Robertson, William (1705–83), clergyman and theological writer, was born 16 October 1705 in Dublin, son of a presbyterian linen manufacturer from Scotland and his wife Diana Allen, a native of Durham. He received his early education at the school of Francis Hutcheson (qv) in Dublin before entering Glasgow University 4 March 1723, graduating MA 29 April 1724. In 1725 he presented a petition to the university's principal, John Stirling, requesting that the student body be allowed to hold an election for the post of rector. When permission was denied, he made a public statement of the students’ grievances and was expelled 4 March 1725. He sought redress from Archibald Campbell, 12th earl of Islay, who carried out a royal commission of the university on 4 October 1726. Stirling was dismissed, the right of election restored to the students, and Robertson's expulsion revoked. However, he decided to remain in London, where he had been introduced to several eminent clerics including William Wake, archbishop of Canterbury, who persuaded him to conform to the established church. Robertson was ordained as curate of Tullow, Co. Carlow, 14 January 1728.
On 11 November 1729 he became rector of Rathvilly, Co. Carlow, and Kilranelagh, Co. Wicklow, and by 1738 he was also vicar of Rathmore and Straboe and perpetual curate of Rahil, Co. Carlow. These livings generated an annual income of £200, but a legal case, which permitted Robertson to collect tithes for herbage (pasturage for dry cattle) doubled his income. However, subsequent resolutions by the Irish house of commons, censoring clergy suing in this way, discouraged parishioners from paying tithe, and prompted Robertson to publish A scheme for utterly abolishing the present heavy and vexatious tax of tithe (1738), which suggested that a tax be placed on land instead. Despite several publications on the issue no changes in the law were made.
Robertson married (1728) Elizabeth, daughter of Maj. William Baxter, a former soldier in King James II's (qv) army in Ireland; she bore him 21 children before her death in 1758, all of whom predeceased him. In 1743, for the sake of his children's education, he moved to Dublin, where he had the care of St Luke's parish for five years. During this time he established a charity to raise money for the families of deceased clergymen. However, ill health compelled him to return to Rathvilly in 1748.
In 1759 Richard Robinson (qv) became bishop of Ferns and offered Robertson the rectories of Tullowmoy and Ballyquillane, Queen's Co., worth £40 a year. However, before he could be collated, Robertson read John Jones's Free and candid disquisition relating to the Church of England (1749), which advocated the revision of the anglican liturgy. This filled Robertson with doubts about his theological beliefs, so he wrote to the bishop on 15 January 1760 declining the post. He continued to serve at Rathvilly but omitted the Athanasian creed. When he realised this was causing offence to his parishioners, he resigned all his benefices in 1764. In 1766 he published An attempt to explain the words, reason, substance, person, creeds, orthodoxy, catholic church, subscription and index expurgatorius, which he submitted to the University of Glasgow; he was created DD 21 January 1768. In it he put forward a plan for a comprehensive establishment based solely on subscription to the Bible and a service book that omitted all controversial issues. Smyth Loftus answered in A confutation of an attempt to explain etc. (1769); declining health prevented Robertson from making a reply.
Robertson failed to find alternative employment in Dublin. Philip Skelton (qv) offered to let him live with him, but Robertson felt this was inconsistent with his newfound principles and moved to England. He received offers of support from several London gentlemen and in 1768, after working for some months on the Monthly Review, he was appointed headmaster of Wolverhampton Grammar School by the Merchant Taylors’ Company of London. He earned only £20 a year as a schoolmaster, and claimed that his ‘necessary expenses were five times his salary’ but that ‘many things which are of greater show and consequence in the general opinion weighed very light in my scale when set against others which were to me of infinitely greater moment’ (Gentleman's Magazine (Sept. 1783), 745).
In 1772 he was one of the committee of clergymen who petitioned the British house of commons requesting relief from subscription to the 39 articles and the Book of Common Prayer, and planned to join Theophilus Lindsey, who owned that Robertson's example had been the ‘secret reproach’ that persuaded him to leave the established church and to view Robertson as the ‘father of unitarian nonconformity’ (Belsham, 164). He intended to join Lindsey in the Essex St. chapel, London, in April 1778 until a threatened prosecution for teaching without a licence determined him to remain in Wolverhampton as ‘to fly now would look like cowardice’ (ibid., 171). No prosecution ever took place. He died in Wolverhampton 20 May 1783 as a result of gout in the stomach, and was buried in the local parish church.