Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Carlyle, Alexander
CARLYLE, ALEXANDER, D.D. (1722–1805), Scotch divine, was born on 26 Jan. 1722 at Prestonpans, Midlothian, of which parish his father, William Carlyle, was minister. The father lived on terms of intimacy with the gentry of the district, by whom much notice was taken of the son. Among their neighbours was the famous Colonel Gardiner. Carlyle matriculated at the university of Edinburgh on 1 Nov. 1735, and in the following year he was an eye-witness of the escape of Robertson and the Porteous riots described in the 'Heart of Midlothian.' In obedience to his father's wishes he studied for the church, and received his A.M. degree from the university of Edinburgh 14 April 1743. A small bursary obtained for him by his father from the Duke of Hamilton aided in enabling him to spend two winters at the university of Glasgow and a third at that of Leyden, where he entered 17 Nov. 1746 (Leyden Students, Index Soc. p. 18). He was one of the volunteers embodied in 1745 for the defence of Edinburgh from the rebel force under Prince Charles Edward, and he witnessed the flight of the king's force after the battle of Prestonpans. He was licensed for the ministry 8 July 1746, but declined an offer of presentation to Cockbumspath in February 1747. On 2 Aug. 1748 he was ordained minister of Inveresk, near Edinburgh, a charge which he retained until his death. He co-operated with his friends, John Home the author and Robertson the historian, in supporting and leading in the church of Scotland and its general assembly the moderate party, which opposed the abolition of patronage and favoured a somewhat latitudinarian theoloey. He was intimate with David Hume, Adam Smith, and the other Scottish literary celebrities of his time, including Smollett and Armstrong, who lived in London, and he has given in the 'Autobiography' accounts and anecdotes of most of them. He is said (Kay, Edinburgh Portraits, ed. 1877, i. 67 n.) to have written the prologue to Charles Hart's 'Herminius and Aspasia,' acted in 1754, and he had made for John Home several transcripts of 'Douglas' before its performance in Edinburgh in 1756. He not only attended the rehearsals of 'Douglas,' but, though with some reluctance, was present in the Edinburgh theatre on the third night of its performance (14 Dec. 1756), and attracted additional attention by expelling some young men from the boxes where he sat for rudeness to ladies whom he accompanied. The public performance of a play written by a minister of the kirk raised an ecclesiastical storm in Scotland [see Home, John], and to the controversy thus provoked Carlyle contributed the anonymous pamphlet, 'An Argument to prove that the Tragedy of " Douglas " ought to be publicly burnt by the hands of the Hangman,' the irony of which was mistaken by some of its readers for a serious condemnation of the play. When the attendance of the upper classes began to flag, Carlyle brought a humbler class to the theatre by his broadside, hawked about the streets, with the sensational heading, 'A Full and True History of the bloody Tragedy of "Douglas" as it is now to be seen acting in the Theatre of the Canongate.' Carlyle was conspicuous among the ministers of the kirk who were summoned before their respective presbyteries to answer the charge of having entered a theatre to witness the performance of a stage-play. While professing regret for having unwittingly given offence, and promising not to offend again, Carlyle maintained before the presbytery of Dalkeith that the matter was one not for public but for private investigation and admonition. The presbytery nevertheless relegated him to be rebuked by the synod of Lothian and Tweeddale. Carlyle's friends made a strong muster at the meeting of the synod, which by a small majority accepted his contention before the presbytery that the matter demanded 'privy censure or brotherly conference,' while censuring him severely for his play-going and enjoining him to abstain from it in future (11 May 1757). On appeal by the presbytery to the general assembly the decision of the synod was affirmed by a majority of 117 to 39 (24 May). This esult was always remembered by Carlyle as a signal triumph over the fanatical party in the kirk (Autobiography, chap. viii.; Scots Magazine for 1757; Morren, Annals of the General Assembly, 1838, ii. 122–9).
In the following year (1758) Carlyle paid a visit to London, where he made the acquaintance of Garrick and frequented the theatres, contributing to his friend Smollett's ‘British Magazine’ a criticism on John Home's ‘Agis,’ as then performed at Drury Lane. He also endeavoured, apparently with little success, to execute an informal commission from his Scotch ministerial brethren to plead their cause with those in authority, so as to avert the threatened enforcement against them of the window-tax. After his return home at the end of 1758 the outcry raised in consequence of the disastrous close of the St. Malo expedition led Carlyle to write the ironical pamphlet, ‘Plain Reasons for removing a certain Great Man from his M——y's presence and councils for ever. Addressed to the people of England. By O. M. Haberdasher.’ This is by far the most striking of Carlyle's productions. The ‘great man’ is the elder Pitt. Carlyle speaks of the pamphlet as having had ‘a great run,’ but it seems to have dropped into unmerited oblivion. From an inaccuracy in the transcript of the title it does not appear to have been seen by the editor of his ‘Autobiography’ (John Hill Burton), and in the new catalogue of the British Museum Library it is attributed to ‘O. M. Haberdasher,’ without any reference to Carlyle's authorship of it. In 1760 appeared at Edinburgh another pamphlet by Carlyle, ‘The Question relating to a Scots Militia considered in a Letter to the Lords and Gentlemen who have concerted the form of a law for that establishment,’ in which he unsuccessfully sought to persuade the government that the people of the country might be armed with perfect safety in spite of the fact of the rebellion of '45. Carlyle boasts that this pamphlet was republished both at Ayr and in London, in the latter case by the Marquis Townshend, who prefixed a preface. In 1762 he was appointed almoner to the king. In 1764 he published a pamphlet, ‘Faction detected,’ on the claim of the Edinburgh town council to present to the churches in their city. In 1769 he was appointed by the general assembly their commissioner to endeavour to procure during the ensuing session of parliament an exemption on the part of the Scottish clergy from the window-tax. The clergy subscribed about 400l. to defray his expenses. On his arrival in London, and doubtless to promote the success of his mission, he wrote a paper, signed Nestor, ‘in support of the Duke of Grafton, whose administration was then in a tottering state.’ Probably it was during this visit to London that, having to present himself at St. James's, ‘his portly figure, his fine expressive countenance, with an aquiline nose, his flowing silver locks, and the freshness of the colour of his face made a prodigious impression upon the courtiers’ (Chief Commissioner Adam, Gift of a Grandfather, privately printed). His mission was so far successful that, though the Scottish clergy continued to be charged with the window-tax, the collectors were instructed not to enforce payment (Kay, Edinburgh Portraits, i. 66). On 24 May 1770 he was elected moderator of the general assembly, and on 2 Dec. 1789 was named one of the deans of the Chapel Royal, when he resigned the office of almoner.
In 1766 Smollett had paid his last visit to Scotland, and in the description of Edinburgh given in ‘Humphry Clinker,’ published in 1771, he makes a complimentary reference to Carlyle. The account of the Select Society in the appendix to Dugald Stewart's memoir of Robertson the historian was furnished by Carlyle, who was a member of it. In 1789 he was a candidate for the principal clerkship to the general assembly. A severe contest took place between the moderate and the old presbyterian parties in the kirk, and the number of votes given was the largest ever known in the assembly. Carlyle was at first successful, but the result of a scrutiny asked for and granted threatened to be unfavourable, and he declined to face it. In 1771 he opposed the passing of a remonstrance by the general assembly against the necessity imposed on presbyterians of taking the communion in the Anglican form before they could hold office in England, saying that he ‘must be a very narrow-minded presbyterian who could not join in the religious worship of the church’ of England. In 1793 he gave a strenuous support to a scheme for the augmentation of the stipends of the Scottish clergy, and courageously protested against the want of sympathy with that body shown on the occasion by his friend Henry Dundas, then lord advocate, as the representative of the Pitt administration in the assembly. To the last he exerted himself to procure preferment, both in the English and the Scotch church, for young men of merit and of liberal views in theology, among them being the Rev. Archibald Alison, the father of the historian. Carlyle died on 25 Aug. 1805, and was buried in the churchyard of Inveresk, his friend Adam Ferguson, the historian of the Roman republic, writing the inscription on his tomb. He married, 14 Oct. 1760, Mary Roddan, who died 31 Jan. 1804, in her sixty-first year. His 'Autobiography' gives a most agreeable impression of him as a genial, cultivated, liberal-minded, and sagacious minister of the kirk, who united to the breadth of the man of the world a sincere devotion to what he considered to be the true interests of his order, and it is unrivalled as a picture of the Edinburgh and Scotch society of his time. Although its merit had long been appreciated in manuscript, it was not published until 1860, excellently edited, with notes and a supplementary chapter, by John Hill Burton. Its full title is 'Autobiography of the Rev. Dr. Alexander Carlyle, Mmister of Inveresk, containing Memorials of the Men and Events of his Time.'
Sir Walter Scott said (Lockhart, Life, p. 368): 'The grandest demi-god I ever saw was Dr. Carlyle … commonly called "Jupiter Carlyle" … and a shrewd old carle was he no doubt, but no more a poet than his precentor.' Carlyle's portrait prefixed to the 'Autobiography' somewhat resembles those of Goethe, and he retains a certain dignity even in the caricatures of him, of which there are several in Kay's 'Edinburgh Portraits.' He was more poetical than Sir Walter Scott supposed. Wnether he was the author or not of the 'songs' and 'gay catches' which in an early letter to him Smollett seems to speak of as his (Supplementary chapter to Autobiography, p. 564), he certainly wrote the spirited and musical 'Verses on his Grace the Duke of Buccleuch's birthday' published in the 'Scots Magazine' for 1767. With Henry Mackenzie he filled up some of the lacuna in an imperfect manuscript copy of Collins's 'Ode on the Superstitions of the Highlanders,' which he presented to the Royal Society of Edinburgh on its establishment, and which, with a letter from Carlyle, was published for the first time in its 'Transactions' (Edinburgh, 1788, i. 63-75). In old age he displayed an interest in Scott's 'Lay of the Last Minstrel,' and in the early poetry of Wordsworth.
Carlyle published a few sermons and contributed to Sir John Sinclair's 'Statistical Account of Scotland' (1791-9) an elaborate 'Account of the Parish of Inveresk,' topographical, historical, and statistical, in which he describes his successful introduction into Scotland of ploughing with two horses and without a driver. In the Egerton MSS. in the British Museum (Nos. 2185-6) there are several letters from Carlyle to Dr. Douglas, bishop of Salisbury, urging the claims of clerical protégés and gossiping about Hume, Robertson, and other Edinburgh literati. Carlyle is the subject of one of Kay's caricatures.
[Dr. Carlyle's Autobiography, Pamphlets, and Sermons; A Series of Original Portraits and Caricature Etchings by the late John Kay, miniature painter, Edinburgh, with Biographical Sketches and Illustrative Anecdotes (new edition), 1877; Hew Scott's Fasti Eccl. Scot. i. 287, 896, 399; authorities cited.]