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John Baillie

John Baillie

The Scottish theologian and ecumenical churchman John Baillie (1886-1960) was a major influence mediating the conflicting currents of British, American, and European religious and philosophical thought during the middle years of the 20th century.

John Baillie, D. Litt., D.D., S.T.D., professor of divinity at Edinburgh University from 1934 to 1956 and brother of Professor D. M. Baillie of St. Mary's College, St. Andrews, was born March 6, 1886, in Gairloch, West Ross-shire, Scotland. John was the eldest of three sons born to the Free Church minister Rev. John Baillie and Annie Macpherson. His father died when John was four, and the following year his mother moved the three boys to the Highland capital of Inverness where they began their formal education at the Royal Academy. After finishing first in his class, he moved to Edinburgh in 1904 to attend the university, and the rest of the family joined him the following year. With the aid of several generous scholarships he was able to explore a wide variety of subjects, particularly English literature, though he confessed he gave up the art of poetry when his younger brother bested him for the Saintsbury Prize. During Baillie's undergraduate days all other academic interests were soon subordinated to his new-found passion for philosophy. He won first class medals in virtually every philosophical subject and was especially influenced by the brothers James and Andrew Seth (Pringle-Pattison).

Upon graduation in 1908 Baillie proceeded to New College, Edinburgh, to take up the four-year course preparatory to the United Free Church ministry. During this period he spent summers at the German Universities of Marburg and Jena, attending the lectures of philosophers Rudolf Eucken, Herrmann Cohen, and Paul Natorp as well as theologians Wilhelm Herrmann and Adolf Julicher. After finishing New College in 1912, he divided his energies between an assistantship in moral philosophy at Edinburgh under Pringle-Pattison and a pastoral position assisting James Black at Brought on Place Church.

The first severe shock to Baillie's youthful outlook came in May 1914 with the tragic news that his youngest brother, Peter, had drowned accidentally while preparing himself for work as a medical missionary in India. Coupled with the outbreak of World War I later that August and the death in battle of two close friends, Baillie soon volunteered for service under the Young Men's Christian Association (Y.M.C.A.) with the British armies in France. There he met Jewel Fowler, whom he married in April 1919, shortly before being released from service.

After the war Baillie took up the chair of Christian theology in Auburn Theological Seminary, New York, where he remained for seven years (1920-1927) prior to moving to Emmanuel College, Toronto, for another three years (1927-1930). In 1930 he was called to succeed William Adams Brown as Roosevelt Professor of Systematic Theology in Union Seminary, New York City. After four stimulating years on that distinguished faculty, Baillie was invited to return to New College at the same time that his brother had been appointed to the new chair in systematic theology at nearby St. Andrews. For the next 20 years the "Baillie Brothers" exercised an extraordinary influence upon each other, their students, and the major theological debates of their time.

Widely regarded as one of the great "mediating" theologians of the 20th century, Baillie's theological development can be briefly but accurately traced through several representative samples from his prolific writings. His sermons and addresses have been collected in three posthumous volumes: Christian Devotion (1962), Baptism and Regeneration (1963), and A Reasoned Faith (1963). His more strictly theological writings range from the massive and somewhat "liberal" Interpretation of Religion (1928), The Place of Jesus Christ in Modern Christianity (1929), and And the Life Everlasting (1933) through a more conservative phase represented by Our Knowledge of God (1939, regarded by many as his best book), Invitation to Pilgrimage (1942), and What is Christian Civilization? (1945) to the relatively moderate view exemplified by his insightful critique of The Belief in Progress (1950); the masterful British Association Lecture, Natural Science and the Spiritual Life (1952); the Bampton Lectures published as The Idea of Revelation in Recent Thought (1956); and finally his posthumously published Gifford Lectures, The Sense of the Presence of God (1962). However, no account of John Baillie's theological contribution would be complete without reference to his enormously influential Diary of Private Prayer (1937), which went through numerous editions and more than 20 translations, and its companion volume, A Diary of Readings (1955), which contains selections from Baillie's own devotional readings.

Like his brother, Baillie embodied a rare combination of theological reflection and religious practice. Beginning as a student steward at the epochal World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh in 1910, he went on to become an active worker in the Faith and Order Movement from the early 1930s and a member of the British Council of Churches almost from its inception. In 1943, the centennial of the Great Disruption, this son of a Free Church minister was elected moderator of the recently reunited Church of Scotland and convenor of its very influential Committee for the Interpretation of God's Will in the Present Crisis, whose report was later published as God's Will for Church and Nation (1946). He was also a member of the central committee of the first assembly of the World Council of Churches in Amsterdam (1948) and was elected one of its six presidents at the second assembly in Evanston, Illinois in 1954.

Perhaps the crowning achievement of Baillie's career was bestowed upon him in 1957 after his retirement as professor of divinity and principal (1950-1956) of New College when he was named a Companion of Honour to Queen Elizabeth II. After a brief tour of the southern United States and South America, Baillie returned to Edinburgh to work on his Gifford Lectures. The last year of his life was a tireless struggle against illness and pain, and upon completion of his lectures John Baillie died September 29, 1960, at the age of 74 years.

Further Reading

The life and thought of John Baillie is available in The Theology of the Sacraments by D. M. Baillie (London, 1957), which includes a biographical essay by John Baillie. John Baillie's works include The Interpretation of Religion (1928); "Confessions of a Transplanted Scot," in Contemporary American Theology, edited by Vergilius Ferm (1933); A Diary of Private Prayer (1937); Our Knowledge of God (1939); Invitation to Pilgrimage (1942); The Belief in Progress (London, 1950); The Idea of Revelation in Recent Thought (1956); Christian Devotion (1962), which includes a biographical memoir by Baillie's cousin, Isobel M. Forrester; and The Sense of the Presence of God (1962). Additional material about Baillie can also be found in Donald S. Klinefelter, "The Theology of John Baillie: A Biographical Introduction," in Scottish Journal of Theology (December 1969) and in John A. MacKay, "John Baillie, A Lyrical Tribute and Appraisal," in Scottish Journal of Theology (Summer 1956). □

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