Kidd, James (1761–1834), presbyterian minister and Hebraist, was born 6 November 1761 in Loughbrickland, Co. Down, youngest of three sons of impoverished parents, who may have been William Kidd and Agnes Kidd (née Allan). When his father died a few months after James was born, his mother returned to her own family in Broughshane, Co. Antrim, to seek their help. From the age of 8 he was determined to become a minister, and picked up an education as best he could; he learned his letters from the family's shorter catechism. His friend James Ritchie passed on to Kidd each evening what he had learned in school, and a neighbouring farmer then paid for him to attend a classical school for a short time. Kidd opened a school in the townland of Elginy, and was successful enough to pay for lessons in Belfast, and to marry Jane, daughter of Robert Boyd, a farmer of Carnlea, near Ballymena. The young couple emigrated to Philadelphia in 1784; an Ulsterman, James Little, helped them, and Kidd eventually became an usher in Pennsylvania College. While working as a corrector for the press, Kidd was enthralled by his first sight of Hebrew characters, and threw himself into learning that language. After much effort and sacrifice, he acquired a Jewish Bible and learned to read it, with help from a rabbi and by attending Friday prayers at the synagogue. He was a friend of Benjamin Rush, a prominent doctor whose memoirs are an important source on post-colonial Philadelphia. Kidd also taught the naval hero Stephen Decatur (1779–1820) and kept in touch with him afterwards. He still dreamed of becoming a minister and, after taking courses in Pennsylvania College, left his family and travelled to Scotland to matriculate in Edinburgh University. He studied theology, and gave classes in Hebrew and Arabic; becoming known for these, he was chosen (1793) by Marischal College, Aberdeen, to fill the chair of oriental languages. He sent for his family, but they encountered a storm while crossing the Atlantic, and a huge wave swept the youngest child out of the arms of its mother, who never completely recovered from the loss.
Kidd continued his studies, and at last (1796) was licensed to preach by the established Church of Scotland. He gave evening lectures in Trinity chapel in the city, and was called in 1801 to Gilcomston chapel of ease. This became perhaps the biggest congregation in Scotland; Kidd preached three times every Sunday, to congregations exceeding 2,000 at each session, and became very widely known for his evangelical message and powerful preaching. He was happy to preach in vigorous Scots, and his pastoral care for his congregation, which consisted mostly of socially disadvantaged people, was so all-embracing that he was often called on to settle domestic disputes, quell street fights, and chastise drunkards. Convinced of the importance of vaccination, he dragooned hundreds of people into his own house and vaccinated them himself. He was known for his robust handling of sinners, frequently rebuking them from the pulpit, and the superstition grew that those he cursed would never prosper. Street urchins followed him beseeching his blessing, and his sayings and doings became so well known that even a hundred years after his death anecdotes about him were still remembered in Aberdeen. The force and warmth of his personality were matched by his mental vigour and by the fervour of his sermons; he was a pioneer of evangelism at a time when the Church of Scotland was chiefly influenced by moderatism. He also joyously took part in controversy with Roman catholics; when he published his combative correspondence with a priest, Charles Fraser, Kidd added insult to injury by correcting his adversary's Latin. It is only fair to note that Kidd's handwriting was so illegible that he had to employ an amanuensis to decipher and transcribe his side of the correspondence.
A man so prominent and charismatic also made enemies; rumours about his private life circulated, but were discounted by a meeting of presbytery. It is said that he was later tricked into visiting a house of ill repute, and that witnesses were called to see him lying apparently drunk in its stairwell, but in reality stunned after his enemies tripped him as he went up the stairs. All his life he rose at 3.00 a.m. to study and pray; he paid a man to waken him forcibly each morning. He continued to teach Hebrew, though lacking time and opportunity to develop his scholarly interests, and he published a few books, including An essay on the doctrine of the Trinity (1815) and Dissertation on the eternal Sonship (1822; republished with biographical memoir, 1872). He also wrote a tract opposing patronage in the church, sermons, and a Farewell address (1835), which was to be found, along with his portrait, in many Aberdeen homes for a generation after his death, such was his ‘extraordinary and all-dominant popularity’ (Masson, 147). In 1818 he was awarded a DD by New Jersey College (Princeton). He was interested in the then new science of political economy, and lectured on it to large audiences in Aberdeen.
He died of apoplexy on 23 December 1834; his deathly pale appearance in his last class two days before had (for once) subdued his students. After he lay in state for a week, all work stopped in the city. He was accorded an immense funeral and buried in St Nicholas churchyard. His wife had died in 1829; a daughter died in 1824 and a son in 1825. A son died in infancy, and it was probably a daughter who drowned in 1794. Two daughters survived him, and there was another son. His memory is preserved in the names of two Aberdeen streets.