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Voice of Nonconformity

By Keith A. Ives
March 2012 | Review by Robert Strivens


Sir William Robertson Nicoll (1851-1923) was a journalist, writer and minister of the Scottish Free Church, who founded the highly influential Nonconformist newspaper The British Weekly. An important figure in English Nonconformity, Robertson Nicoll (or, as he became known to his subsequent family, WRN) was a complex individual whose life and interests are difficult to sum up completely. While some commentators, even his authorised biographer T.H. Darlow, thought they captured much, others who also knew the subject felt that many important aspects of his life had been left out. This new biography opens up significant areas of Robertson Nicoll’s life that have been neglected by other studies, and sheds particular light on his influence on ‘believing criticism’ in Scotland during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Keith A. Ives seeks to answer questions such as: What led the second generation of the Scottish Free Church to take the lead in accepting many of the conclusions of higher criticism? What caused the considerable size and influence of the Nonconformist churches to decline, never to recover their once prominent position? What role did culture and sophistication play as a cause of dampening spiritual zeal and evangelistic advance? And can the Kingdom of God become mistaken for temporary political success? This book will appeal to anyone interested in the life and times of William Robertson Nicoll, as well as acting as a valuable resource for scholars of Christianity and Nonconformity of this period.

  • Publisher: Lutterworth Press
  • ISBN: 978-0-7188-9222-7
  • Pages: 324
  • Price: 23.00
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Book Review

Voice of Nonconformity
Keith A. Ives
Lutterworth Press
324, £23.00
ISBN: 978-0-7188-9222-7
Star Rating: 3

William Robertson Nicoll (1851-1923) founded the British Weekly in 1886, a periodical which described itself as ‘a journal of Christian and social progress’, and remained its editor until his death. The British Weekly was intended to be religious publishing’s answer to the popular secular journalism of the day. Its content would inform and comment on religious issues of contemporary import and was to uphold a high literary standard. The journal soon achieved a position of influence. Higher critical ideas which questioned traditional views of the authorship of Bible books and the historical accuracy of their contents was prevalent. Through the British Weekly, Nicoll sought to accommodate the new ideas within his understanding of the Christian faith, an approach which he believed was necessary if Christianity were to continue to flourish amongst the rising generation.


Nicoll was a Scot, son of a minister who had identified with the Free Church from the Disruption in 1843. William inherited his father’s love of books and of theology. He trained for the Free Church ministry, but a serious illness left him unable to withstand the physical rigours of the pastorate. He then joined the publishers Hodder & Stoughton and moved south to London in 1885, remaining with the firm for the rest of his life.


Keith Ives depicts Nicoll’s life in a clear and interesting manner. He brings out clearly the tensions which Nicoll’s openness to higher critical views created with historic evangelical faith. Brief sketches of contemporary preachers illustrate Nicoll’s preference for the more ‘liberal evangelical’ approach of men such as Marcus Dods and John Clifford, rather than the full-blooded calvinism of men like Spurgeon. The book supplies an illuminating account of a key figure in the story of the influence of higher critical scholarship in Britain at the end of the nineteenth and start of the twentieth centuries.


Robert Strivens


London Theological Seminary

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