William Wishart (1691/2 – 1753)

Wishart Tree WIS0014

Wishart, William (1691/2–1753), Church of Scotland minister and educationist, was the elder son of William Wishart (1660–1729), minister of South Leith and later principal of Edinburgh University, and his wife, Janet Murray (d. 1744). In 1706 he entered Edinburgh University, where his regent was William Law (1662–1729), whose emphasis on natural theology deeply affected him. After graduating MA in 1709 Wishart undertook ministerial training, probably under William Hamilton, and was licensed by the presbytery of Edinburgh in 1717. He spent a year or two in the Netherlands, preaching in the Scots churches there and studying at Leiden. His matriculation in the philosophy faculty at Leiden on 18 October 1718 provides the sole information on his birth: he was then twenty-six. He returned to Edinburgh in 1719.

Wishart was appointed preacher at Skinner’s Close within the Tron parish where his father was then minister. He characterized his congregation as ‘Common People, Educated & Grown up, nay Grown Old, in Prejudices & Enthusiasm’ (Wishart to Molesworth, 13 Oct 1722). He joined other young professionals in creating the Rankenian Club, a discussion group that originally met at Ranken’s tavern; other early members included George Turnbull and Robert Wallace. They admired the writings of Shaftesbury, Molesworth, and Hoadly. Under such influences Wishart abandoned the austerity of traditional Calvinism. He saw charity rather than retribution as the heart of the Christian message and stressed the potential good rather than depravity in human nature. Virtue was the only guarantee of happiness, but Wishart’s conception of virtue was formed by stoic ideals of humanity, civil harmony, and public service. He and Turnbull associated with members of a corresponding club in Glasgow. These included Irish dissenters like James Arbuckle, who were active theologically in the debate over confessional subscription, and politically in a campaign that would eventually restore the students’ right to elect the university rector. This brought Wishart into correspondence with Molesworth, who had offered parliamentary support for the Glasgow students’ cause.

Wishart himself moved to Glasgow in 1724, accepting a call by the magistrates of the city to the Tron church. He was ordained on 17 September. He had in 1723 become heir to part of the estate of his uncle Admiral Sir James Wishart, including a property at Bedale, Yorkshire, which would later become his vacation retreat. On 30 November 1724 he married Margaret (d. 1746), daughter of the theologian Thomas Halyburton. Four daughters and one son survived infancy, all born between 1736 and 1746. The marriage united two prominent church families who had been close allies in the previous generation, but the younger generation on both sides moved away from their parents’ narrow orthodoxy. Observers noted that Wishart modelled his preaching on Tillotson, that he was friendly with Irish non-subscribers and evasive on the more speculative dogmas of the creed, and that he introduced like-minded colleagues to preach on special occasions. He attended student debates and retained his interest in Glasgow University politics. When William Robertson (1705–1783) was expelled as an agitator in 1725 Wishart kept in touch. In several local causes he supported the Argyll party interest. When the dean of faculty’s post fell vacant in 1728 Wishart obtained the nomination and thereby helped secure Francis Hutcheson’s election, by one vote, to a vacant philosophy chair in 1729. He was virtually alone in the Glasgow presbytery in opposing the prosecution of John Simson, and published anonymously in 1729 a limited defence of the beleaguered professor, A Short and Impartial State of the Case of Mr John Simson, which has been wrongly attributed to his father. He condemned the pressures placed on country laity to judge issues of scholastic metaphysics that they were incapable of understanding.

In 1730 Wishart became minister of the Scots congregation at Founders’ Hall, London, and received a DD degree from Glasgow University for his recent services. He moved freely in London dissenting circles and among liberal Anglicans like Hoadly and Rundle; he acknowledged his indebtedness to Hoadly in Discourses on Several Subjects (1753). In two early addresses reprinted in that volume, ‘Charity the end of the commandment’ (1731) and ‘The certain and unchangeable difference betwixt moral good and evil’ (1732), Wishart emphasized the social affections and commended Hutcheson’s philosophy. While our natural disposition is easily corrupted, he argued, and good character must be instilled through persuasion and example, religious instruction commonly jeopardizes this, indoctrinating the young with sectarian prejudice rather than rational understanding. Civil constraint must likewise not infringe the liberty of informed conscience without which virtue is impossible. Ignorance and inadequate education are the main causes of crime, and punishment should be restricted to circumstances where identifiable hurt has been inflicted or the peace disturbed. In the same period Wishart corresponded with Thomas Amory, whose Dialogue on Devotion (1733) revived the old debate on the petitionary function of prayer. For Wishart prayer is a means to wisdom and virtue, achieved by reconciling petitioners to their dependence on the constant laws by which the author of nature brings about the best total result for humanity. Wishart gave rougher handling to George Berkeley’s Alciphron (1732) a few months later. A former admirer of Berkeley’s philosophy and probably one of those who declined a place in his missionary venture to America, Wishart was affronted at Berkeley’s attack on Shaftesbury and his followers. He defended Shaftesbury’s philosophy and personal character in an anonymous attempt at Shaftesburian banter, A vindication of the Reverend D— B—y, from the scandalous imputation of being author of a late book, intitled, Alciphron (1734).

In late 1736, with Lord Ilay’s express backing, Wishart was nominated principal of Edinburgh University. The presbytery considered him theologically and politically subversive. For more than a year, initially under the moderatorship of John Gowdie, professor of divinity, they barred him from their pulpits, refused him the subscription to the confession of faith required by his appointment, and tried to block his nomination as university delegate to the general assembly. They drew documentary support, out of context, from what he had said and not said in his first publications, but their reading was coloured by his early reputation and his alleged association with every suspect strain in the Shaftesbury tradition. The documents in the case occupy 127 double-sided leaves in the general assembly’s papers for 1738, and a flurry of pamphlets appeared on both sides. Wishart proved himself as orthodox as he judged necessary, while still defending the humane ethic and principles of conscience advocated in his previous preaching. He was exonerated. A year later he became minister of New Greyfriars, alongside the principalship, moving in 1744 to be co-pastor with his brother George Wishart [see under Wishart, William (1660–1729)] at the prestigious Tron church. He was moderator of the general assembly in 1745. His wife died, probably in childbirth, on 27 February 1746. On 17 March 1747 he married Frances (d. after 1754), daughter of James Deans of Woodhouselee; there is no record of further children.

In 1743 Wishart became a manager of the Poor’s Hospital. He was a member of the Musical Society and the Revolution Club. In two contentious church settlements, Bowden (1742) and Torphichen (1751), he made a stand against the policy of enforcing a patron’s nomination against the wishes of the local congregation. His Reasons of Dissent from the Sentence of the General Assembly (1751) shows Wishart’s continuing allegiance to Hoadly’s principles on discipline and conscience. Other dissentients who joined him (twenty-five in 1742, twenty-two in 1751) were from the orthodox wing of the church with which he was otherwise at loggerheads. He decried the Cambuslang revival of 1742, and was stung when Philip Doddridge in 1745 appeared to impugn the sincerity of clergy like him in subscribing the confession. Perceived threats to Wishart’s benign philosophy tended to be answered with vehemence: he defended those who ‘have most strenuously set themselves to promote real Virtue, and practical Christianity’ (p. 12), in an anonymous Letter to the Revd Dr Doddridge, Occasioned by his ‘Life of Col. Gairdner’ (1747). When the English dissenter George Benson applied for help in obtaining subscribers for theological works, Wishart expressed his isolation. Older ministers were not interested in scholarship: ‘they know of a shorter & easier way of coming at their purpose’. The only hope lay with the next generation, whom Wishart ‘put upon a thorough study of the Principles of Natural Religion & Morality, with other things preparatory to a critical search of the Scriptures’ and encouraged to read new learning from the south (Wishart to Benson, 29 Dec 1748). He used his wealth to subsidize inexpensive editions for students and others. These included Ernesti’s recent polemical defence of Ciceronian studies, and classic works by Scougal, Whichcote, and Volusene, all of which could be adapted to serve Wishart’s own Christian stoic philosophy and his concern for practical piety without sectarian posturing. He concluded his introduction to Whichcote by citing Robert Fleming’s Confirming Work of Religion (1685) for its attack on the ignorance that both underlies and is transmitted by sectarian education.

As principal Wishart improved the college library, attended colleagues’ classes, and established a proper routine for student presentations. He was obsessive in his regard for what he considered the rights of the institution, whether threatened by politicians or by colleagues. When John Pringle obtained leave from the moral philosophy chair in 1742 Wishart lobbied unsuccessfully for the expected vacancy. When it finally occurred in 1745 David Hume and William Cleghorn were the principal contenders. Wishart campaigned for Cleghorn, leading the ministerial opposition which saw Hume disqualified. The accusations he levelled against Hume’s philosophy and beliefs were as weakly and tendentiously documented as those Wishart himself had faced in 1737, and showed a radical misunderstanding of the nature of philosophical scepticism; but they fairly reflected the conception of a moral philosophy syllabus, circumscribed by natural theology, that still prevailed among liberal intellectuals of the day.

A man of consistent principle, with a distaste for expediency, Wishart was one of the most significant and progressive figures at Edinburgh University and in the Scottish church in the generation between William Carstairs and William Robertson. He died in Edinburgh on 12 April 1753, to be succeeded, ineffectively, as principal by his erstwhile inquisitor, Gowdie. His edition of Scougal and his Essay on the Indispensable Necessity of a Holy and Good Life to the Happiness of Heaven (1753) continued to be republished posthumously. His condemnation of deathbed repentances in the latter work was several times reprinted or included in devotional anthologies. Samuel Johnson, while doubting the argument, considered Wishart one of Scotland’s few serious theologians on the evidence of this performance (Boswell, 23 Sept 1773).

Biography © M. A. Stewart

Sources U. Edin. L., Wishart MSS, La. II. 114–115 [uncatalogued] · matriculation records, U. Edin. L. · Album studiosorum academiae Lugduno Batavae (1875), 860 · Fasti Scot., new edn, vols. 1, 3, 7 · Wishart, memorandum on his family at 23 Aug 1744, NA Scot., CH1/2/84, fol. 105 · Scots Magazine, 15 (1753), 206 · R. Wodrow, Analecta, 4 vols. (1842–3), vols. 3, 4 · correspondence of Robert, Viscount Molesworth, NL Ire., microfilm neg. 4082 [originals no longer extant] · Wishart to Thomas Amory, 29 Oct 1733, BL, Add. MS 6211, fol. 226 [incomplete copy] · Wishart to George Benson, 29 Dec 1748, JRL, Unitarian College collection · Edinburgh presbytery minutes, 1732–9, NA Scot., CH2/121/13 · general assembly papers, 1738, 1742, 1751, NA Scot., CH1/2/76, CH1/2/81, CH1/2/94 · letters to J. Ward, BL, Add. MS 6211 · J. Boswell, The journal of a tour of the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson (1785) · M. A. Stewart, ‘Principal Wishart (1692–1753) and the controversies of his day’, Records of the Scottish Church History Society, 30 (2000), 60–102 · M. A. Stewart, The kirk and the infidel (1995)

Archives U. Edin. L., commonplace book and papers, mainly sermon scripts in speedhand, sometimes on the back of corresp. or other documents, MSS La. II. 114–115 | BL, letters to J. Ward, Add. MS 6211