Stevenson, William Fleming (1832–86), presbyterian minister, was born 20 September 1832 at Strabane, Co. Tyrone, youngest child among three sons and two daughters of William Stevenson (d. 1857), a prosperous merchant, and Margaret Anne Stevenson (née Morton). It was intended that the two younger sons would enter the ministry of the presbyterian church. They had a private tutor, and from 1844 lived with him in Belfast and attended the RBAI. William entered Glasgow University in 1848, graduating MA (1851). The elder brother, Samuel, was making good progress in Edinburgh University when one evening he went to visit friends but never arrived. No trace of him was ever found. The family, especially William and his mother, were heartbroken, and though William successfully completed his theological studies in New College, Edinburgh, his three years in that city were darkened by distress about the unknown fate of his beloved brother. During 1854–6 he studied theology in the universities of Berlin and Heidelberg, and was greatly influenced by the German approach to the Christian life.
In 1856 Stevenson was licensed to preach by Strabane presbytery; in 1857 he started work in the new town mission in Belfast, among the illiterate poor. He was struck down by typhus fever, and only just survived; in his delirium, he prayed incessantly for his congregation. After a slow recovery and two temporary preaching jobs, Stevenson was called on 1 January 1860 by the infant congregation in Rathgar, a developing suburb of Dublin. There were only about twenty families, and no church building, but Stevenson was ordained on 1 March 1860 and embarked on his lifetime's work with the congregation. After only two years, thanks largely to Stevenson's leadership and efforts, the congregation was able to build an impressive church to hold 450 hearers; during Stevenson's time there, it had to be extended twice to hold over 190 families. As well as looking after his congregation, Stevenson became known as an author; he wrote many articles for Good Words, a religious periodical founded by his friend Norman McLeod, who had preached the inaugural sermon to Christ Church Rathgar, as the new congregation was called. Some of the articles were republished in 1862 in Praying and working; they showed the influence of German spirituality and reflected Stevenson's interest in the church's social responsibilities, and also in foreign missions. The book enjoyed lasting popularity, and another work, Hymns for church and home (1873) was a scholarly contribution to the development in the presbyterian church of a hymnology to supplement the earlier reliance on the psalms.
Stevenson was best known internationally for his work as convenor of the church's foreign mission committee; from 1871 jointly with James Morgan (qv), and from 1873 on his own. The workload was formidable: in 1885 he wrote and received over 11,000 letters. He travelled to America in 1873 to attend a meeting of the Evangelical Alliance, and from June 1877 to March 1878 he and his wife travelled 47,000 miles to visit all the church's missions, in India, China, and Japan. An address and report on his journey, presented to the general assembly in June 1878, sold 40,000 copies. Stevenson organised the foundation of a mission in Gujarat to work with Indian women. His importance in inspiring the missionary work of his own and other churches can scarcely be overstated; a colleague described him as a ‘walking battery’.
As well as his writing, congregational responsibilities, and convenorship, Stevenson undertook other onerous tasks and offices: in 1879–80 he was professor of evangelistic theology in New College, Edinburgh, and in 1881 gave lectures on mission work in Magee College, Derry (of which he was also a trustee). In that year also, he was unanimously elected moderator of the general assembly, and during 1882–6 was Duff lecturer in New College on foreign missions. His lectures were published posthumously in 1887 as The dawn of the modern mission, and there was also a posthumous edition of Praying and working (1886). He was a senator of the RUI from its inception in 1879, and in 1886 was appointed chaplain to the lord lieutenant, John Campbell Gordon (qv), earl of Aberdeen; Stevenson was the first ever presbyterian chaplain to the viceregal household (Lord Aberdeen himself being a member of the Church of Scotland). He served on many charitable and public committees and received the degree of DD honoris causa (Edinburgh) in 1881.
Stevenson died suddenly 16 September 1886 after a heart attack, apparently precipitated by overwork; his funeral at Mount Jerome cemetery, Dublin, was attended by large crowds of all denominations, and his widow, Elizabeth Montgomery (1838–1916), received over a thousand letters of sympathy. She was the eldest daughter of John Sinclair (1809–56) of Belfast, in whose memory was founded Sinclair Seamen's church, where Stevenson's wedding took place on 1 June 1865. She helped her husband set up the Women's Foreign Missionary Association in the presbyterian church. They had three daughters and two sons. John Sinclair Stevenson, the younger son, only three years old when his father died, became a presbyterian missionary in India. Stevenson's large library of books and papers was given to Assembly's College, Belfast, and the Fleming Stevenson Missionary Training College was established in Ahmedabad, India, as a memorial to one of the most energetic and beloved ministers of the nineteenth century. His wife's biography of him contained a photograph, and went through two editions.