Fordyce, David (bap. 1711, d. 1751), university teacher and writer on education
by Alan Ruston

Fordyce, David (bap. 1711, d. 1751), university teacher and writer on education, was born at Broadford, near Aberdeen, and baptized there on 1 April 1711, the second son of George Fordyce (1663–1733), merchant, farmer, and sometime provost of Aberdeen, and his second wife, Elizabeth (1688–1760), daughter of the Revd David Brown, Church of Scotland minister, of Neilston, near Perth. He was the brother of , , and . He entered Aberdeen grammar school in 1720 and Marischal College, Aberdeen, in 1724; there he studied philosophy and mathematics. In the early eighteenth century it was not unusual to go to university at the age of thirteen (he was one of nine of similar age who went from the school at the same time), as there was no developed form of advanced secondary education. He graduated MA in 1728 and, being intended for the ministry, proceeded to study for his BD, which he obtained in 1733, under James Chalmers. He received a licence to become a preacher in Scotland but not a call to a specific ministry; this is likely to have been due to hesitancy on his part, as he was considered an able young man. It was at this time that he developed a taste for travelling—in Scotland, England, and Europe. In 1735 he was joining in the academic debates of the time in Glasgow, with the support of Professor Thomas Blackwell (described by the Dictionary of National Biography as uncle to the Fordyce brothers). In 1736 he had to take charge of the family business, and, on the death of his elder brother, the estate at Eggie, near Belhelvie.

During 1737 and 1738 Fordyce travelled in England, associating with leading English Presbyterians and considering a ministerial appointment. Philip Doddridge, who was clearly on friendly terms with Fordyce, wrote of him:
The people at Newport [Pagnell] were so charmed with a gentleman who preached the other day with them that I believe they will be joining in a unanimous Invitation. His name is Fordyce, a Scotchman, Educated at Aberdeen, A very learned and worthy person. (letter to Samuel Clark, 23 Sept 1738, Calendar, ed. Nuttall, 521)
Fordyce conducted a short ministry at Newport but this was terminated in November 1739, when he was appointed to the post of private chaplain to John Hopkins of Brettons, near Romford, Essex. By the middle of 1741, after a short period in France, he was in Edinburgh assisting the minister at the Tron Kirk, a collegiate church. Fordyce states that he was looking for a ministerial charge but on 9 September 1742 he was appointed professor of moral philosophy at Marischal College, in place of Alexander Innes. The position was probably obtained through the influence of Thomas Blackwell.

Fordyce proved a successful lecturer on general and natural philosophy, including mechanics, optics, and astronomy. He published his first work in 1745, entitled Dialogues Concerning Education, which met with immediate success. It appeared anonymously, as did all his books published in his lifetime. The dialogue format was much appreciated in the mid-eighteenth century but was new in Scotland at that time. His book expressed the essential values of the Enlightenment on education and is seen by some commentators as a precursor of the ideas of Rousseau's Émile. The work was recommended by Doddridge in his lectures and was on the book list of dissenting academies. His Elements of Moral Philosophy (1754), which originally appeared in the Modern Preceptor in 1748, was also a success, reaching its fourth edition by 1769, and was translated into German in 1757. His other main work, completed in 1750, was published after his death in 1752 and entitled Theodorus: a Dialogue Concerning the Art of Preaching; it was often reprinted with his brother James's Sermon on Eloquence: an Essay on the Action of the Pulpit. This same brother, who exercised a prominent Presbyterian ministry in London, kept Fordyce's memory alive and his name before the public.

Fordyce's books were secular in content and his theology is difficult to determine, which may explain why he never entered the ministry, except on a temporary basis. His works sold well in the eighteenth century, although he was forgotten by later generations. His style was lively—some saw it as dilettante—but little of the content was original; some of his work could be seen as essentially part of an educational textbook. He played an important role in the early Scottish Enlightenment through his contacts in Europe and England and with the leaders of English dissent.

Fordyce never married. In the summer of 1750 he started on a grand tour through Europe, during which he stayed mostly in Italy, where he spoke the language fluently. He was returning home to Leith from Rotterdam on the Hopewell in September 1751 when the boat foundered off the Dutch coast and he was drowned. His memory was perpetuated by his brother James, who published Fordyce's Temple of Virtue: a Dream, with additions of his own, which went to at least three editions. James wrote a florid poem on his brother in one of his Addresses to the Deity (1785), which contains the following:
Was he thy friend? Yet grieve not. The friendly wave, which wrapt him up from pain and sorrow, washed his soul from earth to heaven, where his desire of knowledge will ever be satisfied, and his virtues abundantly rewarded.



A. Chalmers, ed., The general biographical dictionary, new edn, 14 (1814), 468–70 · W. T. Steven, ‘Life and work of David Fordyce’, PhD diss., U. Glas., 1978 · Calendar of the correspondence of Philip Doddridge, ed. G. F. Nuttall, HMC, JP 26 (1979) · J. V. Price, ‘Fordyce, David’, The dictionary of eighteenth-century British philosophers, ed. J. Yolton, J. V. Price, and J. Stephens (1999) · London Christian Instructor, or, Congregational Magazine, 1 (1818), 666 · J. Bull, Memorials of William Bull, 2nd edn (1865), 41–2 · GM, 1st ser., 21 (1751), 515 · GM, 1st ser., 66 (1796), 1052–3 · DNB


DWL, letters · JRL, Unitarian College collection, letters · U. Aberdeen, lecture notes [transcriptions] |  NA Scot., Clerk of Penicuik papers · NA Scot., letters to Sir Archibald Grant

© Oxford University Press 2004–14 All rights reserved  

David Fordyce (bap. 1711, d. 1751): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/9877