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Andrew Harper (1844–1936)

by Don Chambers

This article was published:

Andrew Harper (1844-1936), college head and biblical scholar, was born on 13 November 1844 in Glasgow, Scotland, son of Robert Harper, merchant, and his wife Elizabeth, née Calderwood. Before arriving in Melbourne in 1856 with his parents and brother Robert he was educated at Glasgow Academy. He attended Scotch College in 1857-59 and matriculated at the University of Melbourne in 1864, graduating B.A. in 1868 (M.A., 1878) while a part-time student working as an articled clerk in the Office of the Government Shorthand Writer. With the help of James Balfour he returned to Edinburgh in 1868 to study theology at New College (B.D., 1872) where he was influenced by A. B. Davidson in Old Testament, and awarded the Cunningham fellowship. Deeply impressed by two summer sessions at Berlin University, under August Dillmann in Old Testament, he went via Alexandria to Damascus in 1872-73 for first-hand experience of Eastern thought and languages. 1872 was his 'crisis year' when he gave up thoughts of the Presbyterian ministry, seeing all 'higher religions' as equally valid and feeling unable to subscribe to the Westminster Confession.

Nevertheless, in Melbourne in September 1873 Harper was welcomed by his old teacher, Rev. Adam Cairns, to be assistant at Chalmers Church, Eastern Hill. His 'doubts' influenced him to take up schoolteaching and he joined the new Presbyterian Ladies' College in 1875 as English master. He replaced his friend Charles Pearson as headmaster in 1877 and became principal in 1879. Harper encouraged his students to sit for the university matriculation examinations; his high standards of scholarship largely set the tone for P.L.C. In 1882-86 he was warden of the Melbourne university senate and was a member of the council in 1886-1901. On 23 October 1875 at Albert Street, East Melbourne, he had married Agnes Marion, daughter of Rev. George Craig of Kelso, Scotland; she died in 1885 leaving a son and three daughters including Margaret Hilda.

Harper developed an international reputation in the 1880s as an Oriental linguist and Old Testament scholar. In 1888 he resigned from P.L.C. to become lecturer in Hebrew and Oriental languages at the Presbyterian Theological Hall, Ormond College. Ordained in March 1893, he became reverend professor of Hebrew and Old Testament there, and received a D.D. from the University of Edinburgh in 1901. In 1892 he had been a close contender for the Old Testament chair, Trinity College, Glasgow. In Edinburgh on 8 December 1892 he married Barbara Harriet, daughter of his former principal, Dr Robert Rainy of New College; they had one son, Robert Rainy, and three daughters.

Harper's critical approach to Scripture made him a controversial figure in British church circles, his impact spreading to the Melbourne press by 1890. Public addresses on 'the Higher Criticism' drew fierce clerical attacks thereafter, and some critics explicitly compared his stance to that of Charles Strong; supported by John Rentoul, Harper maintained his position. His insistence that the religious revelation of Scripture and Christian faith were not dependent upon the historical infallibility of biblical statements became acceptable: his staunchly evangelical teaching and practice, and overseas standing, overpowered his critics. In 1895 the Presbyterian Church appointed him editor of the Messenger, whose columns had previously carried many attacks on his ideas.

Convinced that a nation without religious belief was doomed to disintegration, Harper argued strongly for religious teaching in schools. He also led Protestant agitation for a 'Godly contribution' during the Federation debate. He was deeply influenced by nationalistic German theologians and, though he denied 'racist' attitudes, his spirited defence of the White Australia policy and his attitude to Aboriginals were based on rigid notions of European cultural superiority, as well as desire to maintain living standards for Australian workers of any colour. Genuine concern at human suffering was tempered by conviction of the inevitability of the labourer's hard lot, but he dreamed the Australian dream of a southern paradise sharing its common wealth.

In 1902 Harper resigned his Ormond chair and took up duties as principal of St Andrew's College within the University of Sydney. At the same time he was appointed to the college's Hunter Baillie professorship of Oriental and Polynesian languages and to its theological faculty's chair of Hebrew and exegetical theology of the Old Testament. He moved his large family to Sydney but retained his seaside home at Lorne.

During his years at St Andrew's, academic standards were raised and student numbers grew considerably, while his status as a scholar enhanced the reputation of the college within the university. Benefactions increased and Harper brought about several building extensions. He had supported the union of the Australian Presbyterian Churches in 1901 and in the following years promoted union with Methodists and Congregationalists. His influence was also felt in the community through his lectures for the Workers' Educational Association of New South Wales, and he was active in the work of the Sydney University Extension Board.

Harper resigned the principalship in 1920 and his academic posts in May 1924, returning to Scotland later that year. He died in Edinburgh on 25 November 1936, near blind, after being injured by a car.

A handsome and austere man of firm principles, Harper was respected rather than loved by many colleagues; but loved and admired by many students who saw his more human side, including a sense of humour. His publications include The Book of Deuteronomy (London, 1895), Australia Without God (Melbourne, 1897), The Song of Solomon (Cambridge, 1902), The Honourable James Balfour M.L.C. (Melbourne, 1918), Christian Essentials (Melbourne, [1914]) and polemical pamphlets on the relationship between religion and education. Portraits are at P.L.C. and Ormond College, and at St Andrew's College where the Harper building is named after him.

Select Bibliography

  • C. A. White, The Challenge of the Years (Syd, 1951)
  • A. R. Chisholm, Men Were My Milestones (Melb, 1958)
  • M. O. Reid, The Ladies Came to Stay (Melb, 1960)
  • A. A. Dougan, The Andrew's Book
  • Being a Book About St. Andrew's College Within the University of Sydney (Syd, 1964)
  • K. Fitzpatrick, PLC Melbourne (Melb, 1975)
  • Victorian Presbyterian Messenger, 20 Nov, 4 Dec 1936
  • Argus (Melbourne), 2 Dec 1936
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 21 May 1920, 17 May 1928, 28 Nov, 2 Dec 1936
  • J. Balfour papers (privately held).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Don Chambers, 'Harper, Andrew (1844–1936)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 23 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


13 November, 1844
Glasgow, Lanarkshire, Scotland


25 November, 1936 (aged 92)
Edinburgh, Mid-Lothian, Scotland

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