Open main menu


PORTER, JOHN SCOTT (1801–1880), Irish biblical scholar and unitarian divine, eldest son of William Porter (1774–1843), by his first wife, Mary, daughter of Charles Scott, was born at Newtownlimavady, co. Derry, on 31 Dec. 1801. His father, who was presbyterian minister of Newtownlimavady from 1799 till his death, held the clerkship of the general synod of Ulster from 6 Nov. 1816 to 29 June 1830; he joined the remonstrants under Henry Montgomery, LL.D. [q. v.], was elected the first moderator of the remonstrant synod of Ulster on 25 May 1830, and held its clerkship from 6 Sept. 1831 till his death. Scott Porter, after passing through schools at Dirtagh and Londonderry, was admitted as a student for the ministry under the care of Strabane presbytery. He took his arts course at the Belfast ‘academical institution’ in 1817–19 and 1821–3, acting in the interim as tutor in a private family in co. Kilkenny. He received silver medals for mathematics, natural philosophy, and for ‘speaking Greek extempore.’ In 1823–5 he studied Hebrew and divinity under Thomas Dix Hincks, LL.D. [q. v.], and Samuel Hanna, D.D. [q. v.] He was licensed in October 1825 by Bangor presbytery without subscription. On 1 Jan. 1826 he received a unanimous call from the presbyterian congregation in Carter Lane, Doctors' Commons, London, and was ordained there on 2 March, in succession to John Hoppus [q. v.] His views were Arian, and he became the editor (1826–8) of an Arian monthly, the ‘Christian Moderator;’ but he was in friendly relations with Thomas Belsham [q. v.], the leader of the Priestley school of opinion, and acted as a pall-bearer at Belsham's funeral in 1829. He kept a school at Rosoman House, Islington, in conjunction with David Davidson, minister at the Old Jewry; his scholars called him ‘the lion;’ among his pupils was Dion Boucicault the dramatist (who then spelled his name Boursiquot). In January 1829 he declined a call to the second presbyterian church of Belfast, to which his cousin, John Porter (1800–1874), was appointed. He accepted a call (11 Sept. 1831) to the first presbyterian church of Belfast, and was installed on 2 Feb. 1832 by Antrim presbytery as successor to William Bruce (1757–1841) [q. v.], and colleague to William Bruce (1790–1868) [q. v.] His ministry at Belfast was one of high reputation and success, both as a pastor and a polemic. His pulpit and platform appeals were marked by a masculine eloquence, and, though very uncompromising in his opinions, his straightforward advocacy of them won the respect and even the friendship of opponents. He had not been long in Belfast when he engaged in a public discussion (14–17 April 1834) on the unitarian controversy with Daniel Bagot (d. 9 June 1891), afterwards dean of Dromore; the arguments on both sides were issued in a joint publication; Porter's friends made him a presentation of nearly 1,000l.

From 1832 he had lectured on biblical subjects to divinity students, and on 10 July 1838 he was appointed, in conjunction with Henry Montgomery, professor of theology to the ‘association of Irish non-subscribing presbyterians,’ his departments being biblical criticism and dogmatics. The chair was endowed by government in 1847 with a salary of 150l. On 16 July 1851 he was appointed in addition (without increase of salary) professor of Hebrew and cognate languages. For many years he taught classics to private pupils. In 1848 he published his contribution to textual criticism, on the lines of Griesbach and Hug; noted by Gregory and Abbot (Prolegomena to Tischendorf's Nov. Test., 1884, p. 269) as the indication of an improved era in British textual studies. A useful feature of the work was its series of coloured plates, draughted by Porter himself, and exhibiting specimens of codices in facsimile. He contributed revised translations of Kings, Chronicles, Ezekiel, and Daniel to an edition of ‘The Holy Scriptures of the Old Covenant’ issued by Longmans, 1859–1862, 8vo. A later fruit of his academic work was his defence (1876) of the authenticity of St. John's Gospel.

Among public measures he was an early and consistent supporter of the Irish system of ‘national’ education, and an organiser of the ‘Ulster national education association.’ Though a recipient of ‘regium donum,’ he welcomed the policy of disestablishment. In politics, as such, he took no part, but was always to the front in local schemes of philanthropy and culture. He had collected an enormous library, and was well read in a wide range of literature. His linguistic attainments were both extensive and accurate; he was greatly interested in efforts to preserve the Irish language.

Of the liberal theology advocated by Henry Montgomery, Scott Porter was the ablest exponent. His later theological controversies were internal to his own denomination. He led a secession from the Antrim presbytery (of which he had been clerk from 7 May 1834), and founded (21 Feb. 1862) the northern presbytery of Antrim, with the purpose of emphasising a recognition of the authority of Christ and of divine revelation (the two presbyteries were reunited on 7 Nov. 1894). On the same grounds he withdrew, with a large majority, from the local ‘unitarian society,’ and formed (December 1876) the ‘Ulster unitarian christian association.’ Yet in biblical science he was by no means conservative; the publications of Colenso he welcomed as sound in principle, and followed Priestley in maintaining the presence of an unhistorical element in the initial chapters of St. Matthew and St. Luke.

Personally he was a man of broad and genial nature, of strong feelings easily roused, capable of passion, but incapable of malice; in society a most genial and warm-hearted companion, rich in anecdote, fond of music, and capable of singing a good song. His somewhat gaunt figure was dignified by a striking countenance, mellowed in old age, and graced with a profusion of snow-white hair and beard. He preached for the last time (at Larne, co. Antrim) on 18 Aug. 1878, and died, after long illness, at his residence, Lennox Vale, Belfast, on 5 July 1880; he was buried on 8 July in the Borough cemetery, Belfast, where an Irish cross of black marble is erected to his memory. A memorial tablet is in his church. His portrait, painted (1873) by Ebenezer Crawford, has been engraved (1880); there are two earlier engraved likenesses of him. He married, on 8 Oct. 1833, Margaret (d. 7 April 1879, aged 66), eldest daughter of Andrew Marshall, M.D.; his eldest son, Andrew Marshall Porter, was master of the rolls in Ireland from 1883 to 1906.

A list of his thirty-eight publications, including single sermons, is appended to his ‘Memorial.’ Of these the most important are: 1. ‘Authentic Report of the Discussion on the Unitarian Controversy,’ &c., Belfast, 1834, 8vo; reached a fourth edition. 2. ‘Twelve Lectures in Illustration … of Unitarianism,’ &c., Belfast, 1841, 8vo; 2nd edit., London, 1853, 8vo. 3. ‘Principles of Textual Criticism, with their application to the Old and New Testaments,’ &c., 1848, 8vo. 4. ‘Servetus and Calvin: Three Lectures,’ &c., 1854, 8vo (contains the best historical account of Servetus, to date). 5. ‘Bible Revision: Three Lectures,’ &c., 1857, 8vo. 6. ‘Lectures on the Doctrine of Atonement,’ &c., 1860, 8vo. 7. ‘The National System and the National Board,’ &c., 1864, 8vo (anon.). 8. ‘Is the “National” or the “Denominational” System of Education the best?’ &c., 1868, 8vo. 9. ‘The Fourth Gospel is the Gospel according to John,’ &c., 1876, 8vo. He contributed to the ‘Bible Christian’ (which for a time he edited), ‘Irish Unitarian Magazine,’ ‘Christian Reformer,’ ‘Christian Unitarian,’ ‘Ulster Journal of Archæology,’ and other periodicals.

William Porter (1805–1880), younger brother of the above, was born at Artikelly, near Newtownlimavady, on 15 Sept. 1805. He served his time with John Classon, ironfounder and timber merchant of Dublin, brother of his father's second wife, but subsequently studied law in Dublin and London, and was called to the Irish bar at Michaelmas 1831. In January 1839 he was appointed attorney-general at the Cape of Good Hope, an office which he filled with great distinction till 31 Aug. 1865. On his retirement full salary for life was voted to him by special resolution of the house of assembly; he devoted the larger half of it to the endowment of the university of the Cape of Good Hope, of which he was elected the first chancellor in 1873. On 30 Nov. 1872 he was made companion of the order of St. Michael and St. George. He declined a knighthood, and refused several judgeships, including a chief-justiceship at the Cape; he declined also the post of prime minister at the Cape. Returning to Ireland in 1873, he lived with his elder brother, and died, unmarried, at Lennox Vale, Belfast, on 13 July 1880; he was buried at the Borough cemetery, Belfast, on 16 July. Among his literary contributions are twelve remarkable articles on ‘preachers and preaching’ in the ‘Bible Christian,’ 1834–1835. His published speeches were often of singular beauty; an extract from one of them is given in Sir Theodore Martin's ‘Life of the Prince Consort,’ v. 234.

Classon Emmett Porter (1814–1885), half-brother of the above, born at Artikelly in 1814, was the eldest son of William Porter by his second wife, Eliza, daughter of John Classon of Dublin. He was educated (1828–1834) at Manchester College, York, and ordained (2 July 1834) by Antrim presbytery as minister of the first presbyterian church, Larne, co. Antrim, a charge which he held till his death, though he retired from active duty in July 1875. He died at his residence, Ballygally Castle, co. Antrim, on 27 May 1885, and was buried in the parish churchyard of Cairncastle, co. Antrim. He left a widow and several sons. Latterly he disused his second name. His contributions to Irish presbyterian church history and biography were numerous and important, but have not been collected; they appeared at intervals in the ‘Northern Whig,’ ‘Larne Reporter,’ ‘Christian Unitarian,’ and ‘Disciple;’ a few were reprinted for private circulation, and a volume of ‘Irish Presbyterian Biographical Sketches,’ Belfast, 1883, 4to, was reprinted from the ‘Northern Whig.’ His younger brother, James Nixon Porter, educated (1833–1838) at Manchester College, York, was minister at Carrickfergus, co. Antrim (1838–62), and Warrington, Lancashire (1862–72), and died in 1875. He married a sister of the Right Hon. Sir James Stansfeld, G.C.B., and left issue. His youngest brother, Francis, died at Capetown on 28 Feb. 1886.

[Memorial of Rev. John Scott Porter and the Hon. William Porter, 1880; Christian Life, 30 May and 6 June 1885, pp. 266, 278; Historical Sketch of First Presb. Congr., Larne, 1889, pp. 20 seq.; Nightingale's Lancashire Nonconformity (1892), iv. 225; Roll of Students, Manchester College, 1868.]

A. G.