Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Cunningham, William (1805-1861)

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CUNNINGHAM, WILLIAM, D.D. (1805–1861), church leader and theological writer, was born in 1805 at Hamilton, Lanarkshire, where his father was a merchant. The father dying very early, the family removed to Dunse (now Duns), co. Berwick, where Cunningham received his early education. At the university of Edinburgh he was distinguished for scholarship, purity and honesty of character, and general ability, and for the part he took in the societies (especially the Diagnostic) and the other active work of the university. While in his undergraduate course he was greatly impressed by the preaching of the Rev. Dr. Gordon, and accepted very earnestly his lifelong views of evangelical truth. During his vacations he devoured books with extraordinary avidity, a list of books read during six vacations amounting to 520, besides pamphlets and magazines.

Having gone through the theological curriculum, he became a licentiate in 1828, and in 1830 was ordained as assistant-minister of the Middle Church, Greenock. His singular ability as a controversialist debater soon became apparent. In 1833, in the general assembly, he supported the motion of Dr. Chalmers, on the subject of the ‘call’ in the appointment of ministers, in a speech of two hours' length, which made a great impression. The lord provost of Edinburgh, being a member of the assembly, determined, after hearing the speech, to get Cunningham brought to Edinburgh on the first vacancy. This happened next year, when Cunningham became minister of Trinity College Church. Here, however, he was not very successful, partly, perhaps, owing to the extent to which he got involved in ecclesiastical controversy.

In 1839 he published a reply to a very elaborate pamphlet of Mr. Hope, dean of the Faculty of Advocates, on the collision then begun between the civil courts and the church, taking the side of the church in opposition to the dean, and defending it with much fulness of learning, force of logic, and mastery of facts. In 1840 he wrote a ‘Defence of the Rights of the Christian People,’ in opposition to Dr. Robertson of Ellon. A not less famous controversial pamphlet was his reply to Sir William Hamilton's ‘Be not Schismatics, be not Martyrs, by Mistake.’ In all his controversial speeches and writings he was very outspoken, and sometimes used such severity of language as led many to form an unfavourable view of his character. In 1841, in the general assembly, he seconded the motion of Dr. Chalmers for the deposition of the Strathbogie ministers. In all the deliberations and proceedings of what was called the ‘non-intrusion’ party Cunningham occupied a prominent place, delivering many speeches, both in church courts and popular meetings, which were marked by a combination of qualities unknown in any other leader. The peculiar character of his speaking was described by Hugh Miller in the following terms on occasion of a speech in 1840: ‘Mr. Cunningham opened the debate in a speech of tremendous power. The elements were various—a clear logic, at once severely nice and popular; an unhesitating readiness of language, select and forcible, and well fitted to express every minute shade of meaning, but plain and devoid of figure; above all, an extent of erudition and an acquaintance with church history that, in every instance in which the arguments turned on a matter of fact, seemed to render opposition hopeless. But what gave peculiar emphasis to the whole was what we shall venture to call the propelling power of the mind—that animal energy which seems to act the part of the moving mind in the mechanism of intellect, which gives force to action and depth to the tones of the voice, and impresses a hearer with the idea of immense momentum.’

The general assembly of the Free church in 1843 appointed Cunningham to one of the chairs of theology in the New College; but before beginning work he was commissioned to visit the United States, to explain what had taken place in Scotland, and to collect information respecting theological institutions in that country. In the year before (1842) he had received the degree of D.D. from the college of Princeton, New Jersey, the only degree he ever had. On his return home an effort was made to excite disaffection against him and his cause, by identifying his American friends with the slaveholders of the United States, and Cunningham had the delicate and disagreeable duty of showing that, however much he and others might disapprove of slaveholding, they could not withdraw from all fellowship with men that upheld it, unless they considered it, which they did not, to be in all circumstances a sin. In 1845 he was appointed professor of church history, in succession to the Rev. Dr. Welsh, and in 1847, on the death of Dr. Chalmers, he got the additional appointment of principal. It was his great desire to make the New College a model theological institution, and to a certain extent his wishes were carried out; but he was greatly discouraged by the institution of other colleges in Glasgow and Aberdeen, not deeming the resources of the Free church sufficient for so many. A temporary alienation from many of his companions in arms was the result, which, however, was healed two or three years before his death. In 1859 he was called to the chair of the general assembly. Some of his friends took the opportunity to raise a testimonial fund in acknowledgment of his past services, which was so successful that, while they aimed at 5,000l., upwards of 7,000l. was realised.

In the assembly of 1861 he made what some of his friends counted his greatest speech, the subject being union among the presbyterian churches of Australia. To some it appeared that by countenancing a union of these colonial churches the Free church would be abandoning her own distinctive principles. Cunningham took the more liberal view, and, while eloquently maintaining it, did not scruple to deal some of the hard blows of former days at those who, in upholding the narrower position, claimed to be ‘faithful found among the faithless.’ At the end of 1861 his health, which had been declining, quite gave way, and after a short illness he died, early in the morning of 14 Dec. 1861, on the same day as the prince consort, but a few hours earlier.

During his lifetime Cunningham published (besides his controversial pamphlets) an edition of Stillingfleet's ‘Doctrines and Practices of the Church of Rome,’ with additional matter nearly as large as the book itself; also a considerable number of articles in the ‘North British Review’ and the ‘British and Foreign Evangelical Review,’ the latter of which he edited from 1855 to 1860. Before he died he committed his manuscripts to two literary executors, by whom four large volumes were issued, on which his theological reputation mainly rests. These are: 1. ‘The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation.’ 2. ‘Historical Theology: a Review of the principal Doctrinal Discussions in the Christian Church from the Apostolic Age,’ 2 vols. 3. ‘Discussions on Church Principles—Popish, Erastian, Presbyterian.’ A volume of sermons was also published, edited by Rev. J. J. Bonar, Greenock; and another volume, edited by Dr. Thomas Smith, entitled ‘Theological Lectures on subjects connected with Natural Theology, Evidences of Christianity, the Canon, and Inspiration of Scripture.’

A prominent public man, whose lifework has been done mainly by his living voice, occupies an undesirable position when he comes to be known chiefly by his posthumous writings. The bareness of some of these, especially the ‘Historical Theology,’ has been admitted by some of his friends; and it is probable that if he had himself published the work he would have introduced many of those references to the views of other theologians with which his stores of learning supplied him, and which he was accustomed to make vivâ voce. The most characteristic of his writings, in this point of view, is his ‘Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation.’ His own theological beliefs rested firmly on two fundamental principles: first, the supreme authority of holy scripture; and second, the scriptures a definite revelation of God's will. What he aimed at, as a theologian, was to reach the conclusions which these two principles involved. The three theological systems to which he was chiefly opposed were the Roman, the Socinian, and the Arminian; his opposition to the last being confessedly on grounds less important than in the case of the other two. He was the ablest defender of Calvinism in his day, and yet he did not go so far in the development of Calvinistic positions as some divines of the seventeenth century. The gentleness of his personal character was a striking contrast to his boldness and vehemency in controversy. The transparency of his nature was very obvious; though severe in argument he was honest and fair; often he expressed his sense of the evils of controversy, necessary though he deemed it; as years gathered on him he grew in charity, and among his later prayers was that of Melanchthon—‘A rabie theologorum libera nos, Domine.’

[Scott's Fasti; Life of William Cunningham, D.D., by Robert Rainy, D.D., and the late Rev. James Mackenzie; Disruption Worthies; Proceedings of the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland, 1862.]

W. G. B.