Introducing: Alfred Ernest Garvie

Alfred Ernest Garvie (1861-1945), Congregational minister and theologian, was born on 29 August 1861 at Zyrardow, a Polish town under Russian rule, the son of Peter Garvie and Jane Kedslie (d. 1865). His parents were of Scottish descent, their families having emigrated in the 1820s and worked in the linen and flour trades. Garvie was the fifth in a family of six surviving children; a further three died in infancy, and his mother died when he was four. Plagued by illness as a child, he was left with defective sight after a serious eye inflammation, but during his long periods of convalescence he developed a passion for study, and became fluent in English, German, and Russian. Later he attributed his characteristic preoccupations to childhood influences: the experience of Russian hegemony engendered his instinctive dislike of tyranny and his strong sense of personal liberty. He maintained that his proudly Scottish and reformed upbringing ‘may explain why my Scottish and British patriotism has always been qualified by internationalism, and my congregational loyalty by … ecumenicity’ (Garvie, 53). Sent to Edinburgh to complete his education, Garvie attended George Watson’s College (1874–8) before his four-year apprenticeship as a draper in Glasgow. He attended United Presbyterian church services, committing much of his time to street-mission, but his calling to ministry was hampered by doctrinal difficulties with Presbyterianism and reservations about the Westminster confession. He studied Latin, Greek, and philosophy at Glasgow University (1885–9), gaining the Logan gold medal as the most distinguished arts graduate in 1889, and, having discovered that creed subscription was not a prerequisite for Congregational ministry, changed his church membership and took first-class honours at Mansfield College, Oxford (1889–92). In 1893 he married Agnes Gordon (d. 1914) of Glasgow. His first pastorates were in Macduff (1893–5) and Montrose (1895–1903). Chairman of the Scottish Congregational Union in 1902, he became professor of the philosophy of theism, comparative religion, and Christian ethics at Hackney College and New College, Hampstead, in 1903. He was principal of New College from 1907 and of Hackney College from 1924. When the two merged in 1924, he continued as principal of the institution later known as New College, London. The death of his wife in 1914 was a considerable blow, ameliorated only by devotion to his two daughters.In 1896 Garvie published his first book, The Ethics of Temperance, reflecting a lifelong aversion to alcohol and tobacco. A work of considerable intellectual power and theological influence, his The Ritschlian Theology (1899), a critique of the works of A. Ritschl, W. Herrmann, J. W. M. Kaftan, and A. Harnack, excited some interest in German theology on the normally insular British scene. He criticized Ritschl’s failure to give pre-eminence to the scriptures, but applauded his emphasis on the experiential, insisting that ‘The experience of the apostolic Church must be relived in order that its doctrine may again be rethought’ (Ritschlian Theology, 390–91). This assertion epitomized his self-styled ‘liberal evangelical’ approach to theology, further developed in popular works such as A Guide to Preachers (1906) and The Evangelical Type of Christianity (1916), and in the three volumes of his systematic theology, The Christian Doctrine of the Godhead (1925), The Christian Ideal for Human Society (1920), and The Christian Belief in God (1932). He reacted against Barthianism, describing the doctrine of original sin as a ‘grievous burden on the Church’, and saw the role of the Christian theologian as being to synthesize the ‘absolute eternal values’ latent in the world’s religions

into one Christian monotheistic faith … so that the common brotherhood of man, the goal towards which human evolution points, may be sustained and sublimated by the one Fatherhood of God, as revealed in history by Christ, and realised in experience by His Spirit. (Christian Belief, 411, 191)

His theology was increasingly cruci-centric and trinitarian.Garvie’s academic career was complemented by consistent social action and ecumenicity. During his pastorate at Montrose he incurred displeasure by announcing his pro-Boer sympathies, and during the First World War he vigorously defended the rights of conscientious objectors. As vice-chairman of the interdenominational Conference on Politics, Economics and Citizenship he chaired its report Christianity and War (1924), but felt that its potentialities for peacemaking were thwarted by arguments about absolutist pacifism. Further ecumenical commitments included the Edinburgh Missionary Conference (1907), and the faith and order, and life and work movements. He was co-president of the latter with Bishop George Bell of Chichester, and also developed friendships with churchmen of such varying outlooks as A. Deissman, C. Gore, and C. G. Lang. At the Stockholm conference in 1925 Garvie and Bell wrote a pacifying message to the churches on Germany and ‘war guilt’. In 1927 he was deputy chairman of the Lausanne conference, and became moderator of the Free Church Federal Council in 1928. He received three honorary doctorates: from Glasgow (1903), Berlin University (1930), and New College, London.

Widely respected for his cheerful personality and genuine flair for peacemaking, Garvie’s intellectual and pastoral life was, as was recognized at Berlin University, marked by his ‘devotion in evangelical love and faith to the unity of the Church of Christ’ (Garvie, 220). After his retirement in 1933 he remained an active public figure in British Christianity until his death at the Hendon Cottage Hospital on 7 March 1945.

Giles C. Watson


  • Private school in Poland; home tuition; George Watson’s College, Edinburgh. MA with 1st Class Honours in Philosophy, Glasgow, 1889; BA with 1st Class Honours in Theology, Oxford, 1892; BD Glasgow, 1894; MA Oxford, 1898; hon. DD Glasgow, 1903, Berlin, 1931, London, 1934. Edinburgh Univ. 1878-1879; business in Glasgow, 1880-1884; Glasgow Univ. 1885-1889 (1st Prizeman in Greek, Latin, Logic, Literature, Moral Philosophy, Logan Gold Medal); Oxford University, 1889-1893.


  • Minister of Macduff Congregational Church, 1893-1895; President Congregational Union of Scotland, 1902; Minister of Montrose Congregational Church, 1895-1903; Professor of Philosophy of Theism, Comparative Religion, and Christian Ethics in Hackney and New Colleges, London, 1903-1907; Chairman of the Congregational Union of England and Wales, 1920; President of the National Free Church Council, 1923; Deputy Chairman of the Lausanne Conference on Faith and Order, 1927; Moderator of the Federal Council of the Free Churches, 1928.


  • The Ethics of Temperance, 1895
  • The Ritschlian Theology, 1899
  • Commentary on Romans, 1901
  • The Gospel for To­day, 1904
  • The Christian Personality, 1904
  • My Brother’s Keeper, 1905
  • Religious Education, 1906
  • A Guide to Preachers, 1906
  • Studies in the Inner Life of Jesus, 1908
  • Commentary on Luke, 1910
  • The Christian Certainty, 1910
  • Studies of Paul and his Gospel, 1911
  • Handbook of Christian Apologetics, 1913
  • The Joy of Finding, 1914
  • The Missionary Obligation, 1914
  • The Evangelical Type of Christianity, 1915
  • The Master’s Comfort and Hope, and the Minister and the Young Life of the Church, 1917
  • The Purpose of God in Christ, 1919
  • The Christian Preacher, 1920
  • Tutors unto Christ, 1920
  • The Holy Catholic Church, 1921
  • Congregational View, 1921
  • The Old Testament in the Sunday School, 1921
  • The Beloved Disciple, 1922;
  • The Way and the Witness, The God Man Craves
  • The Christian Doctrine of the Godhead, 1925
  • The Preachers of the Church, 1926
  • The Christian Ideal for Human Society, 1930
  • The Christian Belief in God, 1933
  • Can Christ Save Society? 1934
  • Revelation through History and Experience, 1934
  • The Fatherly Rule of God, 1935
  • The Christian Faith, 1936
  • Memories and Meanings of My Life, 1937
  • Christian Moral Conduct, 1938
  • Editor of the Westminster New Testament, 1938


  • 34 Sevington Road, Hendon. NW4. Telephone: Hendon 6834.


  • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
  • Who Was Who
  • A. E. Garvie, Memories and meanings of my life (1938)
  • R. Tudur Jones, Congregationalism in England, 1662–1962 (1962)
  • DNB · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1945)


  • DWL, corresp. and papers
  • LPL, corresp. and papers relating to Reunion
  • LPL, letters to Tissington Tatlow


  • G. E. Butler, oils, New College, London; on loan to DWL, photograph, repro. in Garvie, Memories and meanings of my life, frontispiece

Wealth at death

  • £2651 8s. 10d.: probate, 14 July 1945, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Note: Additional dictionary content from The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography can be obtained free in the UK from public libraries thanks to a national deal with the MLA.

See here for more biographies in the Introducing Series.

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