Introducing: Andrew Martin Fairbairn

Andrew Martin Fairbairn (1838–1912), Congregational minister and college head, was born at Inverkeithing, Fife, on 4 November 1838. He came of covenanting stock and received strict religious training. He was the second son of John Fairbairn, a miller, and a leader in the United Secession church, and his wife, Helen, daughter of Andrew Martin, of Blainslie, near Lauder. He had very little regular schooling, and began to earn his own living before he was ten. A voracious reader with a retentive memory, he prepared himself for Edinburgh University, where he afterwards studied, though he took no degree.

Meanwhile Fairbairn had become an adherent of the Evangelical Union founded by James Morison, under whose influence Fairbairn decided to become a minister. He entered the theological college of the union in Glasgow in 1857, and in 1860 was ordained and inducted to the Evangelical Union pastorate in Bathgate. While in that post he visited Germany, where he studied at Berlin from 1865 to 1866 under Dorner, Tholuck, and Hengstenberg, and from that time onwards the advocacy of a freer and broader theology than that prevalent in the Scotland of his day became the passion of Fairbairn’s life. He married in 1868 Jane, youngest daughter of John Shields of Byres, Bathgate. They had two sons and two daughters.

Fairbairn wrote, preached, and lectured with untiring persistence, and did not shrink from controversy. He was chairman of the Evangelical Union in 1870. From Bathgate he moved in 1872 to St Paul’s Congregational Church, Aberdeen, where he won a great reputation as a preacher and as a lecturer on philosophical and theological subjects. His first book, Studies in the Philosophy of Religion and History (1876), at once called attention to him as a forceful religious teacher. In 1877 Fairbairn became principal of Airedale College, Bradford, thus transferring his religious allegiance to English Congregationalism. He soon showed his quality as a religious leader, and while at Airedale became chairman of the Congregational Union of England and Wales in 1883.

During the same period Fairbairn set himself to a task which absorbed him for many years, namely the reform and development of theological education among the free churches. When, therefore, it was proposed in 1886 to establish a Congregational theological college in Oxford, Fairbairn was marked out as the best man to lead the enterprise. He was made principal of the new foundation, Mansfield College, and its early success was largely due to his sagacity, industry, and tact. Its standing (and Fairbairn’s) was recognized when Gladstone dined there on 5 February 1890. Fairbairn’s wide learning and liberal spirit, the rugged eloquence of his style, and his deep insight into human nature made him a most attractive and stimulating teacher; his students responded with loyalty and devotion.

The substance of Fairbairn’s teaching was published in 1893 in the volume entitled Christ in Modern Theology, which its author described as ‘an endeavour, through a Christian doctrine of God, at a sketch of the first lines of a Christian theology’. The book speedily passed through twelve editions. It was followed by The Philosophy of the Christian Religion (1902), and the two together gave a fairly complete presentation of a theological position, strongly influenced by Hegelian idealism, which proved both stimulating and constructive at a time of stress and uncertainty. The theology is of a mediating type and, since it expresses the reaction of Fairbairn’s own mind to the intellectual conditions of his day, it now seems dated.

Among Fairbairn’s other writings are two volumes of sermons—The City of God (1882), hailed in its day as a real contribution to apologetics, and Catholicism, Roman and Anglican (1899), the substance of which had been the occasion of a sharp controversy with Cardinal Newman—and also a volume of Studies in Religion and Theology (1910). He also wrote two chapters, ‘Calvin’ and ‘Tendencies of European thought in the age of the Reformation’, for the second volume of the Cambridge Modern History (1903). His Gifford lectures on comparative religion were delivered in Aberdeen but, owing to adverse criticism of the sections on Chinese religion, were not published as they stood, and were never revised.

All this literary work was done in the intervals of an exceedingly busy life. A trusted leader of the free churches, Fairbairn was in demand all over the country as a preacher and lecturer. He paid several visits to America and lectured in many university centres. In 1898 he went as Haskell lecturer to India. Keenly interested in educational questions, he served on a royal commission on education (1894–5); was consulted by the University of Manchester concerning the establishment of its non-sectarian faculty of theology; played a leading part on the Welsh Theological Board, which devised regulations governing the teaching and examining of theology in the fledgeling University of Wales; and participated in the education controversy of 1902.

Fairbairn died at 112 St James’s Court, Buckingham Gate, London, on 9 February 1912. He was loved and honoured by a wide circle of friends. He was devoted to his family and never so happy as when in his hospitable home. He was a keen conversationalist, a little dogmatic and assertive in manner; W. B. Glover less deferentially described him as ‘a pompous windbag’. But he always had a sense of humour, and a sensitive appreciation of human needs and failings. His wide knowledge of people, books, and affairs made him a most entertaining companion. Above all he was deeply religious. Fairbairn was a DD of Edinburgh, Yale, Wales, Manchester, and Göttingen; a DLitt of Leeds; an LLD of Aberdeen; and a founder and fellow of the British Academy. A collection of Mansfield College Essays (1909), which includes a sonnet to him by Edward Shillito and a bibliography of his writings, was presented to him on his seventieth birthday. His monument is the college that he founded, which became a full college of Oxford University in 1995.

Key Works
Studies in the Philosophy of Religion and History (1876)
Studies in the Life of Christ (1881)
The City of God: A Series of Discussions in Religion (1883)
Religion in History and in Modern Life (1884; rev. 1893)
Christ in Modern Theology (1893)
Christ in the Centuries (1893)
Catholicism Roman and Anglican (1899)
Philosophy of the Christian Religion (1902).


Oxford Dictionary of National Biography · W.B. Selbie, The life of Andrew Martin Fairbairn (1914) · A.P.F. Sell, ‘An Arminian, a Calvinist and a liberal’, Dissenting thought and the life of the churches: studies in an English tradition (1990) · A.M. Fairbairn, ‘Experience in theology: a chapter of autobiography’, Contemporary Review, 91 (1907), 554–73 · R.S. Franks, ‘The theology of Andrew Martin Fairbairn’, Transactions of the Congregational Historical Society, 13 (1937–9), 140–50 · J.W. Grant, Free churchmanship in England, 1870–1940 [1955] · W.B. Glover, Evangelical nonconformists and higher criticism in the nineteenth century (1954) · M.D. Johnson, The dissolution of dissent, 1850–1918 (1987) · E. J. Price, ‘Dr Fairbairn and Airedale College: the hour and the man’, Transactions of the Congregational Historical Society, 13 (1937–9), 131–9 · K.W. Wadsworth, Yorkshire United Independent College (1954), 127–32 · H. Escott, A history of Scottish Congregationalism (1960) · Congregational Year Book (1913), 165–6 · W.D. McNaughton, The Scottish Congregational ministry, 1794–1993 (1993), 45–6 · R. Tudur Jones, Congregationalism in England, 1662–1962 (1962) · A.P.F. Sell, A reformed, evangelical, Catholic theology: the contribution of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, 1875–1982 (1991) · A.P.F. Sell, Saints: visible, orderly and Catholic: the Congregational idea of the church (1986) · A.P.F. Sell, Theology in turmoil: the roots, course and significance of the conservative–liberal debate in modern theology (1986) · J. Ross, A history of Congregational independency in Scotland (1900) · Gladstone, Diaries · E. Kaye, Mansfield College, Oxford: its origin, history and significance (1996)

Wealth at death

£3462 6s. 2d.: probate, 5 June 1912, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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  1. This gentleman was my great grandfather, and I thank you for this information which is very interesting. His son, Andrew Martin Fairbairn also, had an only daughter Evelyn Jane Fairbairn who was my mother.
    Kind Regards
    Jane Lindsay Evans


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