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Rev Prof William Bruce (1790 - 1868):
Clergyman and academic

William Bruce was for fifty-five years Minister of the First Belfast Presbyterian congregation, Rosemary Street, and for twenty-eight years Professor of Latin and Greek at the Belfast Academical Institution (later the Royal Belfast Academical Institution), a tenure which only ended as the Collegiate Department of the Institution was abolished on the opening of Queen’s College, Belfast in 1949 (having been founded in 1845); in short, he was one of the leading figures in the intellectual, ecclesial and charitable life of Belfast.

He was born in Belfast, second son of the impressive figure of Rev William Bruce DD, Presbyterian minister and Principal of Belfast Academy (later Belfast Royal Academy). The younger William was educated at his father’s Belfast Academy (such was his father’s impact it was known as “Bruce’s Academy”) and like his father proceeded to the University of Dublin, Trinity College, entering on 2 July 1804 and winning in 1807 a scholarship which he like his father was permitted to hold while remaining non-conformist (that is, not a member of the established Church of Ireland). He graduated Bachelor of Arts (then abbreviated AB) in 1809, having spent one session at Edinburgh where he attended some of the celebrated lectures of the internationally-renowned Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, Professor Dugald Stewart. After graduating from Dublin he studied at Edinburgh for 18 months; on 25 June 1811 he was licensed by Antrim Presbytery and ordained 3 March 1812 in that Presbytery into the pastorate of First Belfast in Rosemary Street. He at first shared his ministry with his father. He also followed his father into education, though not initially the way his father would perhaps have preferred.

In April 1821 William Neilson DD, Professor of Hebrew, Classics and Irish in the Collegiate Department of the Belfast Academical Institution, died (what became the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, a secondary-level school, had from its foundation a tertiary-level department), and the Institution resolved to split Neilson’s position into separate chairs, one being for Classics and Hebrew. Bruce was a Non-subscribing Presbyterian, that is, he did not subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith, which asserted, amongst other doctrines, that of the Holy Trinity; those of Bruce’s viewpoint were Unitarian and this viewpoint was viewed dimly at the Institution. Despite his non-subscribing background, rather frowned upon by the Institution, and an Institution rather frowned upon by his father, Bruce nevertheless was a candidate for what was foreseen as the Classics and Hebrew chair (a separate chair for Irish was planned). The three other candidates who were seen along with Bruce to be the four strongest, were Reuben John Bryce, later Rev Dr Bryce LLD, of the Covenanting or Reformed Presbyterian Synod and from 1824 until 1880 Principal of Belfast Academy – “Bruce’s Academy”– and who had the backing of Rev Henry Cooke, a powerful and prominent figure in the Presbyterian Church and a firm anti-Unitarian; Robert Wylde Kyle, who had family connections to the Provost of Trinity College, Dublin; and an Icelander named Rapp, the candidate favoured by the government. A new and intense procedure was instituted to test the four (which involved “guinea pig” students having to endure being taught continuously for seven hours at a stretch on the same day).

However he impressed in this procedure, more significantly Bruce was able to secure some influential backing, from Rev Edward Reid of Ramelton, County Donegal, Moderator of General Synod of Ulster; Sir Robert Bateson, a leading Episcopalian; and Viscount Castlereagh, former Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom and one of the outstanding statesmen of the time. Bruce was elected by a large majority on 27 October, 1821, though to the Classics chair only (the Hebrew chair was filled the following year by Thomas Dix Hincks, LLD and Headmaster of the Classical Department). Bruce’s election was seen as serving to conciliate a section of opinion which had theretofore kept its distance from the Institution; furthermore, it was hoped (vainly) that the government grant of £1500, which had previously denied the Institution since 1817 (after the “disloyal toasts” affair of 1816 when members of the Institution at a St Patrick’s Day dinner raised glasses to the American revolutionaries, “the memorable 14 July 1789” and “the South American Revolutionists”), would be made available. The grant was however restored eventually in 1829. Bruce subscribed the sum of £22.15s.0d to the Institution, perhaps as a conciliating gesture in the light of his father’s well-known criticisms of it.

Like his father, Bruce was active and prominent in the Belfast Literary Society. This body had been founded in 1801, having as one of its objects “to secure an evening in every month for literary conversation...[w]ithout an institution of this kind, there can be no bond of union, nor any opportunity for select intercourse among literary and scientifical, or intelligent and inquisitive men.” Bruce’s father was one of the original members and five times served as President, reading over the course of his membership over twenty papers. William Bruce was elected a member on 5 October 1812, which membership he retained until 8 August 1855, during which time he served two terms as President (this position was and is by election and for one year only and Bruce was elected in 1817 and 1824). Over those forty-three years he read thirteen papers before the Society on a diverse range of subjects; sample titles are: “On the antiquity of the Hebrew language”; “Corroborations of the early history of the world”; “Essay on the systems of education pursued by our universities”; “A chronological account of some of the dramatic poets of Greece whose works are lost”; “Account of Müller’s introduction to a scientific system of mythology”.

He was also a member of the Belfast Society for Promoting Knowledge, the body originally founded in 1792 as the Belfast Reading Society, by and for members of the citizenry variously described as plebeian, artisan, even sans culottes. In 1837 Bruce was elected President of the Society (as a successor to his father) which by then was the Belfast Library and Society for Promoting Knowledge and held this office until his death. The Library in question became known, informally but almost universally, as the Linen Hall Library, after its premises in the White Linen Hall which were first occupied in 1802; the Library would continue to flourish (if on occasion slightly precariously) well into the 21st century. One of Bruce’s innovations he outlined in 1850: he proposed co-operation with the new Queen’s College concerning books. This would avoid the costs incurred acquiring important but expensive books by providing “reciprocal accommodation”, a system which was very successful and was extended to include the exchange of catalogues in 1876 and 1887.

Bruce’s theological views were close to those of his father, though his style was far less polemical, if it was that at all; he was something of the opposite in style of his colleague in ministry John Scott Porter, well known especially for his prolific writing and publishing of his firm non-subscribing views. Bruce eventually led the Northern Presbytery of Antrim, which consisted of that minority of non-subscribing Presbyterians within the Antrim Presbytery who seceded from it; Bruce was elected Moderator of the breakaway Presbytery on 4 April 1862 as the first to hold the position (though the two Presbyteries reunited on 7 November 1894).

Other charitable activities in which Bruce was involved included the Belfast Charitable society; the Belfast Museum; the Royal Botanic Gardens, Belfast; the Belfast General Hospital; and the Chemico-Agricultural Society of Ulster. This latter reflected his keen interest in agriculture also reflected by his own careful laying-out of the grounds of his Belfast home, called “The Farm”. He was known as an admirable committee member; the centenary volume of memoirs of the Belfast Literary Society states: “The quiet steadfastness with which he advocated his convictions, and the gentle amiability of his character, made him the Nestor of his party” while the historian of the Linen Hall Library would write of his “pleasing personality...his quiet firmness and amiability endeared him to all who knew him.”

Bruce, who had married on 20 May 1823, Jane Elizabeth Smith of Belfast, whose father William had lived for some years in Barbados, retired from active ministry on 21 April 1867. He gave his final sermon a few days later and died the following year at his home, The Farm.

William Bruce in his ecclesial role was commemorated by stained glass windows and a stone monument at Rosemary Street, the former specially installed to mark his Golden Jubilee as Minister. On hearing of his death, the Belfast Society publicly expressed to his family “their high esteem of the valuable services rendered by him” to the Society; a later Linen Hall Librarian would write: “During his presidency he guided the affairs of the [S]ociety with understanding and unfailing courtesy.”

Born: 16 November 1790
Died: 25 October 1868
Richard Froggatt

Belfast Literary Society: Historical Sketch (Belfast: McCaw, Stevenson and Orr, 1901; limited circulation publication by the Society); Dictionary of Irish Biography;; John Killen: A History of the Linen Hall Library 1788-1988 (Belfast, The Linen Hall Library, 1990); John Jamieson: The History of the Royal Belfast Academical Institution 1810-1960 (Belfast 1959); Brian J Todd: A Remarkable Belfast Institution: The Royal Belfast Academical Institution, 1810-2010 (RBAI 2013).