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History of the Gifford Lectures

The educator and historian Jacques Barzun described the Gifford Lectures as virtuoso performances and "the highest honor in a philosopher's career." For over a hundred years the Gifford Lecture series has been one of the foremost lecture series dealing with religion, science and philosophy. In his 1885 will the jurist Adam Lord Gifford, convinced that true, felt knowledge of God when acted upon generated human well-being and progress, bequeathed £80,000 to the four Scottish universities (Universities of Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Glasgow, and St. Andrews) for the establishment of a series of lectures dealing with the topic of natural religion. In dealing with their particular area of interest and expertise, lecturers are to discuss natural theology as a science, that is, "without reference to or reliance upon any supposed special exceptional or so-called miraculous revelation." The lectures began in 1888 and, with the exception of the years during World War II, 1942-1945, have been delivered continuously since that time. Presenters were to be appointed for a period of two years and could be reappointed for two additional periods of two years each, but for no more than six years in a given city. In this manner the subject was to be examined and promoted by different minds.

Lord Gifford, wanting lectures that were both scholarly and able to reach a large general audience, hoped the addresses would be printed in an inexpensive format. Thus, in the nature of the bequest there exists a tension between the popular character and the extremely speculative nature of the presentations. Reflecting that tension, some books resulting from the lectures have a widely popular appeal, such as William James's Varieties of Religious Experience, and others have a more narrow audience, for example, Alfred North Whitehead's Process and Reality.

Although the will expressed the hope that the presentations would spread sound views "among the whole population of Scotland" the stature of the presenters and the quality of the addresses and books that came from them have reached far beyond Scotland. The prestige of the Gifford series derives in part from the world-renowned lecturers and from the diversity of intellectual disciplines they represent. As would be expected in a series on natural religion, numerous lecturers have been theologians and ethicists, such as Jurgen Moltmann and Reinhold Niebuhr, and philosophers, including, Etienne Gilson and Henri Bergson. What might not be expected in the series are historians (Arnold Toynbee, Herbert Butterfield), scientists (Werner Karl Heisenberg, Niels Bohr), writers (Iris Murdoch, Hannah Arendt), and even one British Prime Minister (Arthur Balfour). Former speakers such as Karl Barth and Carl Sagan bring very different perspectives on the nature of nature and the meaning and value of natural theology. In recent years the Gifford lectures at Edinburgh have been delivered by Mohammed Arkoun, Professor Emeritus of Islamic Thought at the Sorbonne ("Inaugurating a Critique of Islamic Reason") and Michael Ignatieff, Director of the Carr Center of Human Rights Policy at Harvard University ("The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in a Time of Terror"). These names represent but a small sample of the disciplines, topics and people to be found in the Gifford series.

In keeping with Lord Gifford's intent this web site makes available for the scholar as well as for the general public the most extensive collection of published lectures from the series to be found in one web site. For each lecture, the researcher or reader will find biographical material on the lecturer as well as an abstract and summary of each book arising from their presentations. Most importantly, where possible, we have placed the entire book online.

For a detailed review and commentary on the lectureship from its inception until 1986, refer to Lord Gifford and His Lectures, A Centenary Retrospect, written by Stanley L. Jaki, himself the Gifford lecturer at the University of Edinburgh in 1974-1976. For a more recent work on the lecture series see Larry Witham's The Measure of God: Science, Belief, and the Story of the Gifford Lectures.

The reader will note links to the web sites of the Scottish universities as well as other germane organizations.