HUGH BLAIR, D.D. an eminent divine of the church of Scotland, was born at Edinburgh, April 7, 1718. His father, John Blair, a respectable merchant in that city, was a descendant of the ancient family of Blair, in Ayrshire, and grandson of the famous Mr. Robert Blair, minister of St. Andrew's, chaplain to Charles I. and one of the most zealous and distinguished clergymen of the period in which he lived. Of the two sons who survived him, David, the eldest, was a clergyman of eminence in Edinburgh, and father to Mr. Robert Blair, minister of Athelstanford, the author of the well-known poem entitled "The Grave." From his youngest son, Hugh, who engaged in business as a merchant, and had the honour to fill a high station in the magistracy of Edinburgh, the object of the present memoir descended.
Dr. Blair was educated for the church, and while he prosecuted his studies at the college of Edinburgh with great success and approbation, a circumstance occurred which determined the bent of his genius towards polite literature. An essay "On the beautiful," written by him when a student of logic, in the usual course of academical exercises, had the good fortune to attract the notice of professor Stevenson, and with circumstances honourable to the author, was appointed to be read in public, at the conclusion of the session, a mark of distinction which made a deep impression on his mind.
At this time, Dr. Blair commenced a method of study which contributed much to the accuracy and extent of his knowledge, and which he continued to practise occasionally, even after his reputation was fully established. It consisted in making abstracts of the most important works which he read, and in digesting them according to the train of his own thoughts. History, in particular, he resolved to study in this manner; and, in concert with some of his youthful associates, he constructed a very comprehensive scheme of chronological tables, for receiving into its proper place every important fact that should occur. The scheme devised by this young student for his own private use, was afterwards improved, filled up, and given to the public by his learned friend Dr. John Blair, prebendary of Westminster, in his valuable work "The Chronology and History of the World."
In 1739 Dr. Blair took his degree of A.M. and in 1741 was licensed to preach by the presbytery of Edinburgh, and his first living was the parish of Colessie, in Fife; but in 1743 he was recalled to his native city, as second minister of the Canongate church, in which he continued eleven years. In 1754 he was translated from the Canongate to lady Yester's, one of the city churches, and in 1758 he was promoted to the high church of Edinburgh, the most important ecclesiastical charge in that kingdom.
Hitherto his attention seems to have been devoted almost exclusively to the attainment of professional excellence, and to the regular discharge of his parochial duties. No production of his pen had yet been given to the world by himself, except two occasional sermons, some translations in verse of passages of Scripture for the psalmody of the church) and a few articles in the Edinburgh Review, a publication begun in 1755, and conducted for a short time by some of the ablest men in that kingdom.
But, standing as he now did, at the head of his profession, and released by the labour of former years from what his biographer, rather incautiously, calls the drudgery of weekly preparation for the pulpit, he began to think seriously on a plan for teaching to others that art which had contributed so much to the establishment of his own fame. With this view he communicated to his friends a scheme of lectures on composition; and having obtained the approbation of the university, he began to read them in the college on the 11th of December, 1759. Before this, he had received the degree of D.D. from the university of St. Andrew's, a literary honour which at that time was very rare in Scotland. His first course of lectures were so much approved, that the patrons of the university, convinced that they would form a valuable addition to the system of education, agreed in the following summer to institute a rhetorical class under his direction, as a permanent part of their academical establishment; and on the 7th of April, 1762, his majesty was graciously pleased "To erect and endow a professorship of rhetoric and belles lettres in the university of Edinburgh, and to appoint Dr. Blair, in consideration of his approved qualifications, regius professor thereof, with a salary of £70." These lectures he published in 1783, when he retired from the labours of the office; and the general voice of the public has pronounced them to be a most judicious, elegant, and comprehensive system of rules for forming the style, and cultivating the taste of youth.
About this time he was employed in "rescuing from oblivion the poems of Ossian." The controversy respecting the authenticity of these poems is well known. The biographer of Dr. Blair asserts that it was by the solicitation of Dr. Blair and Mr. John Home (the author of Douglas), that Mr. Macpherson was induced to publish his "Fragments of Ancient Poetry," and that their patronage was of essential service in procuring the subscription which enabled him to undertake his tour through the Highlands for collecting the materials of Fingal, and of those other productions which bear the name of Ossian. To these, in 1763, Dr. B1air prefixed a "Dissertation" of the critical kind, which procured him much reputation, whatever may be thought of the subject. The great objects of his literary ambition being now attained, his talents were for many years consecrated solely to the important and peculiar employments of his station. But his chief fame was yet to rest upon the publication of his sermons, and the fate of them furnishes a singular instance of the vicissitudes of literary history. His biographer, however, relates this without any of the circumstances that are most interesting. He contents himself with saying that "It was not till the year 1777 that he could be induced to favour the world with a volume of the sermons which had so long furnished instruction and delight to his own congregation. But this volume being well received, the public approbation encouraged him to proceed; three other volumes followed at different intervals; and all of them experienced a degree of success of which few publications can boast. They circulated rapidly and widely wherever the English tongue extends; they were soon translated into almost all the languages of Europe; and his present majesty, with that wise attention to the interests of religion and literature which distinguishes his reign, was graciously pleased to judge them worthy of a public reward. By a royal mandate to the exchequer in Scotland, doted July 25th, 1780, a pension of £200 a year was conferred on their author, which continued unaltered till his death."
Mr. Boswell, in his "Life of Dr. Johnson," informs us that Dr. Blair transmitted the manuscript of his first volume of sermons to Mr. Strahan, the king's printer, who, after keeping it for some time, wrote a letter to him, discouraging the publication. Such at first was the unpropitious state of one of the most successful theological books that has ever appeared. Mr. Strahan, however, had sent one of the sermons to Dr, Johnson, for his opinion; and after his unfavourable letter to Dr. Blair had been sent off, he received from Johnson on Christmas-eve, 1776, a note in which was the following paragraph: "I have read over Dr. Blair's first sermon with more than approbation; to say it is good, is to say too little." Mr. Strahan had very soon after this time, a conversation with Dr. Johnson concerning them; and then he very candidly wrote again to Dr. Blair, enclosing Johnson's note, and agreeing to purchase the volume, for which he and Mr. Cadell gave one hundred pounds. The sale was so rapid and extensive, and the approbation of the public so high, that, to their honour be it recorded, the proprietors made Dr. Blair a present, first of one sum, and afterwards of another, of fifty pounds; thus voluntarily doubling the stipulated price; and when he prepared another volume, they gave him at once three hundred pounds; and, we believe, for the others he had six hundred pounds each. A fifth volume was prepared by him for the press, and published after his death, 1801, to which is added a "Short account of his Life" by James Finlayson, D.D. of which we have availed ourselves in the preceding account. The sermons contained in this last volume were composed at very different periods of his life, but were all written out anew in his own hand, and in many parts re-composed, during the course of the summer 1800, after he had completed his eighty-second year.
In April 1748 he married his cousin, Katherine Bannatine, daughter of the rev. James Bannatine, one of the ministers of Edinburgh. By her he had a son, who died in infancy, and a daughter, who lived to her twenty-first year. Mrs. Blair died a few years before her husband, after she had shared with the tenderest affection in all his fortunes, and contributed near half a century to his happiness and comfort.
Dr. Blair had been naturally of a feeble constitution of body, but, as he grew up, it acquired greater firmness and vigour. Though liable to occasional attacks from some of the sharpest and most painful diseases that afflict the human frame, he enjoyed a general state of good health; and, through habitual cheerfulness, temperance, and care, survived the usual term of human life. For some years he felt himself unequal to the fatigue of instructing his very large congregations from the pulpit; and under the impression which this feeling produced, he was heard at times to say, "that he was left almost the last of his contemporaries." Yet he continued to the end in the regular discharge of all his other official duties, and particularly in giving advice to the afflicted, who, from different quarters of the kingdom, solicited his correspondence. His last summer was devoted to the preparation of the fifth volume of his sermons; and, in the course of it, he exhibited a vigour of understanding, and capacity of exertion, equal to that of his best days. He began the winter pleased with himself, on account of the completion of this work; and his friends were flattered with the hope that he might live to enjoy the accession of emolument and fame which he expected it would bring. But the seeds of a mortal disease were lurking unperceived within him. On the 24th of December 1800, he complained of a pain in his bowels, which, during that and the following day, gave him but little uneasiness; and he received as usual the visits of his friends. On the afternoon of the 26th, the symptoms became violent and alarming; he felt that he was approaching the end of his appointed course; and, retaining to the last moment the full possession of his mental faculties, he expired on the morning of the 27th, universally lamented through the city which he had so long instructed and adorned.
Although the popularity of Dr. Blair's "Sermons" exceeds all that we read of in the history of literature, yet it does not appear to us to be of that species arising from judgment as well as taste, which leads to permanent reputation. They happened to hit the taste of the age, to whom compositions so highly polished, were somewhat new; and they were introduced by that fashionable patronage which common readers find irresistible. They differ from all other compositions under the same title, in being equally adapted to readers of every class; and they were recommended to the perusal of the young of every religious persuasion, as containing nothing that could interfere with their opinions. Their character is that of moral discourses, but as such they never could have attained their popularity without that high polish of style which was the author's peculiar object. Under this are concealed all the defects which attach to them as sermons, a name which they can never deserve when compared with the works of the most eminent English and Scotch divines. It may be doubted, therefore, whether his "Lectures" will not prolong his fame to a much later period. Although he possessed a sound judgment rather than a vigorous mind, and had more taste than genius, yet, perhaps, on the former account his lectures may always be recommended as an useful introduction to polite literature. "They contain," says an excellent critic, "an accurate analysis of the principles of literary composition, in all the various species of writing; a happy illustration of those principles by the most beautiful and apposite examples, drawn from the best authors both ancient and modern; and an admirable digest of the rules of elocution, as applicable to the oratory of the pulpit, the bar, and the popular assembly. They do not aim at the character of a work purely original; for this, as the author justly considered, would have been to circumscribe their utility; neither in point of style are they polished with the same degree of care that the author has bestowed on some of his other works, as for example, his 'Sermons.' Yet, so useful is the object of these lectures, so comprehensive their plan, and such the excellence of the matter they contain, that, if not the most splendid, they will, perhaps, prove the most durable monument of their author's reputation."