Birthplace: London, England
Location of death: London, England
Cause of death: unspecified
Race or Ethnicity: White
Executive summary: Archbishop of Glasgow
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.
Early in 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. A considerable number of his Latin prelections and other addresses (published after his death) are remarkable for the purity and elegance of their Latinity, and their subdued and meditative eloquence. They are valuable instructions in the art of living a holy life rather than a body of scientific divinity. Throughout, however, they bear the marks of a deeply learned and accomplished mind, 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. His mental temper was too unlike the temper of his time to secure success as a teacher.
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.
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. 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 laugh, and very seldom even smile. 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 that he habitually cherished the wish (which was granted him) that he might die in an inn. In fact, holy meditation seems to have been the one absorbing interest of his life. At Dunblane tradition preserved 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 not very wonderful that he was completely misjudged and even disliked both by the Presbyterian and by the Episcopal party.
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 left orders that all his manuscripts should be destroyed after his death. But fortunately for the world this charge was disregarded. Like all the best writing, it seems to flow without effort; it is the easy unaffected outcome of his saintly nature. 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, such as are often found mingled with the Scottish practical theology of the 17th century. It was a common reproach against Leighton 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 the saintly persons of that faith, such as Blaise Pascal and Thomas à Kempis.
The best account of Leighton's character is that of Bishop Burnet in History of his Own Times (1723-34). No perfectly satisfactory edition of Leighton's works exists. After his death his Commentary on Peter and several of his other works were published under the editorship of his friend Dr. Fall, and those early editions may be said to be, with some drawbacks, by far the best. His later editors have been possessed by the mania of reducing his good archaic and nervous language to the bald feebleness of modern phraseology. It is unfortunately impossible to exempt from this criticism even the edition, in other respects very valuable and meritorious, published under the superintendence of the Rev. W. West (7 vols., London, 1869-75).
Father: Alexander Leighton
University: MA, University of Edinburgh (1627-31)
Professor: Primarius Professor of Divinity, University of Edinburgh (1653-)
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