Rev James Wodrow

Rev James Wodrow (1730-1810)


James Wodrow was born on 21 March 1730 the ninth son of the Scottish clergyman and historian, Robert Wodrow (1679-1734) minister of Eastwood. He entered Glasgow University at the age of eleven. As a student of divinity he fell under the spell of the liberal theology of the Professor of Divinity, William Leechman (1706-1785). He was admitted to the degree of Master of Arts in 1750. After a spell as University Librarian (1750-55), he was inducted in September 1757 into the Parish of Dunlop, Presbytery of Irvine, having been licensed as a preacher by the Presbytery of Ayr on 28 Feb 1753. He married Louisa Hamilton (d.1793), the daughter of an Edinburgh bookseller, on 30 April 1759 and in October of that year he transferred to the parish of Stevenston in the same Presbytery where he settled for life. The Wodrows had six children. None of their four sons survived to adulthood. His daughter Helen died aged 32 (1795) and only Margaret (1767-1845) lived into old age.

James Wodrow was a modest man who preferred to keep out of the limelight. He had a considerable reputation for learning. In 1786 was awarded a Doctorate of Divinity by his alma mater, yet he published only two of his sermons, The Measures of Divine Providence towards Men and Nations (1794), and then at the request of his congregation. He left at his death manuscript lectures on the New Testament and many sermons. On the other hand, he published two volumes of sermons of William Leechman in 1789, together with a valuable memoir of his life and teaching. He made a special journey to London to arrange its publication where he met and received assistance from Dr. Richard Price. Wodrow also compiled the account of his parish of Stevenston for Sir John Sinclair's great statistical survey of Scotland. Late in life he assisted the Earl of Buchan in collecting the Anecdotes of Printing and Academical Literature at Glasgow during the Last Century (1808). In gratitude, the earl addressed the preface to him. In so doing he mentioned Wodrow's lifelong friend and older contemporary at Glasgow University, 'the learned and worthy' Samuel Kenrick (1728-1811), the third son of John Kenrick (d.1745), a dissenting minister of Ruabon, near Wrexham. Samuel spent most of his life as a banker at Bewdley, Worcestershire, where he settled in 1765. The two friends kept in touch throughout their lifetimes. Their letters are rich in comment upon the events of a tempestuous age and they explore their attitudes and differences with considerable candour. Wodrow believed that the essentials of religion were few and should be uncontentious and that civil liberty was a hallmark of a civilised society. Generally he favoured moderate change such as the repeal of the Test Act as it applied to Scotland and the reform of burgh representation, distrusting both religious enthusiasm and radical fervour. He was prepared to assist in the publication of ideas deemed heretical, as in the case of William McGill's The Death of Christ. (1786) When this led to the threat of heresy proceedings against McGill he helped to broker a solution which enabled McGill to retain his living in return for modest concessions to Calvinistic orthodoxy. He was open to new ideas and new practices and in 1770 he had his children inoculated against smallpox. 

Although he was reluctant to invest the dramatic changes of his times with millennial significance, a rather anxious interest in the ways of providence informs his discussions with Kenrick and leads them to disagree over the American Revolution and to a degree over the French. Characteristically, he was critical of the popular reform movement at home and of the tyranny of Napoleon abroad, and was crossing swords with his friend over such matters to the end of his life.


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