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Significant Scots
Alexander Webster


WEBSTER, (DR) ALEXANDER, an eminent divine and statistical inquirer, was born in Edinburgh about the year 1707, being the son of a clergyman of the same name, who, after suffering persecution under the reigns of the latter Stuarts, had become minister of the Tolbooth parish in that city, in which charge he acquired considerable celebrity as a preacher of the orthodox school. The subject of this memoir studied for the church, and, after being duly licensed, was ordained minister of Culross, where he soon became noted for his eloquence in the pulpit, and the laborious zeal with which he discharged every duty of his office. The congregation of the Tolbooth church, who had lost his father in the year 1720, formed the wish to have the son set over them, and accordingly, in 1737, he received an unanimous call from them, and thus was restored to the society of his native city. Previously to this event, he had obtained the affections of Miss Mary Erskine, a young lady of fortune, and nearly related to the family of Dundonald. He had been employed to bespeak the favour of Miss Erskine for a friend, and for this purpose paid frequent visits to Valleyfield, a house within the parish of Culross, where she resided. The suit of his friend he is said to have urged with equal eloquence and sincerity, but, whether his own figure and accomplishments, which were highly elegant, had prepossessed the young lady, or she despised a suitor who could not make love on his own account, his efforts were attended with no success. At length Miss Erskine naively remarked to him that, had he spoken as well for himself, he might have succeeded better. The hint was too obvious to be overlooked, and its promise too agreeable to be neglected. Webster spoke for himself, and was readily accepted. They were married a few days after his accession to the pulpit of the Tolbooth church. Though the reverend gentleman was thus prompted by the lady, it does not appear that he was in the least degree deficient in that affection which ought always to be the motive of the nuptial connexion. On the contrary, he seems, from some verses composed by himself upon the occasion, to have been one of the most ardent of lovers, and also one of the most eloquent of amatory poets; witness the following admirable stanza

When I see thee, I love thee, but hearing adore,
I wonder, and think you a woman no more;
Till, mad with admiring, I cannot contain,
And, kissing those lips, find you, woman again.

[Webster’s Lines, Scottish Songs, ii. 337. This fine lyric seems to have been first published in the Scots Magazine, 1747.]

With the fire of a profane poet, and the manners and accomplishments of a man of the world, Webster possessed the unction and fervour of a purely evangelical divine. The awakenings which occurred at Cambuslang, in consequence of the preaching of Whitefield, he attributed in a pamphlet, to the direct influence of the Holy Spirit; while the Seceders imputed the whole to sorcery and the direct influence of the devil. In the pulpit, both his matter and his manner gave the highest satisfaction. His voice was harmonious, his figure noble; the dignity of his look, the rapture of his eye, conveyed an electric impression of the fervent devotion which engrossed his soul. In prayer and in sacramental addresses, his manner was particularly noble and august. The diction of his sermons was strong and animated, rather than polished, and somewhat lowered to the capacity of his hearers, to whose situation in life he was always attentive. To the best qualities of a clergyman, he added an ardent, but enlightened zeal for the external interests of the church, a jealousy of corruption, a hatred of false polities amid tyrannical measures, which sometimes exposed him to calumny from the guilty, but secured him unbounded esteem from all who could value independence of soul and integrity of heart. His sentiments respecting the affairs of both church and state were those of what may now be called an old whig; he stood upon the Revolution establishment, alike anxious to realize the advantages of that transaction, and to prevent further and needless or dangerous changes. "Nature," says an anonymous biographer, "had endowed him with strong faculties, which a very considerable share of learning had matured and improved. For extent of comprehension, depth of thinking, and accuracy in the profoundest researches, he stood unrivalled. In the knowledge of the world, and of human nature, he was a master. It is not wonderful that the best societies in the kingdom were perpetually anxious to possess a man, who knew how to soften the rancour of public theological contest with the liberality and manners of a gentleman. His address was engaging; his wit strong as his mind; his convivial powers, as they are called, enchanting. He had a constitutional strength against intoxication, which made it dangerous in most men to attempt bringing him to such a state: often, when they were unfit for sitting at table, he remained clear, regular, and unaffected."

Among the gifts of Dr Webster, was an extraordinary power of arithmetical calculation. This he began soon after his settlement in Edinburgh, to turn to account, in the formation, in company with Dr Robert Wallace, of the scheme for annuities to the widows of the Scottish clergy. [The ensuing account of the Clergy’s Widows’ Scheme is taken from a memoir of Dr Webster, in the Scots Magazine for 1802. Some further particulars are given in the article Dr Robert Wallace.] From an accurate list of the ministers of the church, and the members of the three southern universities, compared with the ordinary ratio of births, marriages, and deaths, in this and other kingdoms, he was enabled to fix on a series of rates to be paid annually by the members of these two departments, the amount of which rates was to supply a specific annuity to every widow, whose husband should be a contributor, and a proportional sum for the children of the same. To forward this scheme, he opened a correspondence with the different presbyteries in the kingdom; and, in the year 1742, received for it the sanction of the General Assembly of the church, which, after suitable examination, approved of the whole plan, with the exception of a few immaterial particulars. Accordingly, the several presbyteries and universities concurred with the Assembly, in petitioning parliament for an act, enabling them to raise and establish a fund, and obliging the ministers of the church, with the heads, principals, and masters of St Andrews, Glasgow, and Edinburgh, to pay annually, each according to his option, one of the following rates, viz., either 2. 12s. 6d. 3. 18s. 9d. 5. 5s., or 6. 11s. 3d., to be repaid in proportional annuities of 10, 15, 20, or 25, to their widows, or insimilar provisions of 100, 150, 200, or 250, to their children. The act was obtained in terms of the petition, (17 Geo. II.,) with liberty to employ the surplus of the annual payments and expenses in loans of 30 a-piece among the contributors, and to put out the remainder at interest, on proper security. A second act, amending the former, was procured in the 22nd year of the same reign, (1748,) regulating the several parts of the management, and granting liberty to raise the capital to 80,000, including the sums lent to contributors. [By this act, the university of Aberdeen was included on request.] The commencement of the fund is reckoned from the 25th of March, 1744, the whole trouble of planning, arranging, and collecting the revenues, and applying them to their immediate purposes, devolving on the original proposer, who, with a patience and perseverance nearly equal to the extreme accuracy of his calculations, at last completed the scheme. In the year 1770, a new act of parliament, procured by advice of Dr Webster, prescribed the full form in which the fund is at present conducted. The loans granted to contributors were discontinued, as prejudicial to the parties concerned; liberty was granted to extend the capital to 100,000; the methods of recovering payments; the nomination and duties of trustees; the salaries of the collector and clerk; in short, the whole economy of the institution, were fixed and determined. A tax on the marriage of each contributor, amounting to one year’s annual rate of his particular option; and, if he were forty years of age at his accession to his benefice, and had children, the sum of two years and a half of his rate, besides his ordinary dues and marriage, were added to the revenue. Further, a sum of half his usual rate was declared due to the fund, out of the ann.; or, in case of its not falling, out of his real or personal estate, on the death of a minister; and patrons were assessed in the sum of 3. 2s. for every half year’s vacancy.

A report of the state of the fund was ordered to be made annually to the General Assembly by the trustees, and this afterwards to be printed. Dr Webster, in the year 1748, had finished a series of calculations, in which he not only ascertained the probable number of ministers that would die annually, of widows and children that would be left, of annuitants drawing whole or half annuities, and the medium of the annuities, and annual rates, but also the different annual states of the fund, in its progress to completing the capital stock. These calculations have approached the fact with astonishing precision. It would exceed our limits to insert the comparison between the calculations and the facts stated in the reports for the years 1762, 1765, and 1779, and printed again in those for 1790, &c.; but we shall only mention, that in the second of these statements, the comparison ran as follows: thirty ministers were calculated to die annually; inde for twenty-one years, from 1744 to 1765, the number by calculation is 630; the fact was 615, being only 15 of total difference. Twenty widows were calculated to be left annually in the forementioned period; there were left 411: the calculation was 420, and the difference it was calculated, that six families of children, without a widow, would be left annually; the calculated amount for the above period, was 126, the fact 124, the difference 2. Four ministers or professors were calculated to die annually, without either widows or children; the calculated number for the first twenty-one years was 84, the fact was 82. The differences for that period, between the calculated mediums of the whole number of annuities, and of annual rates, compared each with its respective fact, was, for the number of annuities, 1s. 2d. 6.12ths, and for the rates 3s. 0d. 6-12ths. On the 22nd of November, 1799, in the fifty-sixth year of the fund, and the year which completed the capital stock fixed by act of parliament, Dr Webster’s calculations, after having approached the truth for a long series of years with surprising accuracy, stood in the following manner: the stock and surplus for that year were 105,504, 2s. 11d. 3-12ths, and the calculated stock was 86,448, 12s. 10d. 8-12ths; consequently the difference was 19,055, l0s. 0d. 7-12ths.

In the year 1745, when the Highland army under prince Charles Stuart, took possession of Edinburgh, Dr Webster manifested the sincerity and firmness of his principles, as well as his general vigour of character, by remaining in the city, and exerting his eloquence to support the people in their attachment to the house of Hanover. On the day afterwards appointed by the General Assembly for a thanksgiving for the victory of Culloden, (June 23, 1746,) he preached a sermon, afterwards printed, in which he made a masterly exposure of the new-born affection then manifested by the Tory party for the existing dynasty. This composition, however, is degraded by a panegyric on the infamous Cumberland, and a number of other allusions to secular persons and affairs, more consistent perhaps with the manners of the times, than with the immutable principles of taste in pulpit oratory. It has only the negative merit of being less fulsome in its respect for the hero of the day, than a similar composition by Dr Hugh Blair, which contained the following passage: "When the proper season was come for God to assert his own cause, then he raised up an illustrious deliverer, whom, for a blessing to his country, he had prepared against this time of need. HIM he crowned with the graces of his right hand; to the conspicuous bravery of early youth, he added the conduct and wisdom which in others is the fruit only of long experience; and distinguished him with those qualities which render the man amiable, as well as the HERO great. He sent him forth to be the terror to his foes, and in the day of death, commanded the shields of angels to be spread around him." At the time when this and similar eulogia were in the course of being pronounced, the subject of them was wreaking upon a defeated party the vengeance of a mean and brutal mind. He whom the shields of angels had protected on a day when superior strength rendered danger impossible, was now battening, with savage relish, on the fruits of an easy conquest. Cottages were smoking in every direction for a hundred miles around him, a prey to conflagration; their tenants, either murdered by cold steel, or starved to death; while the dictates of law, of humanity, of religion, were all alike unheard. Nor could these circumstances be unknown to the courtly preachers.

Dr Webster had now become a conspicuous public character, and the utility of his talents and dignity of his character were universally acknowledged. The comprehensiveness of his mind, and the accuracy of his calculating powers, rendered him a desirable and most useful ally in almost all kinds of schemes of public improvement, of which, at that period of nascent prosperity, a great number were set in motion. As the friend of provost Drummond, he aided much in the plan of the new town of Edinburgh, not scrupling even to devise plans for those public places of amusement which, as a minister of the church of Scotland, he was forbidden by public opinion to enter. He was a most zealous encourager of the plan of civilizing and propagating religion in the Highlands; and in 1753, published a sermon on that subject, entitled, "Zeal for the civil and religious Interests of Mankind Recommended." In the year 1755, he drew up, at the desire of lord president Dundas, for the information and service of government, an account of the number of people in Scotland being the first attempt at a census ever made in the kingdom. His researches on this occasion were greatly facilitated by a general correspondence which he had opened in 1743, both with the clergy and laity, for the purposes of the Clergy’s Widows’ Fund. "Dr Webster’s well-known character for accuracy," says Sir John Sinclair, "and the success with which his calculations have been uniformly attended, ought to satisfy every one that the report he drew up may be safely relied on." Yet, as the means employed on the occasion were only calculated to produce an approximation to correctness, it must not be disguised that the census of 1755, as it is sometimes called, was in no respect comparable to those which actual survey has since effected.

Our limits will not allow us, nor our information suffice, to enumerate all the charitable institutions, or projects of public welfare, temporary or lasting, in which Dr Webster was engaged. As he lived to an advanced age, he had the pleasure of seeing many of them arrive at their maturity of usefulness; the best reward, perhaps, which merit ever enjoys. He preserved, to the latest period of his course, that activity both of mind and body, which distinguished him in the prime of life; and, ripe like a sheaf in autumn, obtained his frequent wish and prayer, an easy and peaceful death, after a very short indisposition, on Sunday, the 25th of January, 1784. By his lady, who died November 28, 1766, he had six sons and a daughter; one of the former, colonel Webster, fell in the American contest. The person of Dr Webster was, as already mentioned, dignified and commanding. In latter life, it became somewhat attenuated and bent. His countencance, of which a good memorial, by David Martin, is in the office of the Ministers’ Widows’ Fund, was of an elevated and striking cast, and highly characteristic of his mind. It is related to his honour, that the superior income which his wife’s fortune placed at his command, was employed with unusual bountifulness in behalf of the poor, to whom he thus proved himself a practical as well as theoretic friend.


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