Robert Leighton


Robert Leighton (1611-1684)


Archbishop of Glasgow, was born, probably in London (others say at Ulishaven, Forfarshire), in 1611, the eldest son of Dr Alexander Leighton, and 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 William Laud, form one of the most disgraceful incidents of the reign of King Charles I. Leighton is said to have been of the old family of Ulishaven in Forfarshire. From his earliest childhood, according to Gilbert Burnet, Robert Leighton was distinguished for his saintly disposition. In his sixteenth year (1627) he was sent to the University of Edinburgh, where, after studying with distinguished success for four years, he took the degree of M.A. in 1631. His father then 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 relatives at Douai who had become Roman Catholics, and with whom he kept up a correspondeflce for many years afterwards. Either at this time or on some subsequent visit he had also a good deal of intercourse with members of the Jansenist party. This intercourse contributed to the charity towards those who differed from him in religious opinion, which ever afterwards formed 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. In 1652 he resigned his charge and went to reside in Edinburgh. What led him to take this step does not distinctly appear. The account given is that he had little sympathy with the fiery zeal of his brother clergymen on certain political questions, and that this led to severe censures on their part.

In 1661, when Charles II had resolved to force Episcopacy once more upon Scotland, he fixed upon Leighton for one of his bishops. Leighton, living very much out of the world, and being somewhat deficient in what may be called the political sense, was too open to the persuasions used to induce him to enter a sphere for which he instinctively felt he was ill qualified. The Episcopacy which he contemplated was that modified form which had been suggested by Archbishop James Ussher, and to which Baxter and many of the best of the English Nonconformists would have readily given their adherence. It is significant that he always refused to be addressed as “my lord”, and it is stated that when dining with his clergy on one occasion he wished to seat himself at the foot of the table.

Leighton 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 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 in active operation elsewhere, and endeavoring to persuade the Presbyterian clergy to come to an accommodation with their Episcopal brethren. 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 determined to resign his bishopric, and went up to London in 1665 for this purpose. He so far worked upon the mind of Charles that he promised to enforce the adoption of milder measures, 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, but little result followed. The slight disposition, however, shown by the government to accommodate matters appears to have inspired Leighton with so much hope that in the following year he agreed, though with a good deal of hesitation, to accept the archbishopric of Glasgow. In this higher sphere he redoubled his efforts with the Presbyterians to bring about some degree of conciliation with Episcopacy, but the only result 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 resigned the archbishopric in 1674 and retired to the house of his widowed sister, Mrs. Lightmaker, at Broadhurst in Sussex. Here he spent the remaining ten years, probably the happiest of his life, and died suddenly on a visit to London in 1684.

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