Reid, James Seaton (1798–1851), presbyterian historian, was born 19 December 1798 at Lurgan, Co. Armagh, eleventh son among seventeen children of Forrest Reid (d. 1801), schoolmaster, and Mary Reid (née Weir) of Derriaghy, Co. Antrim. Only five of the children survived childhood. The young James Seaton and his widowed mother later found a home with one of the older surviving sons, Edward, presbyterian minister of Ramelton, Co. Donegal. A future moderator of the synod of Ulster, Edward Reid conducted a grammar school in Ramelton, and there his younger brother received his early education before entering Glasgow University in 1813. He graduated MA in 1816 and after a year of theological studies was licensed as a ministerial probationer by the Letterkenny presbytery. On 20 July 1818 he was ordained and installed in Donegore, Co. Antrim, in succession to Henry Cooke (qv).
As a preacher Cooke was not an easy man to follow, but Reid's pastoral zeal and teaching ministry earned him much respect in Donegore and in the wider church. Cooke's failure to keep proper records of baptisms and marriages was noted by Reid in the appropriate registers, an early indication of his meticulous attention to detail. On 19 August 1823 he was installed in Carrickfergus, where the first presbytery on Irish soil had been formed in 1642. He married (1826) Elizabeth Arrott, daughter of a Belfast physician.
His interest in Irish presbyterian history had begun in Donegore in the area of the Six Mile Water revival of the seventeenth century, and in Carrickfergus he continued his studies, collecting and copying documents relating to presbyterian history, travelling to Dublin, Edinburgh, and London to do so. His first historical publication was a brief catechetical history of Irish presbyterianism which appeared as an appendix to an edition of Samuel Palmer's Dissenters' catechisms before being published separately in 1826.
He was elected moderator of the synod of Ulster in 1827 at the height of the Arian and second-subscription controversy. Though his own sympathies were orthodox and evangelical, he opposed Cooke's policy of driving the Arians and non-subscribers out of the synod; although, ironically, his solution to the problem (the appointment of a theological examination committee to test the orthodoxy of future students for the ministry) was unacceptable to the Arians, who drew up a remonstrance against the decision to appoint the committee and, when it was rejected, withdrew to form the remonstrant synod in 1830.
Reid succeeded William Porter, a leading remonstrant, as clerk of the synod and contributed significantly to the subsequent union with the secession synod to form the general assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland in 1840. He was the first editor of the Orthodox Presbyterian, published from 1829 onwards by the now triumphant orthodox party in the synod of Ulster.
In 1828, as outgoing moderator of the synod, Reid preached a sermon which was published as The history of the Presbyterian Church briefly reviewed. The first volume of his History of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland appeared in 1834, and in 1836 he was elected to membership of the RIA. The second volume of his history followed in 1837, and in 1838 he was appointed by the synod of Ulster as their professor of church history in the Belfast Institution. Three years later, in 1841, he was appointed regius professor of ecclesiastical and civil history in the University of Glasgow, which had given him an honorary DD in 1833.
The range and depth of his historical scholarship were shown in his 800 footnotes in an English edition of Mosheim's Institutes of ecclesiastical history (1848). He was working on a third volume of his Irish presbyterian history when he died on 26 March 1851, the victim of a brain tumour. He was survived by his wife, who was given a state pension, and nine of their eleven children. His portrait, painted by Samuel Hawkesett, still hangs in Glasgow University. The final volume of his Irish presbyterian history was completed by W. D. Killen (qv), as was a history of Irish presbyterian congregations on which he had been working. He is honoured as the father of Irish presbyterian historiography; his careful and painstaking work, based on primary sources which he collected and preserved, remains indispensable. His books and pamphlets were acquired by the Presbyterian College, Belfast, and some of his papers are in the Presbyterian Historical Society, Belfast.