Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Edgar, John (1798-1866)

EDGAR, JOHN, D.D. (1798–1866), theologian and philanthropist, was born 13 June 1798, at Ballykine, near Ballynahinch, where his father, Samuel Edgar, D.D., was minister in connection with the secession branch of the presbyterian church. Dr. Samuel Edgar afterwards held the chair of divinity of his church. Young Edgar was educated partly at the university of Glasgow and partly at Belfast, and after passing through the usual course of theological study he was in 1820 ordained minister of a small congregation in Belfast that was counted hardly large enough to have a minister of its own. Under Edgar's vigorous ministry the congregation rapidly increased, and soon a new church had to be built four times the size of the first. In 1826 he was called to succeed his father as professor of theology, retaining his congregation till 1848, when an act of assembly against pluralities obliged him to resign it. In 1836 he got the degree of D.D. from Hamilton College, U.S.A., and in 1860 that of LL.D. from the university of New York.

From the beginning of his ministry Edgar threw his energies into the charitable work of the town, and was the means of either founding, or greatly helping, many of its most useful philanthropic institutions. The Destitute Sick Society, the Bible Society, the Town Mission, the Seamen's Mission, the Societies for the Blind and for the Deaf and Dumb, all awakened his interest and received from him very valuable help. But with other societies and movements he was still more closely identified. 1. In 1829 he began to take an active interest in the work of temperance, and for twelve years he was among the most powerful and conspicuous of the public advocates of that cause in Ireland. He began the campaign by opening his dining-room window and pouring into the gutter the remains of a gallon of whisky which he had got for the use of his family. Many men of influence, including the Roman catholic bishop Doyle and Dr. Morgan of Belfast, cordially supported this movement, which spread widely through Ireland. It is to be observed, however, that it pledged the members to abstain only from distilled spirits; and when the teetotal movement began, Edgar, not deeming it to be in harmony with scripture, expressed strong opposition to it. From this time he ceased to take so prominent a part in the advocacy of the temperance cause. 2. He was one of the founders of the Religious Book and Tract Society, by which much was done in his time, and continues to be done still, for the circulation of religious literature, especially in rural districts. 3. Finding that intemperance bred prostitution, he turned his attention very earnestly to the case of fallen women, and procured the erection of a house in Brunswick Street for the reception of those who desired to return to an honest life. This institution proved most useful, and its administration commended itself much to visitors, among the most cordial of whom were Mr. and Mrs. S. C. Hall. 4. When the famine prevailed he was indefatigable in visiting the stricken districts, and used his utmost energies, and with great effect, both at home and in America, to obtain help for the sufferers. 5. He worked very hard too to establish industrial schools in the famine districts, at which girls were taught Irish embroidery, and by which a valuable department of female industry was added to the scanty resources of Irish labour. In other ways he exerted himself for the sufferers, especially by promoting schools in which bible instruction was given to the children of the peasantry, many of whom showed a most eager desire to obtain it. In his zeal for his countrymen, and in order to increase the means of relief, he visited America in 1859, and went from place to place telling of the ravages the famine had caused, and the thirst for scriptural instruction that had arisen in many of the people. He and his coadjutors raised a sum of upwards of 6,000l.

Edgar was an active leader in the presbyterian church. When a union was proposed between the synod of Ulster and the secession synod to which he belonged, he cordially approved of the proposal and zealously promoted it. It was completed in 1840.

At the third meeting of the general assembly of the united church (in 1842) he was elected moderator. During his term of office several important events happened: the bicentenary of the foundation of presbytery in Ireland, the bicentenary of the Westminster Assembly, and the last stage of struggle in the church of Scotland, which ended in the disruption of 1843. In all these he took a lively interest. All the undertakings and operations of the presbyterian church in Ireland interested him greatly, and in particular its home and foreign missions and its church and manse scheme. After being released from the pastoral charge of his congregation he often preached to his people as a labour of love; and latterly, having obtained an old chapel in Academy Street, he conducted a mission service in it for the very poorest of the people.

His philanthropic services were thoroughly appreciated by his townsmen and countrymen generally. In 1848 he was presented with a testimonial, consisting of a polyglot bible and a sum of 800l., in recognition of his unwearied labours. The general assembly of 1844 having decided in favour of having a college of its own, Edgar took an important and successful part in collecting funds for this institution.

As a professor he was not remarkable for learning, nor for the faculties that are adapted to minute theological discussion. He was better fitted to give his students an enthusiasm for the work of the church and to guide them as to methods of doing it. In this respect his work was much appreciated. He wrote no book of any magnitude, but the most important of his pamphlets and addresses were collected in a volume and published under the title ‘Select Works of John Edgar, D.D., LL.D.’ This volume embraces twenty-five pamphlets on temperance, and seventeen on the other philanthropic schemes that engaged his attention. His ‘Cry from Connaught’ was the most pathetic piece he ever wrote, and inaugurated his Connaught mission. He died in 1866, in his sixty-eighth year.

[Killen's Memoir of John Edgar, D.D., LL.D., 1867; private information.]

W. G. B.