Willison, John (DNB00)

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WILLISON, JOHN (1680–1750), Scottish divine, was born in 1680 at or near Stirling, where his family had been long settled and possessed considerable property. He was the eldest son of James Willison Mill of Craigforth and Bethia Gourlay, his spouse. He entered the university of Glasgow in 1695, and, though sometimes styled M.A., his name does not appear in the list of graduates. He was licensed by the presbytery of Stirling in 1701, appointed to the parish of Brechin by the united presbytery of Brechin and Arbroath in 1703, and ordained in December of that year. Many of his parishioners were Jacobites and episcopalians, and he encountered much opposition from them. In 1705 he reported to the presbytery that the former episcopal minister had retaken possession of the pulpit for the afternoon service on Sundays, that the magistrates refused to render him any assistance, and that he was told that he would be rabbled if he tried to oust the intruder. In 1712 he published a pamphlet entitled ‘Queries to the Scots Innovators in Divine Service, and particularly to the Liturgical Party in the Shire of Angus. By a Lover of the Church of Scotland;’ and in 1714 ‘A Letter from a Parochial Bishop to a Prelatical Gentleman concerning the Government of the Church.’ In 1716 Willison was translated from Brechin to the South church, Dundee. In 1719 he published an ‘Apology for the Church of Scotland against the Accusations of Prelatists and Jacobites,’ and in 1721 a letter to an English M.P. on the bondage in which the Scottish people were kept from the remains of the feudal system. In 1726 he preached before the general assembly, and from about this time he took a prominent place among the leaders of the popular party in the church. In his own presbytery he strenuously opposed John Glas [q. v.], minister of Tealing, who founded the ‘Glassites,’ otherwise called Sandemanians, and in 1729 Willison published a treatise against his tenets entitled ‘A Defence of the National Church, and particularly of the National Constitution of the Church of Scotland, against the Cavils of Independents.’

During the controversy which ended in the deposition of Ebenezer Erskine [q. v.] and his followers, Willison exerted himself to the utmost to prevent a schism. At the synod of Angus in 1733 he preached a sermon urging conciliatory measures, which was published under the title ‘The Church's Danger;’ and after the seceders had formed a presbytery of their own, it was through the influence of Willison and his friends that the assembly of 1734 rescinded the acts which had given them offence, and authorised the synod of Stirling to restore them to their former status. This assembly also sent Willison and two others to London to endeavour to procure the repeal of the act of 1712 which restored the right of patronage to the former patrons. For five years more the assembly persevered in its efforts to reclaim the seceders, and when at length it resolved to libel them, Willison with others dissented. As the seceders now declined the authority of the church and declared that its judicatories were ‘not lawful nor right constitute courts of Christ,’ the assembly found that they deserved deposition; but, on the earnest solicitation of Willison and his friends, the execution of the sentence was postponed for a year to give them a further opportunity of returning from their ‘divisive’ courses. They still stood out, however, and it is said that ‘the failure of Willison's efforts to prevent a schism so overwhelmed him with grief that he did not take an active share in church courts after that time.’ In 1742 Willison visited Cambuslang to see for himself the nature of the celebrated religious revival there which is associated with the name of Whitefield, and on his return journey he preached a sermon at Kilsyth which was followed by a like movement in that parish. In 1744 he published ‘A Fair and Impartial Testimony’ (to which several ministers and elders adhered) against the defections of the national church, the lamentable schism begun and carried on by the seceders, the adoption of liturgical forms and popish practices by Scottish episcopalians, and other innovations. In 1745 he published ‘Popery another Gospel,’ which he dedicated to the Duke of Cumberland. During the rising of 1745 highlanders belonging to Prince Charles's army twice entered his church and threatened to shoot him if he prayed for King George, so that he was obliged for a time to close the church and to officiate in private houses. Besides his controversial works, Willison published numerous treatises on devotional and practical religion, many of which were translated into Gaelic and were great favourites with the Scottish people. Willison was one of the most eminent evangelical clergymen of his time. He was remarkable for his combination of personal piety with public spirit, and, though frequently engaged in controversy, ‘there was no asperity in what he said or wrote.’ Faithful in every department of duty, he was specially noted for his diligence in catechising the young and in visiting the sick. He died on 3 May 1750 in the seventieth year of his age, and was buried in the South church, Dundee. On 11 Nov. 1714 he married Margaret, daughter of William Arrot, minister of Montrose, and had Andrew, a physician in Dundee; a daughter, who became the wife of W. Bell, minister of Arbroath, and other children. George Willison [q. v.] was his grandson.

Willison's principal works, besides those mentioned above, are: 1. ‘The Sanctification of the Lord's Day,’ 1713. 2. ‘A Sacramental Directory,’ 1716. 3. ‘Sermons before and after the Lord's Supper,’ 1722. 4. ‘The Mother's Catechism: an Example of Plain Catechising on the Shorter Catechism,’ 1731. 5. ‘The Young Communicant's Catechism,’ 1734. 6. ‘The Afflicted Man's Companion,’ 1737. 7. ‘The Balm of Gilead,’ 1742. 8. ‘Sacramental Meditations and Advices,’ 1747. 9. ‘Gospel Hymns,’ 1791. Most of them have been often republished, and there have been several collected editions of his practical works.

[Life by Dr. Hetherington prefixed to edition of Works, 1844; Life prefixed to his Collected Works, Aberdeen, 1817, and to edition of the Afflicted Man's Companion; Chambers's Biogr. Dict. vol. iv.; Morren's Annals of Gen. Assembly, 1739–52; Wodrow's Letters, vol. iii.; Scott's Fasti, III. ii. 692, 813; Robe on Revivals; Black's Brechin; information from Willison's descendants and from Mr. W. B. Cook, Stirling.]

G. W. S.