Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Webster, Alexander

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747312Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 60 — Webster, Alexander1899Alexander Hastie Millar

WEBSTER, ALEXANDER (1707–1784), Scots writer, was the son of James Webster, by his second wife, Agnes, daughter of Alexander Menzies of Culter in Lanarkshire.

The father, James Webster (1658?–1720), minister, was born in 1658 or 1659, and studied at St. Andrews University, but, quarrelling with Archbishop Sharp, he had to leave the university before he took his M.A. degree. He joined the covenanters, and twice suffered imprisonment for his religious opinions. After the revolution he was appointed presbyterian minister of Liberton (near Edinburgh) in 1688, was removed to Whitekirk in 1691, and thence in 1693 to the collegiate church, Edinburgh, which he retained until his death on 18 May 1720 (Scott, Fasti Eccles. Scot. i. 53, 116, 385).

Alexander Webster was born at Edinburgh in 1707, and was educated at the high school there. In 1733 he was licensed as a preacher by the presbytery of Haddington, and in the same year was appointed assistant and successor to Allan Logan, minister of Culross. On Logan's death in September 1733 Webster assumed the full charge, and in June 1737 he was translated to the Tolbooth church, Edinburgh. Webster's favourite study had been mathematics, and he applied his knowledge in a philanthropic manner. In 1742 he laid before the general assembly a proposal for providing annuities for the widows of clergymen, basing his plan upon actuarial calculations. To obtain information that would enable him to formulate his scheme, he put himself in communication with all the presbyteries in Scotland; and the tables of average longevity drawn up by him were so accurate that they have since formed the basis for similar calculations made by modern life insurance companies. Webster received in 1744 the thanks of the general assembly for his labours. In August 1748 he was appointed chaplain to the Prince of Wales; and on 24 May 1753 he was elected moderator of the general assembly. Previous to 1755 no census had been taken in Scotland, and the government, through Lord-president Dundas, commissioned Webster in that year to obtain figures as to the population. Sir Robert Sibbald [q. v.] had projected an enumeration of this kind in 1682, but it had never been accomplished. The plan taken by Webster was to send a schedule of queries to every parish minister in Scotland, and from the replies thus obtained he made up the first census of the kingdom in 1755. The manuscripts of this work are now in the Advocates' Library, Edinburgh. They were used by Sir John Sinclair [q. v.] when he made up his statistical account of Scotland at the close of last century; and Sinclair adopted the system which Webster had devised. On 24 Nov. 1760 Webster obtained the degree of D.D. from Edinburgh University. In the following month he was one of a deputation sent by the general assembly to present an address to George III on his accession to the throne. He was appointed general collector of the ministers' widows' fund in June 1771, and in that year was made one of his majesty's chaplains-in-ordinary for Scotland and a dean of the Chapel Royal. He died on 25 Jan. 1784. In 1737 he married Mary, daughter of Colonel John Erskine of Alva, by whom he had six sons and a daughter; his wife died on 28 Nov. 1766.

Webster was a devoted adherent of the house of Hanover. When Prince Charles Edward entered Edinburgh, Webster was almost the only minister who remained in the city; and it is said that it was through his importunity that Colonel James Gardiner (1688–1745) [q. v.] was induced to precipitate the encounter at Prestonpans, where Gardiner was slain. After Culloden had terminated the Jacobite rising, Webster preached a sermon in the Tolbooth church on 23 June 1746, in which he eulogised the conduct of the Duke of Cumberland. He is credited with the authorship of the song, ‘Oh, how could I venture to love one like thee!’ which was first published in the ‘Scots Magazine’ for 1747 (ix. 589), and is often referred to as a model love-song. It is said that he suggested to Lord-provost George Drummond the plan for the construction of the new town of Edinburgh which has since been carried out.

His portrait, painted by David Martin, was placed in the hall of the ministers' widows' fund office, and an engraved portrait was published in the ‘Scots Magazine’ for 1802. His principal publications are:

  1. ‘Divine Influence the True Spring of the Extraordinary Work at Cambuslang,’ 1742 (a defence of the revival that followed Whitefield's preaching); second edition with postscript, 1742.
  2. ‘Vindication of the Postscript,’ 1743.
  3. ‘Calculations, with the Principles and Data on which they are instituted relative to the Widows' Scheme,’ 1748.
  4. ‘Zeal for the Civil and Religious Interests of Mankind commended,’ 1754.

[Chambers's Eminent Scotsmen, ed. 1872 iii. 506; Scots Magazine, 1747 ix. 589, 1802 lxiv. 277, 384, 411; Scott's Fasti, i. 51, iv. 586; Catalogue of Edinburgh Graduates, p. 242.]

A. H. M.