John Cairns (1818-1892), Scottish Presbyterian divine, was born at Ayton Hill, Berwickshire, on the 23rd of August 1818, the son of a shepherd. He went to school at Ayton and Oldcambus, Berwickshire, and was then for three years a herd boy, but kept up his education. In 1834 he entered Edinburgh University, but during 1836 and 1837, owing to financial straits, taught in a school at Ayton. In November 1837 he returned to Edinburgh, where he became the most distinguished student of his time, graduating M.A. in 1841, first in classics and philosophy and bracketed first in mathematics. While at Edinburgh he organized the Metaphysical Society along with A. Campbell Fraser and David Masson. He entered the Presbyterian Secession Hall in 1840, and in 1843 wrote an article in the Secession Magazine on the Free Church movement, which aroused the interest of Thomas Chalmers. The years 1843-1844 he spent at Berlin studying German philosophy and theology. He was licensed as preacher on the 3rd of February 1845, and on the 6th of August ordained as minister of Golden Square Church, Berwick-on-Tweed. There his preaching was distinguished by its impressiveness and by a broad and unaffected humanity.
He had many "calls" to other churches, but chose to remain at Berwick. In 1857 he was one of the representatives at the meeting of the Evangelical Alliance in Berlin, and in 1858 Edinburgh University conferred on him an honorary D.D. In the following year he declined an invitation to become principal of Edinburgh University. In 1872 he was elected moderator of the United Presbyterian Synod and represented his church in Paris at the first meeting of the Reformed Synod of France. In May 1876, he was appointed joint professor of systematic theology and apologetics with James Harper, principal of the United Presbyterian Theological College, whom he succeeded as principal in 1879. He was an indefatigable worker and speaker, and in order to facilitate his efforts in other countries and other literatures he learnt Arabic, Norse, Danish and Dutch. In 1890 he visited Berlin and Amsterdam to acquaint himself with the ways of younger theologians, especially with the Ritschlians, whose work he appreciated but did not accept as final.
On his return he wrote a long article on "Recent Scottish Theology" for the Presbyterian and Reformed Review, for which he read over every theological work of note published in Scotland during the preceding half-century. He died on the 12th of March, 1892, at Edinburgh. Among his principal publications are An Examination of Ferrier's "Knowing and Being," and the Scottish Philosophy - (a work which gave him the reputation of being an independent Hamiltonian in philosophy); Memoir of John Brown, D.D. (1860); Romanism and Rationalism (1863); Outlines of Apologetical Theology (1867); The Doctrine of the Presbyterian Church (1876); Unbelief in the 18th Century (1881); Doctrinal Principles of the United Presbyterian Church (Dr Blair's Manual, 1888).
See MacEwen's Life and Letters of John Cairns (1895).