William Cunningham (theologian)

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William Cunningham
Cunningham in 1847
OccupationPastor, theologian
Theological work
Tradition or movementPresbyterianism
Trinity College Church in Edinburgh
William Cunningham DD.jpg

William Cunningham (2 October 1805 – 14 December 1861) was a Scottish theologian and co-founder of the Free Church of Scotland.[1] He was Moderator of the Free Church in 1859.


Cunningham was born in Hamilton, Lanarkshire the eldest son of Charles Cunningham a merchant and his wife Helen Cunningham. The family moved to Cheeklaw in the Scottish Borders and from there he attended Duns Academy.[2]

He studied Divinity at the University of Edinburgh and was licensed by the Presbytery of the Church of Scotland in Duns in 1828 and was posted as assistant minister to the Middle Parish in Greenock. He was ordained as minister of that church in October 1831, where he remained for three years. In January 1834 he was translated to the first charge of Trinity College Kirk in Edinburgh. This move (to one of Scotland's most prestigious churches) was mis-timed inasmuch that the fate of the church was already sealed by Act of Parliament as the church was to be demolished to make way for Waverley Station.

Cunningham became a major advocate of a new Free Church and wrote extensively on the subject. Princeton University gave him an honorary doctorate (Doctor of Divinity) in 1842 in relation to his writing.[3]

His transfer also coincided with the commencement of the period known in Scottish ecclesiastical history as the Ten Years' Conflict, and he left the Church of Scotland in the Disruption of 1843 to become one of the founders of the Free Church of Scotland, alongside Thomas Chalmers and Robert Smith Candlish.[4]

Towards the end of 1843 he visited America to make the case for the Free Church and he raised some money there, having already received the degree of D.D. from Princeton University.[5][6] Cunningham was appointed Professor of Theology at the New College, Edinburgh, before transferring to the chair of Church History in 1845, replacing Rev David Welsh.[7] He succeeded Thomas Chalmers as Principal in 1847, serving in that position until his death, and was appointed moderator of the Free Church General Assembly in 1859.[4]

Cunningham specialised in historical theology, and wrote a two volume work on the subject.[8][9] An open source audio narration of the book is available.[10] He also wrote The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation. William Garden Blaikie suggested that he was the "ablest defender of Calvinism in his day" and that the "gentleness of his personal character was a striking contrast to his boldness and vehemency in controversy."[11] Cunniingham has been described as a scholar and controversialist.[12] According to the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, "his ... sympathies combined with his evident desire to be rigidly impartial qualifying him to be an interesting delineator of the more stirring periods of church history, and a skilful disentangler of the knotty points in theological polemics."[4]

Cunningham's grave at Grange Cemetery, Edinburgh

In later life Cunningham lived at 17 Salisbury Road in south Edinburgh.[13] He died in Edinburgh and is buried beneath a large sarcophagus-style grave in the Grange Cemetery alongside the north path.


In July 1834 he married Janet Denniston (1810-1888)[14] daughter of John Denniston of Greenock. They had at least 11 children including their daughter Janet Cunningham, who married George Carphin a banker in Dunkeld.


  • Reply to the Statement of Certain Ministers and Elders (1837)
  • Speech on the Independence of the Church (1839)
  • Letter to John Hope (1839)
  • Tracts on the Intrusion of Ministers (1839)
  • Defence on the Rights of Christian People (1840)
  • Letters on the Church Question (1842)
  • The Unchangeableness of Christ (1853)
  • The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation (1862)
  • Historical Theology 2 vols (1863)
  • Discussions on Church Principles 2 vols (1863)
  • Theological Lectures (1878)


A marble bust of Cunningham, sculpted by William Brodie stands in New College in Edinburgh.[15]

Portraits by William Bonnar,[16] Sir John Watson Gordon,[17] and Edward Burton[18] are held by the National Gallery of Scotland.


  1. ^ Wylie, James Aitken (1881). Disruption worthies : a memorial of 1843, with an historical sketch of the free church of Scotland from 1843 down to the present time. Edinburgh: T. C. Jack. pp. 193–200. Retrieved 18 August 2018.
  2. ^ Fasti Ecclesiastae Scoticana by Hew Scott
  3. ^ Fasti Ecclesiastae Scoticana by Hew Scott
  4. ^ a b c  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Cunningham, William". Encyclopædia Britannica. 7 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 633.
  5. ^ Brown, Thomas (1883). Annals of the disruption. Edinburgh: Macniven & Wallace. pp. 545–550. Retrieved 1 May 2017.
  6. ^ Chisholm 1911.
  7. ^ "William Cunningham". Banner of Truth Trust. Retrieved 10 September 2014.
  8. ^ Cunningham, William (1864). Historical theology : a review of the principal doctrinal discussions in the Christian church since the apostolic age (Vol 1 ed.). Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark. Retrieved 15 September 2018.
  9. ^ Cunningham, William (1863). Historical theology; a review of the principal doctrinal discussions in the Christian church since the apostolic age (Vol 2 ed.). Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark. Retrieved 15 September 2018.
  10. ^ Cunningham, William. "Historical Theology". Retrieved 15 September 2018.
  11. ^  Blaikie, William Garden (1885–1900). "Cunningham, William (1805-1861)". Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
  12. ^ Bayne, Peter (1893). The Free Church of Scotland : her origin, founders and testimony. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark. pp. 334–338. Retrieved 7 May 2017.
  13. ^ Edinburgh and Leith Post Office Directory 1860-61
  14. ^ Ewing, William Annals of the Free Church
  15. ^ "info" (PDF). orapweb.rcahms.gov.uk. Retrieved 23 February 2020.
  16. ^ "William Cunningham". Retrieved 15 September 2018.
  17. ^ "William Cunningham". Retrieved 15 September 2018.
  18. ^ "Rev. William Cunningham, 1805 - 1861. Theologian". Retrieved 15 September 2018.

Further reading[edit]