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Adam Cairns (1802–1881)

by Don Chambers

This article was published:

Adam Cairns (1802-1881), by Henry Samuel Sadd, c1855

Adam Cairns (1802-1881), by Henry Samuel Sadd, c1855

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H90.159/1

Adam Cairns (1802-1881), Presbyterian clergyman and theologian, was born on 30 January 1802 at Longforgan, Perthshire, Scotland, son of Rev. Adam Cairns and his wife Elizabeth, née Halley. His early education was at Longforgan parish school, with private tuition from his father in ancient and modern languages. He went to sea, but one trans-Atlantic voyage as cabin boy was enough. He matriculated at St Andrews University in 1814 and went to Edinburgh in 1818 for divinity studies. In October 1824 he was licensed to preach at Cupar, Fife, and in 1825-27 he assisted Rev. Sir Henry Moncrieff at St Cuthbert's (West Church), Edinburgh. In August 1828 he was ordained and inducted at Manor, Tweeddale, whence he transferred in May 1833 to Dunbog, Fife. From late 1837 he was minister at Cupar. In the disruption of 1843 he left the established Church of Scotland and ministered to a large Free Church congregation in Cupar. In 1847 he suffered the first of the 'strokes' in which he always saw the hand of God upon him, and expected death. To regain his health he went to Gibraltar where he set up the first Free Church mission. In 1853 respiratory troubles influenced his decision to lead a Free Church mission to Victoria. In April he received an honorary D.D. from St Andrews and soon afterwards sailed for Melbourne with his wife Jessie, née Ballingall, whom he had married on 11 February 1834 at Dunbog, four daughters and a son; they arrived on 10 September.

Cairns had been commissioned to found a Melbourne congregation, set up a theological training institute, promote colonial education and work for the union of Victoria's divided Presbyterian churches. Overcoming some local opposition to the acceptance of state aid in the form of land grants for church and school sites, he rapidly gathered a congregation, which built a large church on Eastern Hill. Within twelve months he had 283 communicants at Chalmers' Church; by 1856 it had nearly 350 communicants, many of them the most influential and wealthy of Melbourne's Scots. Cairns soon won repute as a supporter of local philanthropic causes, for he was dedicated like his revered teacher, Thomas Chalmers, to social and moral reform. His advocacy of causes sometimes drew press hostility; for example, when he insisted that Captain Melville was insane and not responsible for his murders. Hasty of temperament, firm of conviction, doctrinally rigid but withal warm of heart and sincere in his concern to bring men to reconciliation with God through faith in Christ, Cairns was Victorian Presbyterianism's acknowledged spokesman. He was a prime mover towards the union of the various Presbyterian churches in Victoria, and expended much time, energy and patience before the goal was reached in 1859. He was an active founder of many benevolent institutions, and had a particular interest in education. He was prominent in the early control of Scotch College and agitated strenuously for a National system of primary education before the 1872 Education Act. Until the opening in 1866 of Theological Hall, of which he was first principal, Cairns was Melbourne's main instructor of Presbyterian theological students. But he was best known as a fearless preacher and denouncer of everything he thought to be evil. After recurring illness in 1865 he visited his beloved homeland where he eloquently pleaded for more missionaries of better quality for Victoria. When he retired from Chalmers' Church in 1876 he made another brief trip to Scotland. The Cairns scholarship, founded at the University of Melbourne in 1877, was raised by public subscription. In his last years he wrote two of the eighteen pamphlets, lectures and sermons which he published in Melbourne. He died at his home in Richmond near Melbourne on 30 January 1881, survived by his wife, who died on 26 August 1906, and two daughters.

Cairns's theology was modelled closely on that of Thomas Chalmers; he remained bound to the doctrine of verbal inspiration of the Bible and to the Free Church confessions and standards. Antagonistic to the continental influences of Schleiermacher and Hegel alike, he believed that to question the authority of any biblical injunction was to overthrow the basis of Christian faith. Though imbued with great evangelical fervour, Cairns would never substitute the 'inner light' for the solid 'Word of God' which he equated with the Bible. This underlay his fierce opposition to the running of trains and opening of public libraries on Sundays, and his denunciation of attempts to legalize marriage with a deceased wife's sister. Few men contributed more to the 'Melbourne Sunday', yet he was a great lover of beauty in nature; much of the power of his preaching came from the poetic imagery with which it abounded. Cairns was too old and set in his ideas to adjust to the new science of the post-Darwinian era. Nature and history spoke to him of God, and his early studies in the prophecies of Daniel and of Revelation were incorporated in his interpretation of European history as the working out of God's master-plan in the Bible.

A portrait is at Ormond College and a marble bust at Cairns Memorial Church, Melbourne.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Scott et al (eds), Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae, vol 5 (Edinburgh, 1928)
  • A. Macdonald, One Hundred Years of Presbyterianism in Victoria (Melb, 1937)
  • D. Chambers, Theological Teaching and Thought in the Theological Hall of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria, 1865-1906 (Melb, 1967)
  • Age (Melbourne), 31 Jan 1881.

Citation details

Don Chambers, 'Cairns, Adam (1802–1881)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 16 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Adam Cairns (1802-1881), by Henry Samuel Sadd, c1855

Adam Cairns (1802-1881), by Henry Samuel Sadd, c1855

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H90.159/1

Life Summary [details]


30 January, 1802
Longforgan, Perthshire, Scotland


30 January, 1881 (aged 79)
Richmond, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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