Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Geddes, Alexander
GEDDES, ALEXANDER, LL.D. (1737–1802), biblical critic, born in 1737, was son of Alexander Geddes, a small farmer at Arradowl, in the parish of Ruthven, Banffshire, Scotland, by his wife, Janet Mitchel. His parents were Roman catholics, and the principal book in their scanty library was the ‘authorised’ version of the English bible, which he read ‘with reverence and attention,’ after attending the village school. Before his eleventh year he knew all bible history by heart. Afterwards he studied, together with his brother John [q. v.], subsequently a catholic bishop, under a tutor named Sheares. In 1751 he entered the catholic ecclesiastical seminary at Scalan in the highlands. There he acquired a knowledge of the Vulgate, but it was not till 1762 that he began to read the bible in the original languages. When twenty-one (1758) he was removed to the Scotch College at Paris, and attended lectures at the college of Navarre. He studied rhetoric with great success under Vicaire. In 1759 he attended the theological lectures of Buré and De Saurent in the college of Navarre, and those on Hebrew delivered at the Sorbonne by L'Avocat, professor of the newly founded Orleans chair. He devoted some attention to natural and experimental philosophy. Having reluctantly refused the proposal of Professor L'Avocat to settle in Paris and take work at the university, he returned to Scotland in 1764, and was ordered to Dundee to officiate as priest among the catholics of the county of Angus.
In May 1765 the Earl of Traquair invited him to reside in his house in Tweeddale. He was now able to devote all his time to biblical and philological studies, and to carry out the plan conceived at an early age of preparing a new version of the holy scriptures for Scottish catholics. After nearly two years in this peaceful retreat, he fell in love with a female relative of his patron, and in view of his sacerdotal vows deemed it his duty to beat a retreat, ‘leaving behind him a little poem addressed to the lady, entitled “The Confessional”’ (Good, Life of Dr. Geddes, p. 30).
After eight or nine months at Paris in a perturbed state of mind, he returned to Scotland in the spring of 1769 and accepted the charge of a catholic congregation at Auchinhalrig, Banffshire. For a time he gave much satisfaction, frequently discharging the double duty of the neighbouring mission at Preshome, and obtaining popularity as a preacher. His ultimate want of success was in great part attributable to money difficulties. He speculated in house property at considerable loss, and built a part of the present chapel at Tynet, on the eastern side of the park at Gordon Castle, leaving to his successor the task of completing it. In 1779 he published ‘Select Satires of Horace, translated into English verse, and for the most part adapted to the present times and manners,’ London, 4to. These happy imitations of Horace in Hudibrastic verse, praised by Dr. Robertson, Dr. Reid, and Dr. Beattie, of Aberdeen, established his literary reputation. Unfortunately he criticised some of Bishop Hay's recent acts which had been adopted by the administrators of the mission fund. Disputes followed; the bishop displayed undue severity. Geddes was irritable and unconciliatory. The result was an open rupture. At the close of 1779 it had been amicably arranged that Geddes should leave the mission. In February 1780 Bishop Hay expressed a desire to see him at Aberdeen on his way south, in the hope of making a satisfactory pecuniary settlement. On the very Sunday in Eastertide that the bishop was spending in the Enzie, Geddes was imprudent enough to accompany a small party of friends to hear a sermon preached by the presbyterian minister of Banff. The news spread to Aberdeen. Bishop Hay had an interview with Geddes. On 8 May 1780 he reprimanded him by letter for having attended the protestant service, and for having scandalised the catholics by hunting, contrary to the canons of the church; he finally threatened to suspend him a divinis. Eventually towards the end of the year the bishop gave Geddes ‘dimissorials,’ and he was thus enabled to seek more congenial employment. His literary ability had by this time become appreciated in the north, and in 1780 the university of Aberdeen conferred on him the degree of LL.D. He was also unanimously elected a corresponding member of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, which he had actively helped to establish. During his residence at Auchinhalrig he mitigated, by his liberality of sentiment, the rancour which had subsisted between his own congregation and their protestant neighbours, for ‘he could ridicule the infallibility of the pope, and laugh at images and relics, at rosaries, scapulars, agnus Deis, blessed medals, indulgences, obits, and dirges, as much as the most inveterate protestant in his neighbourhood’ (Good, p. 36).
On coming to London he officiated as priest in the imperial ambassador's chapel; formed an acquaintance with many eminent scholars, and was introduced to Lord Petre. The latter admitted him to close intimacy, allowed him an annual salary of 200l., and provided him with the books needed to carry out his scheme of translating the bible. The first imperfect sketch of his undertaking was published in 1780 under the title of an ‘Idea of a New Version of the Holy Bible, for the use of the English Catholics.’ It was then his intention to translate from the Vulgate, and to make the Douay version, with Bishop Challoner's amendments, in some respects the basis of his own; but he soon abandoned this plan. At the close of 1780 the imperial chapel at which he had officiated was suppressed by the emperor Joseph II. He preached, however, occasionally at the chapel in Duke Street (now Sardinia Street), Lincoln's Inn Fields, till the Easter holidays of 1782, after which period he gave up all ministerial functions and seldom officiated. In 1783 he was introduced to Dr. Kennicott, who urged him to proceed with his biblical design, and also to Dr. Lowth, bishop of London, by whose advice he published a ‘Prospectus of a New Translation of the Holy Bible, from corrected Texts of the Originals, compared with ancient versions; with various readings, explanatory notes, and critical observations,’ London, 1786, 4to, with a dedication to Lord Petre. To this he added an appendix, entitled ‘A Letter to the … Bishop of London: containing Queries, Doubts, and Difficulties relative to a Vernacular Version of the Holy Scriptures,’ London, 1787, 4to. After this he published several pamphlets on contemporary topics. In 1788 appeared his ‘Proposals for printing by subscription a New Translation of the Bible, from corrected texts of the original; with various readings, explanatory notes, and critical observations,’ London, 4to. In this he solicited the suggestions of scholars, and he received so many that in July 1790 he published ‘Dr. Geddes' General Answer to the Queries, Counsels, and Criticisms that have been communicated to him since the publication of his Proposals for printing a New Translation of the Bible.’ He adopted very few suggestions, but liberally expressed his obligations to their authors. His catholic brethren already doubted his orthodoxy, and regarded him with marked suspicion and distrust. Among the 343 subscribers to the projected work very few were members of the Roman church.
The first volume of the translation appeared under the title of ‘The Holy Bible, or the Books accounted Sacred by Jews and Christians, otherwise called the Books of the Old and New Covenants, faithfully translated from the corrected Text of the Original; with various readings, explanatory notes, and critical remarks,’ London, 1792, 4to; and a second volume appeared in 1797. These volumes include the historical books from Genesis to Chronicles, and the book of Ruth. In the notes, and in a subsequent volume of ‘Critical Remarks,’ Geddes absolutely denied the doctrine of the divine inspiration of the sacred writings, rejected contemptuously opinions universally received and respected by the catholic church, and generally adopted the German methods of rationalising the narrative of the Old Testament. Dr. Van Mildert, in his ‘Boyle Lectures,’ remarks that ‘Geddes applied the whole weight of his learning and talents to an artful attack upon the divine authority of the scriptures,’ and that he treated them as ‘curious remains of antiquity.’ In his ‘Critical Remarks’ he attacked the credit of Moses as an historian, a legislator, and a moralist. Even Dr. Priestley seemed to doubt whether ‘such a man as Geddes, who believed so little, and who conceded so much, could be a Christian.’
Soon after the first volume of his translation appeared, an ecclesiastical interdict, signed by Drs. Walmesley, Gibson, and Douglass, as vicars apostolic of the western, northern, and London districts, was published, in which Geddes's work was prohibited to the faithful. Against this prohibition, which Bishop Thomas Talbot refused to subscribe, Geddes published a remonstrance, but he was suspended from all ecclesiastical functions. The only addition to his labours on the ‘New Version’ after the appearance of the ‘Critical Remarks’ was a translation of a portion of the book of Psalms. He died on 26 Feb. 1802, having on the previous day received absolution from Dr. St. Martin, a French priest, who, however, said afterwards that he could not with certainty affirm that he perceived the least disposition in Geddes to recant (Good, p. 525). Public mass for the deceased was prohibited by an express interdict of Bishop Douglass. Geddes was buried in Paddington churchyard, in the New Road, Marylebone, where a monument was erected to his memory in 1804 by Lord Petre, inscribed with the following sentences extracted by his own desire from his works: <poem. Christian is my name, and Catholic my surname. I grant, that you are a Christian, as well as I; And embrace you, as my fellow disciple in Jesus: And, if you are not a disciple of Jesus, Still I would embrace you, as my fellow man. </poem> Charles Butler, who, with other members of the catholic committee, remained throughout the doctor's friend, says of his translation of the bible: ‘The frequent levity of his expressions was certainly very repugnant, not only to the rules of religion, but to good sense. This fault he carried, in a still greater degree, into his conversation. It gave general offence; but those who knew him, while they blamed his aberrations, did justice to his learning, to his friendly heart, and guileless simplicity. Most unjustly has he been termed an infidel. He professed himself a trinitarian, a believer in the resurrection, in the divine origin and divine mission of Christ, in support of which he published a small tract. He also professed to believe what he termed the leading and unadulterated tenets of the Roman catholic church. From her, however scanty his creed might be, he did not so far recede as was generally thought. The estrangement of his brethren from him was most painful to his feelings’ (Hist. Memoirs, 3rd edit. iv. 481).
An engraved portrait of Geddes is prefixed to the eulogistic ‘Memoirs’ of his life and writings, by his friend, John Mason Good, London, 1803, 8vo.
In addition to the works already enumerated, he wrote: 1. ‘Linton: a Tweeddale Pastoral,’ Edinburgh, 8vo. 2. ‘Cursory Remarks on a late fanatical publication, entitled “A Full Detection of Popery,”’ London, 1783, 8vo. 3. ‘Letter to the Rev. Dr. Priestley, in which the Author attempts to prove, by one prescriptive argument, that the Divinity of Jesus Christ was a primitive tenet of Christianity,’ London, 1787, 8vo. 4. ‘Letter to a Member of Parliament on the Case of the Protestant Dissenters; and the expediency of a general Repeal of all Penal Statutes that regard religious opinions,’ London, 1787, 4to. 5. ‘An Answer to the Bishop of Comana's Pastoral Letter, by a Protestant Catholic,’ 1790, 8vo. This was elicited by the famous pastoral of Bishop Matthew Gibson (1734–1790) [q. v.] 6. ‘A Letter to the Archbishop and Bishops of England, pointing out the only sure means of preserving the Church from the Evils which now threaten her. By an Upper-Graduate,’ 1790, 8vo. 7. ‘Epistola Macaronica ad fratrem, de iis quæ gesta sunt in nupero Dissentientium Conventu,’ London, 1790, 4to. One of the happiest attempts extant in the macaronic style. An English version for the use of ladies and country gentlemen was published by the author in the same year. 8. ‘Carmen seculare pro Gallica Gente tyrannidi aristocraticæ erepta. … A Secular Ode on the French Revolution,’ London and Paris, 1790, 4to. 9. ‘The First Book of the Iliad of Homer, verbally rendered into English verse; with critical annotations,’ 1792, 8vo. 10. ‘An Apology for Slavery,’ 1792, 8vo. An ironical essay. 11. ‘L'Avocat du Diable: the Devil's Advocate,’ 1792, 4to, in verse. 12. ‘Dr. Geddes' Address to the Public, on the publication of the first volume of his New Translation of the Bible,’ London, 1793, 4to. 13. ‘A Norfolk Tale, or a Journal from London to Norwich,’ 1794, 4to. 14. ‘Ode to the Hon. Thomas Pelham, occasioned by his Speech in the Irish House of Commons on the Catholic Bill,’ 1795, 4to. 15. ‘A Sermon preached before the University of Cambridge, by H. W. C[oulthurst], D.D., &c.; in doggrel rhymes,’ 1796, 4to. Dr. Coulthurst had published ‘The Evils of Disobedience and Luxury,’ 1796. 16. ‘The Battle of B[a]ng[o]r, or the Church Triumphant. A Comic-Heroic Poem,’ 1797, 8vo. 17. ‘A New Year's Gift to the Good People of England; being a Sermon, or something like a Sermon, in defence of the present War,’ 1798, 8vo. 18. ‘A Sermon preached on the day of the General Fast, 27 Feb. 1799, by Theomophilus Brown,’ 1799, 8vo. 19. ‘A Modest Apology for the Roman Catholics of Great Britain,’ 1800, 8vo. 20. ‘Critical Remarks on the Hebrew Scriptures, corresponding with a New Translation of the Bible; containing Remarks on the Pentateuch,’ vol. i. London, 1800, 4to (no more published). 21. ‘Bardomachia; Poema Macaronico-Latinum,’ London, 1800, 4to, and also an English translation. The subject of this piece is a celebrated battle between two rival bards in a bookseller's shop. 22. ‘A New Translation of the Book of Psalms, from the original Hebrew; with various readings and notes,’ London, 1807, 8vo, edited by John Disney, D.D., and Charles Butler. Geddes's translation extends only to Psalm cviii., the remainder being taken from an interleaved copy of Bishop Wilson's Bible, corrected by Geddes.[Memoirs by Good; Husenbeth's Life of Bishop Milnes, pp. 127, 397. 475; Buckley's Life of O'Leary, p. 363; Evans's Cat. of Engraved Portraits, No. 16218; Michel's Les Ecossais en France, ii. 251; Notes and Queries, 3rd ser. i. 374, iii. 21, 67; British Critic, vols. iv. xiv. xix. xx.; Cotton's Rhemes and Doway, p. 405; Georgian Era, iii. 555; Gent. Mag. lxxii. 492, lxxiii. 511; Gillow's Bibl. Dict.; Cotton's Editions of the Bible in English, pp. 105, 107, 219, 222, 238; Stothert's Life of Bishop Hay, pp. 69, 185–91, 251, 287; Edinburgh Review, iii. 374; Horne's Introd. to the Holy Scriptures, 9th edit. v. 309, 324.]