Davidson, Samuel (1806–98), biblical scholar, was born probably in September 1806 in Kellswater, Co. Antrim, son of Abraham Davidson, farmer, and Margaret Davidson (née Mewha), who had at least one other child, a daughter. Samuel attended a local school, for whose master, James Darragh, he had a lifelong affection. He later entered Belfast Academical Institution to train for the presbyterian ministry, taught briefly in Derry and Liverpool, and finished his course (May 1832) having been awarded the silver medal in classics. He was licensed by Ballymena presbytery in November 1833, and at that time was prepared to subscribe the Westminster confession, with certain reservations; however, he was never ordained. In November 1835 he became professor of biblical criticism in the Presbyterian College, Belfast; in 1838 he was awarded an LLD from Marischal College, Aberdeen. He became dissatisfied with the presbyterian form of church government, and with the paramount influence of Henry Cooke (qv); in 1842 he moved to Manchester as professor of biblical criticism and ecclesiastical history in the newly founded Lancashire Independent College of the Congregational Church. Davidson published a great deal, and in 1848 was awarded a DD by the university of Halle. He was one of the first scholars outside Germany to use historical and linguistic information in the interpretation of Scripture.
In 1854 he was asked to revise the Old Testament section of a classic exegetical work, Horne's Introduction to the sacred scriptures. In his volume, which appeared in October 1856, he discussed theories on authorship of the Pentateuch and of the Psalms which were unacceptable to conservative believers in Britain, and a storm of protest was orchestrated, partly by scholars who had been associated with Davidson in the reissue of the Horne work. Davidson's supporters alleged that this persecuting fervour arose partly from ‘zeal without knowledge’ and partly from an awareness on the part of his collaborators that they had not read the drafts of his work with which they had been supplied before its publication. In November 1856 Lancashire College set up a committee of inquiry into the allegations of heresy; in February 1857 Davidson was asked to explain the objectionable elements of his book, and in May he published a pamphlet, Facts, statements and explanations. This justification of his work proved unacceptable to the college; he chose to resign his post and moved to Hatherlow, Cheshire, where he kept a school. He had many influential supporters, including clergymen and bishops, who subscribed to present £3,000 to him, and who published letters and pamphlets in his behalf. Davidson's views were later adopted by most biblical scholars, and he felt all his life that he had been badly treated. From 1862 he was scripture examiner in London University, where the chair of Old Testament studies was named in his honour. He was a member of the committee that produced the revised version of the Old Testament (1884). Among his many works were multi-volumed introductions to the Old Testament (1862–3) and the New Testament (1868).
Davidson believed that ‘intellectual speculation is not to be condemned even if it leads to erroneous conclusions’. In his old age, he spoke at meetings of the Peace Society against England's wars, which he felt were without just cause, aggressive, and for gain alone. In his autobiography and diary, written in his eighties, he expressed his support for the ideals of the United Irishmen of 1798, for land reform in Ireland, for home rule, and for women's rights. His sight failed in his last years and he was looked after by his only daughter; Gladstone arranged that he should have a civil list pension of £100. Davidson died 1 April 1898 in Hampstead, London, and was buried in Hampstead cemetery.
He married (1836) Anne Jane Kirkpatrick from Co. Down; her brother was a presbyterian minister, William Baillie Kirkpatrick. Till her death (15 December 1872) she was the mainstay of her husband's life throughout his difficulties and sorrows, which included the deaths in childhood of three of their four sons. A portrait of Davidson appears as frontispiece to his autobiography, edited by his daughter, Anne Jane Davidson.