1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Smith, William Robertson

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WILLIAM ROBERTSON SMITH (1846–1894), Scottish philologist, physicist, archaeologist, Biblical critic, and editor, from 1881, of the 9th edition of this Encyclopaedia, was born on the 8th of November 1846 at Keig in Aberdeenshire, where his father was Free Church minister. He was educated at home and at Aberdeen University, where he attained the highest academic distinctions, winning among other things the Ferguson mathematical scholarship, which is open to all graduates of Scottish universities under three years’ standing. In 1866 he entered the Free Church College at Edinburgh as a student of theology. During two summer sessions he studied philosophy and theology at Bonn and Göttingen, making friends in all branches of learning. From 1868 to 1870 he acted as assistant to the professor of natural philosophy in Edinburgh University. During this period he was not only most successful as a teacher, but produced much original work—especially in the experimental and mathematical treatment of electricity—which is still regarded as standard. In 1870 he was appointed and ordained to the office of professor of Oriental languages and Old Testament exegesis at the Free Church College, Aberdeen, and here he began that series of theological investigations which, characterized as they were by learned research and the use of the most scientific methods, were destined to make his name famous. He was the pupil and personal friend of many leaders of the higher criticism in Germany, and from the first he advocated views which, though now widely accepted, were then regarded with apprehension. The articles on Biblical subjects which he contributed to the 9th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica distressed and alarmed the authorities of the Free Church. In 1876 a committee of the General Assembly of that Church reported on them so adversely that Smith demanded a formal trial, in the course of which he defended himself with consummate ability and eloquence. The indictment dropped, but a vote of want of confidence was passed, and in 1881 Smith was removed from his chair. During this long struggle he was sustained by the conviction that he was fighting for freedom, and at the end of the trial he was probably the most popular, if not the most powerful, man in Scotland. Marks of sympathy were showered on him from all sides.

In 1875 he was appointed one of the Old Testament revisers; in 1880–1882 he delivered by invitation, to very large audiences in Edinburgh and Glasgow, two courses of lectures on the criticism of the Old Testament, which he afterwards published (The Old Testament in the Jewish Church, first edition 1881, second edition 1892, and The Prophets of Israel, 1882, which also passed through two editions); and soon after his dismissal from his chair he joined Professor Baynes in the editorship of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and after Professor Baynes’s death remained in supreme editorial control till the work was completed. His versatility, firmness combined with tact, width of view, and painstaking struggle for accuracy were largely responsible for the maintenance of its high standard. But he did not let his other duties interfere with his Semitic studies. He visited Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Tunis and southern Spain, and had an intimate knowledge of, and personal acquaintance with, not only the literature, but the life of the East. His early friendship with J. F. McLennan, that most original student of primitive marriage, had a great influence on Smith’s studies, and his attention was always strongly attracted to the comparative study of primitive customs and their meaning. His chief contributions to this branch of learning were his article Sacrifice in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, his Kinship and Marriage in Early Arabia (Cambridge, 1885), and above all his Lectures on the Religion of the Semites (1st edition 1889, 2nd edition 1894). His originality and grasp of mind enabled him to seize the essential among masses of details, and he had in a marked degree the power of carrying a subject farther than his predecessors.

In 1883 Robertson Smith was appointed Lord Almoner’s Professor of Arabic at Cambridge, which henceforth became his home. He occupied rooms in Trinity College till 1885, when he was elected to a professorial fellowship at Christ’s College. In 1886 he became university librarian, and in 1889 Adams Professor of Arabic. In 1888–1891 he delivered, as Burnett lecturer, three courses of lectures at Aberdeen on the primitive religion of the Semites. Early in 1890 grave symptoms of constitutional disease manifested themselves, and the last years of his life were full of suffering, which he bore with the utmost courage and patience. He never ceased to work, and when near his end was actively engaged in planning the Encyclopaedia Biblica, which he had hoped to edit. He died at Cambridge on the 31st of March 1894, and was buried at Keig. Small and slight in person and never robust in health, Robertson Smith was yet a man of ceaseless and fiery energy; of an intellect extraordinarily alert and quick, and as sagacious in practical matters as it was keen and piercing in speculation; of an erudition astonishing both in its range and in its readiness; of a temper susceptible of the highest enthusiasm for worthy ends, and able to inspire others with its own ardour; endowed with the warmest affections, and with the kindest and most generous disposition, but impatient of stupidity and ready to blaze out at whatever savoured of wrong and injustice. The sweetness and purity of his nature combined with his brilliant conversational powers to render him the most delightful of friends and companions.

See also James Bryce, Studies in Contemporary Biography (1903).  (A. E. S.)