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Henry Barclay Swete

James Herbert Srawley,
Dictionary of National Biography 1912-1920
Oxford: Oxford University Press 1927,536-539

   SWETE, HENRY BARCLAY (1835-1917), regius professor of divinity at Cambridge, was the only child of the Rev. John Swete, D.D., lecturer of St. Mary Redcliffe, Bristol, afterwards vicar of Blagdon, Somerset, by his second wife, Caroline Ann Skinner Barclay. He was born at Redland, Bristol, 14 March 1835. Educated at Bishop's College, Bristol, King's College, London, and Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, he graduated as seventh classic in 1858, and was elected to a fellowship at his college. After ordination he spent some years in practical work as curate to his father at Blagdon. Returning to Cambridge in 1865, he held the office of dean, tutor, and theological lecturer of his college. But the life of a college official was never congenial to him. Naturally diffident and shy, he showed at this period little indication of the gifts which were to mark his later career, though his first serious piece of theological work, two essays on the history of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit (1873, 1876), was published during these years. In 1877 Swete was offered the college living of Ashdon, Essex, and this appointment, while appealing to his strong pastoral instinct, also afforded him leisure for study. During this period the valuable article on the Holy Spirit, embodying the substance of the earlier essays, was written for Smith's Dictionary of Christian Biography (s.v. Holy Ghost), and the edition of the Commentaries of Theodore of Mopsuestia on the Minor Epistles of St. Paul (1880-1882) was published. Another important undertaking was an edition of the text of the Septuagint version of the Old Testament, The Old Testament in Greek according to the Septuagint, 3.vols. (1887, 1891, 1894), entrusted to him by the syndics of the Cambridge University Press, and intended to prepare the way for a larger edition. From 1882-1890 he held, with his living, the professorship of pastoral theology at King's College, London.

Swete's return to Cambridge in 1890 as regius professor of divinity was viewed with misgiving by many who recognized his learning and scholarship, but who feared that his shy and diffident manner, and the specialized character of his studies, unfitted him to succeed so great a teacher as Dr. Westcott. His twenty five years' tenure of the professorship, however, abundantly justified his selection, and he developed quite unforeseen initiative and activity in stimulating and guiding theological study at Cambridge. In his professorial lectures he constantly bore in mind the needs of ordinands; his understanding of those needs won for him the sympathy and interest of his pupils, and his lectures became the best attended courses in the divinity faculty. To the more serious students he was always ready to offer encouragement and guidance. Probably the greatest service which he rendered as professor was the stimulus which he gave to younger men by setting them to work on some particular field of research. He also enlisted the services of scholars in joint schemes of literary works and was the general editor of three volumes of essays dealing with theological and biblical questions of the day and with the early history of the church and ministry. Other literary ventures which owed their inception to him were the series of Patristic Texts and the Cambridge Handbook of liturgical Study. It was due to his initiative that a committee of scholars from Cambridge, Oxford, and Durham brought into being the Journal of Theological Studies in 1899. He was also the founder of the Cambridge Theological Society. His interest in the parochial clergy and their studies was shown in another creation of his, the Central Society of Sacred Study, an organization which was founded in 1899, and has since extended it's work to every English diocese and also to other English-speaking lands.

Amid these various practical schemes Swete found time for considerable literal activity of his own. His published works show a wide range of theological interests, and deal with the Greek version of the Old Testament, The exegesis of the New Testament, Christian doctrine, patristic studies, the history and interpretation of the Apostles' Creed, and Christian worship. All his works exhibits precise and careful scholarship, and a singular delicacy and grace style. While he welcomed all the aids of the new scholarship and learning, his judgement and critical questions was cautious and sober, and on the fundamental questions of belief he remained loyal to the tradition of the Church. He resigned his professor ship in 1915 an retired to Hitchin, where he died 10 May 1917. He was unmarried.

As a scholar his published works place him in the foremost rank. His practical achievement in stimulating theological study not only among professed scholars, but also among the clergy and educated Christian laity marks his professorship as one of the most fruitful in the history of the chair. A gracious and winning personality, he was singularly modest, and inspired by a profound sense of the value of the things of the spirit.

[Henry Barclay Swete. A remembrance, 1918, containing bibliography, reprinted from the Journal of Theological Studies; notices by Bishop F.H. Chase, Church Quarterly Review, October 1917 and by Dr. A.J. Mason, Journal of Theological Studies, July 1917; personal knowledge] J.H.S-Y .