Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Forsyth, Robert

FORSYTH, ROBERT (1766–1846), miscellaneous writer, son of Robert Forsyth and Marion Pairman of Biggar, Lanarkshire, was born in 1766. His parents were poor, but gave him a good education, with a view to ‘making him a minister.’ When only fourteen he entered Glasgow College. He says of himself that he ‘had slow talents, but great fits of application.’ After the usual course of study he obtained license as a probationer of the church of Scotland. As he spoke without notes (‘the paper’), and was somewhat vehement and rhetorical in his style, he gained considerable popularity. But having no influence he grew tired of waiting for a parish. He then turned his attention to the law, but the fact that he was a licentiate of the church was held as an objection to his being admitted to the bar. Refused by the Faculty of Advocates, he petitioned the court of session for redress. The court ruled that he must resign his office of licentiate. This he did. Still the faculty resisted. There were vexatious delays, but at last, in consequence of a judgment of Lord-president Campbell, the faculty gave way, and in 1792 Forsyth was admitted an advocate. Disappointment again awaited him. He had fraternised with the ‘friends of the people,’ and was looked on with suspicion as a ‘revolutionist,’ and this marred his prospects. He turned to literature, and managed to make a living by writing for the booksellers. He contributed to the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica’ ‘Agriculture,’ ‘Asia,’ ‘Britain,’ and other articles (1802–3). He also tried poetry, politics, and philosophy, but with little success. Eventually he obtained a fair practice at the bar, where he was noted for his dogged industry, blunt honesty, and pawky humour. His chief works are ‘Principles and Practice of Agriculture’ (2 vols. 1804), ‘The Principles of Moral Science’ (vol. i. 1805), ‘Political Fragments’ (1830), ‘Observations on the Book of Genesis’ (1846). But the work by which he is best known is ‘The Beauties of Scotland’ (5 vols. 1805–8), which is still held in some repute, not only for its valuable information, but for the many engravings which it contains of towns and places of interest. Forsyth, who had always adhered loyally to his church, published in 1843, when seventy-six years old, ‘Remarks on the Church of Scotland,’ &c. This brought him under the lash of Hugh Miller, then editor of the ‘Witness,’ who not only reviewed the pamphlet (14 Jan. 1843) with merciless severity, but also recalled some of Forsyth's speculations in philosophy, which he covered with ridicule and scorn. It is curious that in two of these speculations he seems to have had an inkling of opinions largely current in the present time. ‘Whatever has no tendency to improvement will gradually pass away and disappear for ever.’ This hints at the ‘survival of the fittest.’ ‘Let it never be forgotten then for whom immortality is reserved. It is appointed as the portion of those who are worthy of it, and they shall enjoy it as a natural consequence of their worth.’ This seems the doctrine of ‘conditional immortality’ now held by many Christians. Hugh Miller says ironically of these views: ‘It was reserved for this man of high philosophic intellect to discover, early in the present century, that, though there are some souls that live for ever, the great bulk of souls are as mortal as the bodies to which they are united, and perish immediately after, like the souls of brutes.’ He died in 1846.

[Autobiographical Sketch, 1846.]

W. F.