William Robertson Smith: Letters and Papers

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

MS.Add.7449. Letters (2 boxes)

A. 1-666. Letters from Smith to J.S. Black, arranged chronologically.

B. 1-53. Letters from J.S. Black to Smith, arranged chronologically.

C. 1-181. Letters from Smith to other correspondents and to his family, arranged chronologically.

D. 1-891. Letters from other correspondents, including his family, to Smith, arranged alphabetically.

E. 1-62. Letters and papers of J. Irvine Smith: letters from Smith and others to Irvine Smith, and various papers.

F. 1-114. Letters, mostly in typescript, with a few in manuscript, from various correspondents to Smith, and from Smith to his family. Most of the letters are connected with the Trials. This section is arranged chronologically.

G. 1-24. Miscellaneous letters: letters with unidentified addressees or signatures, or which are unfinished.

MS.Add.7476. Other papers (3 boxes)

H. 1-78A. Lectures on various subjects. 1-18. Prophecy; 19-34. Old Testament Poetry; 35-46. Old Testament Liturgy; 47-64A. General Biblical subjects; 65-68A. General lectures; 69-78A. The Burnett lectures.

J. 1-30. Notebooks with notes on various subjects. 1-13. Old Testament and general Biblical notes; 14-30. Arabic and general Semitic notes.

K. 1-62. Sermons, arranged in canonical order.

L. 1-22. Trial papers. Various letters and papers connected with Smith's trial, arranged chronologically.

M. 1-13. Memoranda. Early letters, and memoranda of Smith by his family and others.

N. 1-44. Miscellaneous papers. 1-26 Newscuttings; 27. Abstract of correspondence; 28-35. Rough notes on the Old Testament, etc.; 36-46. Verses, photographs, etc.

Administrative / Biographical History

William Robertson Smith (1846-1894), theologian and Semitic scholar, was born at New Farm, Keig, in the Vale of Alford, Aberdeenshire, and educated at home by his father. He was elevated to a bursary at Aberdeen University in November 1861. In November 1866 he entered New College, the theological hall of the free church in Edinburgh. In May 1870 he was chosen for the chair of oriental languages and exegesis of the Old Testament in the Free Church College of Aberdeen, and in 1875 he was appointed a member of the Old Testament revision committee.

When, in 1870, arrangements were made for the issue of the ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Smith was invited to contribute on subjects bearing upon biblical criticism, and especially on that of the Old Testament. Smith's articles, 'Angel', in vol. ii of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and 'Bible' in vol. iii, both appeared in 1875, and attracted hostility from men of influence in the free church. A committee was appointed by the assembly of 1876 to investigate the articles, and its 1877 report was so hostile that Smith found it necessary to demand a formal trial by 'libel' (indictment) for his alleged heresies and errors. The proceedings that followed were protracted and involved. As a result, Smith practically ceased to be an acting professor in 1878. Following a vote of want of confidence, Smith was removed summarily from his chair in June 1881.

Immediately after his dismissal Smith accepted an invitation to become editor-in-chief of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and he consequently transferred his residence from Aberdeen to Edinburgh. In 1883 he was appointed to the position of Lord Almoner's Professor of Arabic at Cambridge. He settled in the city for the rest of his life, first as a guest of Trinity College, and from October 1885, on his election to a fellowship, at Christ's. He held the Lord Almoner's Professorship until December 1886, when he was elected to the chief librarianship of the university. In 1889 he exchanged this for the Adams Professorship of Arabic.

Conditions Governing Access

Open for consultation by holders of a Reader's Ticket valid for the Manuscripts Reading Room.

Acquisition Information

MS.Add.7449 was presented to the Library by Miss Chrystal, the daughter of Robertson Smith's friend and biographer George Chrystal in 1954. MS.Add.7476 was given to the Library by the Master and Fellows of Christ's College, Cambridge, 1954.


Description compiled by Robert Steiner, Department of Manuscripts and University Archives. The biographical history was drawn from the entry on Smith in Sidney Lee, ed., Dictionary of National Biography, Vol. XVIII, pp.568-570 (London, 1909).

Other Finding Aids

Additional Manuscripts Catalogue. There is a card catalogue for sections A.-F.