The life of a literary man, employed in cultivating the powers of his taste and his understanding, or of a clergyman instructing his people in the duties of religion and virtue, cannot afford much matter for the historian or biographer. Such has been the life of Dr. Blair, of which therefore our readers are now to expect but very few particulars. If indeed we could penetrate into the retirement of this elegant author, and could trace the steps by which his taste and genius have ascended to that eminence on which we now behold them placed, we might be able to lay before them much matter of instruction and entertainment. But as that is not permitted us, they must be content with these few facts.
Dr. Blair is the son of a respectable clergyman in the Church of Scotland; and having himself made choice of the same profession, he was ordained to the parish of Collesie in Fifeshire, in the year 1743. The fame of his preaching, which even so early as that, began to be known, did not allow him to continue long there; in a few months after his ordination, he was translated to the canongate church at Edinburgh. He remained there till 1752, when he was chosen one of the ministers of the city, and 1758, was preferred to the Metropolitan or High Church. His early introduction into Edinburgh, the seat of an university, and the resort of many learned men, afforded him an excellent opportunity of pursuing those literary objects, which almost from his earliest youth, he appeared to have in view.
Accordingly, about this period (1758) he began to open a class for rhetoric and belles lettres, and read there the first sketch of those lectures which are now presented to the public; these were so well received, that the year following (1759) he was created the first Regius Professor of Rhetoric and Belles Lettres in the University of Edinburgh.
His first publication was a criticism on Ossian, in which, with great justness, he has applied the rules of that science to that antient poem, and pointed out those beauties, which are so strongly marked with the characters of antiquity. In 1777, he published the first volume of those sermons, which are so justly admired by every one whose devotion is guided by reason, or accompanied by taste. The approbation of the public was signified by the rapid sale of this book, and that of a great personage, (the Queen) by a testimony no less unequivocal, a grant to Dr. Blair of a pension of £200 per annum. The second volume of his sermons appeared soon after, and certainly has not deceived the high expectations which were formed of it.
The clergy of Scotland have long been divided into two parties: The one has sought for popular favour, by cherishing those sentiments of bigotry and fanaticism, by which the people there are so unhappily disposed: The other have uniformly endeavoured to check or to eradicate those sentiments, and to establish the principles of rational and moderate religion in their place.
In this party Dr. Robertson, for many years, has taken the lead, and by his abilities and eloquence, has contributed more than any one to the effecting of their great object. It is but justice to Dr. Blair to say, that though he has never been a speaker in the national assemblies of the church, he has ever acted in conjunction with his learned and respectable friend, and with great steadiness has maintained the principles of moderation.
In this manner then has Dr. Blair's life been spent, affording few materials for history, though abounding in employment, honourable to himself, and useful to the world. He has been employed in diffusing taste and the love of elegant literature through his country; in maintaining the peace and justice of its ecclesiastical establishment, and in inforcing the precepts of Christianity, not more by the powers of his eloquence, than by the purity of his manners. Such has been the business of his life, and his success has been proportioned to the ability and diligence he has exerted in it: he has purchased immortality to himself, while he has been useful to the world, and will continue to please and instruct mankind, as long as they possess either taste or virtue, that is, as long as they are worthy of being pleased, or capable of being instructed.
It may be proper to mention, that Dr. Blair has ever lived in the strictest friendship with the most remarkable of his countrymen. Dr. Robertson, Dr. Ferguson, Mr. Smith, and the late Lord Kames, have been his particular friends.
He has ever been of a character so truly moderate, that though possessing the full confidence of his friends, he has been very little obnoxious to his opponents, and has born his faculties so meekly, that even the "odium theologicum" has found nothing to take note on.