Davey, (James) Ernest (1890–1960), presbyterian scholar, was born 24 June 1890 in the manse of First Ballymena presbyterian congregation, Co. Antrim, eldest son among five sons and two daughters of Charles Davey, the minister there, and Margaret Davey (née Beatty). One of his younger brothers became professor of tropical medicine at Liverpool University; his sisters both married ministers. His father later moved to Belfast, where he was a much-admired minister in two of the city's largest congregations, and died in 1919; Davey published a memoir of his father in 1921.
J. Ernest Davey was a gifted pupil at Methodist College and at Campbell College, Belfast, and in 1908 he was awarded an RUI scholarship to study at QCB. However, he resigned this in 1909 to go to King's College, Cambridge, where he was an open foundation scholar (1911–16); he took a first in both part I of the classical tripos (1912) and part II of the theological tripos (1913); graduating BA (1912) and MA (1916), he subsequently held a fellowship at King's College (1916–22). He continued his theological studies at Edinburgh University (1914–17), graduating BD, and studied at Heidelberg on a Cambridge travelling scholarship. He was licensed as a student for the ministry by Belfast Presbytery in 1916, was briefly an assistant in his father's church, and at the age of 26, in June 1917, he was appointed professor of church history in the Presbyterian College, Belfast. The youngest professor ever appointed there, he was ordained in September of that year in the college chapel, and was Carey lecturer in 1918. Davey subsequently held the chairs of biblical literature (1922), of Hebrew and Old Testament (1930) and of New Testament language, literature, and theology from 1933 until his death. He was one of the leading liberal theologians of his generation, and many aspects of his teaching were said to be unforgettable, in particular his wide-ranging scholarship and intellectual rigour.
There were those, however, who regarded his enormous influence on students and on presbyterianism in general as pernicious, and in December 1926 James Hunter (qv), minister of Knock congregation in Belfast and a member of the committee of the Belfast Presbyterian College, formally accused Davey of heresy. In February–March 1927 the professor was tried before Belfast presbytery on five charges that he propagated doctrines inconsistent with the standards of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. Hunter claimed that Davey's teaching in his lectures and in his first two theological books was heterodox; his views on St Paul, on the divinity of Jesus, and on the Trinity were called into question. His accusers, who included one of his senior students, W. J. Grier, particularly objected to Davey's treatment of Scripture; Davey held with the modernist theologians of the day that it was appropriate to examine the Bible in the light of contemporary linguistic and historical scholarship, in order to discover new facts about God. Fundamentalists strongly disagreed, believing that since scripture was divinely revealed, attempts at reinterpretation by human minds could not possibly add to the vitally important facts codified in the Westminster confession, and they attacked the college as a ‘seed-bed of rationalism’ (quoted in Allen, 256). The first ever trial of a presbyterian professor for heresy caused a major furore throughout its whole course. Observers came from several countries, and there were lengthy accounts in newspapers and journals. Davey replied on the first count that he was not guilty, and pleaded justification on the others. Presbytery found him not guilty on the first count and accepted his plea on the others; the case was then appealed to the general assembly, and heard on 9 June the same year.
The Davey heresy trial arose out of contemporary tensions in the protestant community, exacerbated by – and in turn exacerbating – political and sectarian unrest. Fundamentalist, evangelistic religious belief was much in evidence at the time, partly stimulated by American developments, and many believers expressed a distrust of modern biblical criticism, which in some individuals came close to anti-intellectualism. Plymouth Brethren and other sects were impacting on mainstream working-class congregations, and W. P. Nicholson (qv) was holding huge revivalist meetings, where he and his associates attacked what they held to be the modernist rationalism, tending towards anti-religion, of men such as Davey. Virulent personal attacks on Davey from such quarters, partly orchestrated by an organisation called the Bible Standards League, inflamed the situation; leaflets denouncing him were distributed throughout Northern Ireland at public meetings. Davey chose not to retaliate in kind. This forbearance greatly helped his standing within the general assembly, and even conservative members of the denomination objected to the actions taken by Hunter and his associates. Davey's accusers were unable to control some of their own adherents, and persistent interruptions and heckling from the public gallery in the assembly further discredited those who brought the appeal. Supporters of the quondam professor of church history were amused to note that his opponents’ depositions contained several ancient heresies. When a vote was taken on a motion to dismiss the appeal, 707 voted for the motion and 82 voted against it.
Those who had brought the charges (including James Hunter), along with those who were particularly distressed by the verdict, withdrew from the presbyterian church and founded the Irish Evangelical Church, now known as the Evangelical Presbyterian church, which has a dozen small congregations in Ireland. The outcome of the Davey heresy trial is regarded by members of the Free Presbyterian Church also as one of the defining moments when their predecessors came to believe that the Presbyterian Church in Ireland was apostate and that the Biblical injunction ‘come out from among them and be separate’ (‘The heresey trial’) had to be applied.
Davey returned to his work in the Presbyterian College, and in 1942 was made principal. He published journal articles, and The changing vesture of faith (1923), and The Jesus of St John (1958). In 1940 he acceded to a request from the general assembly, and wrote a denominational history, The story of a hundred years. He held convenorships of a number of the general assembly's committees, including those dealing with national and international problems and with inter-church relations, and he was much involved with the revision of the church hymnal; he was a talented musician. He received honorary degrees of DD from St Andrews (1928), Edinburgh (1947), Belfast (1953), and Dublin (1954), and in 1953 he was elected moderator of the general assembly. An attempt by his opponents to burn the moderator-elect's books in public in June 1953 alarmed the majority of presbyterians, who had come to accept Davey's pragmatic conception of an accommodating church, in which liberty of conscience could be at least an aspiration.
Ernest Davey was planning to retire in June 1961, but died on 17 December 1960. Obituaries spoke of his scholarship as the most distinguished in the history of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and of his profound influence on the community and the church. The victory of the modernists in Davey's trial in the general assembly in 1927 shaped the denomination's development in the twentieth century and beyond. Anyone who did not agree with Davey on such matters as the necessity of examining scripture by the light of informed scholarship had, as a direct result of his 1927 trial, two other presbyterian denominations in which to take refuge.
Davey married (30 April 1927, just before the general assembly hearing), in Malone presbyterian church, Belfast, Georgiana, daughter of Dr Henry McNeill of Belfast; they had a son and two daughters.