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Blair, James (1656-1743) (DNB00)

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BLAIR, JAMES, D.D. (1656–1743), episcopalian divine, was born in Scotland (it is believed in Edinburgh) in 1656. He was educated in ‘one of the Scottish universities,’ but none of the notices of him specifies which it was. He obtained a benefice in the revived episcopal church in Scotland, but where does not appear. He retreated to England before the tempest which threatened the episcopal church after 1679. There, having been introduced to Dr. Compton, bishop of London, he was sent as a missionary to Virginia, where he arrived in 1685. He soon secured the confidence of the provincial government and of the planters, and proved himself far in advance of his contemporaries on the question of slavery. In 1689, when Sir Francis Nicholson was appointed lieutenant-governor of Virginia, Blair was appointed commissary, the highest ecclesiastical office in the province. By this office he had a seat in the council of the colonial government, presided over the trials of clergymen—a strangely mixed class at the period—and pronounced sentence upon conviction of ‘crimes or misdemeanours.’

Being ‘deeply affected with the low state of both learning and religion’ in Virginia, he endeavoured to establish a college, and set on foot a subscription with this object, which, being headed by the lieutenant-governor and his council, soon amounted to 2,500l. The project was warmly supported in the first assembly held by Sir Francis Nicholson in 1691, and was recommended to the sovereigns, William and Mary, in an address prepared for the assembly by Blair, which he was unanimously appointed to present. He accordingly proceeded to England; William and Mary favoured the plan; on 14 Feb. 1692 a charter for the college was granted, the Bishop of London being appointed chancellor and Blair president, and the college was named ‘William and Mary.’ Among the most liberal contributors to the college was Robert Boyle.

On Blair's return to Virginia the opening of the college was repeatedly deferred, although Blair's enthusiasm never waned. In 1705 a destructive fire practically reduced the college buildings to ruins. Under the loyal support of the new lieutenant-governor, Spotiswoode, the edifice was re-erected, and classes were afterwards commenced. But, according to the records of the college, it was not until 1729 that Blair entered formally on the duties of his office as president. Blair was for some time president of the council of Virginia and rector of Williamsburgh.

In 1722 he published his one work: ‘Our Saviour's Divine Sermon on the Mount, contained in the fifth, sixth, and seventh chapters of St. Matthew's Gospel, explained, and the practice of it recommended in divers Sermons and Discourses,’ 4 vols. 8vo. A second edition was published in 1732, under the supervision of Dr. Daniel Waterland, who prefixed a ‘commendatory notice.’

Blair died on 1 Aug. 1743, aged 87. He bequeathed his library to his college. Two portraits of him are preserved in the college, one taken in youth and the other in later life. Bishop Burnet (History of his Own Times) calls him ‘a worthy and good man.’ George Whitefield wrote in his journal for 15 Dec. 1740: ‘Paid my respects to Mr. Blair, commissary of Virginia. His discourse was savoury, such as tended to the use of edifying. He received me with joy, asked me to preach, and wished my stay were longer.'

[Preface to his Sermon on the Mount, lst, 2nd, and 3rd editions; Dr. Miller's Retrospect, ii.; Bishop Burnet’s History of his Own Times; Hawks's Ecclesiastical Contributions; History of Virginia; Dr. Totten MS.; Sprague's Annals of the American Pulpit, v. 7-9.]

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