Wright, William (1837-1899) (DNB00)

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WRIGHT, WILLIAM (1837–1899), missionary and author, born on 15 Jan. 1837 at Finnards, near Rathfriland, in co. Down, was the youngest child of William Wright, a North of Ireland farmer, by his wife, Miss Niblock. He was educated at a small country school, and supplemented the deficiencies of his instructors by a miscellaneous course of reading. Possessed of unusual ability, he resolved to prepare himself for the civil service, and, after passing a few months at the Belfast Royal Academical Institution, he matriculated in Queen's College in 1858. A visit to Belfast by Charles Haddon Spurgeon [q. v.] determined Wright to become a missionary, and on leaving Queen's College he studied theology at the assembly's college and at Geneva About 1865 he proceeded to Damascus as missionary to the Jews. During the ten years that he spent in the East he acquired a knowledge of Arabic, studied the customs and topography of Palestine, and made expeditions in Syria and Northern Arabia. His ‘Account of Palmyra and Zenobia, with Travels and Adventures in Bashan and the Desert’ (London, 8vo), though not published until 1895, was in great part written during the journeys which it describes. While in the East he filled the post of special correspondent to the ‘Pall Mall Gazette.’ At Damascus he made the acquaintance of Edward Henry Palmer [q. v.] and of Sir Richard Burton. For Burton he had a high regard, and published an appreciative sketch of his character in October 1891 in the first number of the ‘Bookman,’ under the signature of ‘Salih.’

Returning to England, Wright succeeded Robert Baker Girdlestone (now Canon Girdlestone) as editorial superintendent of the British and Foreign Bible Society in June 1876. This post he retained until his death. During his tenure of office 150 new versions of the whole or parts of the Bible passed through his hands, and all the great vernacular versions of India, China, and other countries underwent revision.

Wright's literary labours were not limited by his official duties. While in Syria he made casts of the Hamath inscriptions, and from further investigations came to the conclusion that they were Hittite remains and that a Hittite empire had at one time existed in Asia Minor and Northern Syria. In 1884 he published ‘The Empire of the Hittites’ (London, 8vo), with a conjectural decipherment of Hittite inscriptions by Professor Archibald Henry Sayce, who had come to similar conclusions. A second edition of the book appeared in 1886, and Wright contributed the article on the ‘Hittites’ to ‘Chambers's Encyclopædia’ in 1895. The whole subject is still rather obscure, but Wright must be credited with assisting materially to elucidate it. In 1893 he published another work of some fame, ‘The Brontës in Ireland’ (London, 8vo), which reached a third edition within a year. It embodied many personal investigations by Wright, but some of his statements were controverted by J. Ramsden in 1897 in ‘The Brontë Homeland: or Misrepresentations rectified.’

In 1890 Wright was selected to represent the Bible Society at Shanghai at the conference of all the protestant missions of China, at which, on his initiative, it was resolved to prepare a standard version of the Bible in the chief languages of the empire to supersede the various versions in the same script at that time in use. Wright's last years were saddened by the long illness and death of his eldest son, W. D. Wright, a minister of the presbyterian church of England. He died on 31 July 1899 at his residence, 10 The Avenue, Upper Norwood, and was buried on 4 Aug. in West Norwood cemetery. He was twice married, and left a widow, three sons, and four daughters. In 1882 he received the honorary degree of D.D. from Glasgow University.

Besides the works already mentioned, Wright contributed to the ‘Contemporary Review’ ‘The Power behind the Pope,’ a vigorous narrative of the publication and eventual condemnation by the Vatican of the popular version of the New Testament by Henri Lasserre, the author who made the fame of the holy well at Lourdes. The article was separately published (London, 1888, 8vo). Wright also contributed an introduction on ‘The Growth of the English Bible’ to the ‘Comprehensive Concordance to the Holy Scriptures’ (London, 1895, 8vo); edited ‘Bible Helps. The Illustrated Bible Treasury,’ London, 1896, 8vo; and wrote an introduction to Joseph Pollard's ‘Land of the Monuments,’ London, 1896, 8vo.

[Bible Society Monthly Report, September and October 1899; Presbyterian, 10 Aug. 1899 (with portrait); Missionary Herald of the Presbyterian Church of Ireland, 2 Oct. 1899 (with portrait); British Weekly, 3 Aug. 1899; Times, 2 Aug. 1899.]

E. I. C.