Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Bruce, William (1757-1841)

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1316493Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 07 — Bruce, William (1757-1841)1886Alexander Gordon

BRUCE, WILLIAM (1757–1841), presbyterian minister, the second son of Samuel Bruce, presbyterian minister, of Wood Street, Dublin, and Rose Rainey of Magherafelt, co. Derry, was born in Dublin on 30 July 1757. He entered Trinity College, Dublin, in 1771. In 1775 he obtained a scholarship, and afterwards graduated A.B., supporting himself by private tuition. In 1776 he went to Glasgow for a session, and in 1777 to the Warrington Academy for two years. Bruce, in presbyterian matters, favoured the looser administration prevalent among his English brethren. His first settlement was at Lisburn. He was ordained on 4 Nov. 1779 by the Bangor presbytery. Bruce was long enough at Lisburn to acquire considerable reputation as a public man. His father's old congregation at Strand Street, Dublin, called him on 24 March 1782 as colleague to John Moody, D.D., on the death of Thomas Plunket, great-grandfather of the present (1886) archbishop of Dublin. Bruce took part in the volunteer movement of 1782, serving in the ranks, but declining a command. At the national convention which met in November 1783, in the Rotunda at Dublin, he sat as delegate for the county of the town of Carrickfergus, and was the last surviving member of this convention. In 1786 he received the degree of D.D. from Glasgow. His Dublin congregation was increased by the accession to it, on 25 or 29 March 1787, of the Cooke Street congregation, with its ex-minister, William Dunne, D.D. In October 1789 he was called to First Belfast, as colleague to James Crombie, D.D. (1730-1790). This call he did not accept, but on Crombie’s death he was again called (11 March 1790) to First Belfast, and at the same time elected principal of the Belfast Academy. His Dublin congregation released him on 18 March. In the extra-synodical Antrim presbytery, to which his congregation belonged, he was a commanding spirit; his broad view of the liberty which may consist with presbyterian discipline is seen in the supplement ‘by a member of the presbytery of Antrim’ to the Newry edition, 1816, 12mo, of Towgood’s ‘Dissenting Gentleman's Letters.’ In practice he did not favour the presence of lay-elders in church courts. His congregation, which comprised many of the best families of Belfast, increased rapidly, and it was necessary to provide additional accommodation in his meeting-house. He had a noble presence and a rich voice. He drew up for his congregation a hymn-book in 1801 (enlarged 1818 and still in use), but while he paid great attention to congregational singing he resisted, in 1807, the introduction of an organ, not, however, on religious grounds. He broke the established silence of presbyterian interments by originating the custom of addresses at the grave. The Belfast Academy chiefly owed its reputation to him. But though Bruce, from 1802, delivered courses of lectures on history, belles lettres, and moral philosophy, his main work as principal, from 1 May 1790, when he entered on his duties, till he resigned his post in November 1822, was that of a school-master. He taught well, and ruled firmly, not forgetting the rod; early in his career the famous barring out of 12 April 1792, which roused the whole town, tried his mettle and proved his mastery. In the troubles of 1797 and 1798 Bruce enrolled himself as a private in the Belfast Merchants' Infantry; he despatched his family to Whitehaven; and regularly occupied his pulpit throughout the disturbances. Many of the liberal presbyterians had been active in urging the insurrection; hence Bruce's attitude was of signal importance. His influence with the government in 1800 was exerted to secure adequate consideration for the presbyterians at the Union. At this period) Bruce’s advice was much sought by the leaders of the general synod. In November 1805 there were negotiations for the readmission of his presbytery to the synod without subscription, but in May following the idea was abandoned as inopportune. Bruce penned the address presented to George IV at Dublin (1821) in the name of the whole presbyterian body. He sought no personal favours; at the death of Robert Black [q. v.] in 1817 the agency for the reqium donum was ooen to him, but he forwarded the claims of another, The Widows’ Fund, founded in 1751, through the exertions of his granduncle, William Bruce (1702-1755) [q. v.], was greatly improved by his efforts and judgment. Protestants of all sections welcomed his presence on the committee of the Hibernian Bible Society, aninstitution which he recommended in letters (signed ‘Zuinglius’) to the ‘Newry Telegraph’ (reprinted in the ‘Belfast Newsletter,’ 16 Nov. 1821). He had a good deal to do with the establishment of the Lancasterian school, with which was connected a protestant but otherwise undenominational Sunday school. To provide common ground for intellectual pursuits among men of all parties, he had founded (23 Oct. 1801) the Literary Society, a centre of culture in the days when Belfast took to itself the title of the Ulster Athens.

Bruce eschewed personal controversy. He had always owned himself a unitarian, in the broad sense attached to the term at its first introduction into English literature by Firmin and Emlyn; when used in the restricted sense of the modern Socinians, such as Lindsey and Belsham, he sensitively repudiated all connection with that school (see his letter in Mon. Rep. 1813, pp. 515–17). Finding his position ‘misrepresented by the violence of party zeal,’ Bruce, in 1824, issued his volume on the Bible and christian doctrine. The book marks an era. Unitarianism in Ireland had long been a floating opinion; it now became the badge of a party. In the preface (dated 17 March) Bruce claimed that his views were ‘making extensive though silent progress through the general synod of Ulster.’ This was accepted by trinitarians as a gage of battle; the general synod at Moneymore, on 2 July, agreed to an overture giving ‘a public contradiction to said assertion.’ Bruce joined the seceders of 1829 in the formation of the Unitarian Society for the Diffusion of Christian Knowledge (9 April 1831), though he would have preferred as its designation the colourless name, ‘A Tract Society.’ By 1834 he had retired from public duty, and was suffering from a decay of sight, which ended in blindness. In November 1836 he removed to Dublin with his daughter Maria. Here he died on 27 Feb. 1841. He married, on 25 Jan. 1788, Susanna Hutton (died 22 Feb. 1819, aged 56), and had twelve children, of whom six survived him. Several portraits of Bruce exist; the earliest is in a large picture (1804) by Robinson, containing portraits of Dr. and Mrs. Bruce and others, now in the council-room of the Belfast chamber of commerce; a three-quarter length, by Thompson, is in the Linenhall Library, Belfast, and has been engraved in mezzotint (1819) by Hodgetts; a fine painting of head and bust is in the possession of a grandson, James Bruce, D.L., of Thorndale; an engraving by Adcock from a miniature by Hawksett was executed for the ‘Christian Moderator,’ 1827. He published: 1. ‘The Christian Soldier,’ 1803, 12mo, a sermon. 2. ‘Literary Essays on the Influence of Political Revolutions on the Progress of Religion and Learning; and on the Advantages of Classical Education,’ Belfast, 1811, 4to, 2nd edition 1818, 4to (originally published in the ‘Transactions of the Belfast Literary Society,’ 1809 and 1811). 3. ‘A Treatise on the Being and Attributes of God; with an Appendix on the Immateriality of the Soul,’ Belfast, 1818, 8vo (begun in 1808, and finished November 1813). 4. ‘Sermons on the Study of the Bible, and on the Doctrines of Christianity,’ Belfast, 1824, 2nd edition 1826, 8vo (not till the second edition did he rank his doctrines as ‘anti-trinitarian;’ his Arianism is evidently of a transitional type; in later life he was anxious to have it known that he had not altered his views, and on 27 Sept. 1839 he signed a paper stating that ‘the sentiments, principles, and opinions’ contained in this volume of sermons ‘coincide exactly with those which I entertain’). 5. ‘The State of Society in the Age of Homer,’ Belfast, 1827, 8vo. 6. ‘Brief Notes on the Gospels and Acts,’ Belfast, 1835, 12mo. 7. ‘A Paraphrase, with Brief Notes on St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans,’ Belfast, 1836, 12mo. 8. ‘A Paraphrase and Notes on the Epistles and Apocalypse,’ Liverpool, 1836, 12mo. 9. ‘A Brief Commentary on the New Testament,’ Belfast, 1836, 12mo. Besides these he contributed papers, scientific and historical, &c., to the ‘Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy,’ ‘Belfast Literary Society,’ ‘Dublin University Magazine,’ and other periodicals. Among these articles may be noticed a series of twenty-three historical papers on the ‘Progress of Nonsubscription to Creeds,’ contributed to the ‘Christian Moderator,’ 1826–8; these are of value as giving extracts from original documents. His ‘Memoir of James VI,’ in ‘Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy,’ 1828, gives copies of original letters, and information respecting his ancestor, Rev. Robert Bruce of Kinnaird.

[Armstrong's Appendix to Ordination Service, James Martineau, 1829, pp. 75–7, 89; Porter's Funeral Sermon, The Christian's Hope in Death, 1841; Bible Christian, 1831, pp. 47, 239, 289, 1834, p. 389, 1841, pp. 111 sq.; Chr. Reformer, 1821, pp. 218 sq., 1859, p. 318; Reid's Hist. Presb. Ch. in Ireland (Killen), 1867, iii. 389, 444 sq.; Witherow's Hist. and Lit. Memorials of Presbyterianism in Ireland, 2nd ser. 1880, pp. 187 sq.; Benn's Hist. of Belfast, 1877, p. 453, vol. ii. 1880, pp. 48, 172; Belf. Newsletter, 26 Feb. 1819; Minutes of Gen. Synod, 1824, p. 31; Irish Unit. Mag. 1847, p. 357; Disciple (Belf.), 1883, pp. 84, 93 seq.; C. Porter's Seven Bruces, in Northern Whig, 20 May 1885; manuscript extracts from Minutes of Gen. Synod, 1780; manuscript Minutes of Antrim Presbytery, First Presb. Ch., Belfast, and Unit. Soc. Belfast; tombstones at Holywood.]

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