Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Porter, Josias Leslie
PORTER, JOSIAS LESLIE (1823–1889), traveller and promoter of Irish education, born on 4 Oct. 1823, was youngest son of William Porter of Carrowan, parish of Burt, co. Donegal, and Margaret, daughter of Andrew Leslie of Drumgowan in the same parish. The father farmed several hundred acres of land. Noted for his great stature and immense bodily strength, he raised, during the Irish rebellion of 1798, a troop of yeomanry in Burt, and kept a large district in order, services for which he received the thanks of parliament and an honorary commission in the army.
The son, Josias, after being educated privately, between 1835 and 1838, by Samuel Craig, presbyterian minister of Crossroads, co. Derry, and afterwards at a school in Londonderry, matriculated in the university of Glasgow in 1839, with a view to entering the ministry of the Irish presbyterian church. He graduated B.A. in 1841, and M.A. in 1842. In November 1842 he proceeded to the university of Edinburgh, where, and afterwards in the New College, he studied theology under Chalmers. He was licensed to preach by the presbytery of Derry on 20 Nov. 1844. He was ordained on 25 Feb. 1846, and until 1849 was minister of the presbyterian congregation of High Bridge, Newcastle-on-Tyne. He was then sent to Damascus as a missionary to the Jews by the board of missions of the Irish presbyterian church. He reached Syria in December 1849, and remained there for ten years. While discharging his duty as a missionary, he acquired, by frequent and extensive journeys through all parts of Syria and Palestine, an intimate knowledge of the Holy Land, which he turned to good literary account. In 1855 he published his first book on the East, ‘Five Years in Damascus,’ in which he tells most graphically the story of his life there, and of adventurous journeys to Palmyra, the Hauran, Lebanon, and other places. The map appended to the work was constructed by himself, almost entirely from his own observations and surveys, and the plans and woodcuts were engraved from his drawings. In 1858 he published his ‘Handbook for Travellers in Syria and Palestine,’ in Murray's series. A second edition, largely rewritten, appeared in 1875, Porter having in the interval revisited the country and made an extensive tour on both sides of the Jordan and along the borderland between Egypt and Sinai. Many of his letters, addressed to the Rev. David Hamilton, honorary secretary of the Irish Presbyterian Jewish Mission, were printed in the pages of the ‘Missionary Herald.’
In 1859 Porter returned home on furlough, and in July 1860 was appointed professor of biblical criticism in the presbyterian college, Belfast, in succession to Robert Wilson [q. v.] In 1864 he received the degrees of LL.D. from Glasgow and D.D. from Edinburgh. In 1867, on the death of Professor William Gibson (1808–1867) [q. v.], he became secretary of the college faculty at Belfast. Through him Mr. Adam Findlater of Dublin in 1878 gave 10,000l. for additions to the buildings, and this gift proved the means of raising 11,000l. more for the professorial endowment fund. Porter, from the time of his appointment as professor, took a leading part in the work of the church courts, and in 1875 was elected moderator of the general assembly. During his tenure of this office he initiated a fund which provided manses for many congregations.
In 1878 Porter was appointed by government one of the two assistant-commissioners of the newly established board of intermediate education for Ireland. He thereupon resigned his professorship, and, removing to Dublin, helped to organise the new scheme. In 1879 he was nominated president of Queen's College, Belfast. In virtue of his office he became a member of the senate of the newly created Royal University of Ireland, which in 1881 conferred on him the degree of D. Lit., and he took a leading part in formulating its plans. He died at Belfast on 16 March 1889, and was buried in Malone cemetery, near that city.
In addition to the works mentioned above, Porter wrote: 1. ‘The Pentateuch and the Gospels,’ which appeared in 1864 during the Colenso controversy. 2. ‘The Giant Cities of Bashan and Syria's Holy Places,’ 1865, which has been several times republished. In this work he maintains that the massive buildings, the ruins of which are plentifully found in Bashan, are the work of the aboriginal inhabitants of the country long before its occupation by the Jews. 3. ‘The Life and Times of Dr. Cooke’ (his father-in-law), 1871; four editions were published. 4. ‘Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Bethany,’ 1887. 5. ‘Galilee and the Jordan,’ 1885.
He also published a ‘Pew and Study Bible’ in 1876. He contributed extensively to the edition of Kitto's ‘Cyclopædia of Biblical Literature,’ which was commenced in 1862. Nearly all the geographical articles on localities in Palestine are from his pen. He also wrote for Smith's ‘Dictionary of the Bible,’ the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica,’ and Kitto's ‘Pictorial Bible;’ and contributed many papers, principally on subjects connected with the Holy Land, to the ‘Bibliotheca Sacra’ (New York), when it was edited by Dr. Robinson, to Kitto's ‘Journal of Sacred Literature,’ and to other magazines and reviews.
Porter married, in 1849, just before going to Damascus, Margaret Rainey, youngest daughter of the Rev. Dr. Henry Cooke (1788–1868) [q. v.] of Belfast, by whom he had several children; two sons and two daughters survived him.
A portrait of Porter, by Hooke, hangs in the examination hall of Queen's College, Belfast.[Personal knowledge and manuscripts in the possession of the writer; information kindly supplied by Mr. William Haldane Porter, Porter's youngest son; Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, passim; Calendars and Annual Reports of Queen's College, Belfast; Minutes of Senate of Royal University of Ireland; obituary notices in the Belfast News-letter, Witness, and Northern Whig.]