Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Rees, Abraham

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583559Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 47 — Rees, Abraham1896Alexander Gordon

REES, ABRAHAM, D.D. (1743–1825), cyclopædist, second son of Lewis Rees, by his wife Esther, daughter of Abraham Penry, a descendant of the family of John Penry [q. v.], was born at Llanbrynmair, Montgomeryshire, in 1743. Lewis Rees (b. 2 March 1710; d 21 March 1800) was independent minister at Llanbrynmair (1734–1759) and Mynyddbach, Glamorganshire (1759–1800), and a pillar of the nonconformist cause in South Wales. Abraham was educated for the ministry at Coward's academy in Wellclose Square, London, under David Jennings, D.D. [q. v.], entering in 1759. In 1762 he was appointed assistant tutor in mathematics and natural philosophy; on the removal of the academy to Hoxton after Jennings's death in 1762 he became resident tutor, a position which he held till 1785, his colleagues being Andrew Kippis [q. v.] and Samuel Morton Savage [q. v.]; subsequently he was tutor in Hebrew and mathematics in the Hackney College (1786–96).

His first ministerial engagement was in the independent congregation at Clapham, where he preached once a fortnight, as assistant to Philip Furneaux [q. v.] In 1768 he became assistant to Henry Read (1686–1774) in the presbyterian congregation at St. Thomas's, Southwark, and succeeded him as pastor in 1774. He removed to the pastorate of the Old Jewry congregation in 1783, and retained this charge till his death, being both morning and afternoon preacher (unusual then, among London presbyterians); he shared also (from 1773) a Sunday-evening lecture at Salters' Hall, and was one of the Tuesday-morning lecturers at Salters' Hall till 1795. A new meeting-house, of octagon form, was erected for him in Jewin Street and opened 10 Dec. 1809. He was elected trustee of Dr. Williams's foundations in 1774, and secretary of the presbyterian board in 1778, and held both offices till his death. On 31 Jan. 1775 he received the degree of D.D. from Edinburgh University. He made a triennial visit to Wales as examiner of the Carmarthen Academy. In 1806 he was appointed distributor of the English regium donum.

Rees's work as a cyclopædist began as an improver of the ‘Cyclopædia’ of Ephraim Chambers [q. v.], originally published in 1728, fol. 2 vols. This was re-edited by Rees in 1778, fol.; and, with the incorporation of a supplement and much new matter, was issued by him in 1781–6, fol. 4 vols.; reprinted 1788–91, fol. 4 vols. In recognition of his labour he was elected in 1786 a fellow of the Royal Society, and subsequently of the Linnean Society and the American Society. The favour shown to his work led him to project a similar but more comprehensive publication on an ampler scale. The first part of ‘The New Cyclopædia, or Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences … Biography, Geography, and History,’ &c., was issued on 2 Jan. 1802, and the work was completed in forty-five volumes 4to, including six volumes of plates, in August 1820. The parts were issued at irregular intervals, two parts constituting a volume. In carrying out his design he had only occasional assistance from others, and the execution doubtless is unequal. Great attention is paid to English biography; the articles in this department, often entirely new, are always careful summaries. The botanical articles were generally contributed by Sir James Edward Smith [q. v.]. Congratulated, on the completion of his gigantic task, by his friend, John Evans (1767–1827) [q. v.], Rees wrote in reply: ‘I thank you, but I feel more grateful that I have been spared to publish my four volumes of sermons.’

In the dissenting world of London Rees held a position of the first distinction. He was long the acknowledged head of the body of ministers of the ‘three denominations;’ when he presented their address in 1820 on the accession of George IV, it was noted that, as a student, he had attended the similar deputation to George III sixty years before. His theology bore a mediating and transitional character; his doctrines had an evangelical flavour, though essentially of an Arian type, and inclining to those of Richard Price (1723–1791) [q. v.], and he held the tenet of a universal restoration. He retained his father's zeal for the interests of Welsh nonconformity, and was the administrator of large private contributions for the relief of poorer congregations. His preaching, strong and sensible, and aided by a majestic presence, a piercing eye, and a deep sonorous voice, was always popular. He was the last of the London dissenting ministers who officiated in a wig. At the clerical meetings in Dr. Williams's library (then in Red Cross Street) he showed considerable powers of natural eloquence. ‘As a companion,’ says Robert Aspland [q. v.], ‘he was unrivalled.’

He died at his residence in Artillery Place, Finsbury, on 9 June 1825, and was buried on 18 June in Bunhill Fields, the pall being borne by six ministers of the ‘three denominations.’ A funeral oration was delivered by Thomas Rees (1777–1864) [q. v.], and the funeral sermon, on 19 June, by Robert Aspland. Rees survived his wife and all his children, but left several grandchildren. His son, Nathaniel Penry Rees, died 8 July 1802, on a voyage from Bengal to St. Helena. His only daughter married John Jones, (1766–1827) [q .v.]

His portrait, by Opie, was bequeathed to Dr. Williams's library; it has been engraved by Thomson. Another portrait, by Lonsdale, is in the National Portrait Gallery.

Besides numerous single sermons (1770–1813), Rees published ‘Practical Sermons,’ 1809, 8vo, 2 vols.; 2nd ed. 1812, with two additional volumes, 1821. In conjunction with Kippis, Thomas Jervis [q. v.], and Thomas Morgan, LL.D., he brought out ‘A Collection of Hymns and Psalms,’ &c., 1795, 12mo (the ninth edition, 1823, is revised by Rees and Jervis). This collection, generally known as Kippis's, was the first attempt to supply, for general use among liberal dissenters, a hymnal to take the place of Watts's. It was supplemented in 1807, and again in 1852, but is now out of use.

[Funeral Sermon by Aspland, with Oration by T. Rees, 1825; Memoir by Evans, in ‘Christian Moderator,’ 1 May 1826; Gent. Mag. 1802, ii. 974; B. D. Jackson's Actual Dates of Publication of Rees's Cyclopædia (1895); Wilson's Dissenting Churches of London, 1808 ii. 398 sq., 1810 iii. 354 sq., 1814 iv. 317; Biogr. Dict. of Living Authors, 1816, pp. 288 sq.; Monthly Repository, 1825, pp. 372 sq.; Bogue and Bennett's Hist. of Dissenters, 1833, ii. 519; Bennett's Hist. of Dissenters, 1839, pp. 385 sq.; Jones's Bunhill Memorials, 1849, p. 226; Memoir of Robert Aspland, 1850, pp. 455 sq.; Catalogue of Edinburgh Graduates, 1858, p. 244; Pike's Ancient Meeting-Houses, 1870, pp. 153 sq.; Rees's Hist. Prot. Nonconformity in Wales, 1883, pp. 412 sq.; Jeremy's Presbyterian Fund, 1885, pp. 11, 167 sq.; Julian's Dictionary of Hymnology, 1892, p. 1193.]

A. G.