Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Christie, William (1748-1823)

CHRISTIE, WILLIAM (1748–1823), unitarian writer, one of the earliest apostles of unitarianism in Scotland and America, was a son of Thomas Christie, merchant and provost of Montrose, and uncle of Thomas Christie, political writer [q v.] He was born in 1748 at Montrose, and educated at the grammar school there under his kinsman, Hugh Christie [q. v.] Intended for a commercial life, he was for a few years a merchant at Montrose, but early in life he devoted his leisure to theological study. Educated in the presbyterian faith, he soon became discontented with the doctrines of the church of Scotland, and found himself ‘unable to remain in the communion of a church where a false popish deity was acknowledged in place of the living and only true God the Father’ (Pref. to Discourses on the Divine Unity). He adopted the unitarian doctrines, and had to undergo the social persecution which was the lot of all the very few persons who at that time in Scotland ventured openly to renounce the trinitarian creed. Writing to Dr. Priestley in 1781 he stated that so great was his unpopularity, that he did not suppose any Scottish clergyman would, if requested, baptise his children. By Dr. Priestley's mediation, the Rev. Caleb Rotheram of Kendal visited Montrose at Christie's expense and performed this rite.

About 1782 he, with a few friends of like opinions, founded a unitarian church at Montrose, of which he became the minister. This was the first unitarian congregation established in Scotland. From December 1783 to May 1785 he had as his colleague the well-known Thomas Fyshe Palmer, fellow of Queens' College, Cambridge. In 1784 he published the most popular of his works, ‘Discourses on the Divine Unity.’ It shows a considerable knowledge of the Greek Testament, and of the fathers, critics, and commentators, and was received with much favour by those who were disposed to unitarianism. Second and third editions were soon called for, and a fourth appeared after the author's death. Soon after the publication of the first edition he retired from business, and went to live in great seclusion at Woodston, about six miles from Montrose. In 1794 he accepted the invitation of the unitarian congregation at Glasgow to become their minister. He there delivered the sermons which he afterwards published under the title of ‘Dissertations on the Unity of God,’ and issued proposals for the publication of a series of lectures on the Revelation of St. John, but the project met with no encouragement. He remained at Glasgow little more than a year. Unitarianism and unitarians were extremely unpopular in Scotland, and in August 1795 he followed his friend and correspondent, Dr. Priestley, to America. There he met with ‘difficulties, embarrassments, and unfortunate accidents,’ caused to a considerable extent by his somewhat aggressive unitarianism and the hostile feeling which he thus evoked.

After residing successively at Winchester (Virginia) and Northumberland (Pennsylvania), where he delivered an address at Dr. Priestley's funeral on 9 Feb. 1804, he settled at Philadelphia, where for some time he was the minister of a small unitarian congregation. The latter years of his life were passed in retirement, and were devoted to theological study. He died at Long Branch, New Jersey, on 21 Nov. 1823. Of his eight children three only survived him. His works show him to have been a man of wide reading and of some learning, and the Rev. J. Taylor describes him in the ‘Monthly Repository’ as of ‘inflexible integrity, deep-seated piety, and benevolent feelings.’

His principal works are: 1. ‘Discourses on the Divine Unity, or a Scriptural Proof and Demonstration of the one Supreme Deity of the God and Father of all, and of the subordinate character and inferior nature of our Lord Jesus Christ; with a confutation of the doctrine of a coequal and consubstantial Trinity in Unity, and a full reply to the objections of Trinitarians,’ Montrose, 1784, 1790, London 1810, 1828, sm. 8vo. 2. ‘An Essay on Ecclesiastical Establishments in Religion, showing their Hurtful Tendency. … By a Protestant Dissenter,’ Montrose, 1791, 8vo. 3. ‘A Farewell Discourse to the Society of Unitarian Christians at Montrose,’ Montrose, 1794, 8vo. 4. ‘A Serious Address to the Inhabitants of Winchester on the Unity of God and Humanity of Christ,’ Winchester, Virginia, 1800, 8vo. 5. ‘A Speech delivered at the Grave of the Rev. Joseph Priestley,’ Northumberland, Pennsylvania, 1804, 8vo. 6. ‘Dissertations on the Unity of God,’ Philadelphia, 1810. 7. ‘A Review of Dr. Priestley's Theological Works, appended to the Memoirs of Dr. P.,’ London, 1806–7. 8. ‘Observations on the Prophecies of Daniel’ (this book, announced in the ‘Monthly Repository’ for 1811 as ‘publishing by subscription in 300 pp. 8vo,’ does not seem to have appeared). Christie was also a frequent contributor to the ‘Christian Reformer,’ ‘Monthly Repository,’ ‘Winchester (Va.) Gazette,’ ‘Northumberland (Pa.) Gazette,’ and the ‘Democratic Press’ (Philadelphia).

[Prefaces to Discourses on the Divine Unity, and to Dissertations on the Unity of God; Monthly Repository, vols. vi. xiv. xix.; Christian Reformer, N.S., 1848, vol. iv.; The Inquirer, 1839.]

R. C. C.