A public-spirited citizen: William Bruce

William Bruce was born in 1702 in Killyleagh Co. Down and died on the 11th of July, 1755. He was the third and youngest surviving son of the Presbyterian minister Rev James Bruce and Margaret, neé Traill. His two older brothers were Presbyterian ministers, unsurprising in a line where the previous three generations had also been ministers. His first cousin was Francis Hutcheson (son of Margaret’s sister Magdalen). Hutcheson attended the dissenting academy in Killyleagh, which William’s father James was instrumental in setting up. This is probably where the two cousins first met and became close friends.

We next hear of William Bruce in Dublin, in the month of July 1725, entering into partnership with John Smith in his printing business at the sign of the Philosopher’s Head, on Blind Quay (now Lower Exchange St.) Dublin. John’s existing partner, William Smith, was moving to the Netherlands, where he would act as continental book buyer for the firm. The Smiths, both graduates of the University of Glasgow, had already published (as their first imprint) Hutcheson’s Inquiry into…ideas of beauty and virtue (1725). Future editions were published under the imprint of Smiths and W. Bruce as was Hutcheson’s  An Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections (1728).

Having a university education was unusual for Dublin printers at that time.  The firm became purveyors of works aimed at the dissenting intellectual community, spanning the major philosophers (including locals such as Berkeley, plus English and French thinkers), political works, and Anglican and Dissenting theological works.

As well as Hutcheson’s works, the Smiths and Bruce also published the collected issues of the  Dublin Weekly Journal (1729) as edited by James Arbuckle, representing the output of the Molesworth Circle. Other works they printed connected with Irish philosophy and economics included John Abernathy’s sermon Persecution contrary to Christianity (1735), works by Arthur Dodds (eg Essay on Trade, 1729)  and John Toland’s edition of James Harrington’s Oceania (1737, by subscription. Francis Hutcheson was a subscriber.)

Sunrise over Killyleagh (c) True Scot/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Sunrise over Killyleagh
(c) True Scot/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Bruce himself was close friends with Presbyterian ministers and writers John Abernathy and John Duchall. In 1733 he collaborated with Abernathy in writing the five part work Reasons for the Repeal of the Sacramental Test, printed weekly in 1733 and collected in Scarce and Valuable Tracts and Sermons (1757). The Sacramental Test barred any who did not receive communion in the Established (Anglican) Church from most public office. The Reasons given by Abernathy and Bruce were that (1) it is unchristian and contrary to the gospel to punish people purely because of their religious beliefs and practices, (2) that it is anti-religion since it turns the Sacrament into an instrument of worldly advancement, (3) that the Test infringes civil liberty and natural rights, (4) that the Test is not necessary to protect the Established Church and that (5) repealing the Test is politically necessary, mainly to strengthen Protestant interests against Catholics, who “all acknowledge the Supremacy of the Pope, and are friends to a Popish Pretender” (p. 59, Scarce & Valuable Tracts). Anti-Catholic penal laws should be  curbed out of “humanity and a regard to the mild institutions of the Gospel”  (p. 60, Scarce & Valuable Tracts), but the Reasons offers no further concession. Politically, since there was no desire in the Irish Parliament to curtail the powers of the Established Church, the Sacramental Test remained.

Bruce remained in close correspondence with Francis Hutcheson after Hutcheson’s move to Glasgow. We know from a 1738 letter to Thomas Drennan that Hutcheson sent the manuscript that was to form the basis of his System to Bruce for Bruce and Abernathy to look at. Unfortunately Bruce handed it to another friend: Dr Thomas Rundle, an Anglican bishop, delaying the feedback Hutcheson hoped for. Bruce was clearly at the centre of a liberal intellectual group.

In the controversy over subscription to the Westminster Articles (a fixed set of creeds) in the Irish Presbyterian Church, Bruce was on the side of the non-subscribers.

In 1738 Bruce left partnership with Smith to became tutor to the son of Hugh Henry, a Dublin banker, accompanying him to Cambridge, Oxford and Glasgow. He resettled in Dublin in 1745, where his nephew Samuel Bruce was now minister in Wood St. Even accusations of Arianism (denial of the divinity of Christ) did not undermine his position as a respected elder in the Wood St. congregation.

During this period Bruce supported Charles Lucas’ reforn movement. This time also marks Bruce’s interest in economic matters with two political pamphlets being attributed to him: Some facts and observations relative to the late linen bill (1753) and Remarks on a pamphlet entitled ‘Considerations on the late bill for paying the national debt’ (1754). He may well have written more than this: an obituary refers to his many valuable writings (see Pollard, 2000). However the Essay (1755) written after his death suggests that Bruce wrote less than he had planned to, concentrating on “virtuous action” in pursuit of the public good.

Bruce’s main claim to fame in Presbyterian histories is based on the scheme he put forward to create a fund to support widows of ministers, which was accepted by the Presbyterian general synod at Dungannon in 1750. In 1885 it was reported that ” it now yields three times more than was originally calculated by Bruce” (Gordon, 1885).

Bruce died in Dublin and was buried in the same grave as Francis Hutcheson. (Bruce’s name, specified as “of Blind Quay” appears in St Mary’s register.)  Two works to his memory appeared soon after: An Essay on the character of the late William Bruce (1755) by his friend Gabriel Cornwall, and Brutus, a monody to the memory of Mr Bruce (1756) by Smith’s publishing firm. His nephew Samuel named his second son born in 1757 William, and that William Bruce went on to play a key role in the establishment of Unitarianism in Ireland.

Killleagh Castle (17th century) Featured Image: Killyleagh Castle. (c) Irish Philosophy (CC BY-SA 2.0)

References and Further Reading

Frances Clarke & Sinéad Sturgeon (2004) “Bruce, William” in Dictionary of Irish Biography

Alexander Gordon (1885) “Bruce, William (1702-1755)” in Alexander Gordon (ed) Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900,Volume 07 (Wikisource)

“Bruce, William I”  in Mary Pollard (2000) A Dictionary of Members of the Dublin Book Trade 1550-1800, Bibliographical Society, p. 60.

John Abernathy and William Bruce (1730/1751) Reasons for the Repeal of the Sacramental Test” in five parts in R. Griffiths (ed) Scarce and Valuable Tracts and Sermons, occasionally published by the late Rev John Abernathy. (Google Books)

Brutus, a monody to the memory of Mr Bruce (1756) (Google Books)

An Essay on the character of the late William Bruce (1756) (Republished in the Monthly Review, Google Books)

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