John Cairns the Presbyterian

This is the day that …John Cairns was ordained in the United Presbyterian Church – one of the three branches of Presbyterianism that existed in Scotland in 1845.

Born on 23 August, 1818, John Cairns was to become “their outstanding leader” – 33 years ministering at Berwick-on-Tweed, and then serving many years as principal of their theological college and professor of systematic theology and apologetics at the United Presbyterian Divinity Hall in Edinburgh.

It was not learned until after his death that he had received an invitation, at the age of 40, to the principalship of Edinburgh University, and had turned it down.

Alexander Gammie, in his Preachers I Have Heard, tells of Principal Cairns’ pulpit style: “His arms seem to give him the most trouble. It was all utterly ungainly. It would have been enough to wreck the pulpit popularity of most men. But in his case it was quite otherwise. People would have walked miles just to hear John Cairns say: ‘Let us pray …’” (page 58). “His transparent goodness, his simplicity of character, his forgetfulness of self, shone through every utterance. He was a saint who was unconscious of his saintliness …” (page 59).

And in The Christian Portrait Gallery we read: “He was an orator, and swayed his hearers with the passion and pathos of his words! He was fond of illustrations, and used similes never beyond the comprehension of the illiterate, but instinct with a fire that set the blood tingling through the veins” (page 52).

All of this was combined with a massive intellect.

Near the end of his ministry he exclaimed: “I have now preached for 43 years and I have been a professor of theology for more than 20, and I find every year how much grander the gospel of the grace of God becomes, and how much deeper, vaster and more unsearchable the riches of Christ, which it is the function of theology to explore …” (Fathers of the Kirk, by R. Wright, page 213).

Principal John Cairns died in 1892 at the age of 74.

This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at