Dallas, Alexander Robert Charles (1791–1869), evangelical missionary, was born 29 March 1791 in Colchester, Essex, eldest son of Robert Charles Dallas (d. 1824), minor polemicist, and Sarah Dallas (née Harding). Suffering, by his own account, a claustrophobic early upbringing, in which he was given an eccentric schooling at home and oppressed by devotional piety, he had a tense and embittered relationship with his father. Escaping to a clerical post in the Treasury at Whitehall in 1805, he later received a commission to serve as deputy assistant commissary-general with the British army in Spain (1808–11) during the Peninsular war, and fought in the campaigns against Napoleon in 1813–15. After discharge on half-pay, he wrote popular romantic novels to help fund a taste for high life in Paris and London.
On marriage (May 1818) he set himself to read for the bar in London but (influenced by sudden, brief, religious elation in 1819) resolved to take holy orders at Oxford, but left without a full degree (1820). He was, however, ordained deacon (17 June 1821) and priest (August 1821), receiving curacies in Radley and then Highclere, where he made friends with Charles Sumner, later the militantly evangelical bishop of Winchester. During great personal turmoil (1824), in a classic experience of evangelical conversion he felt his resistance to what he regarded as the divine will thaw dramatically. He was made rector of Wonston (1829). His ministry was imbued with a fervent, authoritarian, evangelical positivism (parishioners were classified literally into those at risk of damnation and those among the godly elect). With Edward Bickersteth (the most significant British theologian of premillenialism), he espoused radical millenarian beliefs and lectured to religious societies during the 1830s.
A passing interest in Ireland from childhood was reinforced when a short visit to the country in 1840 was succeeded by several years of personal anguish and crisis at Wonston, which seemed to require radical action and renewal. Preaching at missionary conferences each spring in Ireland, he began to envisage the grand spiritual regeneration of the ‘Romish population’ of the island. Disappointed by the cautious response of the London Irish Society to enthusiastic proposals, he raised finance to start the ‘great work’ in January 1846, posting – to ‘respectable traders and farmers’ among Irish catholics – 90,000 copies of a pamphlet which he had specially written, calling for rejection of Roman catholic errors. Still based in Wonston, he toured the west of Ireland (August 1846) and set up a sub-committee of the London Irish Society, presided over by the duke of Manchester, to administer a ‘special fund for the spiritual exigencies of Ireland’, as famine made visible the judgement of God and providentially offered the opportunity for reform. The sum of £10,000 raised was at first distributed to proselytising societies already in Ireland, if they agreed to cooperate with the ‘aggressive’ wishes of the sub-committee, specifically the dispersal of scripture-readers through the west of Ireland. During 1847 he widened his support among British evangelicals and became preoccupied with the potential for conversion in Connemara, on the estate of Hyacinth D'Arcy of Clifden, and at Castlekerke, near Oughterard. From September 1847, with the backing of Thomas Plunket (qv), Church of Ireland bishop of Tuam 1839–66, he studded these districts with ‘mission stations’, run by clergymen devoted to the salvation of the starving peasantry.
Catholic clerical and lay opposition to the project was heated and angry, but there is little doubt that numbers converted, usually temporarily, for the sake of regular sustenance in the period 1847–50. By late 1847 the Dallas sub-committee recruited its own workers and had withdrawn from the supervision of the London Irish Society. In March 1849 the two parts were formally separated, and on 26 April the Society for Irish Church Missions (ICM) to the Roman Catholics was formed, principally on the initiative of Dallas, who remained its honorary secretary until his death. Funds flowed in from evangelicals in Britain, stimulated by the excitement caused by famine conversions. By the mid 1850s the ICM under Dallas had erected twenty-one churches, forty-nine schoolhouses, twelve parsonages, and four orphanages in Ireland. Uneasy relations with the Church of Ireland continued through the 1850s and 1860s, though the Dublin Irish Society made peace with the ICM between 1853 and 1856. The bulk of the fifty-seven texts Dallas wrote during his career were produced between 1846 and 1868. Dismayed in the late 1850s at the erosion of ICM financial capacity, and by losses to a catholic backlash, he still maintained stubborn faith in approaching mass conversion into the late 1860s. He died 12 December 1869 at Wonston. His published works include The point of hope in Ireland's present crisis (1849); A mission tour-book in Ireland, showing how to visit the missions in Dublin, Connemara etc. (1860); and The story of the Irish Church Missions, part 1 (1867).
He married first (May 1818) Mary Anne Edge (née Ferguson; d. 1847); they had several children, and separated in 1842. He married secondly (1849) Ann, daughter of the Rev. T. G. Tyndale of Wooburn and Burford.