Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Purves, James

PURVES, JAMES (1734–1795), Scottish sectary, was born at Blackadder, near Edington (he writes it ‘Identown’), Berwickshire, on 23 Sept. 1734. His father, a shepherd, died in 1754. On 1 Dec. 1755 he was admitted to membership in a religious society at Chirnside, Berwickshire. This was one of several ‘fellowship societies’ formed by James Fraser (1639–1699) [q. v.] They had joined the ‘reformed presbytery’ in 1743, but separated from it in 1753, as holders of the doctrine that our Lord made atonement for all mankind; and were without a stated ministry [see Macmillan, John]. Purves in 1756 bound himself apprentice to his uncle, a wright in Dunse, Berwickshire. He read Isaac Watts's ‘Dissertation on the Logos,’ 1726, and adopted the doctrine of the pre-existence of the human soul of Christ. In 1763 the Berwickshire societies sent him as their commissioner to Coleraine, co. Derry, to consult with a branch of the Irish secession church holding similar doctrines. A minute expressing concurrence of doctrine was signed at Coleraine by John Hopkins, Samuel Lind, and Purves. In 1769 the Berwickshire societies, who were declining in numbers, resolved to qualify one of their members as a public preacher. Three candidates delivered trial discourses on 8 June 1769; one of these withdrew from membership: of the remaining two, Purves was selected by lot (27 July), and sent to Glasgow College. Here, though his previous education had been slight, he managed to gain some Latin, and enough Greek and Hebrew to read the scriptures in the originals, a great point with his friends, who looked to this as a means of settling their doctrinal views. In 1771 a statement of principles drawn up by Purves was adopted by the societies. Its theology was high Arian, but its distinctive position was the duty of free inquiry into the scriptures, unbiassed by creed. This document led to a controversy with ministers of the ‘reformed presbytery.’

In 1776 several members of the Berwickshire societies, headed by Alexander Forton or Fortune, migrated to Edinburgh and established a religious society, calling themselves ‘successors of the remnant who testified against the revolution constitution.’ Purves joined them on their invitation; he supported himself by teaching a school; on 15 Nov. 1776 he was elected pastor. The site of his school at ‘Broughton, near Edinburgh,’ where also worship was conducted, is now occupied by St. Paul's episcopal chapel, York Place, Edinburgh. In 1777 he removed his residence to Wright's Houses, Bruntsfield Links, Edinburgh. He became intimate with Thomas Fyshe Palmer [q. v.] in 1786, and shared his political aspirations, but controverted his theological positions. In 1792 the worship of the society, in the Barbers' Hall, Edinburgh, was made public, the name ‘universalist dissenters’ was adopted, and a declaration of opinions was issued. From 1793 the reading of scripture lessons was made a part of the public services, a practice not then common in Scotland; members were at the same time encouraged to deliver public exhortations, preliminary to the minister's discourse. Purves was not an attractive preacher, and his congregations were very small; but he preached thrice every Sunday, and advocated his views with considerable ability through the press. His earlier tracts were printed with his own hand, and he even cast the Hebrew type for them. He advocated in 1790 the doctrine of the pre-existence of souls, and was a strong believer in the millennium and its near approach. His last work, finished just before his death, was a criticism of deism, in reply to Paine. For many years he suffered severely from asthma. Zealous in support of his convictions, he won the respect of opponents; nothing ruffled the cheerful calm of his temper. In the autumn of 1794 he ceased to preach. He died on 1 Feb. 1795 (manuscript records; Holland says 15 Feb.), and was buried in the Calton cemetery. His grave was in a portion of the cemetery removed in the construction of Regent Road. He married, first, Isobel Blair, by whom he had a daughter Elizabeth (1766–1839), married to Hamilton Dunn; secondly, Sarah Brown, by whom he had a daughter Margaret, married to John Crichton; and, thirdly, Lilias Scott, by whom he had a daughter Mary, who married, in 1801, William Paul, and settled in Boston, Massachusetts. His widow kept a bookseller's shop in St. Patrick's Square, Edinburgh, and subsequently removed to America. His congregation was without a minister till the appointment (November 1812) of Thomas Southwood Smith, M.D. [q. v.]; it now meets in St. Mark's Chapel, Castle Terrace, Edinburgh.

Purves published:

  1. ‘A Short Abstract of the Principles … of the United Societies in Scotland. … By the said Societies,’ &c., no place or printer 1771, 12mo.
  2. ‘An Inquiry into the Institution and End of Civil Government,’ &c., no place or printer, 1775, 12mo.
  3. ‘Observations on Prophetic Time and Similitudes,’ &c., Edinburgh, pt. i. 1777, 16mo; pt. ii. no place, 1778, 16mo.
  4. ‘Observations on the Conduct of … the Reformed Presbytery,’ &c., Edinburgh, 1778, 8vo; this includes ‘A Short Letter to Mr. Fairly’ (24 April 1772), ‘An Extract from a Letter to Mr. Thorburn’ (July 1777), and ‘A Copy of the Letter sent to Mr. John M'Millan’ (24 Oct. 1777, by Alexander Forton).
  5. ‘The Original Text and a Translation of the Forty-sixth Psalm, with Annotations,’ &c., Edinburgh, 1779, 16mo.
  6. ‘A Hebrew Grammar without Points,’ &c., Edinburgh, 1779, 16mo (meanly printed, but a superior piece of work, and shows teaching power).
  7. ‘An Essay toward a … Translation of some parts of the Hebrew Scriptures,’ &c., Edinburgh, 1780, 16mo (anon.; three numbers issued).
  8. ‘An Humble Attempt to investigate … the Scripture Doctrine concerning the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,’ &c., 2nd edit. Edinburgh and London, 1784, 12mo.
  9. ‘Eight Letters between the Buchanites and a Teacher near Edinburgh,’ &c., Edinburgh, 1785, 8vo.
  10. ‘A Scheme of the Lives of the Patriarchs,’ 1785 (not seen).
  11. ‘Concise Catechism with Scripture Answers,’ &c., Edinburgh, 1787, 12mo (anon.).
  12. ‘An Humble Enquiry into Faith and Regeneration,’ &c., Edinburgh, 1788, 12mo.
  13. ‘A Dissertation on the Seals, the Trumpets, and the Vials … in the Book of Revelation,’ &c., Edinburgh, 1788, 16mo.
  14. ‘A Letter to Mr. John Dick,’ &c., Berwick, 1788, 16mo (anon.; criticises a sermon by John Dick, D.D. [q. v.], on the case of William M'Gill, D.D. [q. v.]).
  15. ‘Observations on the Visions of the Apostle John,’ &c., Edinburgh, vol. i. 1789, 16mo (maps); vol. ii. 1793, 16mo (plans).
  16. ‘Some Observations on Socinian Arguments,’ &c., Edinburgh, 1790, 12mo.
  17. ‘A Treatise on Civil Government,’ &c., Edinburgh, 1791, 12mo (quite distinct from No. 2, and dealing with the politics of the day in a spirit of strong sympathy with the French revolution; hence the writer's name is given on the title-page in the disguised form ‘Sevrup Semaj’).
  18. ‘A Declaration of the Religious Opinions of the Universalist Dissenters,’ Edinburgh, 1792, 12mo.
  19. ‘A Short Representation of Religious Principles,’ &c. [1793?], 12mo.

Posthumous were:

  1. ‘A Review of the Age of Reason,’ &c., Edinburgh, 1795, 12mo, pt. i. (the second part was never written).
  2. ‘An Enquiry concerning … Sacrifices … added, A Letter to T. F. Palmer, B.D., on the State of the Dead,’ &c., Edinburgh, 1797, 12mo.

Interspersed among his writings are some religious poems and hymns, of no special merit.

[Monthly Repository, 1812, pp. 348 seq. (communication by R. W., i.e. Richard Wright); Memoir (partly autobiographical) by T. C. H. (i.e. Thomas Crompton Holland) in Monthly Repository, 1820, pp. 77 seq.; Nonsubscriber, February 1862, pp. 17 seq. (article by R. B. D., i.e. Robert Blackley Drummond); Extracts from manuscript records of St. Mark's, Edinburgh, per the Rev. R. B. Drummond; information from Hamilton Dunn, esq., Liverpool.]

A. G.