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William Paterson Paterson

Professor of Divinity, University of Edinburgh
1860 to 1939

William Paterson Paterson, Church of Scotland minister and theologian, was born on 25 October 1860 at Skirling Mains, Peeblesshire, the first-born son of John Paterson, a farmer, and his wife Mary. He was educated at Skirling school and the Royal High School of Edinburgh before proceeding on to the University of Edinburgh, where he graduated Master of Arts with honours in classics (1880) and Bachelor of Divinity (1883). He studied in Leipzig, Erlangen and Berlin for two years (1883-1885) as a Pitt scholar, which instilled in him a lifelong interest in German theology, philosophy and literature.

Paterson’s first ministerial assignments were as assistant in Galashiels and at St. Columba's Church, London, and he was ordained as a minister of the Church of Scotland in 1887. He was minister of St. Michael's Church, Crieff, until 1894, when he was elected to the chair of systematic theology at the University of Aberdeen, where he was much admired as a compelling lecturer and preacher. He was elected professor of divinity at the University of Edinburgh in 1904, succeeding his own mentor, Robert Flint, and he held this post, as well as serving as dean of the faculty of divinity (1912-1928), until his retirement in 1934. He received honorary doctorates from the universities of Edinburgh (DD, 1897; LLD, 1937), Pennsylvania (1905), Trinity College, Dublin (1920), Glasgow (1926) and St Andrews (1937).

One of the leading church figures of the day, Paterson was known for his popular preaching and involvement in ecclesiastical affairs and was elected moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1919. He was instrumental in the union in 1929 of the United Free Church and the established Church of Scotland. He was one of the drafters of new articles declaratory of the united Church of Scotland, and an influential supporter of the efforts towards Presbyterian reunion.

His commentary on the writings of St Paul and the Letter to the Hebrews was published as The Apostles Teaching in 1903, and his 1905 Baird Lecture was published in 1912 as The Rule of Faith, a careful examination of method and content in the leading doctrinal systems from the ancient church to the late nineteenth century. He was invited to deliver the Gifford Lectures in Natural Theology at Glasgow University in 1924-1925, the published form of which is The Nature of Religion (1925). He published two volumes of wartime sermons, In the Day of the Muster (1914) and In the Day of the Ordeal (1917), which reflect Paterson’s religious patriotism. His final work was a study of Conversion (1939).

Paterson married Jane Sanderson in 1888. They had three daughters and four sons together, two of whom were killed in the First World War. Jane died in 1928; William died in Edinburgh on 10 January 1939 and was buried in Skirling churchyard.

  • Brannon Hancock, University of Glasgow