Monday, July 6, 2015

John Blair: Chronologist and Clergyman

Information on John Blair lacks details about his birthday, family life, and early years but he is known to be a descendent of the Blairs of Balthayock, Perthshire and was born in Edinburgh. Blair would remain in Edinburgh where he was educated in theology so that he may join the Church of Scotland. During this time, he encountered notable peers whose ideas would later play a role in the Scottish Enlightenment, such as Hugh Blair, John Home, William Carlyle, and William Robertson. Although Blair received his license to preach in Scotland, he left Scotland for London with a decent patrimony and took up a position in the Church of England. He supposedly replaced Andrew Henderson, a Scottish writer notable for his work, The History of the Rebellion, 1745 and 1746, as usher at a school on Hedge Lane. Blair would remain in London for the rest of his life.
            Blair’s first, and arguably greatest, publication was The Chronology and History of the World from the Creation to the Year of Christ 1753, illustrated in fifty-six tables published in 1754. The original work was dedicated to Lord Chancellor Hardwicke but other editions would be dedicated to other figures, such as Augusta, the Dowager Princess of Wales. The table system used in the book was originally the “invention of a student (Dr. Hugh Blair) for his private convenience” but was “adopted, improved, and published” by John Blair, a distance relation of Hugh Blair (Hill, 201). The work was sold by subscription and its subscribers included George, Prince of Wales; the Princess Dowager of Wales; William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland; and Prince Edward. Blair’s preface ensures to personally acknowledge his “Great Obligations to the Right Honourable William Earl of Bath” with whom it appears Blair had been working closely with for many years. Blair’s book, unprecedented it its form, became the standard for work of this kind. Due to its popularity, the work was reprinted in 1756, 1768, and 1814. The 1768 edition included an additional fourteen maps along with “A dissertation of the rise and progress of geography.” Willoughby Rosse published another edition entitled Blair’s Chronological Tables, Revised and Enlarged in 1856 but believed Blair’s general outline was all that survived of the original work. The book was translated into French 1797 and American editions began appearing in the 1820s. 

Cover of Blair's The Chronology and History of the World

            Blair’s Chronology earned him a place in the Royal Society of London in 1755. That same year, Blair published, “Agitation of the waters near Reading” in the Royal Society’s Transactions. He became chaplain to the Princess Dowager of Wales in 1757 and was appointed the math tutor of Prince Edward. Blair’s relationship with Edward must have been a positive one for Blair escorted the young Prince on his continental tour in 1763-1764 and afterwards served as his secretary. Blair was selected as a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1761, the same year he was appointed prebendary of Westminster (a position earned in part due to Edward’s influence). Shortly after, the dean and the chapter of Westminster presented Blair with the vicarage of Hinckley. His position would transferred twice, first to the vicarage of St. Bride’s in London in 1771 and then to the rectory of St. John the Evangelist in Westminster in 1776. Blair also held a post in Buckinghamshire as rector of Horton.
A fellow Edinburgh classmate, Alexander Carlyle, writes in his autobiography that Blair was “a lively agreeable fellow, and one of the most friendly men in the world… a man of superior understanding, and of a most gentlemanly address”” (Carlyle, 189). The author notes how Blair took care of his friends, whether that be by purchasing a pair of stockings to “providing them with a settlement for life” (Carlyle, 338).
            Blair passed away on 24 June 1782 in Dean’s Yard, Westminster reportedly from influenza. His final publication, Lectures on the canon of scriptures, comprehending a dissertation on the Septuagint, was published three years after his death in 1785 and was dedicated to George III.

Blair, John. The Chronology and History of the World from the Creation to the Year of Christ 1753, illustrated in fifty-six tables. London: 1754.
Carlyle, Alexander and John Hill Burton, ed. Autobiography of the Rev. Alexander Carlyle, Minister of Inveresk. Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1860.
Hill, John. An Account of the Life and Writings of Hugh Blair. Philadelphia: Humphreys, 1808.
Sher, Richard B.. “Blair, John (d. 1782).” Richard B. Sher In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online ed., edited by Lawrence Goldman. Oxford: OUP, 2004. (accessed July 6, 2015).
The Popular Scottish Biography: Being Lives of Eminent Scotsmen. Edinburgh: The Edinburgh Printing and Publishing Company, 1841.

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