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
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
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.
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.