James Blair (clergyman)

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James Blair
James Blair.jpg
Oil painting of James Blair by Charles Bridges from William & Mary
1st President of the
College of William & Mary
In office
Succeeded byWilliam Dawson
Personal details
Banffshire, Scotland
Died18 April 1743 (aged 86–87)
Jamestown, Virginia
Spouse(s)Sarah Harrison
Alma materUniversity of Aberdeen
University of Edinburgh

James Blair (1656 – 18 April 1743) was a clergyman in the Church of England. He was also a missionary and an educator, best known as the founder of the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, US.

Youth and education[edit]

James Blair was born in Edinburgh, Scotland one of five children. His parents were Peter Blair, minister of St Cuthbert's, Edinburgh, and Mary Hamilton Blair. He was educated at Marischal College, University of Aberdeen and the University of Edinburgh.

After completing his education, in 1679 he was ordained in the national Church of Scotland (known officially at this time as the Kirk of Scotland, see kirk). During the entire 17th century the Kirk had been experiencing passionate internal conflicts between Presbyterians and Episcopalians (see, for example, the Bishops' Wars). The Episcopalians were in the ascendancy during this period and the Church of Scotland was briefly aligned with the Church of England during the reign of Charles II of Scotland. Charles was a strong opponent of Presbyterianism and throughout his lifetime worked to reassert the strength of the Anglican Church.

In 1681, Blair, aligned with the Episcopalians, was deprived of his parish in Edinburgh due to the conflict within the Episcopal movement between those supporting the Roman Catholic Church and those advocating a continued independent Episcopal national church. Discouraged, Blair relocated to London later that year.

Missionary to the Virginia Colony[edit]

In London, 1685, he was ordained in the Church of England, and at the request of Henry Compton, the Bishop of London (responsible for the colonies), Blair travelled to the New World with a mission to "revive and reform the church in the Virginia Colony."[1] His initial assignment was to serve as rector of the Parish of Henrico at Varina. He developed good relationships with prominent political families, such as the Harrison family. He married Sarah Harrison, daughter of Benjamin Harrison Jr., on 2 June 1687. When James Clayton, Commissary in the Virginia Colony for the Bishop of London, died after just two years of service, Blair succeeded him, making him the colony's highest-ranking religious leader, a position that he would hold for 54 years.[2]

The leaders of the Virginia Colony had long wanted school to give their sons higher education, as well as to educate the natives. An earlier attempt to establish a permanent university at Henricus for these purposes around 1618 failed after the Indian Massacre of 1622 wiped out the entire settlement, which was not rebuilt.

Almost 70 years later, with encouragement from the Colony's House of Burgesses and other prominent individuals, Blair prepared a plan, believed by some historians to be modelled after the earlier one from Henricus, and returned to England in 1691 to petition the monarchy for a new college. The Powhatan people had been largely decimated and reduced to reservations after the last major conflict in 1644, but the religious aspiration to educate them into Christianity was nevertheless retained, perhaps as a moral incentive to help gain support and approval in London. Moreover, the school would serve to train clergy born in the colonies for service among their neighbors.[3]

College of William & Mary[edit]

The trip to London proved successful. Blair was supported in his efforts by John Tillotson, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury. (Protestants King William and Queen Mary II of England were reigning joint monarchs of Great Britain, having just deposed Catholic James II of England in 1688 during the Glorious Revolution.) In 1693, a charter was granted for The College of William & Mary in Virginia, named to honour both monarchs. Blair was made president of the new school for life.[2] He served for 50 years, from 1693–1743, and remains the longest serving president of the college and the second longest serving college president in US history.

After Blair returned to Virginia, the trustees of the new college bought a parcel of 330 acres (1.3 km2) from Thomas Ballard for the new school. The location chosen was at Middle Plantation, a high point on the Virginia Peninsula so named because it was equidistant from the James and York Rivers. Middle Plantation had served as a fortress during periodic conflicts with the Native Americans since its establishment in 1632. Blair established his home at nearby Rich Neck Plantation.

The College was given a seat in the House of Burgesses. Financial income was to come by taxation of a penny per pound on tobacco exported from Maryland and Virginia to countries other than England, and from other similar sources, such as an export duty on furs and animal skins. The new school opened in temporary buildings in 1694. Properly called the "College Building," the first version of the Wren Building was built at Middle Plantation beginning on 8 August 1695 and occupied by 1700. Today, the Wren Building is the oldest academic structure in continuous use in America. (Incidentally, it is called the "Wren Building" because tradition has it that the building was designed by the famed English architect Sir Christopher Wren who had designed St Paul's Cathedral in London. His actual involvement with the College Building completed in 1700 is disputed by some historians).

Capital of Virginia, Williamsburg[edit]

The State House at Jamestown burned again (for the third time) in 1698, and as it had in the past, the legislature again took up temporary quarters at Middle Plantation. On 1 May 1699, Blair and five students of the College of William & Mary appeared before the House of Burgesses (which was meeting nearby in temporary quarters) to suggest that they designate Middle Plantation (soon to be renamed Williamsburg in honour of King William III), as the new capital of Virginia, and a month later, the legislators agreed.

Williamsburg served as the capital of Virginia for 81 years, until 1780, when the capital was moved to Richmond for security reasons at the outset of the American Revolution. Incidentally, primarily due to fire hazards in the Colonial era, the current building in Richmond, known as the Virginia State Capitol, is the eighth one.

Religious leadership, writing[edit]

Tombs of James Blair (left) and his wife Sarah (right) at Jamestown

James Blair served as a member and for a time, president of the Governor's Council in Virginia. As representative of the Bishop of London (of Oxford until 1675), Henry Compton, Blair held great power and responsibility in the period in Virginia before the separation of church and state became a fundamental political concept in Virginia which was put into place after the American Revolution. In response to complaints about dissolute clergy in the colonies, Compton had instructed Lieutenant Governor Herbert Jeffreys to investigate the situation, and then had suspended or removed those found problematic, as well as instituted a procedure to issue certificates attesting to a clergyman's orthodoxy and character and urged colonial governors not to hire those lacking such certificates. The other initial problem Blair faced was that in 1697, only half of organised parishes had ministers; six years later, with Compton's assistance nearly 80% of the approximately 50 parishes had clergy, although then additional parishes were chartered. Other efforts proved less successful (he managed to increase clergy stipends to 16,000 pounds of tobarro annually, then about 60 pounds sterling rather than the desired 80, and the colony's lay leaders refused to introduce ecclesiastical courts for moral offenses). Nonetheless, Blair worked to improve the moral condition of the people while he also defended them against the tyranny of the royal governors. He had great influence in England, and reportedly was involved with the recall to England of 3 royal governors: Edmund Andros, Francis Nicholson, and Alexander Spotswood.

He was also the Rector of Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg from 1710 until his death. Blair organised the construction of the now-historic church building, which began in 1711. It was beautifully restored in the early 20th century under then-rector W.A.R. Goodwin, a project which inspired Goodwin to advocate further restorations of other buildings, and seek sources of funding to do so, which led him to Colonial Williamsburg greatest benefactor, Standard Oil fortune heir John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and his family.

In 1722, Blair published Our Savior's Divine Sermon on the Mount, a five-volume collection of his sermons from 1707 to 1721. With Henry Hartwell and Edward Chilton, Blair wrote The Present State of Virginia and the College, which was published in 1727.

Death, burial at Jamestown[edit]

Blair died on 18 April 1743 aged 87, after a long career. He was buried next to his wife Sarah (née Harrison) Blair (d.1713) at Jamestown Island, where Preservation Virginia (formerly known as the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities), owns the original site of Jamestown, including the church and cemetery. He had become a Doctor of Divinity (DD).


probably no other man in the colonial time did so much for the intellectual life of Virginia.

— Moses Coit Tyler, professor of American history, Cornell University[2]

During the Colonial period, Blair was instrumental in reviving and reforming the Church of England in Virginia.

Blair's contributions to education in Virginia are recognised not only at the College of William & Mary, where Blair Hall is named for him, but also in the naming of various schools, including James Blair Middle School in James City County, Virginia, (formerly James Blair High School) and James Blair Middle School in Norfolk, Virginia.

On the William & Mary campus in the city of Williamsburg, a large portrait of Blair is displayed in the Great Hall. Nearby, there is a statue of him prominently displayed.

In 1943, the United States commissioned a victory ship James Blair in his honour.

In 2005, the Cypher Society of the College announced it was taking responsibility for a site restoration and beautification of the Blair graves at Jamestown Island in anticipation of Jamestown 2007, which celebrated the settlement's 400th anniversary.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ http://www.answers.com/topic/james-blair
  2. ^ a b c Chisholm 1911.
  3. ^ Edward L. Bond and Joan R. Gunderson, The Episcopal Church in Virginia: 1607-2007 (Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, 2007) p. 23


  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Blair, James". Encyclopædia Britannica. 4 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  • 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.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

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