Introducing: John Caird

john-cairdJohn Henderson Seaforth Burleigh, in his momumental A Church History of Scotland (London: Oxford University Press, 1960), described one nineteenth-century churchman as holding ‘aloof from all ecclesiastical strife, but he was reckoned to be the greatest Scottish preacher of his age’ (p. 379). The person in question is John Caird. But who was this man?

John Caird (1820-1898), was a Church of Scotland minister, theologian, and university principal. He was born on 15 December 1820 in Greenock, the eldest of seven sons of John Caird (d. 1838), marine engineer, and Janet Young (d. 1889) of Port Glasgow. His younger brother Edward Caird (1835-1908), philosopher, became master of Balliol College, Oxford. John was educated at the Greenock grammar school until the age of fifteen, when he went to work in the office of his father’s engineering firm. At his earnest request, his father allowed him to attend classes in mathematics and logic at Glasgow University in 1837-8, after which he returned to work in the family firm. In September 1838 his father died suddenly, and his firm was sold. Caird took a position in an uncle’s chain-making firm, but, freed from the expectation that he would follow his father in business, he decided on a career in the ministry. He returned to Glasgow University in 1840 and proceeded through the arts and divinity curricula, gaining prizes in poetry, Hebrew, and Latin, and demonstrating a capacity for steady, orderly work. He graduated MA in 1845. In the same year he was licensed as a probationary minister in the Church of Scotland by the presbytery of Glasgow, and was ordained to the ministry of the parish of Newton upon Ayr on 18 September 1845.

Caird’s talents were soon recognized, and on 6 May 1847 he was translated to the Edinburgh parish of Lady Yester’s. There he experienced an extraordinary rise to fame as a vehement preacher of a practical, non-dogmatic religion. He had an arresting presence in the pulpit, with a slight physique, long, black hair, swarthy complexion, dark eyes, and powerful voice. For the young he held a particular fascination, and students were prominent among the crowds that packed into the church Sunday after Sunday. As one admirer later recalled, ‘the fire of the eye, the rapidity of the gestures, the resonance of the voice, the sacred passion of the orator, were not to be withstood’ (Caird, xlviii). The Church of Scotland, which had lost nearly half its membership and its most zealous clergymen at the Disruption of 1843, was in need of fresh talent, and many looked to Caird as a revitalizing force. Others, however, were less enthusiastic. Complaints about him spread: his doctrine, some said, was unsound; he placed too much emphasis on worldly morality; he did not preach Christ. The criticisms became too much for the sensitive young man, still in his twenties. In a state of emotional turmoil and physical exhaustion, Caird decided to withdraw from Edinburgh. In July 1849 he became minister of the quiet Perthshire parish of Errol.

Caird devoted himself to the ministry of his rural parish. He invested considerable effort in writing his sermons, striving for greater clarity of expression. He worked to enhance the beauty of worship and he founded a school for girls of the labouring classes. He avoided ecclesiastical politics and seldom attended presbytery meetings. He read widely, giving particular attention to the work of Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, the Oxford Tractarians, and German theologians, especially Schleiermacher. Above all, he recovered his emotional equilibrium. In 1855 he was again drawn to the public notice, when in October he preached before Queen Victoria at Balmoral. With eloquence and power, Caird proclaimed the unity and sanctity of all life, insisted that Christianity must infuse the business of this world, and summoned Christians to quiet, earnest labour under the shadow of eternity. Deeply moved-she wrote it was ‘a most admirable and beautiful sermon … which kept one’s attention riveted’ (Victoria, 155)-the queen commanded that the sermon be published. Entitled Religion in Common Life, it went through several editions and was later described by A. P. Stanley, dean of Westminster Abbey, as ‘the best single sermon in the language’ (Caird, xxxii). On 7 December 1857 Victoria appointed Caird one of her chaplains-in-ordinary in Scotland, which he continued until 1886.

Caird had by now decided to return to an urban pastorate. On receiving offers to become minister of both the new Park Church in Glasgow and St George’s Church in Edinburgh, he accepted the Park Church, and was translated there on 24 December 1857. As in Edinburgh in the late 1840s, his preaching in Glasgow attracted huge crowds. He was, however, now better prepared to confront controversy. His youthful vehemence had grown into a more restrained eloquence, a chastened, mature understanding of the world, and a deepened compassion for human suffering and frailty. Contributing to his increased confidence and self-control was his marriage, on 15 June 1858, to Isabella Riddle Glover (1832-1913), daughter of William Glover, minister of Greenside parish, Edinburgh. The marriage-there were no children-was a long and happy one.

During his years at the Park Church, Caird emerged as one of the leading figures in the broad-church movement in Scotland, a movement that contributed much to the mid-Victorian revival of the Church of Scotland. His preaching was characterized by a belief in the essential reasonableness of Christianity, a focus on the person of Jesus, a concentration on practical Christian morality over doctrinal distinctions, and a confidence that Christianity had nothing to fear from developments in science and historical scholarship. He was committed to liturgical reform, including the revival of ancient liturgies, and he worked to bring greater simplicity, reverence, and beauty to public worship. His social ethic included concern to improve conditions for the labouring classes. He recruited voluntary workers from his Park congregation for mission work in an impoverished urban district. Near the end of his life, when told that the Glasgow city council had refused to open a public park to working people on Sundays, he responded with characteristic emotion. ‘Could they not’, he asked, ‘offer them this brief refuge from the wretchedness of their narrow and crowded and noisy and too often fireless hearths? Oh! the prejudice and bigotry of men!’ (Jones, 12).

In 1860 the University of Glasgow awarded Caird a DD. In 1862 he was appointed professor of divinity at the University of Glasgow, and left the parish ministry. He approached his new position with some apprehension, suspecting rightly that his lectures would be scrutinized critically by those who adhered strictly to orthodox doctrinal standards. Caird devoted the same meticulous care to preparing his theological lectures as he did to his sermons. As a teacher, he endeavoured to promote a spirit of enquiry; he was concerned less to provide students with a set of doctrinal propositions to be accepted on authority, and more to give them principles which might guide their honest exploration of the Christian faith. Deeply influenced by the thought of Hegel, Caird placed emphasis on the progressive unfolding of Christian truth. Together with his brother Edward, professor of moral philosophy at Glasgow University from 1866 to 1893, Caird was a leading force in promoting Hegelian idealism in Scotland. He also championed religious toleration. He refused to censure unbelief as a moral or intellectual fault; rather, he emphasized the consolations and joys of the Christian faith as positive gifts which Christians should treasure and share with others. In 1866 he helped make it possible for students from nonconformist seminaries to gain a University of Glasgow BD through examination. In 1868 he successfully proposed that a Glasgow DD be conferred upon the eminent Scottish theologian John Macleod Campbell, who in 1831 had been deposed from the ministry of the Church of Scotland for heresy. In 1871 he helped to revive regular university chapel services, and invited members of different denominations to preach. He was, his brother later recalled, ‘almost indifferent to the causes of disagreement between the main denominations into which the Christian church is divided’ (Caird, xcvii).

When the principalship of Glasgow University became vacant early in 1873, the university senate unanimously petitioned the queen to appoint Caird to the vacancy, which she did on 7 March 1873. He immersed himself in the practical work of administering the university, providing steady academic leadership during a period that witnessed the appointment of a universities commission in 1876, the University Act of 1889, and the radical reorganization of the university system. He also campaigned publicly for extending full university privileges to women. In addition to his demanding administrative workload, he continued to preach several times each session in the university chapel and to address the students at the opening of each session. In 1880 he published his first major work, the Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion, based on the Croall lectures he delivered in Edinburgh. In 1888 he published a brief study of the ethics of Spinoza. He returned to the subject of theism with his Gifford lectures, which he delivered in 1890-91 and in 1896. They were published posthumously as The Fundamental Ideas of Christianity in 1899. These mature works were infused by Hegelian idealism and, while not original in their argument, they expressed Caird’s characteristic commitment to a reasonable, inclusive Christianity. Caird suffered a stroke in 1896, and became seriously ill again in February 1898. He died of ‘inflammatory illness’ (probably pleurisy) on 30 July 1898 at his brother Colin’s house, Dungourney, Newark Street, Greenock, and was buried in Greenock cemetery on 3 August. A liberal protestant, Caird was pre-eminently a preacher of a confident, consoling Christian faith, prepared to respond creatively to the challenges and opportunities of a progressive age.


E. Caird, ‘Memoir of Principal Caird’, in J. Caird, The fundamental ideas of Christianity, 2 vols. (1899), ix-cxli · C. L. Warr, Principal Caird (1926) · A. C. Cheyne, ‘John Caird (1820-98): preacher, professor, principal’, Studies in Scottish church history (1999), 165-83 · A. P. F. Sell, ‘John Caird (1820-1898): apostle of continuity’, Defending and declaring the faith: some Scottish examples, 1860-1920 (1987), 64-88 · H. Jones, Principal Caird: an address (1898) · Fasti Scot., new edn · Boase, Mod. Eng. biog. · W. I. Addison, A roll of graduates of the University of Glasgow from 31st December 1727 to 31st December 1897 (1898) · Queen Victoria, Leaves from the journal of our life in the highlands, from 1848 to 1861, ed. A. Helps (1868)


NL Scot., corresp. with Blackwoods · NL Scot., notes of sermons; scattered letters |  Bodl. Oxf., letters to Gilbert Murray · U. Glas., corresp. and MSS relating to his principalship · U. Glas. L., special collections department, divinity lectures; letters; MS sermon


T. Annan, photograph, pubd 1871, NPG [see illus.] · W. and T. Bonner, engraving, 1873 (after W. Bonner), Scot. NPG · J. E. Millais, oils, exh. RA 1881, U. Glas.

Wealth at death

£11,604 7s. 3d.: confirmation, 22 Oct 1898, CCI

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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