SOMERVILLE, JAMES, teacher and Church of Scotland minister; b. 1 April 1775 in Tollcross, Scotland, only son of James Somerville, a merchant; d. 2 June 1837 in Montreal.
James Somerville received his degree in arts from the University of Glasgow at age 17. He completed a course in divinity in 1799 and was licensed to preach by the Relief Presbytery of Glasgow. Because there were few congregations within that presbytery, the need for new ministers was minimal. Somerville grew tired of waiting for a call and welcomed a position which came to him through a friend in Glasgow, that of educating the children of Scottish merchants living at Quebec. He arrived there on 3 June 1802 and quickly organized a school, offering “Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, English grammar, and the Latin and Greek languages.” His teaching ability was appreciated by both his pupils and their parents.
Despite his background in the Relief Church, Somerville was well received by Alexander Spark*, a minister of the Church of Scotland and incumbent of the Presbyterian Scotch Church at Quebec, who must have been attracted by his personality and his ability in the pulpit. When the Reverend John Young* of the Scotch Presbyterian Church in Montreal, later known as the St Gabriel Street Church, was dismissed in 1802, Spark suggested Somerville as his successor.
Somerville preached in the Montreal pulpit in the autumn of 1802 and was invited to become the congregation’s minister. His adherence to the Relief Church was not considered an impediment, the congregation requiring only that its minister be licensed by a presbytery in the British dominions. Although he accepted the charge, he returned to Quebec and taught until the end of the academic year. Meanwhile, Robert Forrest, an ordained minister also of Scottish extraction and education, preached in the Scotch Presbyterian Church while visiting Montreal in April 1803 and divided the congregation along socio-ethnic lines over the choice of a minister. The majority maintained the original call to Somerville; those who supported Forrest formed a separate Presbyterian congregation which shortly afterwards called Robert Easton* as its minister. On 18 Sept. 1803 Somerville was ordained by Spark, the Reverend John Bethune*, and Duncan Fisher*, a highly esteemed elder of the church; the three men had formed the Presbytery of Montreal, probably solely for the ordination.
Somerville, who was said to have been a little under middle stature and to have had “black and glossy [hair], with an easy curl,” took a leading part in Montreal social circles. His was the first name on the roll of members of the Montreal Curling Club, begun in 1807, and in 1809 he established a literary society. He was a strong supporter of the Montreal General Hospital, founded in 1819, and, as an amateur naturalist, helped establish the Natural History Society of Montreal in 1827. A freemason, he was chaplain of the Provincial Grand Lodge of Lower Canada in 1829. It was not an easy life, however. His first wife, Marianne Veitch, a native of Edinburgh whom he had married at Quebec on 8 July 1805, died the following year leaving an infant daughter. On 4 April 1808 in Montreal he married Charlotte Blaney, who gave birth to a son in 1814; she died five years later. His son’s death occurred late in 1832 and was followed within a few months by that of his daughter, who had been an invalid. Somerville’s mental health seems to have been unsteady, and was probably worsened by these tragedies. To ease his load, Henry Esson* had been brought in as his colleague in 1817, but in the winter of 1822–23 Somerville retired from public duty with an allowance of £150 per year. He nevertheless remained the senior minister until his death in 1837, at which time he left most of his property to religious and benevolent institutions.
ANQ-M, CE1-63, 4 avril 1808; CE1-68, 5 juin 1837. ANQ-Q, CE1-66, 8 juill. 1805. UCC, Montreal–Ottawa Conference Arch. (Montreal), St Gabriel Street Church, parish records, box I. UCC-C, Biog. files. Borthwick, Hist. and biog. gazetteer. Campbell, Hist. of Scotch Presbyterian Church. [James Croil], A historical and statistical report of the Presbyterian Church of Canada in connection with the Church of Scotland, for the year 1866 (Montreal, 1867). Gregg, Hist. of Presbyterian Church (1885). E. A. [Kerr] McDougall, “The Presbyterian Church in western Lower Canada, 1815–1842” (phd thesis, McGill Univ., Montreal, 1969).