Magill, Robert (1788–1839), presbyterian minister, was born 7 September 1788 in the village of Broughshane, near Ballymena, Co. Antrim, eldest of the five children of George Frederic Magill (1762–1828) and his wife, Sarah Boyd. He was educated locally by teachers named O'Hara, Alexander, and Millan. When he was 10 years old the 1798 rebellion broke out and made such an impression on him that he was able to recall it vividly years later. After teaching school in Ballyporte and Broughshane, he determined to study for the church and took classes from the Rev. John Paul (1777–1848), the Covenanter minister of Loughmorne, before proceeding to the University of Glasgow. To get to Scotland he set out from Broughshane on foot on 22 October 1813 and walked 140 miles to Glasgow, arriving five days later. This journey he repeated annually till he graduated MA in 1816, having taken several medical classes in addition to theology. On 11 August 1818 he was licensed by the presbytery of Ballymena, in connection with the synod of Ulster, and on 20 June 1820 he was ordained as assistant to Alexander Montgomery, minister of Mill Row (latterly First) presbyterian church, Antrim. Montgomery died in October 1820 and Magill succeeded him as minister and devoted the rest of his life to Mill Row, acquiring a great reputation as a preacher. The historian and minister James Reid wrote that ‘certain tones of his voice were so exquisitely tender that he could almost at once melt an auditory into tears’ (Reid, 555), while one of his congregation attested that his preaching ‘was to her soul like life from the dead’ (Kenny, 204). His congregation increased steadily and a new church had to be built in 1834 to accommodate it.
Magill was embroiled in the great controversy of the 1820s between the orthodox presbyterians led by Henry Cooke (qv), who espoused firmly Calvinist principles, and the ‘Arians’ (so-called after Arius of Alexandria, a fourth-century anti-trinitarian), led by Henry Montgomery (qv), who questioned the doctrine of the Trinity. The dispute was theological and also political as the Arians were more liberal. Magill was firmly orthodox and conservative. At the convention of the Ulster synod in Strabane (1827) he opened the proceedings by demanding that the Rev. William Porter, an avowed Arian, be dismissed as clerk of the general synod, and in an impassioned speech he described the Arians as ‘highway robbers who would rob the Saviour of his crown of glory’ (Holmes, 48). Porter claimed he was attacked because of his advocacy of catholic emancipation. The following year Magill gave currency to this accusation by agitating for a meeting of the synod to petition the king against further concessions to catholics; he dismissed the synod's declaration of 1813 (which gave qualified support to the catholic cause) as an Arian act. At Cooke's behest he wrote a satirical poem, ‘The thinking few’, ridiculing Arian doctrine. He was a practised amateur poet, having won a poetry prize while at university, where several of his poems were recited by a public orator. ‘The thinking few' took its title from Porter's remark that Arianism was making progress among the thinking few in the synod of Ulster. At 1,000 lines, it roved through history, philosophy, theology, and politics. When published anonymously in 1828, it gained wide circulation. Finlay Holmes, biographer of Henry Cooke, dismisses the poem as a jingle, but the poet John Hewitt (qv) called it one of the two best poems to come out of the controversy. Six years later Magill published his Poems on various subjects, chiefly religious, which are largely sentimental. He died on 19 February 1839, and was survived by his second wife, the former Ellen Ligatt, whom he had married just nine months previously on 11 June 1838. She buried him in Templepatrick, apparently against his expressed wishes, but the Millrow congregation exhumed his body and placed it in a plot in Donegore beside his first wife (m. 11 December 1823), Ann Jane Skelton (d. 1832), and his son who died young. His loyal congregation erected a tablet to his memory.
He left a diary (an extract of which was published by J. G. Kenny in 1988), which records the minutiae of his daily work. Its attention to detail is extraordinary: he notes the jobs of his parishioners, their time of death to the very minute, the names of his correspondents and visitors, the genealogy of everyone, and the price of everything. It attests to his constant, dutiful parish work and to a methodical, even obsessive, cataloguing mind and is of considerable historical interest. His references to writing ‘recipes’ (prescriptions) for his parishioners suggest that he made good use of his short earlier period studying medicine, to double as a physician. He gathered genealogical information relating to his parishioners into an unpublished book, ‘Millrow congregation, Antrim’, which is now in the library of the Presbyterian Historical Society and was enthusiastically reviewed by the magazine Irish Ancestor in 1969.
His only surviving child, Sarah, married an eminent Belfast architect, Robert Young (qv); their son was the architect and antiquarian Robert Magill Young (qv). Magill's three nephews were ordained ministers of the presbyterian church; one of them, George Magill (1829–1923), was also minister at Mill Row 1860–67.