Oliphant, James (DNB00)

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OLIPHANT, JAMES (1734–1818), Scottish divine, second son of William Oliphant of Stirling, was born in Stirling in 1734. He matriculated at the university of Glasgow in 1753, and graduated M.A. in 1756. In 1757 Oliphant entered as a divinity student, and attended for four sessions the classes in the hall of the secession church at Glasgow. He left that body, however, owing to a difference with some of the professors, and joined the communion of the church of Scotland. After receiving his license in 1760 from the presbytery of Kintyre, he officiated for a time in the Gorbals Church, Glasgow, from which he was promoted in 1764 to be minister of the chapel-of-ease in Kilmarnock. Oliphant, who had a strong and sonorous voice, was afterwards lampooned by Robert Burns—who, before he was fifteen, had heard him preach—in the second stanza of his poem entitled ‘The Ordination:’—

Curst Common Sense, that imp of hell,
Cam' in wi' Maggie Lauder;
But Oliphant aft made her yell,
An' Russell sair misca'd her.

(Russell was Oliphant's successor in Kilmarnock.) Oliphant's ultra-Calvinistic views excited not only the satire of Burns, but the more earnest hostility of the Arminian clergy. He ministered in Kilmarnock for eleven years, and in 1773, at the request of the inhabitants of Dumbarton, he was presented by the town council with the charge of the parish church in that town. To check the spread of the Arminian heresy, which was causing no little excitement in Scotland at the time, Oliphant compiled a little catechism for the use of schools and young communicants. In order to annoy him, his opponents in Kilmarnock—the moderates, as they were termed—employed a man to walk the streets of Dumbarton, proclaiming as he went ‘the whole works of the Rev. James Oliphant, presentee to this parish, for the small charge of two pence.’ Oliphant lost his sight shortly before his death, which took place on 10 April 1818. He was twice married: first to Elizabeth Hay, on 27 Nov. 1764 (she died on 29 March 1780, leaving a daughter Charlotte, who married Captain David Denny of Glasgow); secondly, on 27 April 1784, to Janet, daughter of Humphrey Colquhoun of Barnhill, who died on 27 June 1805, leaving three daughters, Margaret, Janet (who married Robert Hart, merchant in Glasgow), and Anne (who married the Rev. William Taylor, minister of the associate burgher congregation, Levenside).

Oliphant was a ‘sound and racy theologian, and an interesting and highly accomplished preacher.’ ‘There was a vein of humour which pervaded his mind, and occasionally burst forth in the pulpit in some striking, homely, or quaint remark’ (Biographical Notices, by J. W. Taylor, 1852).

He was the author of two small pamphlets which had an immense popularity in their day: 1. ‘The Mother's Catechism, doctrinal and historical, designed for the school and family; and enlarged for the benefit of young communicants,’ 12mo, Glasgow, 1772. Of this work more than twenty editions were published before and after his death. 2. ‘A Sacramental Catechism, designed for communicants old and young … to which is subjoined an abstract of that solemn mode of public admission to the Lord's Table which has been practised in the parish of Kilmarnock,’ 12mo, Glasgow, 1779. This has also run through numerous editions. Oliphant also wrote the history of the parish of Dumbarton for Sir John Sinclair's ‘Statistical Account of Scotland,’ 1792.

[Presbytery Register of Dumbarton; tombstone in Dumbarton churchyard; McKay's History of Kilmarnock; Scot's Fasti, pt. iii.; Irving's Book of Dumbartonshire; Taylor's Life of Rev. William Taylor; Cleland's Annals, vol. i.; matriculation album of Glasgow University; Dr. Charles Rogers's Book of Robert Burns.]

G. S-h.