Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Stevenson, William Fleming

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STEVENSON, WILLIAM FLEMING (1832–1886), Irish divine, youngest child of William Stevenson, a merchant in Strabane, co. Tyrone, by Margaret Anne, daughter of Samuel Morton, was born at Strabane on 20 Sept. 1832. After being taught for some time by a private tutor, he was sent in 1844 to the Royal Academical Institution, Belfast, where he remained until in 1848 he entered the university of Glasgow. Here he graduated M.A. in 1851, when he commenced the study of theology at New College, Edinburgh. His course completed, he went in 1854 to Germany, where he studied for some time at the universities of Berlin and Heidelberg, and made his first acquaintance with those forms of Christian activity which he afterwards described in ‘Praying and Working.’ In 1856 he was licensed to preach by the presbytery of Strabane, and in the autumn of 1857 became a town missionary in Belfast, where a virulent attack of typhus, caught in the discharge of his duties, almost cost him his life. After holding two temporary appointments, one as locum tenens in Bonn for William Graham, D.D. (1810–1883) [q. v.], in 1858, and the other as assistant to the Rev. D. McKee in Belfast in 1859, he was ordained on 1 March 1860 as minister of a newly established presbyterian congregation at Rathgar, a suburb of Dublin. Two years later a new church there, built largely through Stevenson's exertions, was opened. So popular were his ministrations that it was soon filled, and was twice enlarged.

Stevenson's literary activity began early. In 1855 he commenced writing in the ‘Edinburgh Christian Instructor,’ then edited by Dr. Norman Macleod (1812–1872) [q. v.] To ‘Good Words’ he contributed from the beginning. ‘Praying and Working’ first appeared in its early numbers. It was published separately in 1862, and was very popular from the first. In 1873 he published a large selection of ‘Hymns for the Church and Home,’ which had a wide circulation.

Meanwhile, in 1871, Stevenson's deep interest in foreign missions caused him to be appointed colleague to the Rev. James Morgan, D.D. [q. v.], Belfast, in the honorary convenership of the Irish General Assembly's foreign mission. On Morgan's death in 1873 he became sole convener. Much of his time and thought was henceforth devoted to this enterprise. As an auxiliary to it he founded a zenana mission. In 1877, accompanied by his wife, he made, at the request of the general assembly, a journey round the world, visiting mission stations, especially in China and India. In 1879–80 he held the chair of evangelistic theology in New College, Edinburgh, and from 1882 till 1886 he was Duff lecturer on foreign missions. A series of lectures which he delivered in this last capacity was published posthumously in 1887, under the title ‘The Dawn of the Modern Mission.’ In 1881 he was elected to the lectureship founded in Londonderry in memory of Richard Smyth [q. v.], and lectured on his favourite theme, ‘The History and Methods of Christian Missions.’

Many other public duties also devolved upon him. In 1879 he was appointed by the crown one of the first senators of the newly established Royal University of Ireland. In 1881 he was elected moderator of the general assembly, and in the same year received the honorary degree of D.D. from the university of Edinburgh. In 1886 he was appointed chaplain to the lord lieutenant of Ireland (the Earl of Aberdeen), being the first presbyterian clergyman selected for that office. His multiplied activities wore him prematurely out, and he died suddenly on 16 Sept. 1886. He was buried in Mount Jerome cemetery, Dublin. ‘The Fleming Stevenson Missionary Training College’ was established in his memory at Ahmedabad, and his library, now called ‘The Stevenson Memorial Library,’ was presented to the Assembly's College, Belfast.

Stevenson married, in 1865, Elizabeth Montgomery, eldest daughter of John Sinclair, esq., Belfast. He left two sons, one of whom became a missionary to India, and three daughters.

[Life and Letters, by his wife, 1888, 2nd edit. 1890; Biographical Sketch prefixed to posthumous edition of Praying and Working, 1886; personal knowledge.]

T. H.