Agnes and Margaret Smith

Agnes Smith Lewis (left) and Margaret Dunlop Gibson
Westminster College, Cambridge, beneficiary of the Westminster Sisters.

Agnes Smith Lewis (1843–1926) and Margaret Dunlop Gibson (1843–1920), nées Agnes and Margaret Smith (sometimes referred to as the Westminster Sisters), were Semitic scholars. Born the twin daughters[1][2] of John Smith of Irvine, Ayrshire, Scotland, they learned more than 12 languages between them, and became pioneers in their academic work, and benefactors to the Presbyterian Church of England, especially to Westminster College, Cambridge.

Agnes's discovery of the Syriac Sinaiticus, on one of her many journeys to Sinai, was the most important manuscript find since that of the Codex Sinaiticus in 1859 and "the contribution the twins made in cataloguing the Arabic and Syriac manuscripts at Saint Catherine's Monastery was literally incalculable."[3]

Early life and training

A plaque commemorating the Smith Sisters in Westminster College, Cambridge
The grave of James Young Gibson and Margaret Dunlop Gibson, Dean Cemetery, Edinburgh

Agnes and Margaret Smith, twins, were born on 11 January to Margaret Dunlop and John Smith, a solicitor and amateur linguist. Their mother died two weeks after their birth, and they we brought up by their father.[4][5] They were educated in private schools in Birkenhead and London,[6] interspersed with travels in Europe guided by their father.[7]

After their father's death, they settled in London and joined the Presbyterian church in Clapham Road.[8] Already conversationally fluent in German, French and Italian,[9] they continued to learn languages and travelled in Europe and the Middle East, including travelling up the Nile and visiting Palestine in 1868.[10] In 1870, Agnes wrote Eastern Pilgrims, an account of their experiences in Egypt and Palestine.[11]

In 1883, Agnes and Margaret, by then also quite fluent in Greek, travelled to Athens and other parts of Greece.[12] beginning a lifelong affectionate relationship with Greek Orthodoxy, whose monks occupied Saint Catherine's Monastery at Sinai. On 11 September 1883, Margaret married James Young Gibson, a scholar trained for the ministry, but then working on translations;[13] and in 1887, Agnes married Samuel Savage Lewis, librarian of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.[14][15] Samuel had also trained as a clergyman. Each marriage was soon ended with the death of the husband.[16] Margaret's marriage only lasted slightly over three years.[17]

She is buried with her husband in Dean Cemetery in western Edinburgh. The grave lies on the north wall of the first northern extension to the main cemetery.

Academic work

Plaque in Saint Columba's Church, Cambridge, commemorating Agnes and Margaret Smith.

By 1890, the sisters settled in Cambridge. Agnes began to study Syriac (Margaret took it up later, in 1893,[18]) and improve their Arabic, which Agnes had begun to learn in 1883.[13] Enthused by Quaker Orientalist James Rendel Harris's account of his discovery at Saint Catherine's Monastery of a Syriac text of the Apology of Aristides, and by news of Constantin von Tischendorf's rediscovery there of Codex Sinaiticus,[19] they travelled to the monastery in 1892, and discovered the earliest Syriac version of the Gospels known thus far. The next year, they returned as part of a larger party[20] that included Professor Robert Bensly and Francis Crawford Burkitt, as well as J. Rendel Harris, to transcribe the whole of the manuscript, known as the Sinaitic Palimpsest or the Sinaitic Manuscript (Lewis), which provided fresh stimulus to New Testament studies. The palimpsest was found to have previously contained a Syriac Lives of the Saints by John the Recluse.[21] During the expedition, Agnes and Margaret also catalogued the monastery's extensive collection of Syriac and Arabic manuscripts.[22] Janet Soskice's account of the expedition describes it as "slightly disjointed", and recounts it as subject to increasing mutual suspicion and resentment.[23]

In their travels to Egypt, Agnes and Margaret were also able to buy a palimpsest codex: under the Syriac Christian homilies Agnes discovered separate 7th and 8th century Qu'ranic manuscripts, which she and Alphonse Mingana dated as possibly pre-Uthmanic.[24][25][26] They collected about 1,700 manuscript fragments, now known as the Lewis-Gibson collection,[27] including some formerly of the Genizah of the Bin Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo.[24]

The sisters continued to travel and write until the First World War, and were instrumental in other discoveries, including that by Solomon Schechter of an early Hebrew manuscript of Ecclesiasticus.[28]

Harris's Cambridge course in palaeography allowed Agnes to step onto the academic stage as a Syriac scholar "of international repute",[29] as author of the introduction to the expedition team's 1894 publication of a translation of the palimpsest. Though the University of Cambridge never honoured them with degrees (it did not admit women to degrees until 1948), they received honorary degrees[nb 1] from the universities of Halle, Heidelberg,[30] Dublin, and St Andrews.[31]

At Cambridge, they attended St Columba's Church.[32] They were generous hostesses at their home, Castlebrae, which became the centre of a lively intellectual and religious circle.


St Columba's United Reformed Church, established as the Presbyterian chaplaincy to the University of Oxford, with the help of the Smith sisters.

The sisters used their inheritance to endow Westminster College in Cambridge.[33] This was long after Nonconformists were allowed to become full members of the Oxbridge universities by the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts; and that Presbyterian college moved from Queen Square, London to a site acquired from St John's College, Cambridge in 1899. They also helped the establishment of the Presbyterian chaplaincy to the University of Oxford, now at St Columba's United Reformed Church, Oxford.


Agnes Smith Lewis

Margaret Dunlop Gibson

Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dunlop Gibson


  1. ^ The degrees were LLD, LittD, DD (the first theological doctorates awarded to women) and PhD (only to Alice)

See also



  • Alexander, Caroline, (1 September 2009) "Two of a Kind " Review of Soskice in The New York Times
  • Cornick, D. and C. Binfield (editors) (2006) From Cambridge To Sinai United Reformed Church. ISBN 978-0-85346-251-4
  • Jefferson, Rebecca J. W. (2009) "Sisters of Semitics: A Fresh Appreciation of the Scholarship of Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dunlop Gibson" in Medieval Feminist Forum 45/1, 23–49 [2]
  • Soskice, Janet (2009) Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Found the Hidden Gospels London: Vintage ISBN 978-1-4000-3474-1
  • Whigham Price, Alan (1985) The Ladies of Castlebrae. London: Headline Book Publishing.
  • United Reformed Church (2004) A Gift Box ISBN 0-85346-222-4.


  1. ^ "LEWIS, Mrs. Agnes Smith". Who's Who. Vol. 59. 1907. p. 1053.
  2. ^ "GIBSON, Margaret Dunlop". Who's Who. Vol. 59. 1907. p. 674.
  3. ^ Soskice pp. 274–5
  4. ^ Register of Births of the Town and Parish of Irvine: 1843, at ScotlandsPeople.gov.uk
  5. ^ Soskice, p.10
  6. ^ Soskice p. 21
  7. ^ Soskice, p.25
  8. ^ Soskice, p. 56
  9. ^ Soskice, p. 29
  10. ^ Soskice, pp. 33- 51
  11. ^ Soskice, p.56
  12. ^ Soskice, p.67
  13. ^ a b Soskice, p.71
  14. ^ Soskice, p.91
  15. ^ [1]
  16. ^ Soskice, p.84 (Gibson), p.107 (Lewis)
  17. ^ Gemmill, J.A. Note on the probable origin of the Scottish surname of Gemmill or Gemmell. p. 30. ISBN 9785872175735. Retrieved 13 April 2015.
  18. ^ Soskice, p. 207
  19. ^ Soskice, p.111
  20. ^ Soskice, pp.146 – 187
  21. ^ Soskice, p.135, 173
  22. ^ Soskice, p.168
  23. ^ Soskice, p.171
  24. ^ a b Faghihi, Yasmin (21 April 2016). "The irresistible search for hidden Scriptures". Cambridge University Library Special Collections. Retrieved 24 April 2016.
  25. ^ "Mingana-Lewis Palimpsest: Christian Arabic homilies of the Church Fathers". Cambridge Digital Library. Retrieved 24 April 2016.
  26. ^ Mingana, Alphonse; Smith Lewis, Agnes (1914). Leaves From Three Ancient Qur'ans; Possibly Pre-Othmanic, with a list of their variants. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. vii–viii.
  27. ^ Lewis-Gibson collection
  28. ^ Soskice, pp. 235 – 52
  29. ^ Soskice, p. 216
  30. ^ Soskice, p.280
  31. ^ Soskice, p.271
  32. ^ Soskice, p.282
  33. ^ Soskice, pp.235 – 52

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