Campbell, William (1727–1805), presbyterian minister and scholar, was born 9 November 1727, one of the three sons of Robert Campbell, a merchant of Newry, and his second wife, Mary, daughter of Robert Murdoch of Newry. He matriculated to the University of Glasgow in 1744. He was licensed to the ministry of the synod of Ulster by the presbytery of Armagh in 1750. He was tutor to the Bagwell family of Kilmore (later Marlfield), Clonmel, and travelled extensively with that family on the continent during the 1750s. While he was in Paris he refused to bow to the host being carried in procession in the streets; for this he was jailed, and was released through the interposition of the British ambassador. He married his cousin Jane Carlile, a daughter of Robert Carlile, a merchant of Ashgrove, Newry, on 3 November 1758. They had eleven children, seven sons and four daughters; six of the children predeceased their father. Campbell was ordained in the non-subscribing presbyterian congregation of Antrim in the late summer or early autumn of 1759 and supervised a small school in addition to his pastoral duties.
He was among the volunteers who hastened to repel the French privateer François Thurot, who threatened Belfast upon landing at Carrickfergus in February 1760. An attack on his home by rioters in the campaign leading up to the borough election of 1761 indicates his involvement in local issues. He was a signatory to a letter to the press from the ministers of the presbytery of Antrim in September 1763 condemning the illegal activities of the Oakboys in Co. Armagh. In 1764 he moved to the presbyterian congregation of Armagh, in connection with the synod of Ulster (he had family connections in the town, his wife's sister Anne being married to George Murray of Armagh); he remained as minister until 1789. It was during this period that he was most active within the synod of Ulster. He became moderator in 1773, and his moderatorial address was published as The presence of Christ with his church in every age and period of it, explained and improved. A discourse delivered at Antrim June 28th 1774 at a general synod of the protestant dissenting ministers of the presbyterian persuasion in Ulster (1774). The minute of the proceedings of the synod of Ulster of 1784 refers to him as Dr Campbell and, although some of the letters preserved in the Campbell manuscripts congratulate him on the award of the doctorate from his alma mater, no record has been traced to substantiate Glasgow as the conferring body.
He was a strong advocate of a scheme for the founding of a presbyterian university for Ireland, a matter that he pursued vigorously with various Irish government and parliamentary figures, such as Walter Hussey Burgh (qv) and John Foster (qv), through the 1780s, but without success. Within the synod he was a prominent and able proponent of ‘new light’ views opposing compulsory subscription to the Westminster confession of faith, and defending the independence of presbyteries against centralised authority. He represented the interests of the synod of Ulster as its agent in seeking an increase in the regium donum, a royal grant to its ministers. Owing to the opposition of Lord Hillsborough (qv) and his son Lord Kilwarlin, the sum was raised by only £1,000, a disappointing amount. Campbell defended the continued right of presbyterians to be married according to the form and discipline of their own church, when this seemed under threat by the clergy of the established church in 1784 and 1785.
In 1787–8 he controverted the published views of Richard Woodward (qv), the bishop of Cloyne who, writing in 1786, in the wake of the Whiteboy disturbances in Munster, held that the continued establishment of the anglican church in Ireland alone guaranteed the preservation of the union with Great Britain and of the protestant religion in Ireland, since the republican views of the dissenters made them unreliable. Campbell responded with two publications, in 1787 and 1788: A vindication of the principles and character of the presbyterians of Ireland, addressed to the bishop of Cloyne in answer to his book entitled, The present state of the Church of Ireland; and An examination of the bishop of Cloyne's defence of his principles; with observations on some of his lordship's apologists particularly the Rev. Dr Stock; containing an enquiry into the constitution and effects of our ecclesiastical establishment and also an historical review of the political principles and conduct of presbyterians and episcopals in Great Britain and Scotland, with a defence of the Church of Scotland from the charge of persecution brought by his lordship's apologist, in which he argued that presbyterians had always been loyal, and that establishments, historically, had been harmful to the church. Dr William Drennan (qv) reckoned Campbell's the best of the pamphlets written to counter the assertions of Woodward and Joseph Stock (qv). Campbell, an enthusiast for the Volunteer movement, of which Lord Charlemont (qv) was leader, declared: ‘The kingdom of Ireland was better governed under the reign of the volunteers . . . Never had so much peace prevailed; never so much internal tranquility; a peaceful time.’ He shared the original aims of the Volunteers for religious toleration and parliamentary reform, under the British crown and achieved by peaceful means. He did not support the 1798 rising but laid the blame at the door of government for provoking rebellion in order to discredit the parties involved.
Campbell moved to the old presbyterian congregation (non-subscribing) of Clonmel in 1789 to be near his long-standing friends the Bagwells. His wife, Jane, died there 29 December 1791. Some writers recount the story that owing to blindness in later years he depended on a daughter as an amanuensis, but a comparison of handwriting known to be his, with documents from the later years, disproves this. William Campbell died 17 November 1805 at Clonmel.