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John Davidson (1834–1881)

by R. B. Walker

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John Davidson (1834-1881), Presbyterian minister and scholar, was born in Kinghorn, Fife, Scotland, son of John Davidson, dominie of Burntisland. He attended the Universities of St Andrews in 1851-55 and Edinburgh in 1855-56 but took no degree. He studied divinity in 1856-58 and 1860-61, became a licentiate of the Free Church Presbytery of Kinross and in 1864 was ordained minister of Langholm, Dumfriesshire. In 1869 he was called to Adelaide and arrived with his wife and children in the Carnaquheen in June 1870. At Chalmers Church, North Terrace, he was soon 'instrumental in raising his congregation to a high state of prosperity'.

In 1872 (Sir) Walter Hughes offered £20,000 to Union College, an institution for the education of Presbyterian, Congregational and Baptist ministers. Davidson and others on the college council suggested that the endowment be devoted to founding a university. Hughes agreed and the University Act was passed in 1874. Despite criticism in parliament that he was not a graduate or 'of any great culture' Davidson was appointed the first Hughes professor of English literature and mental and moral philosophy. With Rev. Henry Reed he began to conduct classes, although formal academic work did not begin at the university until March 1876. Davidson resigned from Chalmers Church in 1877 but continued to preach on most Sundays at various churches. He was also in constant demand outside the university as a popular lecturer. He held his chair until he died from a liver complaint at Glenelg on 22 July 1881, aged 47. He was survived by his wife Harriet, daughter of Hugh Miller, author and geologist, and his wife Lydia, née Fraser. They had met on the Continent and were married in 1860; she had great refinement, was a novelist and poet, and regularly contributed to local journals, but after visiting Scotland in 1877 became a confirmed invalid and died aged 44 on 21 December 1883, survived by four children.

Davidson was one of the many supporters of William Robertson Smith (1846-1894), whose entries on biblical subjects in the ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1877) alarmed Presbyterian leaders and cost him his chair at the Free Church College, Aberdeen. Davidson's theological views were also too advanced for some of his congregation, but his expositions were always sincere and scrupulously fair. His purity of style and close reasoning were attractive even to students who had little taste for the subtleties of metaphysics and his manliness won him widespread respect and friendship.

Select Bibliography

  • Chalmers Church Jubilee and Annual Reports, 1851-1901 (Adelaide, 1901)
  • Parliamentary Debates (South Australia), 1874, 2063a
  • Presbyterian Magazine (South Australia), Aug 1881
  • Register (Adelaide), 4, 23, 25 July 1881, 22 Dec 1883
  • biographical index (State Records of South Australia).

Citation details

R. B. Walker, 'Davidson, John (1834–1881)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 29 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Kinghorn, Fife, Scotland


22 July, 1881 (aged ~ 47)
Glenelg, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

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