Bruce, William (1757–1841), presbyterian minister and schoolmaster, was born in Dublin on 30 July 1757. He was the second son, in the family of seven, of Samuel Bruce (1722–67), presbyterian minister at Wood Street, Dublin, and his wife, Rose (1728–1806), daughter of Robert Rainey of Magherafelt, Co. Londonderry; he was a grandson of Michael Bruce (qv) (1786–1735) and a grand-nephew of William Bruce (qv) (1702–55). On 8 July 1771, aged fourteen, he entered TCD, and he was elected a scholar after exemption from the sacramental test in 1775. He graduated BA in 1776, and then spent six months at Glasgow University (which was to award him a DD in 1786), before finishing his education at the dissenting academy at Warrington, Lancashire (1777–8).
Like Bruce ancestors of the five preceding generations, he entered the presbyterian ministry. He was ordained in November 1779 by the presbytery of Bangor for the congregation at Lisburn, Co. Antrim, but he soon moved to the congregation at Strand Street, Dublin, to be assistant to John Moody (1742–1813). The first two signatories to his call to Strand Street, of 24 March 1782, were Andrew Caldwell (qv) and Travers Hartley (qv). It was in Belfast, as minister of the First congregation in Rosemary Street, from March 1790 to January 1831, and as principal of the Belfast Academy, a post he held from May 1790 to November 1822, that Bruce achieved pre-eminence.
He was a presbyterian who did not believe in subscription to the Westminster confession of faith. Like other non-subscribers, he moved to a unitarian position. His Sermons on the study of the Bible and on the doctrines of Christianity (1824; 2nd ed., 1826) was ‘the first printed avowal and defence of Unitarian opinions in Ireland’ (J. S. Porter). But Martha McTier (qv), who was one of ‘a wonderful crowded audience’ that heard him preach a funeral sermon on 15 January 1800, thought that ‘Bruce cannot touch the heart, even where his own feels’ (Agnew, Drennan–McTier letters, ii, 563). He was a member of the committee of the Hibernian Bible Society and in 1831 he joined others in forming the Unitarian Society for the Diffusion of Christian Knowledge. He brought out a hymn book (1801; enlarged ed., 1818) and broke the traditional silence of presbyterian funerals by originating graveside addresses. The Belfast Academy (much later renamed the Belfast Royal Academy) had been founded in 1785 by Bruce's predecessor in Rosemary Street, James Crombie (qv). Bruce made it ‘the first seminary in the north of Ireland both from the number and from the attainments of its pupils’ (J. S. Porter). The teaching of classics he made his special responsibility.
At Lisburn, Bruce joined, as a private, the Lisburn true blues, a company of the then fashionable Volunteer movement, the function of which was as much political and social as military. He was a delegate at the national Volunteer convention in Dublin in November 1783 and moved a resolution (which got hardly any support) in favour of a secret ballot in parliamentary elections. Although in the 1780s he was a strong supporter of reform, he was from the early 1790s, in his own words, ‘an alarmed whig’ or, in those of Theobald Wolfe Tone (qv), ‘an intolerant high priest’. He argued that catholic emancipation should be gradual. It was over politics that he and William Drennan (qv), close friends until 1792, became estranged, though Drennan, while sometimes privately criticising his sermons and his venality, never broke with him entirely. After heated disgreement at a meeting in Belfast in January 1795, to prepare an address to a reforming viceroy, Earl Fitzwilliam (qv), Bruce was subjected by the radical party to hostile squibs and ballads. When, Ulster becoming more and more disturbed, the sovereign of Belfast called upon citizens to take an oath of loyalty, Bruce was the first presbyterian there to swear (in January 1797).
During the rebellion of 1798 Bruce enrolled in the yeomanry (the Belfast merchants’ infantry). Of the union of the Irish and British parliaments (1801) he approved, providing that the interests of the presbyterian churches be respected. He did well from the augmentation that resulted of the regium donum (a royal bounty paid to presbyterian ministers), obtaining, Drennan believed, as much as £400 p.a. (Agnew, Drennan–McTier letters, ii, 619). By 1805, Bruce was an intimate of Robert Black (qv). Ironically, on a visit to Maynooth in 1807 he was taken for the catholic college's new president and invited to breakfast. ‘I suppose’, wrote Drennan after hearing this story, ‘they would soon find their mistake’ (Agnew, Drennan–McTier letters, iii, 616). When George IV visited Ireland in 1821, Bruce, being then moderator of the presbytery of Antrim, composed and presented a presbyterian loyal address.
Bruce joined the Belfast Society for Promoting Knowledge in December 1792, was elected vice-president in February 1794, and was president from February 1798 to February 1817, during which period he steered the society through the disturbances of 1797–8 and to new premises at the White Linen Hall (from which it became popularly known as the Linen Hall Library). He was a founder member and five times president of the Belfast Literary Society, to which he read twenty-one papers (from 1801 to 1829). Bruce wrote extensively on political, literary, scientific and antiquarian as well as religious subjects. With Henry Joy (qv) junior he compiled a collection of political documents which they published as Belfast politics (1794). His most scholarly work is The state of society in the age of Homer (1827), which deals with astronomy, geography, navigation, agriculture, civil government, military affairs and ‘private life and manners’. Sixteen published works of Bruce are listed by John Scott Porter (qv) in the published discourse he delivered on Bruce's death (1841). Porter, who succeeded him in Rosemary Street in 1832, is an important source for his career. Bruce's manuscripts are in the NLI. His travel diaries, containing much on his professional interests and showing his curiosity for other things, survive in manuscript (those for 1783, 1784, 1785, 1789 and 1806 are in the NLI, and those for 1792, 1793 and 1795 are in TCD).
He married on 25 January 1788 Susannah, a daughter of Robert Hutton (d. 1779), a Dublin currier and tanner, and thus became a brother-in-law of Henry Hutton (1754–1808), a future lord mayor of Dublin, and John Hutton (qv), who was already a successful coach-builder. Susannah, who was born on 28 December 1763, brought him a dowry of £600; she died on 22 February 1819. They had twelve children, six of whom survived, among them Samuel (1789?–1845), the eldest, who became a whiskey distiller, William (qv) (1790–1868), his assistant in Rosemary Street from 1812, and Henry (d. 1864), who had a career in British Guiana. Bruce moved back to Dublin in November 1836 to live with his daughter Maria, who had married a kinsman, Edward Hutton (1797–1865), MD, who was president of the RCSI in 1852. It was in Dublin that he died, on 27 February 1841, the fifth of seven Bruces who were ministers in uninterrupted family lineal succession. He was buried in St George's burial ground. There are portraits of Bruce, who was a man of fine presence, by Charles Robertson (qv) (in the Belfast chamber of commerce) and T. C. Thompson (1777?–1857) (in the Linen Hall Library).