Lewis Richard Farnell was born in Salisbury in 1856, educated at the City of London School and thereafter at Exeter College, Oxford. He graduated from Exeter a classical scholar in 1874 and obtained a first class in literae humaniores in 1878. Elected a fellow of the college in 1880 and a classical lecturer in 1883, his career as a scholar of ancient cultures was underway.
During the years between 1880 and 1893, when he made a series of tours of Europe (studying classical archaeology in Berlin and Munich, as well as travelling through Greece and Asia Minor), it did seem he had found his métier. From 1896, Farnell published a veritable torrent of books: The Cults of the Greek States (5 vols.); an anthropological study, Greece and Babylon (‘impossible to speak of it too highly … beyond all praise’); Outline-History of Greek Religion; Greek Hero Cults (the latter from a series of Gifford Lectures given at St Andrews). His work is said to be ‘presented with great thoroughness and clarity’. Farnell was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 1916 and honorary degrees were conferred upon him by the universities of Dublin, St Andrews and Geneva.
However, Lewis Farnell was an innovator and a pioneer in three areas. As an administrator, beginning as a sub-rector at Oxford University in 1883 and later as rector (retiring in 1928), ‘he played a leading part in the politics of his university.’ He led and supported reforms to promote learning within the university. More importantly, he was unafraid to take on the fight against a most hallowed tradition of British tertiary education, the sanctity and independence of the individual colleges. As vice-chancellor, he championed the university against the colleges—so much so that some senior members unsuccessfully petitioned for his posting not to be renewed. Farnell was also ‘an energetic promoter of the degree of DLitt’ and thus helped to open up new avenues for advanced research.
Religion was where he made a lasting contribution. ‘Only students of this last generation use the term “religious sciences.” Previous to the middle of the nineteenth century any unbiased appreciation of all religions was impossible’ (Eustace Haydon, ‘From Comparative Religion to History of Religions’, The Journal of Religion 2 (1922): 578–79). Farnell became the first Wilde lecturer in comparative religion at Oxford in 1908, a time when, as mentioned in his inaugural address, the subject ‘found encouragement’ at only a few universities around the world. His task was, he noted, an ‘analysis, elucidation and comparison of the higher forms and ideas in the more advanced religions’.
In addition to his interest in ancient religion, Farnell also demonstrated a strong awareness of and concern for current events. A year before his death in 1934, as the Nazis were preparing to take power, Lewis Farnell wrote to a colleague leaving Oxford to take up another position his hope that he ‘will be an effective champion of higher and purer religion against baser tendencies now prevailing’.