Black, Robert (1752–1817), presbyterian minister, was eldest son of Valentine Black, farmer, of Mullabrack, Co. Armagh. Educated at Glasgow University, he graduated MA in 1772. He was licensed by the presbytery of Armagh in 1776 and ordained in Dromore, Co. Down, 28 June 1777. In the late 1770s he became captain of the Dromore Volunteer corps and often preached sermons in regimentals with a drum as a lectern. A fine orator, he attracted the attention of Frederick Hervey (qv), bishop of Derry, with a stirring speech in favour of parliamentary reform and catholic emancipation at the Dungannon Volunteer convention of 1783, which led to his installation as junior pastor of the First Congregation of Derry on 7 January 1784. At Dungannon he was elected to a committee of correspondence set up to consult leading reformers and frame a plan to reform parliament. He delivered another eloquent oration on 7 December 1788, the centenary of the shutting of the gates of Derry. On 2 December 1788 he was elected agent for the regium donum by the Ulster synod, and in 1793 he was presented with a valuable piece of plate for his efforts in having the grant increased the previous year. In early 1795, after the government had decided to provide for the establishment of a catholic seminary, Black was sent to Dublin with the Rev. William Crawford (qv) to petition for funds to establish a presbyterian university in Ulster; the viceroy, Fitzwilliam (qv), was sympathetic but was recalled before anything could be done.
In the 1790s Black's reforming zeal cooled, and during the Dungannon reform convention of 1793 he implicitly denounced the political radicalism of the United Irishmen. He admitted that there were abuses in the British constitution but ‘he knew of none which would justify the risk of civil war’ (Reid, iii, 388), and he stated his preference for that constitution over any form of republican government, modern or ancient. He claimed that his life was repeatedly threatened for his opposition to ‘the destructive and widespread delusions of 1797 and 1798’ (Reid, iii, 388n), and was highly critical of the activities of radical ministers during the 1798 rebellion, particularly the Rev. William Steele Dickson (qv), with whom he engaged in a long-running controversy. Believing that the presbyterian church's interests were best served by absolute loyalty to the government, he was a leading supporter of Castlereagh (qv) in the synod, and a strong advocate of the act of union. With Castlereagh he drew up a scheme to strengthen the connection between the government and the synod and to undermine the democratic character of Ulster presbyterianism. Under this scheme the regium donum was to be increased and distributed by an agent appointed by government rather than the synod. Each minister was to apply individually for his grant and had to sign a profession of loyalty. The grants were divided into three classes (£100, £75, £50) to be determined by government. Black was appointed government agent for the regium donum, and because of his arbitrary use of power and his support for differential payments he was dubbed the ‘unmitred bishop’ by opponents and accused of attempting to introduce a form of prelacy among Irish presbyterians. A leading member of the New Light tendency, he was latitudinarian in his theological views and was basically an anti-evangelical unitarian. He published a catechism and several of his speeches, and received his doctorate of divinity from an American college in 1801.
Usually one of the most active participants in annual synods, in 1809 he received the thanks of the synod for his efforts in having a bill carried through parliament securing the capital of the widows' fund and legalising arrangements for its management, and he became the fund's agent and manager. In 1813 he supported a synod resolution in favour of admitting catholics to sit in parliament.
Black had long hoped that the government would establish an exclusively presbyterian seminary at Armagh or Derry, and with William Bruce (qv) of Antrim he opposed synod support for the Belfast Academical Institute (opened 1814), which he claimed had a republican constitution (it stipulated rotation of office) and was managed by radicals whose ideas could have a subversive influence on young minds. When the institute's parliamentary grant was withdrawn in 1816 after its chairman Dr Robert Tennent (qv) had publicly expressed radical political views, Black warned that the synod's support for the institute might endanger continued payment of the regium donum, but he found little backing for this view at the synod of 1816 and thereafter. Depressed and anxious because of the decline in his influence and losses in the widows' fund, he threw himself off Derry bridge and drowned in the Foyle 4 December 1817. According to Dr Henry Montgomery (qv), ‘he was a man of great ability, extraordinary address and some amiable qualities' but he ‘coveted the possession of uncontrollable power and lost his influence by the constant exhibition of a haughty and selfish disposition’ (Irish Unitarian Magazine (1847), ii, 287).
He married his cousin Margaret Black (d. 1824) of Tullendoney, Dromore, Co. Down; they had three sons and two daughters.