Alison, Francis (1705–79), presbyterian minister and educator in America, was born in the parish of Leck, Co. Donegal, son of Robert Alison, weaver, who may have been fairly well off, and who seems to have died in 1725; his mother's name is unknown, but her first name was possibly Mary. There is said to have been at least one other son; Alison is known to have had at least one sister, whose son James Latta was born in Donegal (1732), and who also became a prominent presbyterian minister and schoolteacher in Pennsylvania. Alison received an excellent grounding in Latin, Greek, and other subjects, probably from a local minister or at Raphoe Royal School close to his home, before he graduated MA (1733) from the University of Edinburgh. It is possible that he studied divinity in Glasgow University for two years after 1733, and would have been taught there by Francis Hutcheson (qv). Alison knew Hutcheson well enough to write to him (1744) from America, seeking his advice on suitable textbooks and curricula. Hutcheson's teaching was of great importance in the development of what historians have labelled ‘the Scottish enlightenment’. The Scottish universities were among the most distinguished educational institutions in Europe at the time, in the forefront of new developments in thought and practice.
In June 1735 Alison was licensed by the presbytery of Letterkenny to preach, and with other family members left Ireland for America. He was possibly a private tutor in Maryland for a time, and a ministerial probationer in the New Castle presbytery, before being ordained (1737) as minister of New London presbyterian church in Chester county, Pennsylvania. He spent fifteen years there, well regarded by his congregation and increasingly renowned as a champion of the ‘old side’ of presbyterianism. Ministers who held to the ‘old side’ believed that the church should have an educated ministry, formed within the traditional patterns of academic training and collegial examination. They also valued decorum in worship, in contrast to the ‘new side’, inspired by men such as William (qv) and Gilbert Tennent (qv), who stressed the importance of enthusiasm, emotion, and conversion experience in religious life. In the late 1730s the division in American presbyterianism became overt when ‘new side’ supporters walked out of a synod meeting that called for the establishment by church authorities of a traditional style of academy to train ministers; and the break became complete in 1741 when a new synod was set up to hold the ministers and congregations who were participants in the ‘great awakening’. Alison published a pamphlet setting out the antagonism of the ‘old side’ ministers to Gilbert Tennent's often exasperating claims and activities. In 1758 Alison was instrumental in bringing about a reunification of the two synods, though discord continued for many years thereafter.
Alison lamented the dearth of educational opportunities in the colonies, and was concerned that the frontier life was inimical to intellectual culture. By 1743 (and possibly as early as 1739) he had established a grammar school in his home in New London, which was immediately successful, and in which he and assistants taught not only the learned languages to the highest standard, but also English grammar, philosophy, belles lettres, and natural philosophy, including mathematics. The school expanded into separate premises, and was very soon adopted as its official academy by the presbytery of Philadelphia, which also provided financial support. Because of this support the school provided free education, but not just for presbyterians; it was open to all denominations. Alison was credited with ‘first and most effectually’ enlightening the middle colonies in both ‘useful and ornamental learning’ (Matthew Wilson, quoted in The University of Delaware: a history). He was the first colonial educator whose curriculum and methods reveal the influence of the principles of the Scottish enlightenment; principles which historians of ideas describe as seminal in various aspects of American history and politics. Alison's first class was a remarkable group of young men, almost all of Scots-Irish birth or descent, and many later notable in the American independence movement and in the new republic; they included Charles Thomson (qv) and Alison's nephew James Latta. In the course of his career Alison taught, and presumably inspired, five signers of the declaration of independence, including James Smith (qv) (d. 1806), several state governors, four generals in the continental army, fifteen congressmen, and two chaplains to Congress, as well as notable doctors, ministers, and scholars.
In 1752 Alison moved to Philadelphia to be one of the two ministers of the First Presbyterian congregation there, and was rector and master of the Latin school in the Academy of Philadelphia, established a few years earlier. The Academy expanded rapidly, and in 1755 became known as the College of Philadelphia, and after 1779 as the University of Pennsylvania. Alison remained there as a professor and as vice-provost of the college until his death, recognised by contemporaries as the ‘greatest classical scholar in America’ (ANB).
Alison's influence on American education extended well beyond his own lifetime. He was able to adapt to the new way of life and the resulting demand for practical instruction, while still focusing on the subjects of traditional scholarship. His example ‘spread [a love of learning] through the new world and founded all the schools and academies round’ (University of Delaware: a history). His academy in New London, after several moves and different masters, was backed by ‘old side’ ministers in opposition to the ‘new side’ College of New Jersey in Princeton, and eventually became a chartered body in 1767 as Newark Academy, with Francis Alison as president of the board of trustees. Ultimately, despite vicissitudes during the war of independence, it became the University of Delaware. For his services to education, Alison received honorary degrees from Yale and Princeton and an honorary doctorate of divinity from Glasgow (1756).
Alison's influence on American political thought, and ultimately on American history, extended well beyond a schoolmaster's direct impact on his pupils. He was a leading figure from the early 1760s in moves to consolidate Scots-Irish presbyterian opinion against what he regarded as dangerous initiatives from the English government and the authorities in the colony of Pennsylvania; he was worried about threatened legislation which would restrict colonial trade, and he led presbyterian clergy in opposition to the stamp act of 1765 and the Townshend acts of 1767. He was especially alarmed by the possibility that the anglican church would in time become the established church in America, with the introduction of bishops in American sees. This prospect was anathema to someone of Alison's background; Ulster presbyterians had no desire to live again under what they castigated as episcopal tyranny.
Alison and two collaborators published essays under the title of ‘The Centinel’ in the Pennsylvania Journal in the spring of 1768; in these, Alison's hand is most clearly evident, and his forceful arguments against established churches and the threats to civil and religious liberty in the colonies were very effective. At the same time he made contact to establish common cause with leaders of the New England congregational churches, and with dissenters of German origin; annual meetings, called ‘general conventions’, took place between 1767 and 1775, and are credited with having helped to form a ground swell of radical opinion in the colonies which ultimately led to the break with England. Alison in a private letter in 1768 expressed his hope that ‘sons of liberty’ in America would unite to combat the threat of an established church and attendant evils (Miller, 518). Kerby Miller comments that Alison, ‘perhaps more than any other public figure, helped prepare Pennsylvania's Scots-Irish for their prominent role in the American revolution’ (ibid., 510).
Alison's other contributions to public life were of considerable importance. In his own assessment of his career, he believed that his efforts for the welfare of ministers and their dependents were as important as his stand against what he believed were the dangerous excesses of the religious innovations of the ‘great awakening’. With the help of subscriptions from presbyterians in Britain and Ireland and locally, Alison established the Presbyterian Ministers’ Fund, a mutual assistance institution incorporated in 1759, on a Scottish model. It is said to have been the first life insurance company in America, predating others by eighty years. The fund loaned money to the continental congress to help finance the war of independence. Its name was changed in 1994 when it was amalgamated with another company, but its headquarters, called the Alison Building in honour of the founder, remained a landmark in downtown Philadelphia.
Shortly after his ordination in New London, Alison married (1737) Hannah (b. 1715 in Yorkshire, England), daughter of James Armitage, a prominent citizen of New Castle, Delaware. Hannah's younger half-sister, Sara Armitage, married Thomas McKean (1734–1817) who had been educated by Alison. McKean's parents were presbyterians from the north of Ireland, and he was one of the most influential officeholders and politicians of the revolutionary period, a signer of the declaration of independence. Francis and Hannah Alison had two daughters and four sons. Two of the sons died in infancy, and another died unmarried in 1781. Alison did not live to see the outcome of the colonists’ struggle for independence; he died 28 November 1779 in Philadelphia, at the height of the war.