Payne Smith, Robert (DNB00)

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PAYNE SMITH, ROBERT (1819–1895), dean of Canterbury, orientalist and theologian, was born at Chipping Campden in Gloucestershire on 7 Nov. 1819. His father, Robert Smith, who died in 1827, was a land agent, and was directly descended from Sir Thomas Smith, to whom the manor of Campden was granted by Queen Elizabeth. His mother, whose maiden name was Esther Argles Payne, was a native of Surrey. He was educated at Campden grammar school, whence he obtained in 1837 an exhibition at Pembroke College, Oxford, then under the headship of Dr. Jeune, to whose friendship Payne Smith owed much of his later promotion. At Oxford he studied the ordinary subjects of the classical schools, but devoted himself as well to the oriental languages, and gained the Sanskrit scholarship in 1840, and the Pusey and Ellerton Hebrew scholarship in 1843. A post was then offered him at Benares, which, at his mother's wish, he declined; and in the same year he obtained a fellowship at Pembroke College, and was ordained. He at first devoted himself to pastoral work, and undertook successively the curacies of Crendon and Long Winchenden, and of Thame in Buckinghamshire; but in 1847 he accepted a classical mastership at the Edinburgh Academy, with which from 1848 he combined the incumbency of Trinity Chapel. In 1853 he left Edinburgh to become headmaster of the Kensington proprietary school. While in London he resumed his oriental studies, and worked at the Syriac manuscripts in the British Museum, being encouraged by Dr. Cureton; and, partly with the view of obtaining leisure for these studies, partly because the climate of Kensington did not suit his wife's health, he accepted in 1857 the post of sub-librarian at the Bodleian Library, a step involving great pecuniary loss. During his tenure of this post he published, in 1859, the commentary of Cyril of Alexandria on St. Luke in Syriac and English; in 1860 a translation of the third part of the ‘Ecclesiastical History of Johannes Ephesius,’ which had been edited in Syriac by Cureton, to whom the translator acknowledges his obligations for assistance in his studies; and, in 1865, a ‘Catalogue of the Syriac MSS. in the Bodleian Library.’ During the preparation of these works, all of which displayed very accurate scholarship, and were published at the Clarendon Press, Payne Smith had become aware of the imperfections of the Syriac dictionary of Castell and Michaelis, the only one at the time in the hands of students, and as early as 1859 he proposed to the delegates of the Clarendon Press a scheme for a new dictionary. The proposal was favourably received, and he set to work on his ‘Thesaurus Syriacus,’ the compilation and publication of which formed his chief literary occupation for the remaining thirty-six years of his life. At his death all but the last of the ten fasciculi had appeared; the last was issued in 1901. The book bears on its title-page, besides the editor's name, that of S. M. Quatremère, G. H. Bernstein, G. W. Lorsbach, A. J. Arnoldi, C. M. Agrell, F. Field, and A. Rödiger. Several of these scholars had planned works similar to Payne Smith's, but had not lived to complete more than small portions of them; their manuscripts were put into Payne Smith's hands, and their materials were embodied in the work which so generously acknowledges its indebtedness to them. The first fasciculus began to be printed at the end of 1864, and was published in 1868. The number of copies was 350, but this was afterwards found to be insufficient, and, after fasc. 6, was raised to 750, fresh copies of the earlier fasciculi being produced by photography. Besides the collections mentioned, care was taken by the editor to utilise the numerous Syriac texts published in Europe (especially in Germany) during the second half of the century, and every other available source whence his dictionary could be enriched. Payne Smith's undertaking started a new era in the study of Syriac, and there seems little chance, owing to its exhaustive character, of its being superseded as a storehouse of the facts of that language.

Payne Smith was also a voluminous writer on controversial theology, in which he favoured the conservative and evangelical side. His course of sermons vindicating ‘The Authenticity and Messianic Interpretation of the Prophecies of Isaiah’ (1862) led to his appointment in 1865 to the regius professorship of divinity at Oxford, chiefly through the influence of the Earl of Shaftesbury and Dr. Jeune, then bishop of Peterborough. In 1869 he delivered the Bampton lectures, and took for his subject ‘Prophecy a Preparation for Christ.’

As regius professor at Oxford he played a leading part in establishing the theological tripos (for which he was one of the first examiners in 1870), an institution which had far-reaching effects in rendering the study of theology more systematic than it had been in Oxford. It was also at his request that Henry Hall-Houghton [q. v.] founded in 1871 the Syriac prize that bears his name. With the view of providing special training in theology for clergymen of the evangelical school, he helped to found in 1877 Wycliffe Hall, of which he was chairman of council to the end of his life. He also interested himself in educational institutions at his native town of Chipping Campden and Canterbury, and helped to found the South-eastern College, Ramsgate. The intermediate church schools at Canterbury, with which he was closely associated, have been rechristened the Payne Smith schools.

In January 1870 he resigned his professorship at Oxford on accepting Mr. Gladstone's offer of the deanery of Canterbury. He sat on the Old Testament revision committee, which occupied a part of his time for fifteen years—from 1870 to 1885. As dean of Canterbury he won the affection of the various nonconformist bodies represented there, as well as of the different parties in the church; and the controversies in which he was at times engaged were conducted without bitterness on his or his opponents' sides. He died at Canterbury on 31 March 1895. A memorial has been placed in the cathedral.

His publications from 1865 till his death in 1895 (apart from the ‘Thesaurus Syriacus’) were all of them in defence of the evangelical school. They include an ‘Exposition of the Historical Portion of Daniel’ (1886), a ‘Commentary on Jeremiah’ contributed to the ‘Speaker's Commentary,’ on ‘Samuel’ in the ‘Pulpit Commentary,’ on ‘Genesis’ in Bishop Ellicott's ‘Commentary,’ and his essay ‘On the Powers and Duties of the Priesthood’ contributed to a volume directed against Ritualism, called ‘Principles at Stake.’

He married, in 1850, Catherine Freeman, by whom he had two sons and four daughters, one of whom was associated with him in editing the later fasciculi of the ‘Thesaurus.’

[Payne Smith's Thesaurus Syriacus, i. præf.; private information.]

D. S. M.