ALEXANDER GEDDES, a Roman catholic divine, who attempted to translate the Bible, with a view to destroy its credibility, was born in 1737, in the parish of Ruthven, and county of Bamff, in Scotland. His parents, who were Roman catholics, in very humble life, possessed but a few books, among which was an English Bible, to the study of which their son applied very early, and is said to have known all its history by heart before he was eleven years old. At the age of fourteen he was sent to Scalan, a free Roman catholic seminary in the Highlands, of obscure fame, where he acquired only an acquaintance with the vulgate Latin Bible. Having attained the age of twenty-one, he was removed to the Scotch college at Paris, where he made such proficiency in his studies as very much attracted the attention of his preceptors. Here school divinity and biblical criticism occupied the principal part of his time; and he endeavoured also to make himself waster of the Greek and Latin languages, and of the French, Spanish, German, and Low Dutch.
In 1764 he returned to Scotland, and was ordered to Dundee to officiate as priest among the catholics in the county of Angus, but was scarcely settled when he received an invitation to become a resident in the family of the earl of Traquaire, in what capacity, unless as a friend, does not appear. He accepted, however, an offer so favourable to the pursuit of his studies; and here, as well as at Paris, lie regulated his inquiries so as to be preparatory to the plan he had long conceived, of giving a new translation of the Bible. His residence here was unfortunately interrupted by an attachment he formed for a female relative of the earl of Traquaire's, and which was reciprocal; but regarding his vow of celibacy as sacred, and his passion otherwise invincible, he left the family, and vent again to Paris, where he continued about eight or nine months, and returned to Scotland in the spring of 1769. He now accepted the charge of a catholic congregation at Auchinhalrig in the county of Bamff, where be engaged the affections of his flock by many pastoral offices, reconciling differences, administering to the poor, and rebuilding their ruinous chapel. All this, however, seems to have involved him in pecuniary difficulties, from which he was extricated by the late duke of Norfolk, the last catholic peer of that illustrious family. To prevent similar embarrassments, Mr. Geddes now took a small farm, which again involved him in debts, which be endeavoured to discharge by an application to the muses. "Some daemon," he says, "whispered him that he had a turn for poetry," which produced in 1779, "Select Satires of Horace, translated into English verse, and for the most part adapted to the present times and manners," 4to. The impression of this work extended only to 750 copies, yet he reaped a profit of £100 which he received with exultation, and applied to the liquidation of his arrears. This success determined him also to relinquish his retirement, and try what his abilities might obtain for him in London, and his removal was probably accelerated by his having incurred the displeasure of the bishop of his diocese, Dr. Hay, on account of his attending the ministry of a presbyterian friend. The bishop had before warned him to desist, and finding him refractory, deposed him from his office, arid prohibited him from preaching within the extent of his diocese. He left his charge accordingly, and previous to his leaving Scotland, received the degree of LL.D. from one of the colleges of Aberdeen. His reputation for learning, indeed, was very considerable in Scotland, and lie was one of the literati who took a very active part in the institution of a society of antiquaries at Edinburgh. In their volume for 1792 he wrote "A dissertation on the Scoto-Saxon Dialect," and "The first Eklog of Virgil," and "The first Idyllion of Theocritus, translatitt into Scottis vers," in the former of which the Edinburgh dialect is chiefly imitated, and in the latter the Buchan. He also composed a "Carmen Seculare" for the society's anniversary of 1789.
He arrived in London in the beginning of 178, and was soon invited to officiate as priest in the Imperial ambassador's chapel, and preached occasionally at the chapel in Duke-street, Lincoln's-Inn Fields, until the Easter holidays, 1782, after which he voluntarily withdrew from every stated ministerial function, and seldom officiated in any chapel whatever. The principal reason was, that on his arrival in London he was introduced to men of literature of every class, obtained easy access to public libraries, and in his design of translating the Bible, obtained the patronage of lord Petre. This nobleman engaged to allow him a salary of £200 and took upon himself the entire expence of whatever private library Dr. Geddes might judge requisite to collect in the prosecution of his favourite object.
With such munificent encouragement, he published its 1780 his "Idea of a New Version of the Holy Bible, for the use of the English Catholics." This was an imperfect sketch, as he had not settled what versions to follow. Among his encouragers, who then thought favourably of him, were Dr. Kennicott, and bishop Lowth. To the latter he presented, in 1785, his "Prospectus," who returned it with a polite note, in which he recommended him to publish it, not only as an introduction to his work, but as a useful and edifying treatise for young students in divinity. He accordingly published it at Glasgow, and it was very favourably received by biblical scholars in general. Being thus encouraged, he first published "A Letter to the right rev, the bishop of London, containing queries, doubts, and difficulties, relative to a vernacular version of the Holy Scriptures." This was designed as an appendix to his Prospectus, and was accompanied with a success equal to that of his former publication. After this he published several pamphlets on temporary topics, of which it will be sufficient to give the titles in our list of his works. In 1788 appeared his "Proposals for printing by subscription, a New Translation of the Bible, from corrected texts of the original; with various readings, explanatory notes, and critical observations." In this he solicited the opinion, hints, &c. of literary characters, and received so many that, in July 1790, he thought proper to publish "Dr. Geddes' general Answer to the queries, counsels, and criticisms that have been communicated to him since the publication of his Proposals for printing a New Translation of the Bible." In this pamphlet, while he resists the generality of counsels and criticisms communicated to him, from motives which he very candidly assigns, he yields to several, and liberally expresses his obligations to the correspondents who proposed them. It appears, however, that his brethren of the catholic persuasion were already suspicious, and that he lost whatever share of popularity he formerly had within the pale of his own church. He acknowledges that he received more encouragement from the established church and the protestant dissenters. His subscribers amounted to 43, among which were very few Roman catholics. In 1792 the first volume of the translation appeared, under the title of "The Holy Bible, or the books accounted sacred by Jews and Christians; otherwise called the Books of the Old and New Covenants, faithfully translated from corrected texts of the originals with various readings, explanatory notes, and critical remarks:" and a second volume appeared in 1797. The manner in which Dr. Geddes executed his translation, brought upon him attacks from various quarters, but especially from his catholic brethren. The opposition and difficulties he had, on this account, to encounter, were stated by him in "An Address to the Public." Indeed, his orthodoxy having been questioned before his volume appeared, he was summoned by those whom he admitted to be the organs of legitimate authority. His three judges, however, were either satisfied or silenced, much to the doctor's satisfaction. Shortly after the first volume of his translation was published, an ecclesiastical interdict, under the title of "A Pastoral Letter," signed by Walmsley, Gibson, and Douglas, as apostolic vicars of the western, northern, and London districts, was published, in which Geddes's work was prohibited to the faithful. Against this prohibition (which bishop Thomas Talbot refused to subscribe) the doctor, first giving bishop Douglas notice, published a remonstrance in a letter addressed to him; but notwithstanding this, he was suspended from all ecclesiastical functions. In 1800 he published the first, and only volume he lived to finish, of " Critical Remarks on the Hebrew Scriptures; corresponding with a New Translation of the Bible," 4to. How far Dr. Geddes merited the censures bestowed upon him both by Roman catholics and protestants, in his translation and Critical Remarks, the reader may judge, when he is told that in this volume he attacks the credit of Moses in every part of his character, as an historian, a legislator, and a moralist. He even doubts whether he was the author of the Pentateuch; but the writer, whoever he might be, is one, he tells us, who upon all occasions gives into the marvellous, adorns his narration with fictions of the interference of the Deity, when every thing happened in a natural way; and, at other times, dresses up fable in the garb of true history. The history of the creation is, according to him, a fabulous cosmogony. The story of the fall a mythos in which nothing but the mere imagination of the commentators, possessing more piety than judgment, could have discovered either a seducing devil, or the promise of a Saviour. It is a fable, he asserts, intended for the purpose of persuading the vulgar, that knowledge is the toot of all evil, and the desire of it a crime. Moses was, it seems, a man of great talents, as Numa and Lycurgus were. But like them, he was a false pretender to personal intercourse with the Deity, with whom he had no immediate communication. He had the art to take the advantage of rare, but natural occurrences, to persuade he Israelites that the immediate power of God was exerted to accomplish his projects. When a violent wind happened to lay dry the head of the Gulph of Suez, he persuaded them that God had made a passage for them through the sea; and the narrative of their march is embellished with circumstances of mere fiction. In the delivery of the ten commandments, he took advantage of a thunder-storm to persuade the people that Jehovah had descended upon mount Sinai; and he counterfeited the voice of God, by a person, in the height of the storm, speaking through a trumpet, &c. &c. Without proceeding farther in accumulating the proofs of arrogance, ignorance, and impiety, with which this "Translation" and "Critical Remarks" abound, we shall only add, that even Dr. Priestiey seemed to doubt "if such a man as Geddes, who believed so little, and who conceded so much, could be a Christian."
An attack had been made upon him as an infidel, in the Gentleman's Magazine, soon after his death, and it was said that "his dying recantation, like that of Voltaire, had been studiously concealed." In answer to this, his learned, but somewhat too affectionately partial biographer, John Mason Good, F.R.S. gives an account of an interview between Dr. Geddes and M. St. Martin, a catholic priest, which we shall transcribe.
"M. St. Martin found the doctor extremely comatose, and believed him to be in the utmost danger; he endeavoured to rouse him from his lethargy, and proposed to him to receive absolution. Dr. Geddes observed, that in such case it was necessary he should first make his confession. M. St. Martin was sensible that he had neither strength nor wakefulness enough for such an exertion, and replied that in extremis this was not necessary; that he had only to examine the state of his own mind, and to make a sign when he was prepared. M. St. Martin is a gentleman of much liberality of sentiment, but strenuously attached to what are denominated the orthodox tenets of the catholic church; he had long beheld with great grief of heart what he conceived the aberrations of his learned friend; and had flattered himself that in the course of this last illness he should be the happy instrument of recalling him to a full belief of every doctrine he had rejected; and with this view he was actually prepared upon the present occasion with a written list of questions, in the hope of obtaining from the doctor an accurate and satisfactory reply. He found, however, from the lethargic state of Dr. Geddes, that this regular process was impracticable. He could not avoid, nevertheless, examining the state of his mind as to several of the more important points upon which they differed. 'You fully,' said he, 'believe in the Scriptures?' He roused himself from his sleep, and said, 'Certainly.' — 'In the doctrine of the trinity?' — Certainly, but not in the manner you mean.' — 'In the mediation of Jesus Christ;' — 'No, no, no — not as you mean; in Jesus Christ as our saviour — but not in the atonement.' I inquired of M. St. Martin, if in the course of what had occurred, he had any reason to suppose that his religious creed either now, or in any other period of his illness, had sustained any shade of difference from what he had formerly professed. He replied, that he could not positively flatter himself with believing it had; that the most comfortable words he heard him utter were immediately after a short pause, and before the administration of absolution, "I consent to all;" but that to these he could affix no definite meaning. I showed him the passage to which I now refer, in the Gentleman's Magazine: he carefully perused it, and immediately added that it was false in every respect. 'It would have given me great pleasure,' said he, 'to have heard him recant, but I cannot with certainty say that I perceived the least disposition in him to do so; and even the expression 'I consent to all,' was rather, perhaps, uttered from a wish to oblige me a his friend, or a desire to shorten the conversation, than from any change in his opinions. After having thus examined himself, however, for some minutes, he gave a sign of being ready, and received absolution as I had proposed to him. I then left him; he shook my hand heartily upon quitting him, and said that he was happy he had seen me."
Dr. Geddes died the day after this interview, Feb. 26, 1802, and was buried in Paddington church-yard. He was unquestionably a man of extensive learning, although not entitled to the superiority which his friends have assigned to him, and which indeed he too frequently arrogated to himself, it was this want of knowledge of his real powers, and the vanity superinduced upon it, that made him ambitious of the character of a wit and a poet, without either temper or genius. His wit was mere flippancy, and his poetry had rarely any other attribute than that of rhyme. The list of his works will show that in the employment of his talents there was something undignified and trifling, that showed a mind vexed with restlessness, rather than seriously and uniformly employed for the public good. While engaged in so important a work as the translation of the Bible, he was perpetually stooping to pick up any little paltry anecdote of the day, as the subject for a pamphlet or a poem, and while he was suffering by the neglect or censure of those whose religious opinions he had shocked, he was seeking comfort in ridiculing the characters of men who had never offended him by any species of provocation. Of his private character, while he is praised for his benevolence and catholic spirit, we find also, and not very consistently, that its leading feature was irritability upon the most trifling provocations, if they deserved the name, which discovered itself in the most gross and offensive language. One instance of this species of insanity, for such it appeared to be in him, is given by his biographer, which we shall throw into a note, for its excellence as a genuine portrait of the man.
Dr. Geddes published, 1. "Select Satires of Horace," &c. London, 1779, 4to. 2. "Linton, a Tweedale Pastoral," Edinburgh, 4to. 3. "Cursory Remarks on a late fanatical publication entitled a Full Detection of Popery," Lond. 1783, 8vo. 4. Prospectus of a New Translation of the Bible," &c. ibid. 1786, 4to. 5. "Letter to the Bishop of London, containing doubts, queries, &c. relative to a vernacular translation of the Holy Scriptures," ibid. 1787, 4to. 6. "Letter to the Rev. Dr. Priestley, in which the author attempts to prove by one prescriptive argument, that the divinity of Jesus Christ was a primitive tenet of Christianity," ibid. 1787, 8vo. 7. "Letter to a, member of parliament on the case of the Protestant Dissenter, and the expediency of a general repeal of all penal statutes that regard religious opinions," ibid. 1787, 8vo. 8. "Proposals, for his translation, ibid. 1788, 4to. 9. "Dr. Geddes's general answer to queries, counsels," &c. ibid. 1790, 4to. 10. "An answer to the bishop of Comana's pastoral letter, by a protesting catholic," 1790, 8vo. 11. "A Letter to the right rev, the archbishops and bishops of England; pointing out the only sure means of preserving the church from the dangers that now threaten her. By an Upper Graduate," 1790, 8vo. 12. "Epistola macaronica ad fratrem, de iis quae gesta sunt in nupero Dissentientium conventu," 1790, 4to. 13. "Carmen seculare pro Gallica gente tyrannidi aristocraticae erepta," 1790, 4to. 14. "Encyclical letter of the bishops of Rama, Acanthos, and Centuriae, to the faithful clergy and laity of their respective districts, with a continued commentary for the use of the vulgar," 1791, 8vo. 15. "An (ironical) apology for Slavery," 1792, 8vo. 16. "The first book of the Iliad of Homer, verbally rendered into English verse; being a specimen of a new translation of that poet; with critical annotations," 1792, 8vo. This was intended to rival Cowper's Homer. 17. "L'Avocat du Diable; the Devil's Advocate," &c. 1792, 4to. 18. "The Holy Bible, translation of, vol. I." 1792, 4to. 19. "Carmina Saecularia tria, pro tribus celeberrimis liibertatis Gallicae epochis," 1793, 4to. 20. "Ver-Vert," from the French of Gresset, 1793, 4to. 21. "Dr. Geddes's address to the public on the publication of the first volume of his new Translation of the Bible," 1793. 22. "Letter to the right rev. John Douglas, bishop of Centuriae, and vicar-apostolic in the London district," 1794, 4to. 23. "A Norfolk Tale; or a Journal from London to Norwich," 1794, 4to. 24. "Ode to the Hon. Thomas Pelham, occasioned by his speech in the Irish House of Commons on the Catholic bill," 1795, 4to. 25. "A Sermon preached before the university of Cambridge, by H. W. C(oulthurst), D.D. &c." in doggrel rhymes, 1796, 8vo. 26. "The Battle of B(a)ng(o)r; or the Church's triumph; a comic-heroic poem," 1797, 8vo. 27. "Translation of the Bible, vol. II." 1797. 28. "A New-year's gift to the good people of England, being a sermon, or something like a sermon, in defence of the present war," &c. 1798, 8vo. 29. "A Sermon preached on the day of the general fast, Feb. 27, 1799, by Theomophilus Brown," &c. 799, 8vo. 30. "A Modest Apology for the Roman Catholics of Great Britain, addressed to all moderate Protestants," &c. 1800, 8vo. 31. "Critical Remarks," before mentioned, vol. I. 1800, 4to. 32. "Bardomachia, poema macaronico-Latinum," 1800, 4to. 33. "Paci feliciter reduci Ode Sapphica," 1801, 4to. Besides these Dr. Geddes wrote many fugitive pieces, essays, poems in the news-papers and magazines, and was a considerable contributor to the Analytical Review. After his death appeared in 1807, his "Translation of the Book of Psalms," as far as Psalm CXVIII. In this, as may be expected, he gives up the prophetic sense of the Psalms.