Porter, John Scott (1801–80), non-subscribing presbyterian minister, biblical scholar, theologian, and teacher, was born 31 December 1801 at Artikelly, Newtownlimavady (now known as Limavady), Co. Londonderry, the eldest among four children of William Porter and his first wife Mary (née Scott). His father, William Porter (1774–1843), also a non-subscribing presbyterian minister, and the first moderator of the remonstrant synod, was born 14 August 1774 in Cranny, Cappagh, near Omagh, Co. Tyrone, the eldest of three sons of John Porter, a farmer, and his wife Jane, daughter of James Nixon of Loughmuck, Co. Tyrone, a neighbouring farmer. William Porter's brother James (d. 1808) inherited the family farm and their Nixon grandparents’ farm, while his younger brother John (1785–1806) died young unmarried. He also had three stepsisters (Elizabeth, Jane, and Mary) from his father's first marriage to Mary Love of Ardstraw, Co. Tyrone. Porter was educated in Omagh, receiving lessons for a time in the jail while his teacher was serving a sentence for debt, and for some two years as a boarder with Andrew Millar, a presbyterian minister in Clogher, Co. Tyrone. After attending Glasgow university (1791–5), where he obtained an MA, he spent two years at Edinburgh university, owing to his father's fears that Glasgow was too unorthodox. He served several months’ probation in the Strabane presbytery, obtained his licence (1797), and then preached for two years to various congregations in Ulster, including Ballybay, Co. Monaghan. He was ordained in 1799, but his heterodox views made him unacceptable to most congregations, and he received his first and only appointment in Newtownlimavady (1799–1843). In his position as clerk to the general synod of Ulster (1816–30) he was widely known and influential. On the split in the general synod in 1829, he supported Henry Montgomery (qv) as one of the seventeen ministers who became founder members of the non-subscribing remonstrant synod, which he served as its first moderator (1830–31), and as clerk (1831–43). He is mentioned in 1835 as being a member of the Keenaght barony branch of the North West Society, the aim of which was to diffuse knowledge of farming.
Shortly after his appointment to Newtownlimavady, Porter married (24 September 1799) his cousin Mary Scott (1769–1809), daughter of his father's brother-in-law John Scott, a farmer of Staughrory, Omagh, Co. Tyrone, and resided with her outside the town in Artikelly. They had two sons and two daughters. Their second son, William Porter (qv) (1805–80), pursued a prominent legal and political career in Cape Colony, south Africa. Their elder daughter, Jane (b. 1800), married and emigrated to America, while the younger, Mary Ann (b. 1808), married the liberal journalist Francis Dalzell Finlay (qv). After his wife's early death from cancer, Porter married secondly (13 April 1811) Eliza Classon (1776–1852), daughter of John and Hester Classon, presbyterians of Dublin and Newtownmountkennedy, Co. Wicklow; headmistress to a girls’ school in Derry, she had befriended Mary Porter when the latter during her illness attended a doctor in the city. William and Eliza Porter had one daughter, Hester Frances (1817–31), and three sons, of whom Classon Emmett Porter (qv) (1814–85) and James Nixon Porter (1815–75) became non-subscribing ministers of unitarian outlook, while the youngest, Francis Porter (1819–86), followed his stepbrother to Africa, becoming a businessman in Cape Town. Eliza Porter and her Classon relations in Dublin exerted a strong positive influence on the upbringing and education of her children and stepchildren. William Porter died 7 September 1843 at Bessfield, and is buried in Limavady churchyard. Classon Porter's unpublished life of his father in fourteen notebooks, and containing family documents, was latterly in the possession of P. and B. Rowan, Malone Rd, Belfast.
His eldest son, John Scott Porter, was educated initially in a hedge school at Dirtagh (near Artikelly), in Limavady (1809–12), and at a classical school in Artillery Lane, Derry (1812–17). His application to enlist with Simón Bolívar in South America being refused because of his youth, he instead studied for the ministry under the auspices of Strabane presbytery in the Belfast Academical Institution (BAI) (1817–19). After a period in Co. Kilkenny (1819–21) tutoring the family of a Mr Handy, whose offer to support him in legal studies in Dublin he refused, he returned to the BAI (1821–5), where he won silver medals for Greek, mathematics, and natural philosophy, among other prizes. On concluding the arts course, he studied Hebrew and divinity under Thomas Dix Hincks (qv) and Samuel Hanna (qv) respectively (1823–5), and obtained his licence as a minister without subscription from Bangor presbytery (1825). Called to the Arian congregation of Carter Lane chapel, Doctors’ Commons, London (1826), and ordained there a few months later, for several years he shared running a school in Rosoman House, Islington, his pupils including the future dramatist Dion Boucicault (qv). He edited the Christian Moderator (1826–8), an outspoken Arian monthly. In 1831 he answered the call to Rosemary St. non-subscribing presbyterian church in Belfast, and was installed there by Antrim presbytery (2 February 1832). He married (8 October 1833) Margaret (1812–79), eldest daughter of Andrew Marshall, MD, of Belfast, a royal naval surgeon. Together they bought the leases of 15–16 College Sq. East, where they resided and kept a day school. A renowned preacher and polemicist, he engaged in a celebrated debate with Daniel Bagot on the unitarian controversy (1834), which when published went through four editions. A lecturer to divinity students from 1832, he was one of two professors of divinity (the other being Henry Montgomery) appointed at the BAI to the association of Irish non-subscribing presbyterians (1838); teaching biblical criticism and theology, he was also appointed professor of Hebrew and cognate languages (1851). In Queen's College he was dean of residence for non-subscribing presbyterian students.
Porter published nearly forty works, chiefly sermons and polemics, including Twelve lectures, in illustration and defence of Christian unitarianism (1841). His major work, in the field in which he was a pioneer, was Principles of textual criticism, with their application to the old and new testaments (1848). Excelling in languages, including Irish, and others both ancient and modern, he contributed revised translations of several old testament books to The holy scriptures of the old covenant (1859–62). He edited the Irish non-subscribing monthly, the Bible Christian, and contributed to various liberal Christian periodicals. A theological moderate, anti-trinitarian but opposed to both radical ideas and Calvinist orthodoxy, Porter regarded the new testament nativity accounts as unhistorical, but argued the authenticity of the gospel of John. He was clerk to Antrim presbytery (1834–62) until he led a secession of five congregations upholding belief in Christ's divine authority and in the scriptures as containing divine revelation. Clerk to this secessionist presbytery (1862–78), he also split over the same issues from the unitarian society, and founded an Ulster unitarian Christian association (1876). A champion of disestablishment and of non-denominational education, before the select committee on education (Ireland) (1835) he spoke in favour of the Irish language being introduced on the national schools curriculum. He was a member from 1832 of the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society (now the Belfast Society), to which he read nine papers between 1833 and 1860, published in their Proceedings. Elected in 1833 to the Belfast Literary Society, to which he contributed several papers, mainly on history, he served six one-year terms as its president between 1835 and 1875, and was its secretary (1854–70). He also published in the Ulster Journal of Archaeology, vols. i–iv (1853–6).
He fathered eleven children, the eldest of whom was the distinguished jurist Andrew Marshall Porter (qv). Dignified and stern, with an air of authority, in old age he presented a striking patriarchal appearance with his profuse snow-white hair and beard. He and his wife were joined in their Belfast home in 1873 by his brother William on the latter's return from his career in the Cape; shortly thereafter, the household moved to the city suburbs at Lennox Vale, Malone Rd. Falling ill after his wife's death (7 April 1879), Porter died 5 July 1880; his brother died eight days later. A black marble Celtic revival cross marks John Porter's grave in the city cemetery, Belfast. A Porter family genealogy, compiled in 1909 from the research of his stepbrother Classon, was latterly with descendants in Dublin. An oil portrait (c.1845) of John Scott Porter, by Richard Rothwell (qv), is in the Ulster Museum, donated in 1926 by one of his daughters. Another portrait (present whereabouts unknown), painted in 1873 by Ebenezer Crawford, was presented to Porter by his congregation; a copy of a lithograph (published in 1881) of the Crawford painting is in the history department, Ulster Museum, and a second copy is in the vestry of Porter's Rosemary St. church, which also holds a memorial tablet with his likeness (illustrated in Historic memorials (1887)).