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The Davey Trial: Ninety Years On

This month marks the ninetieth anniversary of an event to which many of our readers will have heard reference made, but of which they know relatively little – the trial of Rev Professor James Ernest Davey before the Belfast Presbytery of the Irish Presbyterian Church. The circumstances that occasioned such a rare phenomenon are of abiding interest, and they have lessons to teach us still.

In 1927 Professor J E Davey held the chair of Biblical Literature and Hellenistic Greek at Assembly’s College, and he has been described as ‘probably the most brilliant scholar ever to hold a chair in an Irish Presbyterian Theological College’. But there were those who held profound reservations in respect of Davey’s orthodoxy. His Carey Lectures were subsequently published, in 1923, as The Changing Vesture of the Faith.

Davey argued for a loosening of the ties to the creeds and confessions of the past – ‘a large creed may serve as a bulwark against error, but it can never be accepted whole-heartedly by any considerable section of the church which has adopted it…lengthy creeds only minister to hypocrisy and unreality’ (pages 35-37). He went on to observe that ‘our greatest need assuredly is that the Spirit who is both Truth and Love shall have free course in us’ (ibid). Davey’s opponents saw in this aspiration the expression of a desire not just to move beyond the historic confessions but beyond Scripture itself – and they found evidence of it in the chapters that followed, a series of largely philosophical discourses which magnified human reason, marginalised Scripture, and moved away from the heart of the Reformed faith. This book, together with the earlier Our Faith in God through Jesus Christ and lecture notes taken by students, provided the basis for charges laid at Davey’s trial.

The trial was initiated on 7 December 1926 when Rev James Hunter indicted Professor Davey on five charges. Those charges ran to more than 3000 words. A summary by the General Assembly identified alleged defective views of the basis of God’s pardon of sinners; the perfection of Christ’s character; the inspiration, infallibility and authority of Scripture; the doctrine of sin; and the doctrine of the trinity – serious issues indeed! Hunter was joined in the indictment by Licentiate W J Grier and forty others, and the trial spanned fourteen sessions from mid-February to the end of March. Knowing the bent of the Presbytery, the accusers had little expectation of success, and verdicts on every charge went in favour of Professor Davey by margins of 85-92%. A subsequent appeal to the General Assembly was dismissed on charge 1 by 707 votes to 82, and on subsequent charges by a show of hands. Davey’s opponents were in no doubt that the procedures of their church, the prejudice of key figures, and the conduct of the trial and appeal rendered the outcome inevitable. It was, to one, ‘this ecclesiastical farce…a victory engineered by a certain sect who have used it ever since to advance their schemes of Church Reform’ (Dr S Hanna). Professor Davey subsequently became Principal of Assembly’s College and Moderator of the General Assembly.

And the lessons? Sound, Biblical confessions of faith are not guaranteed to preserve sound ministry and church polity. Watchfulness must be maintained. Courage is required in the faithful – wide support and popularity never promised. Foundational truths are not negotiable, and so, sometimes, separation really is the only option.

Dr. Stephen Pollock