John Caird, preacher and Principal of Glasgow University, was born to marine engineer John Caird and his wife, Janet Young, in Greenock, Scotland, on 15 December 1820. The eldest of seven sons, Caird was educated in the Greenock schools and then, at the age of fifteen, went to work for his father’s engineering firm, where he became skilled in the trade. In 1837 he convinced his father to allow him a year of study at Glasgow University, where he excelled in mathematics and logic. After the appointed year, he returned to his father’s firm and resumed his work as an engineer. However, in September 1838 his father died suddenly, and his business was sold. Relieved of the obligation to follow his father in business, he decided on a career in the ministry. He resumed his studies at Glasgow University in 1840 and graduated M.A. in 1845.
Following the completion of his studies for ministry in the Church of Scotland, Caird was appointed parish minister of Newton-on-Ayr, where he was ordained on 18 September 1845. In 1847 he was transferred to Lady Yester’s parish in Edinburgh, where his polished oratory and his nondogmatic outlook appealed to a newly found intellectual audience, including professional men and theological students, considerably increasing his congregation. However, he was not without his critics, and complaints spread about his doctrine. These accusations took an emotional toll on the young preacher. Strained and exhausted, he finally withdrew from Edinburgh in July 1849 and accepted a call to the quiet country parish of Errol, Perthshire, where he ministered for eight years (1849–1857). As his wounded spirit recovered, he fully invested himself in ministry to his parish, working to meet the needs of his parishioners and even founding a Girls’ School of Industry in 1856. While he seldom attended presbytery meetings, he spent much time in private study. He read widely in theology and learned German so as to increase his understanding of German thinkers, especially Friedrich Schleiermacher.
In October 1855 Caird preached before Queen Victoria. Drawing on Romans 12:11, he emphasised the necessity of allowing the spiritual side of the life of faith to permeate all the practices of one’s ordinary life in the world. The Queen was deeply moved and soon after commanded the sermon be published. Entitled ‘Religion in Common Life’, the sermon received a great deal of popular attention in England as well as Scotland and went on to be republished in several editions. On 7 December 1857 the Queen appointed Caird one of Her Majesty’s chaplains for Scotland. His reputation as a preacher continued to grow, and he left his rural parish to return to urban ministry at Park Church, Glasgow, where he preached his first sermon on the last Sunday of 1857.
Caird’s ministry in Glasgow was much like his previous experience in Edinburgh, drawing large crowds and garnering a great deal of public interest; however, having matured into a confident, compassionate pastor, he was much better prepared to confront the challenges of ministry. At this time, the broad-church movement was underway, contributing to the mid-nineteenth-century revival in the Church of Scotland, and Caird emerged as a leader especially in the area of liturgical reform. He revived ancient liturgical forms and worked to simplify and beautify public worship for its ultimate improvement. His preaching was characteristically reasonable and practical, and he continued to embody a social ethic that worked toward the improvement of the situation of the labouring classes. In June 1858 Caird married Isabella Riddle Glover (1832–1913), daughter of William Glover, minister of Greenside parish, Edinburgh. Although childless, their marriage was a long and happy one.
In 1860 the University of Glasgow conferred on him its honorary degree of D.D., and in 1862 he was appointed Professor of Theology in Glasgow University. He began his work at the university in January 1863, at which time he left the parish ministry. He rightly suspected that his teaching at the university would fall subject to the same sort of scrutiny and potential criticism that his preaching had received in days past, and so he took as much care in preparing his theological lectures as he had previously in preparing his sermons. His belief in the progressive revelation of Christian truth prompted him to seek in his teaching to foster an atmosphere of active enquiry. Together with his brother Edward, Professor of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow University (1866–1893) and later Master of Balliol College, Oxford, Caird was a leading force in promoting Hegelian idealism in Scotland. His contributions toward the improvement of the conferral arrangements for B.D. and D.D. degrees were of great benefit to students from nonconformist seminaries and hint at Caird’s personal commitment to the promotion of religious toleration. When the university relocated in 1871 from its High Street location to the new buildings on Gilmorehill in Glasgow’s West End, Caird reinstated the services of the university chapel, preaching often himself and enlisting the services of preachers of all Christian denominations from all over Scotland.
Upon the death of Thomas Barclay, Principal of Glasgow University, in 1873, the university senate unanimously petitioned the Queen to appoint Caird to the principalship, which she did on 7 March 1873. As he had with each former position, he immersed himself fully in the practical and administrative duties of the office. His leadership was consistent and impeccable during what was to be a crucial period in the history of the university. He campaigned publicly to extend full university privileges to women, and he managed the changes implemented by the 1876 and 1887 universities commissions. Despite the demands of the principalship, he continued to preach often in the university chapel and to deliver the address of convocation at the start of each academic term. During his service as Principal, he continued to devote himself to private theological study.
In 1878–1879 Caird delivered the Croall Lecture in Edinburgh, which formed the basis for his first major work, Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion (1880). In 1884 he received the honorary degree of LL.D. from Edinburgh on the occasion of the tercentenary celebration of the university. He published a brief study of the ethics of Spinoza in 1888, and in 1890 he was appointed Gifford Lecturer at Glasgow. Returning to the subject of theism, he delivered twelve lectures during the 1890-1891 session, focusing primarily on the relation of God to the world and the nature of evil. Complications with his health brought the series to a temporary halt, during which time the Gifford lectureship was taken up by Professor William Wallace. Caird resumed his programme of lectures in 1896, delivering eight more lectures before a stroke prevented him from completing the course. He later recovered enough to resume his duties at the university but again took ill in February 1898. Despite having announced his intention to retire after the following academic year, Caird remained the principal of Glasgow until his death on 30 July 1898. His death occurred at his brother Colin’s house in Greenock, and he was laid to rest in the Greenock cemetery.
John Caird’s publications are relatively scant for a man of his importance to Scottish Christianity and education. A volume of his sermons was published in 1858 and a volume of sermon-essays appeared in 1863, reprinted from Good Words. Caird made two contributions to the famous Scotch Sermons, edited in 1880 by Dr. Robert Wallace. His Croall Lectures, revised and enlarged, appeared in 1880 (2nd ed., 1900), under the title Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion. His volume on Spinoza was published as a part of Blackwood’s Philosophical Classics series (1888), and his University Sermons, 1873–98 and University Addresses both appeared in 1899. The Gifford Lectures on ‘The Fundamental Ideas of Christianity” were prepared by his brother Edward, who also wrote a brief biography of Caird to be included as the preface to the first volume. These were published posthumously in two volumes in 1900. This work, which expresses his vision of a practical, inclusive Christianity, remains his most comprehensive and mature contribution to the theological discipline.