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Leighton, Robert (1611-1684) (DNB00)

LEIGHTON, ROBERT (1611–1684), archbishop of Glasgow, second son of Dr. Alexander Leighton [q. v.] by his first marriage, was born in 1611, probably in London. In 1627 he was sent to the university of Edinburgh, and placed under the care of Sir James Stewart of Goodtrees. Dr. Leighton entreated Sir James, in the presence of the youth, ‘to train him up in the true presbyterian form, and Robert was strictly enjoined with his father's blessing to be steady in that way.’ Though ‘accounted a saint from his youth,’ during his first session he contributed the following lines to some satirical verses written by the students on Aikenhead, the provost of Edinburgh, who had deprived them of some holidays:—

That which his name imports is falsely said,
That of the oaken wood his head is made;
For why, if it had been composed so,
His flaming nose had fired it long ago.

He was censured for this effusion, but in a letter to his ‘kind and loving Father’ he tells him that Principal Adamson and the regents thought his offence ‘not so heinous a thing as he himself did justly think it.’ At a later period one of the professors wrote to Dr. Leighton congratulating him ‘on having a son in whom Providence had made him abundant compensation for his sufferings.’ He graduated M.A. 28 July 1631, and was then sent by his father to travel on the continent. He spent several years in France, and was often at Douay, where he had relatives among the Roman catholic clergy. He thus learned to speak French like a native, made himself master of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and familiar with all branches of theological literature. He was also greatly attracted by the piety of the Jansenists, and his intercourse with them gave a permanent colouring to his religious character. Soon after his father's liberation he returned to Scotland and was licensed by the presbytery of Edinburgh in July 1641. On 16 Dec. following he was ordained by the presbytery of Dalkeith, and inducted to the parish of Newbattle, of which the Earl of Lothian, a zealous covenanter, was patron.

There were nine hundred communicants in the parish, and besides visiting and catechising his flock and attending the frequent meetings of presbytery, Leighton had always to preach twice on the Sunday and at least once during the week. Nearly all his sermons and expositions were written at Newbattle, and his fame as a preacher of a new school who wrote and spoke English undefiled spread far and wide. He took no part in public affairs at this time beyond what was required in the discharge of his official duties. He had warmly approved the national covenant, but was less enamoured of the solemn league, and disliked the way in which it was imposed. In 1648 he was placed in great difficulty by the opposition of the church to the resolution of parliament in favour of the ‘Engagement.’ Instead of reading the declaration against it himself, he made his precentor read it, and when taken to task he said it was contrary to his intention, but that he was suffering from a bad cold. He was mildly censured by his brethren for not attending the general assembly when it had this business on hand, and when obliged to rebuke ‘engagers’ in his own church, he exhorted them to repent of the immoralities of which they had been guilty during the expedition ‘without meddling with the quarrel on the grounds of that war.’ In 1652 the synod of Lothian sent him to London (which he had been in the habit of visiting annually as long as his father lived) to aid in effecting the liberation of the Scottish ministers who had been captured at Alyth and Worcester, and were prisoners in England. During his absence, which lasted from May till December, he made up his mind to resign his charge, partly on account of the weakness of his voice and the state of his health, but mainly because of the schism in the church betwixt the resolutioners and the protesters, and because he could no longer with a good conscience obey the injunctions that were laid upon him. The presbytery at first refused to accept his resignation, and asked Lord Lothian to urge him to remain, but while this matter was pending the town council of Edinburgh elected him principal of the university. On 3 Feb. 1653 he was loosed from his charge and entered upon the duties of his new office, which he discharged for the next nine years with the greatest ability and success.

Besides the principalship Leighton held the post of professor of divinity. On Sunday mornings he preached before the university, and took his turn with other professors in conducting an afternoon service. Once a week he preached to the students in Latin, and many of the townspeople flocked to this service. During the long vacation Leighton frequently went to London, where he made the acquaintance of Cromwell's courtiers, and sometimes to the continent, where he renewed his intimacy with the Jansenists. Though taking little part in ecclesiastical affairs, he was appointed a member of the general assembly of 1653, which was dispersed by Cromwell's officers, and he gave the covenants to the students as required by standing laws of the church. During the twenty years of his ministry and principalship Bishop Burnet says that he lived in the highest reputation that any man had in his time in Scotland.

When episcopacy was restored in 1661, he accepted the change. He was a latitudinarian in such matters, and often repeated the saying that religion did not consist in external matters, whether of government or worship. The conjunction of an episcopal with a presbyterian system had always seemed to him best, and he saw nothing in the covenant inconsistent with the union. Set forms he preferred to extempore prayers, and he was well satisfied with the liturgy and ceremonies of the church of England, but he did not wish them strictly imposed, and advocated the fullest toleration even to Roman catholics, quakers, and baptists. The offer of a bishopric was made to him on the application of his brother, Sir Elisha Leighton [q. v.], who had turned Roman catholic and had influence at court. He says that he had the strongest aversion to accepting the office that ever he had to anything in all his life, but his opposition was overcome by the urgency of the king, and by the hope that as bishop he might be useful in promoting the peace of the church. The Scottish presbyters who were consecrated in England in 1610 were not re-ordained, but this was insisted on now in the case of Leighton and Sharp, who were in presbyterian orders. Both of them objected, holding their previous ordination to be valid, but in the end they gave way and went through the ceremony privately, though they knew that the bishop who performed it meant one thing by it and they another, and that they were compromising the interests of their own and other reformed churches. On 15 Dec. 1661 they were consecrated in Westminster Abbey with two others who, like them, had taken the covenants. Leighton at his own request was appointed to Dunblane, the smallest of the Scottish dioceses. Synods and presbyteries were after a brief interruption restored, but their authority was now derived from the bishops, which had not been the case under the episcopacy of 1610–38. The ‘Register’ of the synod of Dunblane during Leighton's episcopate contains the substance of his charges. Year after year he urged upon the clergy reverence in public worship, the reading of two chapters and a portion of the psalter at each service, and the use of the Lord's Prayer, Creed, and Gloria Patri, the preaching of plain and useful sermons, the regular visitation and catechising of their flocks, the restoration of daily service in church, and above all holiness in heart and life. All the clergy, except two or three, and the great body of the people under his charge, conformed, but in other dioceses (chiefly in the south and west) nearly a third of the ministers refused to submit to episcopacy, and the work of persecution began. Leighton, who said he would rather be the means of making one person serious-minded than the whole nation conformists, was so aggrieved by the measures taken that in 1665 he went to London and tendered his resignation to the king, telling him that the proceedings ‘were so violent that he could not concur in the planting the Christian religion itself in such a manner, much less a form of government.’ The king refused to accept his resignation, and promised to pursue a milder policy. In June 1669 the first ‘indulgence,’ which allowed the presbyterian ministers to resume their duties on certain conditions, was granted, and was accepted by the most eminent of them. To justify the indulgence, which was complained of by some of the episcopal party as illegal, and to authorise other pacific measures, the Scottish parliament in November 1669 passed an act declaring the external government of the church an inherent right of the crown. Under this act Alexander Burnet, archbishop of Glasgow, was deprived for opposing the indulgence, and his see was offered to Leighton, who accepted it in the hope of reconciling the presbyterians. With the sanction of the king he drew up proposals of ‘accommodation,’ which placed the ecclesiastical power in presbyteries and synods with bishops merely as permanent moderators. No oath of canonical obedience to them was to be required, and ministers who were presbyterian by conviction were to be free to declare it. Several conferences were held with the leading presbyterian clergy from August 1670 till 11 Jan. 1671, when they gave their final answer that they were not free in conscience to unite on the terms proposed. Upon this Leighton said: ‘Before God and man I wash my hands of whatever evils may result from the rupture of this treaty. I have done my utmost to repair the temple of the Lord.’ As he could make no progress with the presbyterians, and offended many of the episcopal party, and as none of his own clerical friends would accept vacant bishoprics, the disposal of which the government had entrusted to him, he despaired, and sent in his resignation in 1672. The king promised to allow him to retire at the end of a year if his mind was then unchanged, and his resignation was accepted accordingly in August 1674. He went back to the university of Edinburgh, where he had always kept rooms, but soon removed to Broadhurst in Horsted Keynes, Sussex, the property and home of his sister, the widow of Edward Lightmaker. There he spent the remainder of his life in study and devotion, in works of mercy among the poor, and in preaching and reading prayers in the neighbouring churches. Soon after the murder of Sharp and the risings at Drumclog and Bothwell Bridge, the king wrote to him that he was ‘resolved to try what clemency could prevail upon such in Scotland as would not conform to the government of the church there,’ and desiring him to ‘go down to Scotland with his first conveniency and take all possible pains for persuading all he could of both opinions to as much mutual correspondence and concord as could be.’ Leighton was willing to undertake this mission of peace, but events soon led to a change of policy. In 1684 he went up to London to meet Lord Perth, the Scottish chancellor, who, through Bishop Burnet, had earnestly desired the benefit of his spiritual advice. Burnet was surprised at finding Leighton so young-looking and active, but he told him that ‘he was very near his end for all that.’ The next day he was seized with pleurisy, and on the day following—25 June—he breathed his last in Burnet's arms at the Bell Inn, Warwick Lane. He had often expressed the wish to die in an inn. He was buried in the chancel of the church of Horsted Keynes beside his brother, Sir Elisha. His will is printed in ‘Bannatyne Club Miscellany,’ vol. iii.

As saint, author, and peacemaker, Leighton presents a combination of qualities which has called forth almost unrivalled tributes of admiration. Thomas à Kempis was one of his favourite books, and the ‘imitation of Christ,’ whose darling virtues he said were humility, meekness, and charity, was the business of his life. He shrank from every approach to ostentation, and so far from courting the riches and honours of the world he looked upon them with something of holy contempt. On accepting the bishopric he said, ‘One benefit at least will rise from it. I shall break that little idol of estimation my friends have for me, and which I have been so long sick of.’ Burnet never saw his temper ruffled but once during twenty-two years of close intimacy, and could not recollect having ever heard him say an idle word. When reminded of his former zeal for the national covenant, he replied, ‘When I was a child I spoke as a child,’ and when charged with apostatising from his father's principles, he meekly answered that a man was not bound to be of his father's opinions. He was habitually abstemious, kept frequent fasts, and often shut himself up in his room for prolonged periods of private devotion. Everything that he could spare was given to pious purposes, and he employed others as the agents of his charity that he might not get the credit of it. He founded bursaries in the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, made some permanent provision for the poor, and left his valuable library of more than fifteen hundred volumes to the clergy of the diocese of Dunblane. In his ‘Rules and Instructions for a Holy Life’ we have an ideal which perhaps tends too much towards mysticism and abstraction from the world. He printed nothing during his lifetime, and gave directions that his manuscripts should not be published, but his sister was persuaded to give them to the world, and they have ever since had a wonderful charm for the lovers of piety and learning, and those in all communions who are most competent to judge of their excellence. The first editor was Dr. Fall, once principal of the university of Glasgow, who published Leighton's sermons and commentaries, and translations of his Latin lectures and addresses, in instalments between 1692 and 1708. There have been many subsequent editions more or less complete, a full account of which is given in an appendix to West's edition, London, 1875. Among other editions may be mentioned that of Pearson, London, 1825, and of Aikman, Edinburgh, 1831.

[Burnet's Hist. of his own Time; Lives by Pearson and Aikman prefixed to Works; Irving's Scottish Writers; Grant's Hist. of Univ. of Edinb.; Blair's Selections from Leighton with Life; Coltness Collection; Brodie's Diary; Proc. Soc. of Antiq. of Scotland, vol. iv. pt. ii. pp. 459 sq.; Reg. of Synod of Dunblane; Notes and Queries, 3rd ser. i–iv. passim; British and Foreign Evangel. Review, 1883 (‘Bibliography of Archbishop Leighton’).]

G. W. S.