Smith, William Robertson
Smith, William Robertson
William Robertson Smith(1846–1894) was born in Scotland, the son of a distinguishedscholar and minister in the Free Church of Scotland. The fatherinstilled in his son a love for learning and for free criticalinquiry, especially in the field of Biblical studies.
WhileRobertson Smith was a student at the University of Aberdeen his maininterest shifted to mathematics and physics, subjects that he neverwholly abandoned. His work in these subjects, published while he wasstill in his early twenties, was well thought of, and many yearslater he was considered as a candidate for a chair of mathematics at Glasgow. However, his first published paper, entitled “Prophecy and Personality” (1868), derived from his Biblical studies, and it was this field that subsequently took overwhelming precedence. After his early training at Aberdeen he wentto the New College seminary at Edinburgh. In 1870, when he was only 24 years old, he was appointed to the chair of Hebrew and Old Testament exegesis at the Free Church College at Aberdeen, and five months after this appointment he was ordained.
For six of the 11 years of his stay at Aberdeen, wrangles with the general assembly over the issue of Biblical criticism consumed his time and sapped hisenergies. Some of his lectures had aroused suspicion, but the matter came to a head with the appearance of his article“Bible” (1875) in the ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and of a review of this article, ascribed to A. H. Charteris, professor of Biblical criticism at the University of Edinburgh, which accused Robertson Smith of importing discredited views from the Continent and of tarnishing a theological professoriate. The celebrated “Robertson Smith affair”had begun; thereafter he was hounded by the Free church, and rather than accept the odious limitations on intellectual activity that were the condition of his continuing occupancy of the chair at Aberdeen,he stood his ground and in 1887 was removed from his post. The twosucceeding years were devoted almost entirely to writing articles forthe Encyclopaedia Britannica and to the enormous amount of editorial work he undertook as its chief editor—it is said that he read the entire edition.
During the struggle with the governing body of the Free church, Robertson Smith had been offered two appointments by Harvard University: first, the chair of Hebrew and Oriental languages and, later, the chair of ecclesiastical history. He did not accept either, but in 1889 he was offered the chair of Arabic at Cambridge and accepted with great pleasure. He found time amid his academic activities to make several visits to Egypt, and on one of these he accompanied the celebrated explorer Richard Burton on a minor expedition. He spent two months in Arabia; he traveled in Palestine, Syria, and the Libyan desert; and during another period of leave he went to Tunisia and Algeria. He made his way easily among the Arabs and recorded some of his observations, but he lacked the time and the training for any systematic studies ofsocial life.
Several influences contributed to RobertsonSmith’s intellectual development. His home environment encouraged the study of Hebrew, Arabic, and the classics, and hes hared the interest in history and in the nature of human progress that was characteristic of the general Scottish intellectualenvironment. The latter preoccupation had produced in the eighteenth century a group of philosophers who were deeply curious about the evolution of social institutions (Bryson 1945). More directly, Robertson Smith was influenced by his friend J. F. McLennan, a Scottish barrister and the author of Primitive Marriage and Studies in Ancient History. McLennan, in turn, was familiar with the work of Fustel de Coulanges who, in The Ancient City, hadfunctionally related the development of religion (from its classical roots to the appearance of Christianity) to the kind of social units into which people were arranged, although he did give religion a sort of causal priority in producing social change. [See the biographies ofMclennan and Fustel de Coulanges.] An examination of RobertsonSmith’s general theories of religion clearly reveals how profoundly these ideas influenced him.
The two works of Robertson Smith’s that were important for the development of sociology are Kinship and Marriage in Early Arabia (1885) and Lectures on the Religion of the Semites (1889). Of the two,the analysis of religion has had the greater influence, but its full understanding requires a knowledge of some of the ideas about tribal society in the analytically weaker book on kinship. In fact, the two works go hand in hand. (The very first formulation of Robertson Smith’s general views on religion appeared in thewell-known article “Sacrifice” in the ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1886, a few months after the study of kinship.)
As achurchman and theologian, Robertson Smith had an immediate concern with religion. His writings were, in part at least, the solution to apersonal problem, giving him a more satisfactory understanding of the essence of religion and a reason for his continued convictions. It isonly in the light of his commitment to religion that his long and acrimonious struggle with the Scottish Free church makes sense, for his aim was to help revitalize religion, not to destroy it.
His penchant for looking at things sociologically led him first of all tothe problem of a satisfactory analysis of beliefs. His point of analytical departure was to argue that the beliefs people hold and the general dogmas to which they subscribe are not acquired by individual effort—that is, they are not a matter of individual choice resulting from reasoned argument but are part of the general social apparatus with which man is endowed at birth. Religion is apart of an individual’s collective representations, to use the phrase Durkheim later introduced into sociological vocabulary. Inother words, Robertson Smith saw religion as “a part of the organised social life into which a man was born, and to which he conformed throughout his life in the same unconscious way in which men fall into any habitual practice of the society in which they live” ( 1927, p. 21). Thus gods and their worship are taken for granted, just as other usages are accepted, and “ifthey [men] reasoned or speculated about them, they did so on the presupposition that the traditional usages were fixed things behind which their reasonings must not go, and which no reasoning could beallowed to overturn” (p. 21).
Early religion, according to Robertson Smith, had very little to do with beliefs; it was concerned with practices, and conformity was a matter of course. Just as instudies of political structure, an inquiry does not begin “by asking what is recorded of the first legislators, or what theories men advanced as to the reason of their institutions” (p. 21), but by seeking to understand political institutions and their effecton social relations, so too the study of religion must be directed at “the workings of religious institutions” and the way in which the relations of the worshipers are shaped. The analogy is not arbitrarily chosen, for, Robertson Smith contended, “the parallelism in ancient society between religious and political institutions is complete” (p. 20).
Robertson Smith believed that political institutions are older than political theories, and in the same way, religious institutions are older than religious theories. Rites are prior to beliefs, rationalization follows practice. There is evidence for priority o fritual in early forms of religion, which were constituted wholly ofritual and practical usage. Practices that persist do tend to acquire accretions of explanatory beliefs, but the meanings thus attached are inconsequential, vague, or contradictory, while the practices are fixed. More often than not, people are unaware of the doctrinal differences that divide sects in the contemporary world, and when doctrinal explanations of ritual acts are given at all, these may differ within the same religion and culture without any question of orthodoxy being raised; conspicuously less leeway is permitted in the carrying out of proper procedures. Robertson Smith felt that sociological inquiry would do well to begin not with a creed or with what individuals privately think but with overt ritual acts. Some sixty years after Robertson Smith had made this point with crystalclarity, Radcliffe-Brown was still laboring it thus:“My suggestion is that in attempting to understand a religionit is on its rites rather than beliefs that we should first concentrate our attention” (1952, p. 155).
Robertson Smith’s study of ancient religion led him to conclude that itis external religious acts that give religion its principal socialmeaning. In ancient society, the rites of religion ensuredconformity: privately, a man might believe what he liked; only bypublic acts of piety was it possible to judge whether he subscribedto religion. It was through his acts that the participant revealedhis social identity, and for this identification his beliefs were virtually irrelevant. Further, acts and ritual were necessarily rigid because they showed public conformity and were testimony of aperson’s social outlook. Nonconformity, therefore, meant that someone was at odds with his social group. Ritual was the discipline that ensured the cohesion and continuity of social groups. Performance of rituals pledged continued membership in a socialgroup; default was a public withdrawal. Excommunication was in factthe severance of ties to a social group and was therefore the same asoutlawry. Religious allegiance and political connection were one and the same thing; a change of one was a change of both. Alter aman’s political status and he is compelled to change hisreligion, “for a man’s religion is part of hispolitical connection” ( 1927, p. 36).
Viewed in thislight, ancient religion had both regulative and stimulativefunctions. It was regulative in the sense that the welfare of theindividual could reach its optimum development only to the extent ofhis compatibility with his fellowmen. Individual goodness, it followsfrom this, was thebehavior that made for the general harmony of thecommunity. By the same token, sin was an act that seriously disruptedthis internal harmony and produced an impasse in relations, leadingto the kind of stultification that could be remedied only byexcommunication from the religious congregation and by outlawry fromthe social group. Religion, however, was not merely regulative in thesense that it compelled conformity; it was also stimulative, in thatritual was a repetitive statement of divine and human unity. Each andevery religious act revived and consolidated the community ofworshipers, giving it a consistency of purpose and a continuity ofbeing. Religion was a social activity from which the good of thecommunity was derived. “Religion did not exist for the savingof souls but for the preservation and welfare of society . ..” (ibid., p. 29). Religion was based on these twoelements—the regulative and the stimulative—rather thanon personal problems of redemption.
In his writings on sacrifice,Robertson Smith further analyzed the nature of the congregation of worshipers, which he regarded as “the central problem ofancient religion . . .” (p. 27). He rejected the sever altheories of sacrifice—gift, tribute, covenant, expiation,propitiation; indeed, he could hardly do otherwise, given hisacceptance of the premise that religion is a social activity, becausethis premise implies that the intentions of thesacri-ficer are relatively unimportant. Instead, Robertson Smith focused his attention on those who participate in the sacrificial act by partaking in the commensal meal. He rejected theview, recently endorsed by Evans-Pritchard, that the festalmeal which succeeds a sacrifice “is not a sacramental meal butan ordinary commensal act of family or kin which, moreover, fallsoutside the sacrificial rites” (Evans-Pritchard 1956,p. 274). The greater part of one chapter in Robertson Smith’s Lectures on the Religion of the Semites (especially pp. 272—282 in the 1927 edition) was devoted to the argument that the mealsucceeding the slaughter was not a mere family affair but was eatenby a congregation of worshipers. Today also, as the presentauthor’s studies show, it is not permitted among the BedouinArabs for one family alone to consume the flesh of a slaughtereddomesticated animal.
Robertson Smith pointed out that the mealfollowing a sacrifice further differed from an ordinary meal in twoways. First, the flesh of the sacrificial victim was meat with aspecial status, different from the meat of game. (Again, this isa distinction drawn also by contemporary Bedouins. When game—gazelle, for example—is captured, the captor maydistribute it among the households in a camp as a matter ofgenerosity, or he and his family may consume it entirely, running nomore risk than the charge of meanness.) A commensal meal, therefore,is not simply an arrangement by which people who happen to be at handjoin in eating but one at which attendance is obligatory because themeat is that of a sacrificial animal. Confusion sometimes arisesaround this point because all animals are customarily slaughtered ina prescribed manner. But ritual slaughter does nothing more than makeit permissible to eat the flesh; it does not command a congregationand must not be confused with an act of sacrifice. Whether or not theflesh provides a commensal meal depends on the status of the animaland its relation to the person who slaughters it or who has itslaughtered.
Second, the special character of the commensal mealfollowing a sacrifice was related to the link between the owner ofthe slaughtered animal and the victim: the victim was part of thesacrificer in a very intimate sense. This is also true among modernBedouins: a camel or a sheep is part of a man’s risiq (wealth)in the same way as are his children, and they are frequently andaffectionately referred to by the same word. The host who slaughtersone of his own animals is offering something of himself—a partof his “spiritual essence,” which creates “asort of spiritual bond,” as Mauss put it—and all thosewho accept are thereby accepting a special relationship with thehost, based on commensal nourishment. They become men who have joinedtogether to share their economic resources for the commonpreservation of their lives.
Robertson Smith maintained thateating together constituted a bond among men equivalent to kinship.Participants in the meal, regardless of their consanguineousconnections, were men bound by mutual obligation (another way ofsaying “kinship”) sealed and covenanted in God. Forkinship, as Robertson Smith saw it, was a matter not of consanguinitybut of defined social relationships. Shrewdly, he pointed out thatthe tie that united the foster child to his foster mother and her kinwas a tie of milk, not blood ( 1927, p. 274); closeness ofkinship was established not by birth but by nourishment. Thesacrificial meal was one that a man shared with his commensals,“so that commensality can be thought of (1) as confirming oreven (2) as constituting kinship in a very real sense” (p.274).
Thus, in the early history of religion, the importantrelationship was not that of the individual man to a supernaturalpower, but that of “all the members of the community to apower that has thegood of the community at heart . . .” (p.55). Communities were small, and the rivalry between them wasexpressed through the gods of the communities, just as the rivalrybetween neighboring villages in Spain is expressed through theirlocal saints (p. 31). “Solidarity of the gods and theirworshippers as part of one organic society” (p. 32) keptgroups of people apart. As society advanced and institutions wereelaborated, religious organization developed in matching likeness.With the fusion of groups into larger unities, political growth wasmarked by the appearance of a hierarchy of new gods: “Asociety and kinship of many gods began to be formed, on the model ofthe alliance or fusion of their respective worshippers” (p.39). Church organization and political divisions were but two aspectsof the same thing. This part of Robertson Smith’s argumentclearly shows the influence of Fustel de Coulanges, whose theme inThe Ancient City was the parallel development of religious andpolitical organizations.
Durkheim, whose writings on religionhave had much more general influence than those of Robertson Smith,later argued that social groups possess stability only if a sentimentof unity exists, which must be given collective expression inemblematic form; and through this emblem, society worships itself.This view is an elaboration of what Robertson Smith wrote, for likeDurkheim, he saw in the unity of the social group the core ofreligion. Since the whole edifice of religion is built up out of theunity that exists in groups, from the smallest to the largest, theidea of God is rooted in the local community and its growth is theelaboration of political organization.
This general idea wasaccepted among social scientists untilEvans-Pritchard—first in an article on Nuer sacrifices(1954) and then in his book Nuer Religion (1956)—putforward a fundamentally different interpretation. Although headmitted what he called a structural role for religion—thatthere is a relationship between the various spirit manifestations ofGod and the points of division in a political system, since peoplewho live together will worship together—he asserted that Godstands outside the society altogether and that his variousmanifestations in society are only refractions of the external God.This is the idea of the one and the many, so brilliantly treated byJohnson (1942). For Robertson Smith, the notion of God was the notionof social unity, which grew as political organization developed; Godstands at the apex of a hierarchy of social groupings. ForEvans-Pritchard, God does not grow out of the social structureand is not limited by it. Robertson Smith and EvansPritchard are not simply two scholars with disparate opinions on alimited, specific problem. They represent two ways of looking athuman life between which there is no possibility of compromise:Evans-Pritchard attaches basic importance to what men think,while Robertson Smith attaches similar importance to what men do, andeach scholar observes and weighs the evidence accordingly.
The second major work of RobertsonSmith’s that is of importance to modern sociology isKinship and Marriage in Early Arabia (1885). Much of this workis marred—indeed is rendered virtually profitless inparts—by his preoccupation with the stages in the evolution ofmarriage and with an attempt to demonstrate that kinship was reckonedin the female line before precedence came to be given to maledescent. The influence of his friend McLennan on his thinking in thisfield of study was an unmitigated misfortune. It led Robertson Smithto indulge in wild speculations, which he tried to support byguessing many of the facts. However, when he used authentic data, hedid make a number of astute points.
Early Arab society wasdivided into political groups based on genealogical descent lines,reckoned through males. Robertson Smith did not concern himself witharid verification or refutation of the validity of genealogies.Instead, he was quick to grasp the significance of the consistencybetween the branching of genealogical lines and the politicaldivisions of tribes. This consistency meant, he said, that thegenealogies were manipulated to suit the reality of politicaldivisions and that this was done by altering the length of descentlines to give groups of equal political status equally long descentlines ( 1903, p. 11). Further, he showed some appreciation ofthe political processes (later to be known as fission and fusion)whereby tribal segments came together to form sections in oppositionto like sections, only to dissolve into their separate parts when thesituation provoking the combination ceased. His way of putting it wasthat several groups combined to form a larger whole,“resolving again into their elements” (p. 2). It is tohis credit also that in his examination of the processes of allianceand opposition he noted that the occurrence of female names wasindicative of greater cohesion in societies where descent was in themale line and polygamy was permitted: female names served todistinguish between paternal half-brothers and thus providedan additional divisive element insimple patrilineal descent. Afteroffering this interesting idea, however, Robertson Smith abandoned itand used the occurrence of female names as “proof” ofan earlier system of kinship through women.
The crux of theproblem of tribal organization, as Robertson Smith saw it, lay in thecomposition of the smallest political groups, out of which the largerones were built (p. 3). Essentially, these were local communitieswhose constitution rested on the herding necessities of groups ofpeople moving about, together with their animals, and controllingtheir own natural resources in water and pasture (p. 41). RobertsonSmith conceived of each of these groups as a kindred and, while herightly saw that consanguineous agnation was relevant within thisgroup but not in larger ones, he also seized the important point thatthe smallest group was not merely “the family grownlarge” (p. 5)—that it was a political group andtherefore quite unlike a family.
Idiomatic expression in ancienttimes gave the impression (and still does among Bedouin Arabs) thatsmall political groups were composed of members of a kind of bigfamily. Robertson Smith perceived that terms which appear to meanblood connection may refer to actual consanguineous relationships, orthey may be used in the sociological sense of conceptualizing aunity. Thus when phrases such as “one blood” were usedto refer to a group or when it was said after the loss of a memberthrough homicide that “our blood has been spilt,” it iserroneous to infer that all members of the group wereconsanguineously related (p. 46). Robertson Smith urged thatdiscussions of kinship be divested of sentimentality and thatcategories of kinship be regarded not in terms of physiologicalconnections but rather in the more meaningful terms of the duties andobligations which they symbolize. A father, in this sense, is theperson who carries the obligations of protector, guardian, andprovider of food. In ancient Arabia (and among the present-dayBedouins also) these obligations were acquired by virtue of thepayment of bridewealth, as agreed to prior to the marriage contract.This transfer of wealth gave a man pro-creative rights to hisspouse—“what he purchases is the right to have childrenby her and to have these children belong to his own kin” (p.130). And further, he acquired the right to delegate the act ofprocreation to another man without losing his legal relationship tothe children born to his wife—hence the saying, “theson is reckoned to the bed on which he is born” (p. 139). Ifconsanguinity did not matter in this close relationship, the nobviously it was largely irrelevant when more distant relationshipswere involved. Kinship, in other words, was a matter of socialrelationships.
If relationships, then, are to be understood interms other than those of consanguinity, it is necessary, RobertsonSmith suggested, to look at the rights attached to each category.Thus, it would be profitable to regard the family as aproperty-owning unit, and the delimitation of this particular“kinship unit” would be the range of heirs (pp. 162ff.). In analyzing marriage, his stress was similar: “Maritalrights are rights of property which can be inherited . . .”(p. 105). Leach, writing three quarters of a century later, createdsomething of a stir when he began his analysis of a Singhalesevillage with the assertion: “Kinship as we meet it in thisbook is not ’a thing in itself”(1961, p. 11). He endedhis analysis with the same statement, devoting the intervening pages largely to showing that kinship is nothing “except in relationto land and property” (p. 305). (This reductionist argument is discussed in Peters 1963. The composition of local groups among Bedouins, along lines not unlike those suggested by Robertson Smithin his book on kinship, is analyzed in Peters 1965.)
The tribal group of men that Robertson Smith conceived as a kindred was in facta corporation. Equal responsibility was the privilege of all itsmembers, regardless of the particulars of real or flctive kinshiprelationships. A group was “a single life” (1903, p. 46) and indivisible. It possessed a unique name, leaving nodoubt about a person’s identity (p. 26), and it had rules ofrecruitment (pp. 40 ff.). Each corporation had a homeland with itsown natural resources (p. 41). It also possessed the reproductivefacilities of women (pp. 132–145). Control over its mobileproperty was achieved by disinheriting women (p. 117) who, had theybeen permitted to transmit property, could, by marrying outside thegroup, alienate its property. The corporation had authority to compelits members to accept stated obligations and to outlaw them in caseof default (pp. 25, 27). In conclusion, the corporate group, to beeffective, required members to be coresidents; since the mostimpelling obligation of membership was participation in offense anddefense, it was necessary to be able to rally members in one place atshort notice. Thus, corporations were local communities with a highconcentration of agnates.
Later inquiries into the nature oftribal systems in ancient Arabia led Robertson Smith increasingly toascribe importance to the institution of the blood feud. There are references to the blood feud in his published works, but the notes heleft were too fragmentary to form the basis of a complete analysis;his premature death robbed us of what would surely have been abrilliant work.
E. L. Peters
[For the historicalcontext of Robertson Smith’s work, see the biographies ofDurkheim; Fustel de cou-langes; for discussion of the subsequent development of his ideas, seeMarriage, article onMarriage alliance; Myth and Symbol; Religion; Rltual.]
(1868) 1912 Prophecy and Personality: A Fragment. Pages97–108 in Lectures & Essays of William RobertsonSmith. Edited by J. S. Black and George Chrystal. London: Black.
1875 Bible. Volume 3, pages 634–648 in EncyclopaediaBritannica. 9th ed. Edinburgh: Black.
(1885) 1903 Kinshipand Marriage in Early Arabia. New ed. London: Black. → Seeespecially the Preface by E. L. Peters to the paperback editionpublished in 1967 by Beacon.
1886 Sacrifice. Volume 21, pages132–138 in Encyclopaedia Britannica. 9th ed. Edinburgh:Black.
(1889) 1927 Lectures on the Religion of the Semites:The Fundamental Institutions. 3d ed. New York: Mac-millan.→ A paperback edition was published in 1956 by Meridian as Religion of the Semites: The Fundamental Institutions.
Lectures & Essays of William Robertson Smith. Editedby J. S. Black and George Chrystal. London: Black, 1912.
Black, J. S.; and Chrystal, George 1912 The Life of William Robertson Smith. London: Black. → Contains a BIBLIOGRAPHY of Robertson Smith’s writings.
Bryson, Gladys 1945 Man and Society: The Scottish Inquiry of the Eighteenth Century. Princeton Univ. Press.
Chelhod, Joseph 1955 Le sacrifice chez les Arabes: Recherches sur revolution, la nature et la fonction des rites sacrificiels en Arable occidentale. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
Durkheim, Emile (1912)1954 The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. London: Allen & Unwin; New York: Macmillan. → First published as Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse, le systèms totéemique en Australie. A paperback edition was published in 1961 by Collier.
Evans–Pritchard, E. E. 1954 The Meaning of Sacrifice Among the Nuer. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 84:21–33.
Evans–Pritchahd, E. E. (1956) 1962 Nuer Religion. Oxford: Clarendon.
Fortes, Meyer 1959 Oedipus and Job in West African Religion. Cambridge Univ. Press.
Frankfort, Henri 1948 Kingship and the Gods: A Study of Ancient Near Eastern Religion as the Integration of Society and Nature. Univ. of Chicago Press.
Fustel de Coulanges, Numa Denis (1864) 1956 The Ancient City: A Study on the Religion, Laws, and Institutions of Greece and Rome. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday. → First published in French.
Goode, William J. (1951) 1955 Religion Among the Primitives. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1964.
Hubert, Henri; and Mauss, Marcel (1899)1964 Sacrifice: Its Nature and Function. Univ. of Chicago Press. → First published as “Essai sur la nature et la fonction du sacrifice” in Volume 2 of Année sociologique.
Johnson, Aubrey R. 1942 The One and the Many in the Israelite Conception of God. Cardiff: Univ. of Wales.
Leach, Edmund R. 1961 Pul Eliya, a Village in Ceylon: A Study of Land Tenure and Kinship. Cambridge Univ. Press.
Mauss, Marcel (1925) 1954 The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press. → First published as Essai sur le don: Forme et raison de I’échange dans les sociétés archatques.
Peters, E. L. 1960 The Proliferation of Segments in the Lineage of the Bedouin in Cyrenaica. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 90:29–53.
Peters, E. L. 1963 Aspects of Rank and Status Among Muslims in a Lebanese Village. Pages 159–200 in Julian A. Pitt-Rivers (editor), Mediterranean Countrymen: Essays in the Social Anthropology of the Mediterranean. Paris: Mouton.
Peters, E. L. 1965 Aspects of the Family Among the Bedouin of Cyrenaica. Pages 121–146 in Comparative Family Systems. Edited by Meyer F. Nimkoff. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Peters, E. L. 1967 Some Structural Aspects of the Feud Among the Bedouin of Cyrenaica. Unpublished manuscript.
Radcliffe–Brown, A. R. (1952) 1961 Structure and Function in Primitive Society: Essays and Addresses. London: Cohen & West; Glencoe, 111.: Free Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1965 by the Free Press.
Smith, William Robertson
SMITH, WILLIAM ROBERTSON
Protestant exegete, Semitic philologist, student of comparative religion; b. Keig, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, Nov. 8, 1846; d. March 31, 1894, Cambridge, England. After receiving his elementary education at home, he studied at Aberdeen University and at Free Church College, Edinburgh; he concluded his formal studies in Germany at Bonn and Göttingen. In 1870 he was appointed professor of Old Testament exegesis and Oriental languages at the Free Church college in Aberdeen. In 1875 he was made a member of the revision committee that produced the Revised Version of the Bible published in 1885. His articles on "angels" and "Bible" in the ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1875) were regarded with suspicion and disliked by authorities in his church. A prolonged public trial by the Free Church Presbytery of Aberdeen for alleged heresies gained him great popularity; but although acquitted, he was removed from his position. His lectures were published as The Old Testament in the Jewish Church (1881) and The Prophets of Israel (1882). As editor-in-chief of the Encyclopaedia Britannica from 1881 to 1888 he was commissioned to complete the ninth edition; to this edition he contributed many articles on Biblical topics. Appointed professor of Arabic at Cambridge University (1883), he fostered the study of comparative religions with his Kinship and Marriage in Early Arabia (1885), and he popularized the notion of sacrifice as communion with God in his Religion of the Semites (1889).
Bibliography: The Dictionary of National Biography from the Earliest Times to 1900, 63 v. (London 1885–1900) 18:568–570. w. neil, "The Critical and Theological Use of the Bible 1700–1950," The Cambridge History of the Bible, ed. s. l. greens lade (Cambridge, Eng. 1963) 287–288. j. s. black and g. w. chrystal, The Life of William Robertson Smith (London 1912). t. k. cheyne, Founders of Old Testament Criticism (New York 1893) 212–225.
[r. l. zell]