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LYALL, WILLIAM, Presbyterian clergyman, author, and professor; b. 11 June 1811 in Paisley, Scotland, the third son of William Lyall, merchant; d. 17 Jan. 1890 in Halifax, N.S.

William Lyall was educated at Paisley Grammar School and at the universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh. Early in life he was attracted to the study of philosophy and, although ordained a minister of the Free Church of Scotland, he made his mark as a philosopher rather than as a theologian. After serving Free Church congregations in Broxburn, West Lothian, Uphall, and Linlithgow, he immigrated to British North America in 1848. For the next two years he was tutor at Knox College, Toronto. He resigned in 1850 to become professor of mental and moral philosophy and classical literature at the Free Church College in Halifax. In 1860, following a union of Presbyterian churches, he was transferred to the Theological Seminary in Truro, N.S. When this institution closed in 1863 Lyall became professor of logic and psychology at Dalhousie College in Halifax, a position he held until his death.

During Lyall’s years as a student the “philosophy of common sense” as developed by Thomas Reid and Dugald Stewart was pre-eminent in Scotland and it was to this school that he belonged. When Lyall wrote Intellect, the emotions, and the moral nature (1855), he was greatly influenced by Sir William Hamilton under whom he may have studied at Edinburgh. Although largely a synthesis of philosophical thought and not highly original, the work merits recognition as one of the first Canadian books in this field. For Lyall, philosophy was the handmaiden of religion, and he never strayed from currently held theological views. “In the scriptures,” he wrote, “we have the only, the authoritative statement of man’s apostacy. Philosophy may speculate: the Bible reveals – not the mode or nature of change, but the circumstance of change. The great fact is told, the modus of it is left unexplained.” His book attracted widespread attention and for a number of years was in vogue as a text in metaphysics.

On the strength of this work, the West of Scotland Magazine in 1856 suggested Lyall as the successor to Sir William Hamilton in the chair of logic and metaphysics at Edinburgh. The magazine claimed that Lyall “had done much to confirm and strengthen the principles of Scottish philosophy” and that his writing displayed the erudition and talent which “eminently fitted him to succeed the great champion,” Hamilton. Nothing came of the proposal and Lyall remained in Nova Scotia. On 3 May 1864 he was awarded an honorary lld from McGill College in Montreal and when the Royal Society of Canada was established in 1882 Lyall was named a founding fellow.

In addition to his teaching duties, for which he was “in his own person a whole faculty of arts,” Lyall dabbled in poetry, cultivated a wide interest in English literature, and did occasional supply preaching. During the summer of 1852 he ministered to the congregation of St Andrew’s Free Church, St John’s, Nfld, and he held office in 1852–53 as moderator of the Free Church presbytery in Halifax. Above all, he enjoyed teaching, his objective being “to evoke in students a taste and zeal for philosophical investigation.”

William B. Hamilton

[There is no known collection of William Lyall papers and his major published works are the most important sources of information for his biography: Strictures on the idea of power; with special reference to the views of Dr Brown, in hisInquiry into the relation of cause and effect” (Edinburgh, 1842); The philosophy of thought: a lecture delivered at the opening of the Free Church College, Halifax, Nova Scotia, session 1852–3 (Halifax, 1853); and Intellect, the emotions, and the moral nature (Edinburgh and London, 1855). Scattered references to Lyall may be found in Free Church of Nova Scotia, Synod, Minutes (Halifax), 1850–60; Presbyterian Church of the Lower Provinces of British North America, Synod, Minutes (Halifax), 1860–75; Presbyterian Church in Canada, Synod of the Maritime provinces, Minutes (Halifax), 1875–90.

A few lectures, poems, and other articles were published in the Dalhousie Gazette (Halifax), the most important being “Wordsworth: a criticism,” 23 (1890–91): 135–37, 158–63, and in the Presbyterian Witness (Halifax), 6, 13 Nov. 1852; 1 Aug. 1868, 2 Feb. 1878. Obituary notices may be found in: Morning Herald (Halifax), 20 Jan. 1890; Presbyterian Witness, 25 Jan. 1890; and Dalhousie Gazette, 22 (1889–90): 93–94. Secondary sources include the following: William Gregg, History of the Presbyterian Church in the dominion of Canada . . . (Toronto, 1885); D. C. Harvey, An introduction to the history of Dalhousie University (Halifax, 1938); A. B. McKillop, A disciplined intelligence: critical inquiry and Canadian thought in the Victorian era (Montreal, 1979); and Watters, Checklist.  w.b.h.]

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

William B. Hamilton, “LYALL, WILLIAM,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 22, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/lyall_william_11E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/lyall_william_11E.html
Author of Article:   William B. Hamilton
Title of Article:   LYALL, WILLIAM
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1982
Year of revision:   1982
Access Date:   September 22, 2023