatever with the case of Dr Angus be discharged from the business paper, without prejudice to the rights of any of the parties; and that any of the parties concerned may obtain the restoration of any of the matters to the business paper by motion passed pursuant to notice'. Through all this Angus continued to teach, and at the 1943 New South Wales assembly read a paper on the Christian ministry. He died of cancer in the Scottish Hospital, Paddington, on 17 November, and was cremated; he had no children. His estate was valued for probate at £31,694.

His portrait by Jerrold Nathan is in St Andrew's College, where a memorial lecture hall is named after him.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Harper, The Auld Sinner (Syd, 1938)
  • A. Dougan, A Backward Glance at the Angus Affair (Syd, 1971)
  • Minutes of New South Wales General Assembly and of Presbyterian Church of Australia, 1932-43 (Presbyterian Library, Assembly Hall, Sydney).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Alan Dougan, 'Angus, Samuel (1881–1943)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 14 July 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]


27 August, 1881
Ballymena, Antrim, Ireland


17 November, 1943 (aged 62)
Paddington, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.