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Significant Scots
Henry Hunter


HUNTER, (DR) HENRY, a divine highly distinguished in literature, was born at Culross, in the year 1741. His parents, though in humble life, gave him a good education, which was concluded by an attendance at the University of Edinburgh. Here his talents and application attracted the notice of the professors, and at the early age of seventeen he was appointed tutor to Mr Alexander Boswell, who subsequently became a judge of the court of session, under the designation of lord Balmouto. He afterwards accepted the same office in the family of the earl of Dundonald at Culross abbey, and thus had the honour of instructing the late venerable earl, so distinguished by his scientific inquiries and inventions. In 1764, having passed the necessary trials with unusual approbation, he was licensed as a minister of the gospel, and soon excited attention to his pulpit talents. So highly were these in public esteem, that, in 1766, he was ordained one of the ministers of South Leith, which has always been considered as one of the most respectable appointments in the Scottish church. He had here ingratiated himself in an uncommon degree with his congregation, when a visit to London, in 1769, opened up to his ambition a still wider field of usefulness. The sermons which he happened to deliver on this occasion in several of the Scottish meeting-houses, drew much attention, and the result was an invitation, which reached him soon after his return, to become minister of the chapel in Swallow Street. This he declined; but in 1771, a call from the London Wall congregation tempted him away from his Scottish flock, who manifested the sincerest sorrow at his departure. This translation not only was an advancement in his profession, but it paved the way for a series of literary exertions, upon which his fame was ultimately to rest. Several single sermons first introduced him to the world as an author. These were on the ordination of O. Nicholson, N. A., 1775, 2 Cor. iv 7, 8 ; On the study of the Sacred Scriptures, Acts xviii. 11, in the work called the Scottish Preacher, vol. iv. at the funeral of the Rev. George Turnbull, 1783; On the opening of a meeting-house at Walthamstow, in 1787, Rev. xxi. 3, 4; On the Revolution, 1788; The Believerís Joy, Acts viii. 39; also in the fourth volume of the Scottish Preacher. These sermons, with some miscellaneous pieces, were collected and published, in two volumes, after the authorís death. Dr Hunter first appeared as a general writer in 1783, when he published the first volumes of his "Sacred Biography, or the history of the Patriarchs and of Jesus Christ, which was ultimately extended to seven volumes, and has become a standard work, the seventh edition having appeared in 1814. Before this work was completed, the notice attracted by the system of Lavater throughout civilized Europe, tempted him to engage in an English version of the "Physiognomy" of that philosopher, whom he previously visited at his residence in Switzerland, in order to obtain from the conversation of the learned man himself, as perfect an idea as possible of his particular doctrines. It is said that Lavater at first displayed an unexpected coolness on the subject of Dr Hunterís visit, being afraid that an English translation might injure the sale of the French edition, in which he had a pecuniary interest. This, however, seems to have been got over; for Lavater eventually treated his English visitor in a manner highly agreeable. "As their professions were alike," says an anonymous writer, "so their sentiments, their feelings, and their opinions, are altogether alike. A complete acquaintance with the French language enabled Dr Hunter to enjoy Lavaterís conversation freely; and he ever afterwards talked with enthusiasm of the simplicity of manners, the unaffected piety, the unbounded benevolence, and the penetrating genius, of this valued friend. The bare mention of that barbarous cruelty which massacred the virtuous Lavater, was sufficient to make him shrink back with horror." -- The first number of this work was published in 1789, and it was not completed till nine years after, when it ultimately formed five volumes, in quarto, bearing the title of "Essays on Physiognomy, designed to promote the knowledge and love of mankind, by John Caspar Lavater. Dr Hunterís abilities as a translator were of the first order, and, in this instance, drew forth the entire approbation of the original author. The work was, moreover, embellished in a style, which, at that time, might be considered as unrivaled. It contained above eight hundred engravings, executed by and under the direction of Mr Holloway, and such was altogether the elaborate elegance of the publication, that it could not be sold to the public under thirty pounds per copy. We are only left to regret that so much talent, so much taste, and a large sum of money as this price would indicate, should have been spent upon an inquiry which the acute and precise sense of the immediately succeeding generation had pronounced to be in a great measure a delusion.

At the time of the French revolution, Dr Hunter republished a treatise by Robert Fleming, whose life, with an account of the work in question, has already been given in this Biographical Dictionary. The pamphlet contained some prophetical intimations, which Dr Hunter supposed to bear a reference to the events in the neighbouring kingdom. It is needless to remark the weakness which alone could dictate such a proceeding in this generally able and enlightened man. Dr Hunter also published a "Sermon preached, February 3, 1793, on the execution of Louis XVI."

In 1795, he attempted a translation from the German, selecting for this purpose Eulerís celebrated "Letters to a German princess." This work met with the entire approbation of the public, and has proved a very useful addition to the stock of our native scientific literature. The first edition was in quarto, and a second, in octavo, appeared in 1802. The work has since been reprinted in a smaller size, with notes by Sir David Brewster. The merit of Dr Hunter as a translator was now universally acknowledged, and work accordingly pressed upon him. While still engaged in his version of Lavater, he commenced, in 1796, the publishing of a translation of St Pierreís Studies of Nature, which was completed in 1799, in five volumes octavo, afterwards republished in three. "His translation," says the anonymous writer above quoted, "of the beautiful and enthusiastic works of St Pierre, was universally read and admired: here, if in any instance, the translator entered into the spirit of the author, for the glow of benevolence which gives life to every page of ĎLes Etudes de la Natureí was entirely congenial to the feelings of Dr Hunter." Saurinís Sermons, and Sonniniís Travels to Upper and Lower Egypt, complete the list of Dr Hunterís labours as a translator; and it is but small praise to say, that few men have reached the same degree of excellence in that important branch of literature. During the progress of other labours, Dr Hunter published more than one volume of original sermons, and a volume entitled "Lectures on the Evidences of Christianity," being the completion of a plan begun by the Rev. John Fell. He also commenced the publication, in parts, of a popular "History of London and its Environs," which, however, he did not live to complete.

In the year 1790, Dr Hunter was appointed secretary to the corresponding board of the Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. He was likewise chaplain to the Scots corporation in London, and both these institutions were much benefited by his zealous exertions in their behalf. It must be obvious from the frequent and involved succession of his literary productions, that Dr Hunter spent a most industrious life, and was upon the whole the most busy as he approached that stage of existence when the generality of men begin to find ease not only agreeable but necessary. It is probable that this unceasing exertion, which no doubt was more occasioned by necessity than by choice, tended to break down his constitution, which has further weakened in his latter years by the agitation and distress of mind consequent on the death of three beloved children. Having retired to Bristol wells for the recovery of his health, he died there, of inflammation in the lungs, October 27, 1802, in the sixty-second year of his age.

"If Dr Hunter," says his anonymous biographer, [Obituary of Gentlemanís Magazine, lxxii. 1072.] "was conspicuous as an author, he was still more to be admired as a man. An unbounded flow of benevolence, which made him enjoy and give enjoyment to every society, joined to a warmth of feeling, which made him take an interest in every occurrence, rendered him the delight of all his acquaintance. His social talents were of the highest order. An easy flow of conversation, never loud, never overbearing, and completely free from affectation; an inexhaustible fund of pleasant anecdotes and occasional flashes of wit and humour, made every company he joined pleased with him and with themselves. He was particularly happy in adapting his conversation to those he conversed with; and while to a lady his discourse appeared that of a polished gentleman, the scholar was surprised by his apt quotations from the classics, and the ease with which he turned to any subject that was brought before him. * * His private charities were as numerous as the objects of compassion which occurred to him; nor should his unbounded and cheerful hospitality be forgot among his other virtues." [He is said to have carried this virtue beyond the bounds which a regard to prudence and economy should have prescribed.] "The crowded attendance and the universal regret of his congregation are the best proofs of the effect of his pulpit eloquence. His enlightened and liberal views of religion made his meeting-house the resort of the leading Scotsmen in London; and it was here that the natives of the southern part of the island had an opportunity of observing a specimen of that church which produced a Robertson and a Blair. * * Dr Hunter was of a spare habit of body, and remarkably active; and his usual cheerfulness and flow of good humour continued till within a few weeks of his death." He left a family, consisting of a wife, two sons, and a daughter.


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