James David Salmond was born in Queenstown on 1 May 1898, one of eight children of Sarah Cockburn and her husband, John Salmond, a carpenter. His parents were active in the Presbyterian church and the community, setting an example that deeply shaped James's views of family life and citizenship.
Educated in Queenstown and at Gore High School (1912–16), Salmond enrolled at the University of Otago in 1917. In 1918 he served in an army ambulance unit, nursing victims of the influenza pandemic. He returned to study in 1919, graduating MA with first-class honours in history. He also qualified as a teacher, and worked at Timaru Boys' High School. As Ross fellow at Knox College in 1923 and assistant master of the college from 1924 to 1928, he completed his doctorate on the labour movement from 1890 to 1894; it was published in 1950 as New Zealand labour's pioneering days. Salmond also supported himself by tutoring, and teaching at Otago Boys' High School. Active in the Bible class movement, he was also president of the Otago University Christian Union in 1923–24.
In 1929–30 Salmond studied at the Boston University School of Theology, and at Yale Divinity School. His evangelical background was sharply challenged by liberal theology and the ravages of the depression. The World's Student Christian Federation conference in 1930 widened his ecumenism and confirmed him in a passion for social justice. After further study in London in 1930–31 at the Day Training College, he visited the Soviet Union in May 1931. He and his brother Alex wrote The world crisis and the gospel that year, calling for a new dynamic in social life to avert disaster.
In June 1931 Salmond was appointed assembly youth director and lecturer in religious education at the Theological Hall, Knox College. Ordained the following year without any formal theological qualification, he rapidly set his mark on education in the Presbyterian church. In August 1932 he called a conference of the various groups working with young people to explore common problems and face the challenges of the depression. The result was a more co-operative structure, provision for better training of Sunday-school teachers and Bible-class leaders, and the use of more modern curricula, drawing on the best practice in Britain and the United States. Salmond had been impressed by American religious education and saw that John Dewey's view that education must start from experience rather than rely on authority had important implications for the church. He excelled at writing and editing study guides that introduced the thought of contemporary theologians such as J. H. Oldham, William Temple and Reinhold Niebuhr.
Salmond was a fine administrator and built a strong team of co-workers whose influence at camps and conferences was immense. He kept the confidence of evangelicals, but at the same time challenged hundreds of young men and women to think through their faith and its relation to vocation, citizenship and family life. His Christ and tomorrow (1936) discomforted more conservative Presbyterians who, angered at its criticisms of capitalism, feared that Salmond was too open to radical ideas. He was unconcerned: his teaching career was devoted to testing new ideas and stimulating his students. Not an original thinker, he was an enthusiastic populariser.
Salmond maintained a punishing schedule and in 1935–36 he lived at the Hanmer health resort recuperating from a breakdown. His marriage at Takapuna on 12 May 1936 to Margaret (Peggy) McAndrew Cattanach produced a major change. She was a talented secondary teacher and creative youth worker in both the church and YWCA. Marriage and children (John and Anne) helped to slow down Salmond's pace. Nevertheless, he remained youth director till 1948 and travelled widely.
In 1949 Salmond was appointed administrative secretary of the Theological Hall Committee and Senatus. With student numbers swollen by returned servicemen, the commencement of the BD degree and the need to recruit ministers for a growing population, his duties were extensive. He continued to lecture and to supervise the education of home missionaries, as well as carrying a heavy load of committee work both at regional and national level. He also played an important part in planning the fund raising for a centennial memorial to Otago's early settlers – a theological hall lecture block and library, which greatly enhanced Knox College. He still always found time to listen to students' and colleagues' problems (often with eyes closed), giving kindly but no-nonsense advice.
Salmond's principal concern was religious education. He worked tirelessly for the removal of the clause from the Education Act 1877 that forbade the inclusion of religious instruction in the school curriculum. Children, he stressed, needed to know about the importance of the Bible and Christianity to Western civilisation. He knew many teachers and sought to alleviate the concerns of the New Zealand Educational Institute. As a member of the Otago Boys' and Girls' High Schools Board from 1954 to 1968 he lobbied at the biennial national meetings of the New Zealand Secondary School Boards' Association. Salmond helped draft Presbyterian submissions to the Commission on Education in New Zealand (1960–62), which successfully recommended to Parliament that the Nelson system of voluntary religious instruction be made available nationally.
Salmond worked to ensure that Presbyterian schools gave adequate religious education, and was deeply involved in the New Zealand Bible-in-Schools League and its successors, the New Zealand Council for Christian Education (of which he was president 1960–61) and the Churches Education Commission. In 1974 he made important contributions to the Hogben House conference on moral and religious education. As convener of the Presbyterian Synod of Otago and Southland's Advisory Committee on the Educational Fund, he obtained grants to school libraries for religious books and for the foundation of an ecumenical chaplaincy at the university in 1963. He also persuaded the synod to use the fund to support sabbatical leave for theological hall staff and to provide the salary of the Knox College librarian, as well as to help finance the university's lectureship in the phenomenology of religion. He sat on the Council of the University of Otago from 1949 to 1957. In 1962 he was made an OBE; he retired the next year.
In the wider life of the church, Salmond was active in the New Life movement and its stewardship programmes. In 1958 he became moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand. He travelled to Brazil for the 1959 centenary of the Presbyterian church in that country and a meeting of the World Presbyterian Alliance, of which he became a vice president. He had already attended an Alliance meeting in 1954 after the World Council of Churches assembly in Evanston, Illinois, at which time he visited a number of American seminaries and universities to keep abreast of developments in theological and religious education. He had a wide circle of correspondents internationally. Salmond frequently wrote for the Presbyterian paper the Outlook, and for the secular press, as well as producing a number of forcefully written booklets on religious and moral issues. Fund raising for Salmond Hall, named for him and his sister Mary and opened in 1971, was his last major contribution to his beloved Knox College, of which he was a council member from 1933 to 1973. He died on 1 April 1976 in Dunedin, survived by his wife and two children.
James Salmond was influential in helping Presbyterianism in New Zealand to broaden its outlook and adapt to changing social circumstances. Respected by liberals and evangelicals, he worked to create a church that would serve the whole community and be the conscience of a Christian nation.