Intellectual biography of David Smith Cairns (1862-1946)
Finlayson, Marlene Elizabeth
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This thesis explores the formative influences, development and impact of the theology of David Smith Cairns, Scottish minister, academic and writer, during the high point of British imperial expansion, and at a time of social tension caused by industrialisation. In particular, it describes and evaluates his role in the Church’s efforts to face major challenges relating to its relationships to the different world religions, its response to the First World War, and its attitude to the scientific disciplines that called into question some of its long-standing perceptions and suppositions. Examination of Cairns’s life and work reveals an eminent figure, born into the United Presbyterian Church and rooted in the Church in Scotland, but operating ecumenically and internationally. His apologetics challenged the prevailing assumptions of the day: that science provided the only intellectually legitimate means of exploring the world, and that scientific determinism ruled out the Christian conception of the world as governed by Providence. A major feature of his theology was the presentation of Christianity as a ‘reasonable’ faith, and throughout his life he maintained a particular concern for young people, having endured his own crisis of faith when a student in Edinburgh. He enjoyed a decades long involvement with the Student Christian Movement and the World Student Christian Federation, based on a mutually enriching relationship with one of its leading figures, the renowned American evangelist John Raleigh Mott. As chair of Commission IV of the 1910 World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh, Cairns spearheaded efforts to encourage the Church to redefine its role in relation to the different world religions, and to adopt a fulfilment theology that allowed for a dialogical rather than confrontational model of mission. As leader of a Y.M.C.A. sponsored interdenominational enquiry into the effects of the First World War on the religious life of the nation and attitudes to the Churches, Cairns reported on the Churches’ failure to engage with a large section of the population, and in particular with the young men at the Front. The resulting report offered an important critique of the Church and its vision in the early twentieth century, and provided a call for reform and renewal in Church life, with an emphasis on the need for social witness. The thesis concludes that in these three major areas Cairns provided a prophetic voice for the Church as it entered the twentieth century and faced the challenges of that time.