The son and nephew of PM ministers, he was born in Leek on 24 November 1865 and went to St John's College, Oxford in 1883. He read theology with a view to entering the Anglican ministry, but remained a Methodist layman. He won the valuable Denyer and Johnson Scholarship and the Ellerton Essay Prize in 1889, obtained first class honours in 1890, and that same year accepted a lectureship at Mansfield College, and was elected to a Theological Fellowship at Merton College (the first Nonconformist layman to achieve that honour). In 1892 he was recruited by William Hartley to the staff of Hartley College, Manchester, where he remained for the rest of his life, declaring that the purpose of his curriculum of biblical studies was 'not to produce showy men, but plain, practical, hard-working men and good ministers,… "cultured evangelists".'
In 1904 he was appointed Professor of Biblical Exegesis at the University and Dean of the newly formed Faculty of Theology, and in 1925 became Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University. He was elected President of the Society for OT Study in 1924 and edited the Society's first volume of essays, The People and the Book (1925). He received honorary DDs from Manchester (1906), Aberdeen (1907) and Oxford (1920) Universities.
The outstanding Scottish scholar W. Robertson Smith was a major influence on him. In T.W. Manson's judgment, 'Peake succeeded in becoming what none other would have attempted, namely, equally expert in both Old and New Testament fields'. Best known for the one-volume Commentary which he edited (1919), his most important biblical studies are The Problem of Suffering in the OT (1904), A Critical Introduction to the NT (1909), The Bible: Its Origin, its Significance and its Abiding Worth (1913) and commentaries on Hebrews (1902), Colossians (1903), Job (1905), Jeremiah and Lamentations (1910, 1912) and Revelation (1919). He became editor of the Holborn Review in 1919 and his own contributions were collected and edited by W.F. Howard under the title Recollections and Appreciations in 1938.
Though remaining a layman, he played a vital part in enabling PM ministers and others to accept critical biblical scholarship without losing their faith. He was also prominent in the endeavour for church unity, being one of the PM representatives on the Methodist Union Committee from 1918, persuading the PMs to accept the Pastoral Session of Conference as not only useful but helpful. He was also one of six representatives of the Free Churches at meetings with the Anglicans at Lambeth Palace from 1922 to 1925, and attended the Lausanne meeting of Faith and Order in 1927. His many commitments were carried out in spite of poor health, especially after a breakdown from overwork in 1915. He died on 19 August 1929. The Methodist Church Congress in Bristol that October, in which he was to have played a part, opened with a memorial service and he was commemorated in three stained-glass windows in the College chapel. The Peake Memorial Lecture, delivered annually during the Methodist Conference, was established by Dr. John T. Wilkinson in 1954.
'Perhaps it was Peake's greatest service not merely to his own communion but to the whole religious life of England that he helped to save us from a fundamentalist controversy such as that which had devastated large sections of the Church in America. He knew the facts which modern study of the Bible had brought to light. He knew them and was fearless and frank in telling them, but he was also a simple and consistent believer in Jesus, and he let that be seen too; therefore men who could not always follow him were ready to trust him.'
George Jackson in Manchester Guardian, 19 August 1929; Times, 20 August 1929
'He was a tremendous worker, and whatever he did was thoroughly well done. He loved discussion and was most tenacious in argument. In his judgment of people he was balanced and always gave credit for excellencies which some of us in our partisanship were apt to overlook. His memory was phenomenal and he seemed to forget nothing, hoever trivial, and it appeared no trouble to him to recollect anything he had read.'
J. Harriman Taylor, in Holborn Review, January 1930 p.25
'… a man supremely competent to mediate the new truth concerning the Bible to the minds of the rising ministry, and yet always careful and even eager so to present it that those who heard him felt that everything which mattered in the traditional faith was not only preserved, but confirmed and enriched. Dr. Peake's teaching was never merely negative and destructive. In the end, as all his students would testify, it made for a surer and richer faith. Hence those who sat at his feet, while constantly amazed at the wealth of his learning, honoured and loved him.'
W. Bardsley Brash, The Story of our Colleges (1935), p.138
'Several factors contributed to Peake's distinguished career. He had great natural endowment. Possessing an outstanding memory, he had the power to be at once comprehensive and also precise in minute details. Added to this was an amazing industry. In the discussion of a problem, he would assess with complete impartiality all the evidence and then, often rather than pressing his own view, would leave his students to draw their own conclusions… He was concerned for the discipline of the right approach and that each man should precipitate his own conviction.'
J.T. Wilkinson, in Methodist Recorder, 25 November 1965