Scott, Alexander John (1805-1866) (DNB00)

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Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 51
Scott, Alexander John (1805-1866)

by Charles William Sutton
1904 Errata appended.

SCOTT, ALEXANDER JOHN (1805–1866), first principal of Owens College, son of Dr. John Scott (d. 1836), minister of the Middle Church, Greenock, by his wife Susanna, daughter of Alexander Fisher of Dychmount (Hew Scott, Fasti, ii. 240), was born at that town on 26 March 1805. He was educated at the local grammar school and at the university of Glasgow, which he entered at the age of fourteen and remained there until he was twenty-one. Having graduated M.A. in 1827, he was about the same time licensed by the presbytery of Paisley to preach in the church of Scotland. He had previously obtained a tutorship in Edinburgh, where he attended medical classes at the university. His first sermon after he was licensed was preached for the Rev. John McLeod Campbell [q. v.], who heard him ‘with very peculiar delight.’ In the following year (1828) he made the acquaintance of Thomas Erskine [q. v.] of Linlathen, afterwards one of his closest friends, and of Edward Irving [q. v.], who invited him to be his assistant in London. He accepted the invitation, without binding himself to Irving's doctrinal views. Soon after his settlement in London his sympathies were excited by the wretchedness and ignorance of the poorer population, and he spent the winter months in preaching and teaching among the poor of Westminster. Towards the close of 1829 he went to preach for McLeod Campbell at Row, and also at Port Glasgow, where his sermons on the Charismata or ‘spiritual gifts’ of 1 Corinthians xii. led to an extraordinary exhibition of ‘speaking with tongues’ and ‘prophesying in the church.’ The movement and the so-called manifestations accompanying it had great influence on Irving, much more than on Scott himself, who never felt the ‘utterances’ to be convincing proofs of any genuine inspiration. The intimate connection between the two divines was shortly afterwards severed, though their friendship continued to the end. In the summer of 1830 Scott received an invitation to the pastorate of the Scottish church at Woolwich. The necessary ordination involved subscription to the Westminster confession of faith. This he could not give, and he thought it his duty to embody his objections in a letter to the moderator of the London presbytery, in which he stated his inability to assent to the doctrine that ‘none are redeemed by Christ but the elect only,’ as well as his conviction that the ‘Sabbath and the Lord's day were not, as stated in the catechism, one ordinance, but two, perfectly distinct, the one Jewish and the other Christian.’ He also avowed his doubts as to the validity of the presbytery's powers in ordination. On 27 May 1831 he was charged with heresy before the presbytery of Paisley, and deprived of his license to preach, a sentence which was confirmed by the general assembly. Notwithstanding, Scott remained at Woolwich until 1846, as minister of a small congregation.

Scott had always been an omnivorous reader and enthusiastic student of literature. In November 1848 he obtained the chair of English language and literature in University College, London, and in 1851 was appointed principal of Owens College, Manchester, then recently established. With this post he held the professorship of logic and mental philosophy, of comparative grammar, and of English language and literature. Soon after his appointment he took part with the Rev. William Gaskell [q. v.] and others in starting the Manchester Working Men's College, an admirable institution, which was afterwards merged in the evening classes at Owens College. The high standard at which the college curriculum was maintained during the institution's early days was due to the influence of Scott and his fellow professors. He resigned the principalship in May 1857, but continued to act as professor until his death.

As a lecturer he was engaging and inspiring, though too philosophic and profound to captivate a popular audience. Dr. W. B. Carpenter ‘never heard any public speaker who could be compared with him in masterly arrangement of materials, lucid method of exposition, freedom from all redundancy, force and vigour of expression, beauty and aptness of illustration.’ His addresses were unwritten, and a few only survive in poor reports. In September and October 1847 he lectured on Dante and other topics at the Manchester Athenæum, and a little later at the Manchester Royal Institution on ‘European Literature from 1450 to 1603.’ Between 1850 and 1860 he delivered thirty-two lectures on historical and literary subjects at the Edinburgh Philosophical Institution. When the Manchester Free Library was opened in 1852 he suggested that a series of popular literary lectures should be given in connection with that institution. The suggestion was adopted, and he delivered one of the courses himself, his subject being ‘Poetry and Fiction.’ Subsequently he gave a series of lectures at Owens College, extending over several years, on the ‘Relation of Religion to the Life of the Scholar.’ In all these addresses he made skilful use of his deep learning and knowledge of the languages and literature of many nations. Of those printed in separate form the chief were: 1. ‘Lectures Expository and Practical on the Epistle to the Romans,’ 1838. 2. ‘On the Academical Study of a Vernacular Language,’ 1848. 3. ‘Suggestions on Female Education,’ 1849. 4. ‘Notes of Four Lectures on the Literature and Philosophy of the Middle Ages;’ printed for private circulation (by Thomas Erskine of Linlathen), Edinburgh, 1857. 5. ‘Discourses,’ 1866; this posthumous volume contains early addresses on ‘Social Systems of the Present Day compared with Christianity,’ ‘Schism,’ and ‘The First Principle of Church Government.’

Scott's strong personal influence on all who were familiar with him is testified by Carlyle, Hare, Dunn, Bunsen, Fanny Kemble, and many others. Erskine in 1838 wrote: ‘Scott is in point of intellect one of the first, if not the first man I have known;’ and in 1860: ‘No man whom I have known has impressed me more than Scott.’ Maurice dedicated his ‘Mediæval Philosophy’ to him; J. Baldwin Brown dedicated to him his ‘Divine Life in Man,’ 1860; and George Macdonald, besides inscribing his novel of ‘Robert Falconer’ to him, wrote two poems ‘to A. J. Scott,’ which are included in his ‘Poetical Works’ (1893, i. 271, 280).

His health, always delicate, grew weaker in his later years. With the hope of gaining strength he went to Switzerland in the autumn of 1865, but died at Veytaux on 12 Jan. 1866, and was buried in the cemetery at Clarens.

He married Ann Ker at Greenock in December 1830, and had an only son, John Alexander Scott, B.A., barrister-at-law, who died on 9 Jan. 1894, aged 48; and a daughter, who is still living. Mrs. Scott died in December 1888.

A marble bust of Scott, by H. S. Leifchild, was presented to Owens College in 1860 by his students and those who attended his voluntary lectures. This is engraved in Shaw's ‘Manchester Old and New,’ ii. 93. Two chalk portraits, one by Samuel Laurence (about 1848) and the other by F. J. Shields, (1865), are in the possession of his daughter.

[Letters of Thomas Erskine of Linlathen, ed. Hanna, 1878; Memorials of John McLeod Campbell, 1877; Mem. of Rev. Robert Story, 1862; Thompson's Owens College. 1886; articles by John Finlayson in Owens College Magazine, vols. xiii. and xxii.; Life of F. D. Maurice, 1884, i. 199, ii. 403; Kemble's Records of a Later Life, ii. 283, 290; Journals of Caroline Fox; Hughes's Mem. of Daniel Macmillan, 1882; papers on Irving by Dr. David Brown in the Expositor, 1887; Recollections of A. J. Scott, Greenock, 1878; Sunday at Home, 1881, p. 664; Manchester Examiner, 8 July 1880; Brit. Mus. Cat.; Mrs. Oliphant's notices of Scott in her Life of Irving (1st edit. ii. 103 seq.), although she acknowledges his ‘power of impressing other minds around him, not only with his own marvellous powers of understanding, but with his profound spirituality and perception of divine things,’ are unjust and misleading. A vindication of Scott appeared in the National Review, October 1862. Some information has been supplied by Miss Susan F. Scott and Mr. John Finlayson.]

C. W. S.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.243
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

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13 i 38 Scott, Alexander J.: for Jesus,’ 1859 ; read Man’ 1860;