Reverend James Blair

James Blair (ca. 1655–1743)

James Blair was an Anglican minister, a notoriously combative member of the governor's Council (1694–1695; 1696–1697; 1701–1743) who worked successfully to have three governors removed, and, with Francis Nicholson, the cofounder of the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg. Born and educated in Edinburgh, Scotland, Blair came to Virginia in 1685 as rector of Henrico Parish. He married, acquired land, and in 1689 became commissary, or the Anglican bishop's representative in America. Blair's clerical convocations in 1690, 1705, and 1719 were notoriously rancorous in part due to his tendency to sympathize more with the laity than his fellow clerics; however, the 1690 meeting proved especially significant for Blair's "Seven Propositions," which led to the founding of the College of William and Mary. As president for life, Blair secured funding and overcame powerful opposition from men like Virginia governor Sir Edmund Andros. In the meantime, Blair consolidated his own power by becoming rector of James City Parish in Williamsburg, and in 1698 he successfully fought to have Andros removed. Over the years, Blair did the same to two more governors while continually expanding his college. By the 1720s he had rebuilt the school after a fire; housed an Indian school, chapel, library, and president's house; drafted the first college statutes; hired the first full-time faculty; and transferred the original charter to the president and masters. Blair died in Williamsburg in 1743. MORE...

 

Early Years

Blair was probably born in Edinburgh, Scotland, around 1655, the eldest of three sons and four daughters of Peter Blair, a clergyman, and Mary Hamilton Blair. After beginning his formal education at Marischal College, Aberdeen, Blair studied at the University of Edinburgh from 1669 to 1673, when he received the degree of master of arts. He remained at Edinburgh for several additional years studying theology. In the summer of 1679 he was ordained by John Paterson, bishop of Edinburgh.

That same summer Blair was appointed minister at Cranstoun Parish, a few miles outside Edinburgh. He remained two and a half years, serving, according to the bishop, "with exemplary diligence, care and gravity," although a dispute with parish landowners over his reimbursement for repairs to the manse suggests that the combative nature that he later exhibited in Virginia was already well developed. In December 1681 Blair was removed from his parish after he refused to subscribe to a test oath that the Scottish Parliament imposed because it would have required him to accept the Roman Catholic duke of York as head of the Scottish church when he became king. Blair left for England, where he gained the support of Gilbert Burnet, a fellow Scottish cleric who later became bishop of Salisbury. Burnet secured Blair a clerkship in the Rolls Office and provided him an opportunity to meet other influential Anglican clerics, including Henry Compton, who as bishop of London had jurisdiction over the Anglican church in the American colonies. Compton persuaded Blair to accept an appointment in Virginia as rector of Henrico Parish (then frequently referred to as Varina Parish).

In Virginia

Blair's career advanced rapidly after his arrival in Virginia late in 1685. Preaching at other parish churches as well as at his own, he came to know and be known to members of the colony's most important families. Within two years he made the first of many land purchases, and on June 2, 1687, he married seventeen-year-old Sarah Harrison, of Surry County. The marriage was unhappy. At the wedding she adamantly refused to assent to the portion of the ceremony obliging her to obey her husband. They apparently had no children, and she may have become an alcoholic. Sarah Harrison Blair died on May 5, 1713, and James Blair lived another thirty years as a widower.

Blair's marriage brought him into the inner circle of the colony's leading families, and his relatives often dominated the influential governor's Council. His ecclesiastical career prospered. In mid-May 1690 a new lieutenant governor, Francis Nicholson, arrived in Virginia, bringing a commission of December 15, 1689, from Bishop Compton naming Blair commissary, or the bishop's representative with authority to preside over the Anglican clergy of the colony in administrative matters. Often thought to have been the first to hold that office in Virginia, Blair had in fact been preceded in the post by John Clayton.

Blair moved without delay to establish his authority by calling a convocation of the clergy for July 23, 1690. Neither his Scottish origins nor his tendency to side with the Virginia laity in religious affairs endeared him to the larger number of his fellow clerics, who often opposed him vigorously, especially in the infrequent convocations that he called. The convocations held in August 1705 and April 1719 proved particularly rancorous. In the latter meeting his fellow clergymen unsuccessfully challenged the validity of his ordination in Scotland, a move that could have lost him his influential positions as rector and commissary. Blair's initial convocation was more auspicious, however, for he there first advanced "Several Propositions" for the founding of a college in the colony and won enthusiastic support. In cooperation with Nicholson, who deserves to rank with Blair as a cofounder, he cultivated the support of Virginia's political leaders. By June 1691 Blair left for England to seek the backing of King William, Queen Mary, and others. His mission required almost two years and resulted in the grant of a royal charter for the College of William and Mary on February 8, 1693, as well as substantial public and private financial support.

Education and Politics

Blair returned to Virginia in triumph. Named president for life in the charter, he launched the new college on land acquired at the crossroads settlement of Middle Plantation a few miles from the capital at Jamestown. His task was not easy. In his absence enthusiasm for the project had declined, and Sir Edmund Andros, the new governor, was openly hostile. Blair nonetheless managed to inaugurate one branch of the institution, its grammar school, and to commence construction of a building. Over Andros's objections Blair also secured a place on the Council, taking his seat for the first time on July 18, 1694. The next year he consolidated his position when he became rector of James City Parish, close to the seat of government as well as the new college. Blair's relations with the governor soon worsened, and following his public criticism of Andros and the other councillors, they suspended him on April 26, 1695. He was reinstated on September 25, 1696, but suspended again on April 20, 1697.

The infighting between Blair and Andros culminated in the summer of 1697 when, with financial and political backing from Francis Nicholson, Blair returned to England to present his grievances to ecclesiastical and political authorities. A key hearing before the archbishop of Canterbury and bishop of London was a one-sided affair with Blair able to speak in person to the sympathetic panel. The absent Andros was primarily represented by the young William Byrd (1674–1744), who was never allowed to deliver the lengthy brief he had prepared. On May 31, 1698, Andros was granted permission to resign and return to England on personal business.

During his English sojourn Blair collaborated with two other men experienced in the government of Virginia, Henry Hartwell and Edward Chilton, in preparing a long report for the newly created Board of Trade on the state of affairs of the colony and how to improve it. Published nearly thirty years later as The Present State of Virginia, and the College (1727), it quickly became one of the more influential contemporary books about the condition of Virginia and the lives of Virginians at the end of the seventeenth century.

Nicholson succeeded Andros as governor in December 1698 shortly after Blair's return to Virginia. Blair was eventually reappointed to the Council, taking his seat on June 9, 1701, and serving for the remainder of his life. Although he cooperated with Nicholson in 1699 in a successful effort to move the capital from Jamestown to Middle Plantation, which was renamed Williamsburg, the two equally imperious men came into conflict during the next few years. The ill will culminated in Blair's second trip to England to lobby for the removal of a governor. He left in 1703, bearing a petition that he and five other Council members had signed. Nicholson was at a distinct disadvantage due to his inability to appear in person, the death early in the hearings of his principal defender, and the capture by the French of the vessel carrying his supporting documentation. On April 5, 1705, the Board of Trade removed Nicholson as governor of Virginia.

Blair's success was, however, hardly complete. Nicholson remained a trustee of the college and continued with the support of most of Virginia's Anglican clergy to oppose Blair's direction of the college and his attempts to govern the colonial church. Then on October 29, 1705, the main college building caught fire and burned to its exterior walls. The resultant inquiry stirred further animosity between Blair and his opponents. In 1710 the death of one of his most outspoken clerical opponents, Solomon Whateley, afforded Blair the opportunity to become rector of Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg, and for more than a decade he had no serious difficulty with Governor Edward Nott or his successor, Lieutenant Governor Alexander Spotswood. Blair used the time to solidify his position with Virginia political leaders. By that time, too, his brother Archibald Blair (by 1665–1733), a physician who had also immigrated to Virginia, had established himself as a successful Williamsburg merchant in a firm in which James Blair, to his considerable profit, became a silent partner.

Rebuilding the college was a more serious challenge, but Blair made the first of two rescues of William and Mary from the brink of failure. With the help of Spotswood and others, he found new money in England and America, began reconstruction of the college building that was first occupied by 1716 and largely completed by 1721, and for the first time expanded instruction beyond the grammar school by appointing a master of the Indian School and the first professor of natural philosophy and mathematics, Hugh Jones. As early as 1718 or 1719, however, Blair became embroiled in a controversy with Spotswood. The issues at stake had more to do with religious and political matters than with the college, and they again brought Blair into conflict with his fellow clerics, including the faculty. In 1721 he set off for England again. On this occasion, however, Spotswood was already in difficulty with his superiors on other grounds, and thus the commissary's role in his dismissal has often been overemphasized, adding to Blair's not entirely deserved reputation as a breaker of governors.

The trip afforded Blair an opportunity to arrange for publication in London of Our Saviour's Divine Sermon on the Mount (1722), a five-volume collection of 117 sermons he had delivered between 1707 and 1721. True to character, Blair was dissatisfied with sales, but the sermons were reprinted in four volumes in 1740 and in Danish in 1761. The sermons dealt more with matters of morality and personal conduct than with doctrine, a reminder that, despite his other concerns and interests, Blair was an active parish minister throughout his long career.

Later Years

Blair was in his late sixties when he returned from England on the same ship with the new lieutenant governor, Hugh Drysdale. Blair appeared to be at the height of his power in the political establishment of Virginia. Yet despite its new building the college that he had founded and headed for more than three decades was once again on the verge of extinction, with a dearth of funds and students and a curriculum confined to precollegiate instruction in the grammar and Indian schools. Blair set to work and by the end of the 1720s had achieved nothing less than a second founding of the institution, helped again by a period in which few political issues diverted him from the task. A round of new construction added the Brafferton (1723) to house the Indian school and the library, a chapel wing on the main building (1732), and a president's house (1733). The crowning achievements, however, were the preparation of the first college statutes in 1727; the hiring for the first time of the full complement of six masters, including professors of moral and natural philosophy and divinity; and with those preconditions met, the transfer of the original charter of 1693 into the hands of the president and masters on August 15, 1729.

Blair was able to use his secure position in the social and political elite of Virginia to contribute significantly to the evolution of autonomous institutions in the colony. Rather than an outpost of imperial culture controlled by a largely English clerical faculty, under Blair's guidance William and Mary became a college governed primarily by prominent colonists who sat on its board of visitors and shaped it to serve their educational goals. Likewise, Blair's actions as commissary aided the development of an established Anglican church dominated by laymen who ran its parish vestries, a model that more closely resembled the operations of the church in Scotland during Blair's youth and ministry in that country than it did the functioning of the parent Church of England during the eighteenth century.

Blair's relations with Lieutenant Governor William Gooch, the last chief executive on whose Council he served, were amicable. Gooch's private opinion of Blair was negative, but he resolved to "kill him with kindness." By then Blair was declining in health and vigor. In his last years he retained all of his official positions as president of the college, commissary, parish rector, and councillor, although he was not always able to perform all of his duties. The senior member of the Council, Blair served as president (in effect, acting governor) from October 15, 1740, to July 1741 while Gooch was away on a military expedition to the West Indies.

The childless Blair had a sizable estate to dispose of when he composed his will in 1743. He made several charitable bequests, including £100 for teaching poor children and £500 for the education of a clergyman. He left his books to the library of the College of William and Mary and the remainder of his estate, estimated at £10,000, to his favorite nephew John Blair (ca. 1687–1771), whose education he had overseen. James Blair died in Williamsburg of a gangrenous rupture on April 18, 1743. He was buried beside his wife in the Jamestown churchyard.

Major Works

  • Our Saviour's Divine Sermon on the Mount (5 volumes; 1722)
  • The Present State of Virginia, and the College (with Henry Hartwell and Edward Chilton; 1727)

Time Line

  • 1655 - Around this year James Blair is born in Edinburgh, Scotland, the eldest of three sons and four daughters of Peter Blair, a clergyman, and Mary Hamilton Blair.
  • 1669–1673 - James Blair studies at the University of Edinburgh, where he receives the degree of master of arts.
  • 1679–1681 - James Blair serves as minister at Cranstoun Parish outside Edinburgh. A dispute with parish landowners over his reimbursement for repairs to the manse suggests his combative nature.
  • Summer 1679 - James Blair is ordained a minister in the Anglican church by John Paterson, bishop of Edinburgh.
  • December 1681 - James Blair is removed from his position as minister at Cranstoun Parish outside Edinburgh after he refuses to subscribe to a test oath that the Scottish Parliament has imposed because it will require him to accept the Roman Catholic duke of York as head of the Scottish church when he becomes king.
  • 1685 - Late in the year, James Blair arrives in Virginia.
  • June 2, 1687 - James Blair marries seventeen-year-old Sarah Harrison, of Surry County. At the wedding, she adamantly refuses to assent to the portion of the ceremony obliging her to obey her husband.
  • December 15, 1689 - James Blair is named commissary, or the bishop's representative with authority to preside over the Anglican clergy of Virginia in administrative matters. He is preceded in the post by John Clayton.
  • July 23, 1690 - James Blair calls a convocation of the Anglican clergy in Virginia. He advances "Several Propositions" for the founding of a college in the colony—the future College of William and Mary—and wins enthusiastic support.
  • June 1691 - James Blair leaves for England to seek the backing of King William, Queen Mary, and others for a proposed college in Virginia.
  • February 8, 1693 - A royal charter is granted for the College of William and Mary.
  • July 18, 1694 - James Blair takes his seat as a member of the governor's Council over the objections of Governor Sir Edmund Andros.
  • April 26, 1695 - James Blair is suspended from the governor's Council following his public criticism of Governor Sir Edmund Andros.
  • September 25, 1696 - After an almost year-and-a-half suspension for publicly criticizing the governor, James Blair is reinstated to the governor's Council.
  • April 20, 1697 - For a second time, James Blair is suspended from the governor's Council.
  • Summer 1697 - In a long-running dispute with Governor Sir Edmund Andros, James Blair returns to England to present his grievances to ecclesiastical and political authorities.
  • October 22, 1697 - By this date, James Blair, Edward Chilton, and Henry Hartwell have presented to the Board of Trade a collaborative report on the state of affairs of the Virginia colony and how to improve it.
  • May 31, 1698 - Governor Sir Edmund Andros is granted permission to resign and return to England on personal business.
  • 1699 - James Blair cooperates with Governor Francis Nicholson in a successful effort to move Virginia's capital from Jamestown to Middle Plantation, which is renamed Williamsburg.
  • June 9, 1701 - James Blair takes his seat on the governor's Council after being reappointed by Governor Francis Nicholson.
  • August 1703 - James Blair leaves on a second trip to England to lobby for the removal of a governor, this time Francis Nicholson.
  • April 5, 1705 - The Board of Trade removes Francis Nicholson from his post as governor of Virginia.
  • August 1705 - James Blair calls a second convocation of the Anglican clergy in Virginia.
  • October 29, 1705 - The College of William and Mary's main building catches fire and burns to its exterior walls. The resulting inquiry stirs further animosity between the college's president, James Blair, and his many adversaries.
  • 1710 - James Blair becomes the rector of Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg after the death of one of his most outspoken clerical opponents, Solomon Whateley.
  • May 5, 1713 - Sarah Harrison Blair, wife of the Anglican minister James Blair, dies.
  • April 1719 - James Blair calls a third convocation of the Anglican clergy in Virginia.
  • 1721 - James Blair leaves on a third trip to England to lobby for the removal of an executive, this time Lieutenant Governor Alexander Spotswood. While abroad Blair arranges for the publication of a five-volume collection of his sermons.
  • 1723 - Construction is completed on the Brafferton building to house the Indian school at the College of William and Mary.
  • 1727 - James Blair prepares the first statutes for the College of William and Mary.
  • August 15, 1729 - The original 1693 charter of the College of William and Mary is transferred into the hands of the president and masters.
  • 1732 - Construction of a chapel wing on the main building at the College of William and Mary is completed.
  • 1733 - Construction of a president's house at the College of William and Mary is completed.
  • October 15, 1740 - As senior member of the Council, James Blair serves as president, or acting governor, in the absence of Lieutenant Governor Sir William Gooch, who is away from Virginia until July 1741.
  • 1743 - James Blair composes his will. The childless minister, college president, and councillor makes several charitable bequests while leaving the remainder of his estate, estimated at estimated at £10,000, to his favorite nephew John Blair, whose education he has overseen.
  • April 18, 1743 - James Blair dies in Williamsburg of a gangrenous rupture. He is buried beside his wife in the Jamestown churchyard.

References

Further Reading
Tate, Thad W. "Blair, James." In The Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Vol. 1, edited by John T. Kneebone, J. Jefferson Looney, Brent Tarter, and Sandra Gioia Treadway, 539–543. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 1998.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Tate, T. W., & the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. James Blair (ca. 1655–1743). (2016, July 21). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Blair_James_ca_1655-1743.

  • MLA Citation:

    Tate, Thad W. and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "James Blair (ca. 1655–1743)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 21 Jul. 2016. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: July 27, 2010 | Last modified: July 21, 2016