Edgar, Samuel (1767–1826), presbyterian minister, was born in Gilford, Co. Down. His father, a farmer, died when he was a child, and an uncle, the Rev. Samuel Edgar, a secession minister of Loughaghery, near Hillsborough, Co. Down, became a father to him. Destined for the presbyterian ministry, he was educated in his uncle's school at Hillsborough but before proceeding to Glasgow University he developed tuberculosis, which he survived. His uncle died in 1784, and guided by the Rev. John Sturgeon, minister of the Ballynahinch burgher secession congregation, he returned to his studies for the ministry, graduating MA in Glasgow in 1792. Having been licensed by the Down burgher presbytery (16 April 1793), he was ordained and installed as Sturgeon's successor in Ballynahinch (20 November 1793). He married his cousin Elizabeth McKee of Boardmills, and in 1799 purchased a farm at nearby Ballykine, where he opened a school. One of his pupils (and later his assistant) was James Thomson (qv), who was to become successively professor of mathematics in the Belfast Institution and in Glasgow University, and father of William Thomson, Lord Kelvin (qv).
As a minister in Ballynahinch in 1798 Edgar found himself caught up in the United Irish rebellion, to which he was opposed. He was able to save some innocent prisoners of the military from the gallows, and his recollections of 1798 were published in the Belfast Magazine (1825) and in the Irish Presbyterian (1905). In 1815 he was appointed clerk of the burgher secession synod and professor of theology for their ministerial students in the Belfast Institution.
When the burgher and anti-burgher secession synods united in 1818 to form a single secession synod, Edgar was appointed clerk of synod and elected moderator in 1820. After his death in 1826 he was succeeded in the seceders' professorship of theology by his eldest son, John, and in the Ballynahinch pastorate by a younger son, David.
John Edgar (1798–1866) born 13 June 1798, was educated in his father's school, the University of Glasgow (1812–14), and the Belfast Institution, where he obtained the faculty's certificate in arts. In 1820 he was ordained in a small secession congregation which was being formed in Alfred St. in Belfast. After succeeding his father in the seceders' chair of theology he continued to minister in the Alfred St. congregation, which required an enlarged church building in 1837. In 1828 he married Susanna Grimshaw, daughter of Thomas Grimshaw, a Belfast merchant.
He was neither an outstanding scholar nor an effective teacher – his lectures were notoriously unsystematic – but he was a tireless and influential social activist. Few good causes and institutions lacked his support – the care of the destitute sick, the blind, the deaf and dumb, women of the streets, seamen. He was an ardent anti-slavery campaigner, but his chief claim to fame lay in his contribution to the temperance movement and the needs of the victims of famine in the west of Ireland in the 1840s.
He initiated the temperance movement in Irish presbyterianism, though opposing total abstinence as unbiblical. His famous Cry from Connaught, 30,000 copies of which were circulated, was a cri de coeur on behalf of the starving people of the west, whose nobility of character under affliction Edgar much admired. Not only was material aid provided for the stricken province but industrial schools were organised to enable young women to learn productive and remunerative skills. At first Edgar disavowed any form of proselytism and Roman Catholic clergy cooperated in the relief work, but later he adopted the contemporary protestant evangelical view that the famine had created a providential opportunity for evangelism in the west, that not only bread but the bread of life should be offered to the hungry, and this naturally provoked catholic resentment and resistance. Edgar died 26 August 1866 from what appears to have been throat cancer, survived by his wife and five of their nine children, four having died in infancy. He was buried in Balmoral cemetery in Belfast. A biography, Memoir of John Edgar, by W. D. Killen (qv), was published in Belfast in 1867 and a collection of his speeches and pamphlets, The select works of John Edgar, followed in 1868. He had received an honorary DD from Hamilton College in the USA (1836) and an LLD from New York (1860), and was moderator of the general assembly in 1842.