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The Scottish Nation

LEE, JOHN, M.D., D.D., and LL.D., a learned divine, and principal of the university of Edinburgh from 1840 to 1859, was born, of humble parentage, in 1780, at Torwoodlee Mains, parish of Stow, Mid Lothian. He studied for the medical profession at the university of Edinburgh. He obtained the degree of M.A., and was offered the chair of moral philosophy in the university of Wilna, which the Czar was about to establish in Russian Poland, but the arrangement was broken off in consequence of a change in the political relations of Russia and Great Britain.

      On concluding his medical studies, he took the degree of doctor of medicine, and for a short time held an appointment in the hospital department of the army. Having attended the regular theological classes, he was, in 1807, licensed to preach the gospel by the presbytery of Edinburgh, and ordained minister of a chapel in London in connection with the church of Scotland; but in 1808 was presented to the parish of Peebles. In the summer of 1812, he was appointed by the Crown professor of ecclesiastical history and divinity in St. Mary’s college, St. Andrews, and on three annual occasions afterwards he was chosen rector of that university. During the session of 1820-21 he was professor of moral philosophy in King’s college and university, Old Aberdeen. In the latter year he was presented by the Crown to the first charge of the Canongate, Edinburgh, where he had for his colleague, the venerable and much esteemed Dr. Buchanan, who died Dec. 6, 1832.

      During the time that he was minister of the Canongate, Dr. Lee began an agitation for the freer circulation of the Bible which, after a lawsuit of several years’ continuance against the Bible Societies, led to the removal of the restrictions that had till then prevented the Scriptures from being circulated at a cheap rate. He was the acknowledged leader of the party who called in question the sovereign’s prerogative in the printing of the bible, and with great trouble, and at considerable expense to himself, he collected materials for certain treatises which he wrote on the subject. In 1824, he was nominated one of the royal commissioners for inquiring into the state of the universities of Scotland, and in that capacity he drew up the Report on the University of Glasgow. On Aug. 13th of the same year, he was, on the death of Dr. Fleming, presented to the church and parish of Lady Yester’s, Edinburgh.

      In 1827 he was elected clerk of the General Assembly, and during the long period that he held that office his services were highly esteemed and universally acknowledged throughout the Established church. The pastoral addresses prepared by him in that capacity, and which the General Assembly addressed to the congregations of the church, were styled by Dr. Chalmers “saintly and beautiful compositions.” During the winter of 1827-28, Dr. Lee gratuitously discharged the laborious and responsible duties of Professor of Divinity in the University of Edinburgh. In 1830, he was appointed one of the royal chaplains for Scotland. In 1832 he was proposed as a candidate for the moderatorship of the General Assembly, in opposition to Dr. Chalmers, when the latter was elected. In 1835 Dr. Lee was inducted as successor to Dr. Brown in the Old Church, Edinburgh, as colleague to Dr. Macknight, and in 1837 he was appointed by the Crown principal of the United College of St. Salvador and St. Leonard, St. Andrews; but from that situation he retired in five months. The following year he was appointed secretary to the Bible Board of Scotland, an office which he declined. In 1839 he was appointed principal of the university of St. Andrews.

      As one of the leaders of the moderate party in the church of Scotland, when the ten years’ conflict began which ended in the disruption of 1843, his friendship with Dr. Chalmers was for a time interrupted. The personal controversy that in 1838 arose out of the difference of their views on the church extension scheme led to the most painful feelings on both sides. On the death of Principal Baird, in January 1840, Dr. Lee was elected by the town council, the then patrons, principal of the university of Edinburgh; and in October of the same year he relinquished his charge in the Old church. There had been previously several discussions in the Assembly and other church courts on the subject of his holding both a university and a parochial charge. In the following year he was nominated one of the deans of the Chapel Royal. In October 1843, he was appointed by the town council, on the demission of Dr. Chalmers, professor of divinity in the university, which chair he held along with the principalship. At the meeting of the General Assembly of 1844 he was elected moderator, being the first that was chosen after the opening of the new General Assembly Hall of the Established church in Edinburgh. As principal of the university it was his custom every year to begin the session by an address to the students.

      Dr. Lee was a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and at the time of his death one of its vice-presidents. Besides being M.D. and D.D., he was also LL.D. To his great scholarship and erudition all parties willingly bore testimony. With his vast stores of knowledge in every department of human learning, it is certainly a matter of surprise that Principal Lee never published anything of permanent or national importance. A few pamphlets, with an edition of a very admirable little book, entitled ‘A Mother’s Legacie to her Unborne Childe,’ form nearly his whole contributions to the literature of his country.

      Dr. Lee died on the morning of May 2, 1859. His successor in the principalship was Sir David Brewster, one of his fellow-students when at college.

      Principal Lee’s works are:

      Memorials for the Bible Societies in Scotland, containing Remarks on the Complaint of His Majesty’s Printers against the Marquis of Huntly and others. Edin. 1824.

      A Mother’s Legacie to her Unborne Childe. Edited by Dr. Lee. Edin. 1825, 12mo.

      Letter to the Lord Provost of Edinburgh, relating to the Annuity Tax. Edin. 1834, 8vo.

      Refutation of the Charges brought against him by Thomas Chalmers, D.D., and others, in reference to Church Extension and University Education. Edin. 1837, 8vo.

      Letter to Right Hon. Viscount Melville, relative to Observations by Principal and Professors of Glasgow University, on the Proposal for University Reform by Royal Commissioners. Edin. 1837, 8vo.

      Lectures on the History of the Church of Scotland from the Reformation to the Revolution. (Posthumous.) Edited by his Son, the Rev. William Lee. Edinb. 1860, 2 vols, 8vo.

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