Duchal, James (1697?-1761), non-subscribing presbyterian minister, was apparently born in the north of Ireland, perhaps near the town of Antrim. Almost nothing is known of his background, except that the family was probably originally from Scotland. It is possible that a James Degell or Deyall, listed as owning two hearths in the town of Antrim in the 1660s, was a forebear. Duchal seems to have had at least one sister, and received early education from an uncle. It is not certain when he was born; if, as is stated, he had reached his sixty-fourth birthday before his death in May 1761, he could have been born in late 1696 or early 1697. On the other hand, he entered Glasgow University's final-year philosophy class in March 1710, and if he was then 12 or 13, that would have been unusually young. His date of graduating MA is variously given as 1713 and 1726; he was licensed for the ministry by Antrim presbytery in 1718 or 1719. Possibly before his university education, and certainly afterwards, he received tuition and guidance from John Abernethy (qv) (d. 1740), then minister of the congregation in Antrim. In 1718 a Mr James Duchal, either the licentiate or perhaps more likely his father or uncle, was a commissioner from Antrim to protest to synod about the threatened forced move of Abernethy to Dublin. Abernethy's intellectual and spiritual authority shaped Duchal's career, and many years later Duchal described Abernethy as ‘that astonishing man’ (quoted in Hincks, 1843).
In 1721 he became minister in a small congregation in Green St., Cambridge, England, where he was presumably ordained. Though at that date he appears to have been orthodox (though not Calvinist) in his beliefs, any reservations that he might have had about a pre-ordination subscription of the Westminster confession were thus sidestepped, since English presbyterianism after the Salter's Hall debate (1719) rejected any man-made creeds. Duchal was happy during his time in Cambridge, and possibly profited by access to the university library, becoming deeply read in divinity, philosophy, and other subjects, including medicine and perhaps botany. He was said to have assisted poor members of his congregations with medical advice and remedies. In 1730, when Abernethy moved to Wood St. congregation in Dublin, Duchal was called by Antrim to take his place.
He was installed on 6 September 1730. Presbyterians in Antrim, as elsewhere, were split over the issue of subscription to the Westminster confession, and the new minister published two pamphlets in a controversy with William Holmes, the minister of the other Antrim congregation, in an unsuccessful attempt to reunite the factions in the church; he argued for universal Christian communion. He got to know members of the Belfast Society, ministers and lay members of the other congregations grouped along with his in a separate non-subscribing presbytery of Antrim. His short character sketches of several of the non-subscribing leaders are of value to historians. They appeared appended to Duchal's funeral sermon on Abernethy and were printed in the Christian Moderator in 1827.
Abernethy died in 1740, and Wood St. congregation called Thomas Drennan (qv), father of William Drennan (qv). In an affectionate and unexpectedly light-hearted letter to his friend, Duchal chaffed Drennan for his unwillingness to move to the city congregation, even jesting about Drennan's appeal to conscience. Duchal averred that in contrast to Drennan's manifest destiny, the country was his own ‘proper sphere, and is rendered so by a patient and contented drudgery, at every body's call, at every body's service: in foul weather and fair, through thick and thin, talking with book or without it . . . as the humours of the people direct; just as fit to live on three-score pounds as on three hundred: content without conversation, without books, or time to read them, travelling with the same humour among cottagers and labourers, as among hall-houses and squires, bringing home a lodgement of fleas, as happily as a good dinner and a glass of claret’ (Belfast Monthly Magazine, June 1811, p. 444). Despite Duchal's ‘rhapsodie’, Drennan stayed in Belfast, and on his recommendation Wood St., a wealthy and influential congregation, issued a call to Duchal, who moved to Dublin in 1741.
He undertook responsibility for editing and publishing the works of his predecessor John Abernethy; they appeared in three volumes (1748–51), with an introductory biographical sketch, and helped increase awareness of Abernethy's beliefs. He had access to Abernethy's spiritual diaries, since lost. Doubtless working on the papers increased his appreciation of Abernethy's theological views, and encouraged him to publish some of his own sermons as Presumptive arguments for the truth and divine authority of the Christian religion (1753), which impressed contemporaries. In recognition of the importance of the work and for services to religion, he was awarded the degree of DD (11 August 1753) by Glasgow University. A friend, who wrote a posthumous eulogy, expressed amazement that Duchal, who had during twenty years in his previous churches already furnished himself with enough sermons to last for the rest of his career in a new congregation, was happy to jettison them and to begin again to prepare a new set when he moved to Dublin. It is said that, in the twenty years of his ministry there, with unequalled labour he produced another seven hundred sermons, in a polished and easy-to-follow style, all beautifully handwritten.
Some of these were posthumously published (3 vols, 1762–4, with another edition in 1765) and influenced a generation of liberal theologians; his work was cited even by the anglican theologian William Paley (d. 1805). The non-conformist scientist Joseph Priestley rated Duchal highly, and the sermons were known in America and in German translation. For Duchal, the operation of reason was the mainspring of religious sentiment, and produced virtue by controlling the passions. In his view, the informed conscience and a rational taste for the pleasures of the mind and spirit were just as important as revelation in an individual's development towards religious understanding and moral excellence, and in several sermons he considered the influence of earthly affections and of friendship on directing the soul towards the love of God.
Duchal died unmarried at his lodgings in Abbey St. on 4 May 1761. His library was sold by auction in November 1761. Magee College, Derry, possesses a small collection of his manuscript sermons.