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Robertson, William (1705-1783) (DNB00)


ROBERTSON, WILLIAM, D.D. (1705–1783), theological writer, was born in Dublin on 16 Oct. 1705. His father was a linen manufacturer, of Scottish birth, who had married in England Diana Allen, ‘descended from a very reputable family in the diocese of Durham.’ In 1717 he went to school at Dublin under Francis Hutcheson (1694–1746) [q. v.], the philosopher, whom he describes as his ‘ever honoured master.’ On 4 March 1723 he matriculated at Glasgow University, graduated M.A. on 29 April 1724, and studied divinity under John Simson [q. v.]

In 1725 came a crisis in a long-standing dispute between the Glasgow students and John Stirling [q. v.], the principal. Stirling had appointed Hugh Montgomery of Hartfield as rector, ignoring the students' right to elect. Robertson and William Campbell of Mamore (younger brother of John Campbell, afterwards fourth duke of Argyll) presented to Stirling a petition signed by some sixty students, demanding a university meeting for 1 March to elect a rector according to the statute. On its rejection, the petitioners went in a body on 1 March to Montgomery's house, when Robertson read a protest against his authority. He was cited before the senatus, and after some days' trial was expelled from the university on 4 March. He at once went to London for redress, applying himself to John Campbell, second duke of Argyll [q. v.], who referred him to his younger brother, Archibald, afterwards third duke [q. v.], then earl of Islay. Islay obtained a royal commission (appointed 31 Aug. 1726), which visited the university of Glasgow, rescinded (4 Oct. 1726) the act expelling Robertson, restored the students' right of electing the rector, and recovered the right of the university to nominate the Snell exhibitioners at Balliol College, Oxford. The commission concluded its work by issuing (19 Sept. 1727) an act for the regulation of the university.

Islay introduced Robertson to Benjamin Hoadly (1676–1761) [q. v.], and Hoadly introduced him to Wake, archbishop of Canterbury, and to Josiah Hort [q. v.], then bishop of Ferns and Leighlin, who introduced him to the lord chancellor, Peter King, first lord King [q. v.] Under these influences he forsook presbyterianism, and prepared to take Anglican orders. He attended some of the Gresham lectures, and made good use of public libraries. Towards the end of 1727 he went to Ireland with John Hoadly [q. v.], the newly appointed bishop of Ferns and Leighlin. Wake recommended him to Timothy Goodwin [q. v.], archbishop of Cashel. He was ordained deacon by John Hoadly on 14 Jan. 1728, and appointed curate of Tullow, co. Carlow. On 10 Nov. 1729 he was ordained priest, and was presented (11 Nov.) by Carteret, the lord lieutenant, to the rectories of Rathvilly, co. Carlow, and Kilranelagh, co. Wicklow.

In 1738 he obtained in addition the vicarages of Rathmore and Straboe, and the perpetual curacy of Rahil, co. Carlow. His income from his five livings was not above 200l. a year, owing to his inability to collect the tithe of agistment (pasturage for dry cattle). He published ‘A Scheme for utterly abolishing the present heavy and vexatious Tax of Tithe,’ which went through several editions; his proposal was to commute the tithe into a land tax. This pamphlet attracted the attention of Charles, eighth baron Cathcart, governor of Londonderry (d. 20 Dec. 1740), who in 1739, though he had never met Robertson, appointed him his chaplain, an honour which was continued to him by his son Charles Cathcart, ninth baron Cathcart [q. v.] In 1743 Robertson went to live in Dublin for the sake of his children's education. Here he acted as curate of St. Luke's. In conjunction with Kane Percival, curate of St. Michan's, he originated a fund for the benefit of widows and orphans of clergy in the Dublin diocese. He returned to Rathvilly in 1748.

In October 1759 he fell in with the ‘Free and Candid Disquisitions’ published anonymously in 1749 by John Jones (1700–1770) [q. v.]; after perusing it he felt that he could not renew his declaration of assent and consent to the contents of the prayer-book. At this juncture his bishop, Richard Robinson, baron Rokeby [q. v.], offered him the rectories of Tullowmoy and Ballyquillane, Queen's County. He declined them in a remarkable letter (15 Jan. 1760). Thenceforth he ceased to read the Athanasian creed, and omitted some other parts of the public services. Such procedure gave offence, and Robertson resigned his benefices in 1764; his honorary chaplaincy to Cathcart he retained. In 1766 he published anonymously an able little book, ‘An Attempt to explain the Words, Reason, Substance.’ This was written earlier. He describes himself as ‘a presbyter of the church of England,’ says nothing of his resignation but only of his refusal of further preferment, and propounds the plan of a comprehensive establishment, based on a subscription to the Bible only, and with a service book silent on all controverted points. To a ‘third edition’ of the volume, issued in March 1767, is appended the letter of 1760 signed ‘W. Robertson;’ another issue, with the same appendix, is dated 1768. All issues are anonymous, and are really of the same edition, only the title-page and dedication being reprinted and appendix added. Philip Skelton [q. v.], after criticising the ‘Attempt’ from an evangelical point of view in his ‘Observations,’ offered Robertson a provision for life under his own roof, or a separate income at his option; the offer was declined, but an intimate correspondence was maintained till Robertson's death. The ‘Attempt’ was also answered in an elaborate ‘Confutation,’ &c., Dublin, 1769, 2 vols., by Smyth Loftus.

In August 1767 Robertson removed to London, where he attracted some notice. An overture for the employment of his pen in the service of the government was met by the rejoinder ‘Give me truth and I will write.’ He presented a copy of his ‘Attempt’ to the university of Glasgow (there is now no copy in the university library), and received from the senatus the degree of D.D. (21 Jan. 1768). Shortly afterwards the mastership of the Wolverhampton grammar school was bestowed upon him by the Merchant Taylors' Company; the salary was only 70l. a year, out of which for five years a pension of 40l. was paid to a superannuated predecessor. His needs were supplied, often anonymously, by private friends.

Theophilus Lindsey [q. v.] speaks of Robertson as ‘the father of unitarian nonconformity.’ He means that Robertson's resignation produced his own. But Robertson, in the ‘Attempt,’ disclaims adhesion either to the Arian or Socinian party; his subsequent adoption of unitarian views was due to the influence of Priestley and Lindsey. He was a member in 1771–2 of the committee for promoting a petition to parliament for clerical relief from subscription. In April 1778 he agreed to become Lindsey's colleague at Essex Street Chapel, London, and had begun preparations for removal from Wolverhampton, when a threatened prosecution for teaching without license determined him to remain, as ‘to fly now would look like cowardice.’ No prosecution was instituted.

Robertson died at Wolverhampton, of gout in the stomach, on 20 May 1783, and was buried in the churchyard of St. John's. He married, in 1728, Elizabeth (d. 1758), daughter of Major William Baxter, and had twenty-one children, but survived them all, leaving only a grandson. An engraved portrait of Robertson is in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ for September 1783. Robertson wrote verses to his wife in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine,’ July 1736, p. 416. John Disney [q. v.] assigns to him ‘Electheria,’ 1768, a poem dedicated to Catharine Macaulay [q. v.], and states that in 1767–8 he contributed to the ‘Monthly Review.’

[Life by Disney, based on an autobiographical sketch, in Gent. Mag. Sept. 1783; Biography by Joshua Toulmin in Monthly Repository, April and June 1806; Lindsey's Historical View, 1783, pp. 477 sq.; Burdy's Life of Skelton, 1792, pp. 157 sq.; Belsham's Memoirs of Lindsey, 1812, pp. 164 sq.; Turner's Lives of Eminent Unitarians, 1843, ii. 5 sq.; Munimenta Universitatis Glasguensis, ii. 569 sq. iii. 431 sq.; Simms's Bibliotheca Staffordiensis, p. 377; information from W. Innes Addison, esq., assistant clerk of senate, Glasgow.]

A. G.