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Significant Scots
Hugh Blair

BLAIR, HUGH, D.D. one of the most eminent divines and cultivators of polite literature, of the eighteenth century, was born at Edinburgh, April 7, 1718. His father, John Blair, a merchant of Edinburgh, and who at one time occupied a respectable office in the magistracy, was grandson to Robert Blair, an eminent divine of the seventeenth century, whose life is commemorated in its proper place in this work. John Blair was thus cousin-german to the author of the Grave, whose life follows, in the present work, that of his distinguished ancestor. John Blair, having impaired his fortune by engaging in the South Sea scheme, latterly held an office in the excise. He married Martha Ogston, and the first child of this marriage was the subject of the following memoir.

Hugh Blair was early remarked by his father to possess the seeds of genius. For this reason, joined to a consideration, perhaps, of his delicate constitution, he was educated for the church. He commenced his academic career at the university of Edinburgh, October, 1730, and as his weakly health disabled him from enjoying the usual sports of boyhood, his application to study was very close. Among the numerous testimonies to his proficiency, which were paid by his instructors, one deserves to be particularly mentioned, as, in his own opinion, it determined the bent of his genius towards polite literature. An essay, upon the BEAUTIFUL, [A technical Greek phrase, expressing the abstract idea of the perfection of beauty in objects of taste. A devotion to the "To kalon" in that nation, was similar to what the moderns understand by a correct taste.] written by him when a student of logic in the usual course of academical exercises, had the good fortune to attract the notice of professor Stevenson, and, with circumstances honourable to the author, was appointed to be read in public at the conclusion of the session. This mark of distinction, which occurred in his sixteenth year, made a deep impression on his mind; and the essay which merited it, he ever after recollected with partial affection, and preserved to the day of his death, as the first earnest of his fame.

At this time Dr Blair commenced a method of study, which contributed much to the accuracy and extent of his knowledge, and which he continued to practise occasionally even after his reputation was fully established. It consisted in making abstracts of the most important works which he read, and in digesting them according to the train of his own thoughts. History, in particular, he resolved to study in this manner; and in concert with some of his youthful associates, he constructed a very comprehensive scheme of chronological tables, for receiving into its proper place every important fact which should occur. The scheme devised by this young student for his own private use was afterwards improved, filled up, and given to the public, by his learned relative Dr John Blair, Prebendary of Westminster, in his valuable work, "The Chronology and History of the World."

In 1739, on taking the degree of Master of Arts, Blair printed his thesis, "De Fundamentis et Obligatione Legis Naturae," which contains a brief outline of these moral principles afterwards developed in his sermons, and displays the first dawnings of that virtuous sensibility, by which he was at all periods of his public life so highly distinguished. On the 21st of October, 1741, he was licensed as a preacher by the presbytery of Edinburgh, and soon began, in the usual manner, to exhibit himself occasionally in the pulpit. Heretofore, the only popular style of preaching in Scotland was that of the evangelical party, which consisted chiefly in an impassioned address to the devotional feelings of the audience. The moderate party, who were of course least popular, had neither lost the practice of indulging in tedious theological disquisitions, nor acquired that of expatiating on the moral duties. The sermons of this young licentiate, which presented sound practical doctrines, in a style of language almost unknown in Scotland, struck the minds of the audience as something quite new. In the course of a very few months, his fame had travelled far beyond the bounds of his native city. A sermon which he preached in the West Church, produced an extraordinary impression, and was spoken of in highly favourable terms to the Earl of Leven. His lordship accordingly presented the preacher to the parish church of Colessie in Fife, which happened to be then vacant. He was ordained to this charge, September 23, 1742, but was not long permitted to labour in so confined a scene. In a few months, he was brought forward by his friends as candidate for the second charge of the church of Canongate, which may almost be considered a metropolitan situation. In the popular election which followed, he was successful against a very formidable competitor, Mr Robert Walker, then a favourite preacher. He was inducted to this charge, July 14, 1743, when he had little more than completed his twenty-fifth year. On the occasion of the insurrection of 1745, Blair preached a sermon, in the warmest strain of loyalty to the existing government, and which he afterwards printed. During the eleven years which he spent in the Canongate, his sermons attracted large audiences from the adjoining city, and were alike admired for their eloquence and piety. They were composed with uncommon care; and, occupying a middle place between the dry metaphysical discussion of one class of preachers, and the loose incoherent declamation of the other, they blended together in the happiest manner the light of argument with the warmth of exhortation, and exhibited captivating specimens of what had hitherto been rarely heard in Scotland, the polished, well-compacted, and regular didactic oration.

On the 11th of October, 1754, he was called by the town council of Edinburgh to accept of one of the city charges, that of Lady Yester’s church, and on the 15th of June, 1758, he was promoted by the same body to the highest situation attainable by a Scottish clergymen, one of the charges of the High Church. This latter removal took place, according to the records of the town-council, "because they had it fully ascertained, that his translation would be highly acceptable to persons of the most distinguished character and eminent rank in this country, who had seats in said church." In truth, this place of worship might have been styled, in the absence of an episcopal system, the metropolitan church of Scotland. In it sat the lords of Session, and all the other great law and state officers, besides the magistrates and council, and a large congregation of the most respectable inhabitants of the town. It might now, therefore, be said, that the eloquence of Blair had at last reached a fit theatre for its display. In the year previous to this last translation, he had been honoured by the university of St Andrews with the degree of D. D. which was then very rare in Scotland.

Hitherto, Blair’s attention seems to have been chiefly devoted to his profession. No production of his pen had yet been given to the world by himself, except two sermons preached on particular occasions, some translations of passages of Scripture, for the psalmody of the church, and the article on Hutcheson’s system of Moral Philosophy for the Edinburgh Review, a periodical work begun in 1755, by Hume, Robertson, and others, and which only extended to two numbers. Standing, as he now did, at the head of his profession, and released by the labour of former years from the drudgery of weekly preparation for the pulpit, he began to think seriously on a plan for teaching to others the art which had contributed so much to his own fame. Some years before, Dr Adam Smith had delivered in Edinburgh a series of lectures on rhetoric and elegant literature, which had been well received. In 1759, Dr Blair commenced, with the approbation of the university, a course upon the principles of literary composition. The most zealous friends to this undertaking were David Hume and Lord Kames, the latter of whom had devoted much attention to the subject. The approbation bestowed upon the lectures was so very high, and their fame became so generally diffused, that the town-council resolved to institute a rhetorical class in the university, under his direction; and, in 1762, this professorship was taken under the protection of the crown, with a salary of seventy pounds a year. Dr Blair continued to deliver his lectures annually till 1783, when he published them for the more extensive benefit of mankind. They are not by any means, nor were they ever pretended to be, a profound or original exposition of the laws of the belles lettres. They are acknowledged to be a compilation from many different sources, and only designed to form a simple and intelligible code for the instruction of youth in this department of knowledge. Regarded in this light, they are entitled to very high praise, which has accordingly been liberally bestowed by the public. These lectures have been repeatedly printed, and still remain an indispensable monitor in the study of every British scholar.

In 1763, Dr Blair made his first appearance before the world as an author or critic. He had, in common with his friend John Home, taken a deep interest in the exertions of Macpherson, for the recovery of the Highland traditionary poetry. Relying without suspicion upon the faith of the collector, he prefixed to the "Poems of Ossian" a dissertation pointing out the beauties of those compositions. The labour must of course be now pronounced in a great measure useless; but nevertheless it remains a conspicuous monument of the taste of Dr Blair.

It was not till 1777, that he could be prevailed upon to offer to the world any of those sermons with which he had so long delighted a private congregation. We have his own authority for saying that it was his friend Lord Kames who was chiefly instrumental in prompting him to take this step. For a long period, hardly any sermons published either in England or Scotland, had met with success. The public taste seemed to have contracted an aversion to this species of composition. We are informed by Boswell in his life of Johnson, that when Blair transmitted a volume to Mr Strahan, the King’s printer, that gentleman, after letting it lie beside him for some time, returned a letter discouraging the publication. It is probable that this opinion, which seems to have been given only on general grounds, might have caused Dr Blair to abandon his intention; but fortunately, Mr Strahan had sent one of the sermons to Dr Johnson for his opinion, and after his unfavourable letter to Dr Blair had been sent off, he received from Johnson, on Christmas eve, 1776, a note, of which the following is a paragraph: "I have read over Dr Blair’s first sermon, with more than approbation; to say it is good is to say too little." Mr Strahan had very soon after this time a conversation with Dr Johnson, concerning the sermons; and then he very candidly wrote again to Dr Blair, enclosing Johnson’s note, and agreeing to purchase the volume, with Mr Cadell, for one hundred pounds. The sale was so rapid and extensive, and the approbation of the public so high, that, to their honour be it recorded, the proprietors made Dr Blair a present, first of one sum, and afterwards of another, of fifty pounds; thus voluntarily doubling the stipulated price. Perhaps, in no country, not even in his own, were these compositions so highly appreciated as in England. There they were received with the keenest relish, not only on account of their abstract excellence, but partly from a kind of surprise as to the quarter from which they came—no devotional work, produced by Scotland, having ever before been found entitled to much attention in the southern section of the island. The volume speedily fell under the attention of George III, and his virtuous consort, and was by them very highly admired. His majesty, with that wise and sincere attention to the interests of religion and virtue, which has given to his reign a respectability above all that military or political glory can purchase, was graciously pleased to judge the author worthy of a public reward. By a royal mandate to the exchequer in Scotland, dated July 25, 1780, a pension of 200 a-year, was bestowed on Dr Blair. It is said that the sermons were first read in the royal closet, by the Earl of Mansfield; and there is little reason to doubt that they were indebted in some degree to the elocution of the "elegant Murray" for the impression which they produced upon the royal family.

During the subsequent part of his life, Dr Blair published three other volumes of sermons; and it might safely be said that each successive publication only tended to deepen the impression produced by the first. These compositions, which were translated into almost every language in Europe, formed only a small part of the discourses which he prepared for the pulpit. The number of those which remained, was creditable to his professional character, and exhibited a convincing proof that his fame as a public teacher had been honourably purchased, by the most unwearied application to the private and unseen labours of his office. Out of his remaining manuscripts, he had prepared a fifth volume, which appeared after his death; the rest, according to an explicit injunction in his will, were committed to the flames. The last sermon which he composed was one in the fifth volume, "on a life of dissipation and pleasure." Though written at the age of eighty-two, it is a dignified and eloquent discourse, and may be regarded as his solemn parting admonition to a class of men whose conduct is highly important to the community, and whose reformation and virtue he had long laboured most zealously to promote.

The SERMONS OF BLAIR, are not now, perhaps, to be criticised with that blind admiration which ranked them, in their own time, amidst the classics of English literature. The present age is now generally sensible that they are deficient in that religious unction which constitutes the better part of such compositions, and are but little calculated to stir and rouse the heart to a sense of spiritual duty. Every thing, however, must be considered more or less relatively. Blair’s mind was formed at a time when the fervours of evangelical divinity were left by the informed classes generally, to the lowly and uninstructed hearts, which, after all, are the great citadels of religion in every country. A certain order of the clergy, towards the end of the eighteenth century, seemed to find it necessary, in order to prevent an absolute revolt of the higher orders, from the standards of religion, to accommodate themselves to the prevailing taste, and only administer moral discourses, with an insinuated modicum of real piety, where their proper purpose unquestionably is to maintain spiritual grace in the breasts of the people, by all the means which the gospel has placed within their reach. Thus, as Blair preached to the most refined congregation in Scotland, he could hardly have failed to fall into this prevalent fashion; and he perhaps considered, with perfect sincerity, that he was justified by the precept of St Paul, which commands the ministers of religion to be "all things to all men." Religious feeling is modified by time and place; and I do not apprehend it to be impossible that the mind of Hugh Blair, existing at the time of his celebrated ancestor, might have exerted itself in maintaining the covenant, and inspiring the populace with the energy necessary for that purpose; while the intellect and heart of his predecessor, if interchanged, might have spent their zeal in behalf of Henry Viscount Melville, and in gently pleasing the minds of a set of modern indifferents, with one grain of the gospel dissolved into a large cooling-draught of moral disquisition.

The remaining part of the life of Blair hardly affords a single additional incident. He had been married, in 1748, to his cousin, Katherine Bannatyne, daughter of the Rev James Bannatyne, one of the ministers of Edinburgh. By this lady he had a son who died in infancy, and a daughter, who survived to her twenty-first year, the pride of her parents, and adorned with all the accomplishments which belong to her age and sex. Mrs Blair, herself a woman of great good sense and spirit, was also taken from him a few years before his death, after she had shared with the tenderest affection in all his fortunes, and contributed nearly half a century to his happiness and comfort. The latter part of his life was spent in the enjoyment of a degree of public respect which falls to the lot of few men, but which was eminently deserved by him, both on account of his high literary accomplishments, and the singular purity and benevolence of his private character. He latterly was enabled, by the various sources of income which he enjoyed, to set up a carriage; a luxury enjoyed, perhaps, by no predecessor in the Scottish church, and by very few of his successors. He also maintained an elegant hospitality, both at his town and country residences, which were much resorted to by strangers of distinction who happened to visit Edinburgh.

It may be curious to know in what manner those discourses were delivered from the pulpit, which have so highly charmed the world in print. As might be easily supposed, where there was so much merit of one kind, there could scarcely, without a miracle, be any high degree of another and entirely different kind. In truth, the elocution of Dr Blair, though accompanied by a dignified and impressive manner, was not fit to be compared with his powers of composition. His voice was deformed by a peculiarity which I know not how to express by any other term than one almost too homely for modern composition, a burr. He also wanted all that charm which is to be derived from gesticulation, and, upon the whole, might be characterized as a somewhat formal preacher.

In what is called church politics, Dr Blair was a strenuous moderate, but never took an active share in the proceedings of the church. A constitutional delicacy of organization unfitted him for any scene where men have to come into strong and personal collision. In temporal politics, he was a devout admirer of the existing constitution, and a zealous supporter of the tory government which flourished during the greater part of the reign of George III. With Viscount Melville, to whose father he had dedicated his thesis in early youth, he maintained a constant interchange of civilities. At the breaking out of the French revolution, he exerted himself in the most energetic manner to stop the tide of disaffection and irreligion, which at one particular crisis seemed to threaten all existing institutions. He declared in the pulpit that none but a good subject could be a good Christian; an expression so strongly akin to the ancient doctrines of passive obedience and non-resistance, that it can only be excused by the particular circumstances of the time. The mind of Blair was too fastidiously exact and elegant to display any thing of the majestic. Possessing more taste than genius, he never astonished in conversation by any original remark. In company, he made a far less striking appearance than the half-instructed peasant Burns, who, at his first visit to Edinburgh, was warmly patronized by Dr Blair. In some points of view, his mind bore an unprepossessing aspect. He was content to read, and weak enough to admire the wretched fictitious compositions which appeared in that age under the denomination of novels. He would talk profusely of the furniture of the room in which he was sitting, criticising every object with a sincere and well-weighed attention, which would not have been ill-bestowed upon the most solemn subjects. In his dress, and in almost all points of mere externe and ceremonial form, he was minutely fastidious. He was also so fond of the approbation of his fellow-creatures—in moderation, a most useful feature of character—that even very marked flattery was received by him not only without displeasure, but with an obviously keen relish, that said little either for his discrimination or his modesty. Yet, with these less worthy points of character, Blair had no mean moral feelings. He was incapable of envy; spoke liberally and candidly of men whose pursuits and opinions differed from his own, and was seldom betrayed into a severe remark upon any subject unconnected with actual vice.

Though his bodily constitution was by no means robust, yet by habitual temperance and by attention to health, his life was happily prolonged beyond the usual period. For some years he had felt himself unequal to the fatigue of instructing his very large congregation from the pulpit; and under the impression which this feeling produced, he has been heard to say, with a sigh, that, "he was left almost the last of his contemporaries." Such, nevertheless, was the rigour of his mind, that, in 1799, when past the eightieth year of his age, he composed and preached one of the most effective sermons he ever delivered, on behalf of the fund for the benefit of the sons of the clergy. He was also employed during the summer of 1800, in preparing his last volume for the press; and for this purpose, he copied the whole with his own hand. He began the winter, pleased with himself on account of this exertion; and his friends were flattered with the hope that he might live to enjoy the accession of emolument and fame which he expected it would bring. But the seeds of a mortal disease were lurking within him. On the 24th of December, he felt slight pain in his bowels, with which neither he nor his friends were alarmed. On the afternoon of the 26th, this pain increased, and violent symptoms began to appear; the causes of which were then unfortunately unknown both to himself and his physician. He had for a few years laboured under an inguinal hernia. This malady, which he was imprudently disposed to conceal, he considered as trifling; and he understood that by taking the ordinary precautions, nothing was to be apprehended from it. It settled, however, into a stoppage of the bowels, and ere the physician was made aware of his condition, an inflammation had taken place, and he consequently survived only till the morning of the 27th, thus expiring almost at the same time with that century of the Christian epoch, of which he had been one of the most distinguished ornaments. He died in the eighty-third year of his age, and the fifty-ninth of his profession as a minister of the gospel.

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