Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Leighton, Robert

LEIGHTON, Robert (1611-1684), bishop of Dunblane, and afterwards archbishop of Glasgow, was the eldest son of Dr Alexander Leighton, the author of Zion's Plea against the Prelacie, whose terrible sufferings for having dared to question the divine right of Episcopacy, under the persecution of Laud, form one of the most disgraceful incidents of the reign of Charles I. Dr Leighton is said to have been of the old family of Ulishaven in Forfarshire, and his illustrious son was born in the year 1611. From his earliest childhood, according to Burnet, he was distinguished for his saintly temper and disposition, and in his sixteenth year (1627) he was sent to complete his education at the university of Edinburgh, where, after studying with distinguished success for four years, he took his degree of M.A. in 1631.[1]

After leaving college his father sent him to travel abroad, and he is understood to have spent several years in France, where he acquired a complete mastery of the French language. While there he passed a good deal of time with some relations at Douay who had become Roman Catholics, and with whom he would seem to have formed a strict friendship, as he kept up a correspondence with them for many years afterwards. Either at this time or on some subsequent visit to the Continent he had also a good deal of intercourse with some members of the Jansenist party. And no doubt what he then saw among these excellent persons of the piety which was possible even in a communion which he believed to be corrupt contributed not a little to the charity towards those who differed from him in religious opinions, which ever afterwards formed so remarkable a feature in his character. The exact period of his return to Scotland has not been ascertained; but in 1641 he was ordained Presbyterian minister of Newbattle in Midlothian, where he continued for about ten years. At the end of that period he resigned his charge, and went to reside in Edinburgh (1652). What the precise circumstances were which led him to take this step does not distinctly appear. But the account given is that the fiery zeal of his brother clergymen on certain political questions found little sympathy with him, and that this led to severe censures on their part, which were too much for his gentle nature to bear.

Early in the following year (1653) he was appointed principal of the university of Edinburgh, and primarius professor of divinity. In this post he continued for seven or eight years, and, according to Burnet, "he was a great blessing in it; for he talked so to all the youth of any capacity or distinction that it had a great effect on many of them." A considerable number of his Latin prelections and other addresses to the students were published after his death, and are singularly remarkable for the purity and elegance of their Latinity, and their subdued and meditative eloquence. The reader will be disappointed if he expects to find in them any subtle exposition of a metaphysical system of theology. In this respect they present a curious contrast to any thing that is known of the theology taught at that time in the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. They are rather to be regarded as valuable instructions in the art of living a holy life than as a body of scientific divinity. Throughout, however, they bear the marks of a deeply learned and accomplished mind, fully saturated with both classical and patristic reading, and like all his works they breathe the spirit of one who lived very much above the world. It would be interesting to ascertain how far he succeeded in instilling something of his own spirit into the minds of those who listened to his teaching. We certainly meet with very little indication of its having taken any deep root in the hearts of either the Presbyterian or the Episcopalian clergy of the twenty or thirty years which succeeded the period of his principalship. The only writer of the time who has spoken with true appreciation of his character is Bishop Burnet; both in his History of his Own Times and in his Pastoral Care he has referred to Leighton in language of unbounded affection and admiration. This, however, was founded upon knowledge of him obtained in the course of a friendship formed after he had demitted his office of principal, and not upon his university teaching.

In 1661, when Charles II. had resolved to force Episcopacy once more upon Scotland, he fixed upon Leighton for one of his bishops. Looking at the matter, as we are apt to do, in the light of what followed in the history of Scotland during the next twenty-seven years, it seems almost unaccountable how such a man as Leighton could have submitted as he did to the degradation of being associated with coadjutors like Sharp and some of his companion bishops. The only explanations which can be given perhaps are that Leighton, living very much out of the world, and being somewhat deficient in what may be called the political sense, had no idea of the deadly hatred entertained toward Episcopacy by the great mass of the religious people of Scotland, and so of its utter unfitness to become the established church polity of the country, and that his soft and gentle nature rendered him too open to the persuasions which were used to induce him to enter a sphere for which he instinctively felt he was ill qualified. Every one will give him credit too for having no conception that the only object of the Government in establishing Episcopacy in Scotland was to make it subservient to despotism and persecution. The Episcopacy which he contemplated was that modified form which had been suggested by Archbishop Ussher, and to which Baxter and many of the best of the English Nonconformists would have readily given their adherence. It is significant on this head that he always refused to be addressed as "my lord," and it is stated that when dining with his clergymen on one occasion he was so far from arrogating any right of superiority or precedence that he wished to seat himself at the foot of the table.[2]

If Leighton did not know before, he soon began to discover the sort of men with whom he was to be associated in the episcopate. He travelled with them in the same coach from London towards Scotland, but having become, as he told Burnet, very weary of their company (as he doubted not they were of his), and having found that they intended to make a kind of triumphal entrance into Edinburgh, he left them at Morpeth and retired to the earl of Lothian's at Newbattle. He very soon, we are told, lost all hope of being able to build up the church by the means which the Government had set on foot, and his work, as he confessed to Burnet, "seemed to him a fighting against God." He did, however, what he could, governing his diocese (that of Dunblane) with the utmost mildness, as far as he could preventing the persecuting measures which were in active operation elsewhere, and endeavouring to persuade the Presbyterian clergy to sink their differences and come to an accommodation with their Episcopal brethren. In this last matter he seems to have succeeded no better with the Presbyterians than Baxter in England did in a similar attempt with the Episcopalian party; and, after a hopeless struggle of three or four years to induce the Government to put a stop to their fierce persecution of the Covenanters, he at length determined to resign his bishopric, and went up to London in 1665 for this purpose. He told the king that "he could not concur in the planting the Christian religion itself in such a manner, much less a form of government," and so far worked upon the mind of Charles that he promised to enforce the adoption of milder measures. In the hope that this would be carried into effect, he returned to his diocese, but it does not appear that any material improvement took place. In 1669 Leighton again went to London and made fresh representations on the subject, which were so far attended to, but, partly perhaps from faults on the Presbyterian as well as the Episcopalian side, little result followed. The slight disposition, however, shown by the Government to accommodate matters appears to have inspired so much hope into Leighton's mind that in the following year he agreed, though with a good deal of hesitation, to accept the archbishopric of Glasgow. In this new and higher sphere he redoubled his efforts with the Presbyterians to bring about some degree of conciliation with Episcopacy, but all was of no avail, and the only result of his attempts was to embroil himself with the hot-headed Episcopal party as well as with the Presbyterians. In utter despair, therefore, of being able to be of any further service to the cause of religion, he at length in 1674 threw up the archbishopric and retired, after a short stay, probably with his successor in the divinity chair, William Colville, within the precincts of Edinburgh university, to the house of his widowed sister, Mrs Lightmaker, at Broadhurst in Sussex. Here he spent the remaining ten years, in all likelihood the happiest, of his life, and died somewhat suddenly on a visit to London in 1684, in the seventy-fourth year of his age.

It is difficult to form a just or at least a full estimate of Leighton's character. He stands almost alone in his age. In some respects he was immeasurably superior both in intellect and in piety to most of the Scottish ecclesiastics of his time; and yet he seems to have had almost no influence in moulding the characters or conduct of his contemporaries. One is half inclined to think that he would have shown himself a greater or at least a more complete man if a few natural weaknesses and imperfections had intermingled with his nobler qualities. So intense was his absorption in the love of God that little room seems to have been left in his heart for human sympathy or affection. Can it be that there was after all something to repel in his outward manner? Burnet tells us that he had never seen him to laugh, and very seldom even to smile. One can hardly forgive him for regarding Episcopacy so purely under the dry light of human reason after the horrible treatment which his excellent father had suffered from it. In other respects, too, he gives the impression of standing aloof from human interests and ties. It may go for little that he never married, but it was surely a curious idiosyncrasy in the man that he habitually cherished the wish (which was granted him) that he might die in an inn, where there could be no loving hand to support, no loving heart to cheer him. In fact, holy meditation seems to have been the one absorbing interest of his life. At Dunblane tradition still preserves the memory of "the good bishop," silent and companionless, pacing up and down the sloping walk by the river's bank under the beautiful west window of his cathedral. And from a letter of the earl of Lothian to his countess it appears that, whatever other reasons Leighton might have had for resigning his charge at Newbattle, the main object which he had in view was to be left to his own thoughts. It is therefore on the whole not very wonderful that he was completely misjudged and even disliked both by the Presbyterian and the Episcopal party. Some of the bitter expressions of hatred towards him, however, on the part of the former, sound very strange to us who now know how holy, humble, and blameless the man really was. Thus in Naphtali it is said, "Mr Leighton, prelate of Dumblain, under a Jesuitical-like vizard of pretended holiness, humility, and crucifixion to the world, hath studied to seem to creep upon the ground, but always up the hill, toward promotion and places of more ease and honour, and as there is none of them all hath with a kiss so betrayed the cause and smitten religion under the fifth rib, and hath been such an offence to the godly, so there is none who by his way, practice, and expressions giveth greater suspicion of a popish affection, inclination, and design." So also in the continuation of Robert Blair's life by his son-in-law, William Ross, the most innocent of Leighton's acts have a malicious interpretation put upon them. When he resigned Newbattle, he "pretended insufficiency for the ministry"; when he returned to Edinburgh as bishop and expressed an opinion in favour of the English liturgy and ceremonies, "it was suspected that he was popish and Jesuited"; when he refused the title of lord, and in other respects carried himself modestly and humbly, he was simply "a pawky prelate." When he spoke in parliament in favour of the outed ministers, and thought that they ought to be "cherished and embraced" instead of persecuted, offending all the other prelates by the course he took, "it was difficult what to judge of his actings or sayings, he carried so smoothly among the ministers of his diocese." Some, indeed, we are told, thought well of him, but others thought "that he spoke from a popish principle." When he behaved sweetly and gently to the clergy of his diocese, telling them to hold their presbyteries and sessions as before, and suggesting without commanding any thing, it was "thought that he was but straking cream in their mouths at first." When disgusted with the proceedings of the other bishops in "outing so many honest ministers and filling their places with insufficient and for the most part scandalous men," and intimating his wish to demit his office in consequence, he was only "pretending to be displeased." When the king wrote to the council that some of the most peaceable and moderate outed ministers might have liberty to preach, and Leighton pleaded that all might have the like liberty, it was "thought that he did this of purpose to oppose and crush it." Nothing that the good man could say or do brought upon him anything but suspicion and calumny. Even Wodrow, who generally gets credit for fairness and candour, tells us that "he was judged void of any doctrinal principles," and that he was regarded "as very much indifferent to all professions which bore the name of Christian."

It is worth while to set over against these uncharitable and malignant insinuations the estimate which his intimate friend Bishop Burnet formed of him. At the conclusion of his Pastoral Care, he says, "I have now laid together with great simplicity what has been the chief subject of my thoughts for above thirty years. I was formed to them by a bishop that had the greatest elevation of soul, the largest compass of knowledge, the most mortified and heavenly disposition, that I ever yet saw in mortal; that had the greatest parts as well as virtue, with the perfectest humility that I ever saw in man, and had a sublime strain in preaching, with so grave a gesture, and such a majesty of thought, of language, and of pronunciation, that I never once saw a wandering eye where he preached, and have seen whole assemblies often melt in tears before him; and of whom I can say with great truth that, in a free and frequent conversation with him for above two and twenty years, I never knew him say an idle word, or one that had not a direct tendency to edification; and I never once saw him in any other temper but that which I wished to be in, in the last minutes of my life."

No one can study Leighton's works without feeling that Burnet's judgment of the man must have been the true one. We know not if anywhere, except in Holy Scripture, there is to be found so much of what seems to breathe the very breath of heaven, or to be the expression of a life quite apart from the life of this world. It was characteristic of him that he could never be made to understand that anything which he wrote possessed the smallest value. None of his works were published by himself, and it is stated that he actually left orders that all his MSS. should be destroyed after his death. But fortunately for the world this charge was disregarded. Like all the best writing, it seems to flow from his pen without effort. It is simply the easy unaffected outcome of his saintly nature, and hence it always carries the reader along with it without arresting the current of his thoughts or diverting his attention by brilliant flashes of imagination or curious turns of expression like what we find in Jeremy Taylor, Dr Donne, and others of that time. Throughout, however, it is the language of a scholar and a man of perfect literary taste; and with all its spirituality of thought there are no mystical raptures, and none of that luscious sensuousness which sometimes intermingles itself in the Scottish practical theology of the 17th century. No writer conveys a clearer or more elevated idea both of what Christian religion is and what it is capable of in the heart of man. It was a common reproach against Leighton, as we have seen, that he had leanings towards Roman Catholicism, and perhaps this is so far true that he had formed himself in some degree upon the model of some of those saintly persons of that faith, such as Pascal and Thomas a Kempis, who had carried the spiritual life to more ethereal heights than appear to be as yet attained within the lines of Protestantism.

Editions.—It is matter of regret that no perfectly satisfactory edition of Leighton's works has as yet appeared. After his death his Commentary on Peter and several of his other works were published under the editorship of his friend Dr Fall, and on the whole those early editions may be said to be, with some drawbacks, by far the best. All his later editors have unfortunately been possessed by the tasteless mania of reducing his good archaic and nervous language to the bald feebleness of modern phraseology, dealing with him like literary martinets correcting a schoolboy's themes. It is unfortunately impossible to exempt from this criticism even the edition, in other respects very valuable and meritorious, lately published under the superintendence of the Rev. W. West (London, 1875). (J. T. BR.)

  1. One has difficulty in thinking of even the youthful Leighton as capable of humour or sarcasm. But it so happens that the only anecdote of his college career which has been preserved to us indicates the presence of some trace of these in his character. The provost of Edinburgh at the time was a certain David Aikenhead, who had probably made himself offensive in some way to the young collegians, and Leighton, it appears, was tempted to perpetrate the following little epigram upon him:—

    "That quhilk his name pretends is falsely said,
    To wit that of ane aike his head is made,
    For if that it had been composed soe,
    His fyrie nose had flaimed it long agoe."

    To "blaspheme the bailies" (much more the provost) was at that time a somewhat serious offence, and we are told that he was "extruded" from the college for his attack upon the provost's nose. It would seem, however, that the offence was speedily condoned, as he is found soon afterwards to have been restored to his position.

  2. For an interesting and characteristic indication of the purity of his motives in accepting a bishopric, reference may be made to his letter to the earl of Lothian, dated December 23, 1661, which is still preserved among the Lothian papers.