JAMES FORDYCE, D.D. a dissenting clergyman of considerable eminence, was born about 1720, in the city of Aberdeen, and was brother to the preceding David Fordyce. Having acquired the foundation of classical knowledge at the grammar school of his native place, and completed the usual course of study in philosophy and divinity at the Marischal college, Mr. Fordyce was licensed, when very young, according to the forms of the church of Scotland, and was settled soon after as one of the ministers of Brechin, in the County of Angus. He was removed from this, after some years, to the parish of Alloa near Stirling, where at first he had many prejudices to encounter; but the amiableness of his manners, his affectionate temper, and the assiduous discharge of his parochial duties, not only by preaching, but by visiting, catechizing, &c. his parishioners, as is the custom in Scotland, soon enabled him to overcome their dislike, and their attachment became so unbounded, that, when he afterwards left them to settle in London, his departure occasioned universal regret. During his residence at Alloa, he printed three occasional sermons, which attracted much notice; and he still farther increased his fame by publishing, in 1760, a sermon preached before the general assembly of the church of Scotland, "On the folly, infamy, and misery of Unlawful Pleasures." The delivery of this sermon entitled him to rank among the most popular orators of his country, and the style and sentiments, when it came to be examined in the closet, claimed the admiration not only of general readers, but of the best judges. It struck also with all the force of novelty, for nothing of that kind had hitherto been heard from the pulpits of Scotland.
About this time he received the degree of D.D. from the university of Glasgow, and was invited by the society of protestant dissenters in Monkwell-street, London, to be co-pastor with Dr. Lawrence, then aged and infirm. This invitation he accepted and upon Dr. Lawrence's death, which happened soon after, he became sole pastor, and continued to discharge the duties of that office till 1782, when his health, which had long been declining, rendered it necessary to discontinue his public services. But during his ministry in this place he acquired a higher degree of popularity than probably ever was, or will be attained by the same means. It was the strong force of his eloquence, which drew men of all ranks and all persuasions to hear him. His action and elocution were original, and peculiarly striking, and not a little assisted by his figure, which was tall beyond the common standard, and by a set of features which in preaching displayed great variety of expression and animation. Besides his regular attendants who subscribed to his support, his meeting was frequented by men curious in eloquence; and it is said that the celebrated David Garrick was more than once a hearer, and spoke of Dr. Fordyce's skill in oratory with great approbation. With respect to his theological sentiments, he appears to have possessed that general liberality which is "civil" to all systems, without being attached to any. From his printed works, it would be easier to prove that be belonged to no sect, than that he held the principles of any. As to the matter, morality appears to have been his chief object; and as to the manner, he evidently studied a polish and a spirit which is seldom met with in English pulpits, although it has not been unusual in those of France. In private life his piety was so conspicuous as to be universally acknowledged, and there was a fervour in his language and expression when he conversed on religious subjects of the general kind, which procured him the highest respect. During the prosperity of his brother, the banker, whose failure has made the name memorable in the annals of bankruptcy, he had probably access to much company of the upper ranks; and it is certain, that from this, or from a disposition naturally graceful, his manners were peculiarly elegant and courtly.
After he had been some years at Monkwell-street he had an assistant, Mr. Toller, but an unhappy dispute, aggravated by contradiction, and perhaps obstinacy on both sides, separated them, and very much thinned Dr. Fordyce's congregation. Towards his latter years, his sermons were poorly attended, and the public appeared to have been fully gratified with the past displays of his oratory; so uncertain is the popularity that depends principally on curiosity and fashion. After resigning the pastoral care of the society in Monkwell-street, he lived the greater part of his remaining years at a retirement in Hampshire, in the neighbourhood of lord Bute, with whom he lived in great intimacy, and to whose valuable library he had free access. Soon after the death of his brother, sir William Fordyce, M.D. he removed to Bath, where, after suffering much from an asthmatic complaint, to which he had been subject many years, he departed this life Oct. 1, 1796, in his 76th year.
His printed works were, besides the occasional sermons already mentioned, "Sermons to Young Women," 1765, 2 vols. 12mo. "Addresses to Young Men," 1777, 2 vols. 12mo. "Addresses to the Deity," 1785, 12mo. A volume of "Poems," 1786; and some sermons, the most valuable of which is "A charge at the ordination of the rev. James Lindsay," his successor in Monkwell-street, to whose eloquent and affectionate discourse on his funeral, we are indebted for the principal part of this account. He printed also when at Bath, "A Discourse on Pain," 1791, remarkable for a certain cure for the cramp, which we dare not transcribe, but of which the original thought seems to be borrowed from Beaumont and Fletcher's Knight of the burning Pestle, Act 3. Of these works his "Sermons to young Women" were once in high esteem. The novelty of the title, and of the subjects, as coming from the pulpit, made them universally read; but neither in them, nor in the greater part of his other works, do we discover talents that are more than superficial. He was perhaps the first of sentimental preachers, but we question whether that pre-eminence be enviable. He drew largely on his imagination, and by striking allusions, and graceful turns of expression, produced all that eloquence can produce when it is not addressed to the judgment, a temporary persuasion. But he made no additions to our stock of theological knowledge, and, although he appealed in a general way, to the fundamental articles of the Christian belief, he illustrated none of its doctrines. His chief aim in truth seems to have been to refine and polish the language of devotion, and in this it must be confessed he has eminently succeeded. [Funeral Sermon by the rev. James Lindsay, D.D. — Beaumont and Fletcher's Works, vol. VI. P. 421, edit. 1778.]