Hazlitt, William (1737–1820), unitarian minister, was born in Shronell, Co. Tipperary, one of three sons and four daughters of John and Margaret Hazlitt (or Haslett). The father, a presbyterian merchant who had left the north of Ireland some years before, was almost certainly related to the Co. Londonderry family that produced Henry Haslett (qv). William Hazlitt attended a local grammar school, and matriculated 13 November 1756 in Glasgow University, where he attended lectures by Adam Smith. He moved away from the presbyterian beliefs in which he had been brought up, and was ordained a minister in a unitarian congregation in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire. There he married (19 January 1766) Grace Loftus; they had two sons, of whom one died young. After a short time in Gloucestershire, the family moved to Maidstone, Kent, where their son William Hazlitt, the radical critic and essayist, was born (1778). Hazlitt senior contributed to the Monthly Repository, and was on terms of intimacy with many of the radical figures of British dissent; he was friendly with Joseph Priestley and knew Benjamin Franklin. After a split in his congregation, he moved (1780) to Bandon, Co. Cork, as minister of the small presbyterian congregation. There he encountered the anger of the establishment and of some of his congregation after he intervened to prevent the mistreatment in Kinsale of American prisoners of war in, who were being treated as rebels. They were left hungry and half-naked; scores had died from ill-treatment, and their guards had amused themselves by running swords into the hammocks of wounded prisoners. Hazlitt visited them often, protested about their treatment in letters to Cork newspapers, and helped shelter three who escaped. Hazlitt repeatedly expressed his support for American independence, and was as often attacked in the streets by opponents who called him ‘the black rebel’.
He also took up the cause of some poor catholics who had been ill-treated and humiliated by British soldiers in Bandon; one man may have died from the effects of the soldiers’ conduct. Though the soldiers were prosecuted, the case was dropped, probably because witnesses were intimidated. Hazlitt reported three officers to the War Office, and they were found guilty by a court of inquiry, though Hazlitt asked the court to treat them leniently. One of his radical acquaintances in England sent a report of the case to the prime minister, Lord Shelburne (qv), who wrote personally to the commander in Kinsale, and the regiment was withdrawn. Even so, Hazlitt had grounds to fear that he and his family were in danger, and they left hurriedly from Cork on 3 April 1783 for America, where they arrived on 26 May.
They lived for a time in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where Hazlitt refused the offer of a post as principal of a college, because he would not subscribe to a man-made creed; he said that he would rather die in a ditch. At the college in Philadelphia he did give lectures that were among the earliest expositions of unitarian thought in America, and were very successful. He later enjoyed similar success in Boston, though he had to walk fifteen miles (24 km) through snow to deliver the lectures; his daughter noted that no labour or fatigue was too much, if it promoted the rational beliefs which were central in his life. In 1785 he helped James Freeman, rector of the episcopalian King's Chapel in Boston, to revise the liturgy. They altered the diction and phraseology to reflect unitarian beliefs, to which Freeman had been introduced by Hazlitt; King's Chapel is thus regarded as the first unitarian church in New England. Hazlitt's importance in the development of the unitarian church in America was overshadowed by that of Joseph Priestley, who moved to America nine years later. Despite his high hopes for the New World, Hazlitt continued to suffer from the ‘persecuting zeal of the orthodox’ (Margaret Hazlitt), and in October 1786 he returned to England, to minister in the remote village of Wem, Shropshire. His family joined him the following summer, and for the rest of his life, he preached there and in Addlestone, Surrey, and in Crediton, Devon. He kept in touch with liberal theology and politics, and published (1808) three discourses and a letter in the Monthly Repository, in which he recorded some impressions of Laurence Sterne (qv).
He died in Crediton 16 July 1829; two sons and a daughter survived him, two other sons and two daughters having died in infancy. Richard Price, a famous radical who knew him well, described him, in an open letter of reference carried by Hazlitt to America, as a ‘zealous friend to civil and religious liberty and the cause of America’ (quoted in W. C. Hazlitt (1911), 375). A monument to Hazlitt's principled defence of human rights was placed in Bandon courthouse in the summer of 2002. His beliefs surely influenced those of his more famous son, who said of him: ‘My father's life was comparatively a dream, but it was a dream of infinity and eternity’ (quoted ibid., 75).