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Robert Leighton, servant of Christ

Archbishop Robert Leighton
I want to introduce you to one of my ancestors, a Scot who served Christ in the United Kingdom all his life, Archbishop Robert Leighton (1611-1684). I am descended from his brother Sir Elisha Leighton. Robert never married and had no children.

"Robert Leighton, some time Bishop of Dunblane, and afterwards Archbishop of Glasgow, was born at Edinburgh, in the year 1611. The name of Leighton is found in some of the oldest annals of Scottish history. The family from which Archbishop Leighton was descended, was of very ancient date, and appears to have been for a long period in possession of an estate in Forfarshire.

His father, Alexander Leighton, received his education at St. Andrew's, where he took the degree of Doctor of Divinity. He afterwards studied medicine in the University of Leyden, and graduated in it. On settling in London, he published some works which drew down upon him the anger of the Star Chamber. For this offence he was barbarously punished, and kept closely imprisoned for eleven years.

Robert Leighton had one brother and two sisters. His brother, Sir Elisha Leighton, who was younger than he, turned papist, and became secretary to the Duke of York. He possessed great interest with Lord Aubigny, a nobleman high in favour at the court of Charles II., who first mentioned
Leighton to the king, as a fit man for one of the Scotch sees. His sisters were both married. One to Mr. Lightmaker, a gentleman of landed property in Sussex ; the other to a Mr. Rathband.

Robert Leighton entered the University of Edinburgh as a student in 1627, and he took his degree of M.A. in 1631. He then devoted several years to travelling abroad, and afterwards took up his residence at Douay in France, where some of his relations were settled. It was Leighton's opinion that the time spent "in visiting other countries than our own," was well employed. In after times he recommended that course to his nephew, urging, "that there is a very peculiar advantage in travel, not to be understood but by the trial of it ; and that for himself he no wise repented the time he had spent in that way." Leighton remained abroad until he was thirty years of age ; having then returned home, he received Presbyterian Ordination on the 16th of December, 1641, [his ordination sermon being preached by John Knox,] and was admitted minister of Newbottle, in Midlothian. After eleven years of close residence upon his cure, he tendered his resignation to the Presbytery: a year, however, elapsed before it was accepted, and it was not until Feb. 3rd, 1653, that his ministerial connexion with Newbottle was finally dissolved.

Having now separated himself from the Presbyterians, his own desire was to retire into a life of privacy ; this wish, however, was not gratified, for so high was the opinion entertained of his integrity, learning, and piety, that he was urgently pressed to accept the office of Principal in the University of
Edinburgh, which then fell vacant; and as this situation was totally unconnected with the Church, as a body politic, and involved him in no necessity of taking part in public measures, he consented to fill the chair. In this post he was eminently useful, and earned for himself a great and lasting reputation.

The practice of delivering to the students a weekly lecture in Latin upon some theological subject had fallen into desuetude. This custom he immediately revived. These lectures, which have been preserved, give ample proof both of his ability and his diligence. The public hall, where he delivered them, used to be crowded with auditors, whose attention was riveted by the purity of his style, as also by his animated delivery. Whilst he was Principal, he went up to London, and by his personal application, prevailed upon Cromwell to grant an annuity of 2001. for the support of the University. Charles II., soon after the Restoration, determined to re-establish Episcopacy in Scotland, and the first steps towards accomplishing that object having been taken, it only remained necessary to find persons qualified for the office of Bishop.

Sydserf, formerly Bishop of Galloway, was the only survivor of that order in Scotland ; being, however, aged, and almost past his work, he was appointed to Orkney, the least laborious see. The others selected at that time, were Sharp for St. Andrew's, Fairfowl for Glasgow, Hamilton for Galloway, and Leighton for Dunblane, to which see he was appointed at his own special request. Leighton for a long time declined the Episcopate, and his reluctance was only finally overcome by a peremptory command to accept the office, "unless he thought in his conscience that Episcopacy was unlawful."

As he by no means entertained such an opinion, he gave his unwilling consent, being careful to guard himself against the imputation of contumacy towards the king ; and feeling it also to be his duty not to shrink from a service which the interests of the Church made it incumbent upon him to undertake. When the time for the consecration of the Bishops of Scotland came on, the English Bishops (Burnet's Own Time, vol. i. p. 237. Oxford, 1823) objected to Presbyterian orders, as altogether invalid: on that account Sharp and Leighton were privately ordained Deacons and Priests ; and on the 12th of December, 1661, they, together with the other two who had been named for Bishops were consecrated in Westminster Abbey (Fairfowl and Hamilton had received Episcopal ordination before the breaking out of the civil wars.) The feasting which, took place to celebrate the occasion seems to have been very distasteful to Leighton, who refused to accompany the other Bishops in the public entry into Edinburgh.

For nine years Leighton presided over the diocese of Dunblane. He had entered upon his office with the earnest desire of healing the wounds of the Church, of purifying it from its corruptions, and of exciting a livelier feeling of piety. Failing to obtain any sufficient co-operation in these attempts, and after some time finding all his efforts to correct the existing disorders to be in a great degree fruitlegs, and being also much pained by the severities practised against those who opposed the re-establishment of Episcopacy, he requested permission, at the end of four years, to resign his Bishopric.

This, however, was not granted ; and we find him in 1667 making a second journey to Court, for the purpose of persuading the king to adopt milder measures towards the Presbyterian party, and also of warning him, that the cause of Episcopacy was endangered by the rigorous system at present practised. In the year 1669, a bill was passed by the Scottish Parliament, conferring additional power upon the Crown in ecclesiastical affairs; the first exercise of the authority thus vested in the sovereign, was the removal in the following year of Alex. Burnet from the Archbishopric of Glasgow, to which see he had been translated from Aberdeen upon the death of Fairfowl, in 1664. This dignity was immediately pressed upon Leighton by the Earls of Lauderdale and Tweeddale. He consented to accept it only under the persuasion, that his translation to a sphere of such extended influence would better enable him to accomplish those objects which lay
nearest his heart ; and receiving also a promise from the king's ministry that they would give their utmost support to his plan of bringing about some accommodation between the Episcopalians and Presbyterians.

In 1670, Leighton undertook the administration of the see of Glasgow, but still continued to reside at Dunblane, exercising the archiepiscopal functions under the title of Commendator. The following year it was considered expedient that he should remove to Glasgow. It appears that, although he was nominated and presented, he was never formally translated to that see. Leighton never relaxed in his efforts to accomplish the objects which were always uppermost in his mind, namely, to put an
end to the jealousies and differences which were distracting his country, to engender a mutual spirit of forbearance between the Presbyterians and Episcopalians, and to reform the abuses which at that time existed in the Church.

Various were the measures which he adopted to bring about so desirable an end. Immediately upon his taking up his residence at Glasgow, he summoned a synod of his clergy, where he enforced upon them the paramount duty of seconding his efforts. He himself went about the country, and in person endeavoured to allay the heat and animosity of party.

He procured two solemn conferences, to be held with the Presbyterians, one at Holyrood House, the other at Paisley. And by his appointment, Dr. Gilbert Burnet, with five other Episcopal clergymen of known piety and learning, went through the western counties, and endeavoured to win over the Presbyterians to some degree of moderation. Finding every thing fail, Leighton considered that his work was over, and determined to withdraw from a post which it now seemed impossible to retain with advantage to
the Church. His feelings respecting the step which he was about to take are thus described. He thought "that the dressing and undressing of his soul," as he used to call devotional exercises, "was the business to which his few remaining days ought to be consecrated," and he "longed to escape if only into the air among the birds, from the ungrateful service which he had not declined when summoned to it by the exigencies of the Church, but from which he held himself discharged, now that it was become evident that no good could ensue from his remaining in it." Having gone up to London, he sent in his resignation to Lauderdale, who very reluctantly obtained the consent of the king in writing, that he should be allowed to retire at the end of a year, should he not change his intention before that period expired.

Upon receiving this promise, he remarked to his friend, Dr. Gilbert Burnet, "that there was now but one uneasy stage between him and rest, and he would wrestle through it the best he could ;" and after the expiration of the year, during which he continued to discharge his duties with the same assiduity as before, he again hastened to the king and laid down his Archbishopric, which was then restored to Alex. Burnet, whose removal for Leighton's appointment had previously caused great offence to the English bishops. After a short residence in the College at Edinburgh, he retired to Broadhurst, a demesne in the parish of Horsted "Keynes, in Sussex, belonging to his sister, the widow of Edward Lightmaker, Esq. Five years after he had entered upon this retirement, he received a letter in the king's own hand, urging him to return to Scotland, and use his influence in promoting peace between the contending parties. This letter was written at the request of the Duke of Monmouth, who was then at the head of affairs in Scotland. Leighton was willing to go, provided it should be made clear that some good could be effected. With the failure, however, of the Duke of Monmouth's influence, this project seems also to have fallen to the ground.

In 1684, Leighton was requested by Dr. Gilbert Burnet to go up to London and visit Lord Perth. This nobleman feeling great remorse for his errors, and the viciousness of his past life, had expressed an earnest desire for the benefit of the Bishop's counsel. Leighton consented, though suffering from symptoms of illness, and entertaining the conviction that his own death was near. "The worse I am (said he), the more I choose to go, that I may give one pull at your poor brother, and snatch him, if possible, from the infectious air of the Court."

His friend Burnet, who had not seen him for some time, expressed his delight at his apparent health and vigour. Leighton, however, replied, "that for all that he was very near his end, and his work and journey both were now almost done." The very next day he was attacked by pleurisy, and sunk so rapidly, that on the third day, having previously lost his speech and senses, his life was brought to a close. His old and intimate friend, Dr. Burnet, was with him, and in his arms on the 25th of June, 1684, he breathed his last, in the seventy-fourth year of his age.

His remains were deposited in an old chancel of the church at Horsted Keynes, where his brother Sir Elisha Leighton, who had died in the preceding January, was also buried. The following inscription marks the spot where his body reposes :—

Robert Leighton's tombstone at St. Giles
Church, Horsted Keynes, West Sussex, UK
Archiepiscopi Glasguensis,
apud Scotas,
qui obiit xxv. die Junii,
anno Domini 1684,
setatis suae 74.

The place where he died was the Bell Inn, in Warwick-lane. During his life, he had been often used to say, " that if he had the power to choose a place to die in, it should be an inn. It looked (he said) like a pilgrim's going home, to whom the whole world was but a large and noisy inn, and he a wayfarer, tarrying in it as short a time as possible, and then hasting away to His Father's house."

There is another circumstance connected with his death which may also be mentioned. Whilst resident in his diocese in Scotland, his forbearance with his tenants was so great, that at the time of his resignation considerable sums were due to him. His income after his resignation appears to have arisen principally from these arrears, which came in slowly from time to time; and the last remittance which he had any reason to expect, was made about six weeks before his death. Bishop Gilbert Burnet remarks upon this, that his "provision and journey failed both at once."

The recollection of the early years of Leighton was endeared to his parents by his extreme teachableness and piety, as also by his singular freedom from childish faults ; and the more advanced period of his college life was marked by so singular a propriety of conduct, as to cause one of his superiors, in writing to his father, to congratulate him upon having a son, in whom Providence had made him abundant compensation for his sufferings.

Whilst minister of Newbottle, he gave himself up entirely to the care of his parish ; and the pattern which he exhibited in his ministrations and life has been strictly copied by his friend Burnet in his Discourse on the Pastoral Care. At that period the pulpit was made the vehicle of political disputes; this custom Leighton never adopted, his sole aim being to win men to God. In a synod of the Presbytery, being rebuked for not preaching up the times; "Who," Leighton asked, "does preach up the times?" It was replied, that all the brethren did it. "For God's sake, then," answered Leighton, "when all my brethren preach up the times, suffer one poor brother to preach up Christ Jesus and eternity."

The following anecdote exhibits his devout and calm bearing in time of great peril. During the civil wars, when the royal army was in Scotland, Leighton was anxious to visit his brother, who bore arms for the king, an engagement being daily expected. On his way to the camp, night overtook him, and he became entangled in a thick wood, and in vain sought to extricate himself. Being almost spent with hunger and fatigue, he dismounted, and spreading his cloak upon the ground, began to pray. Resigning himself implicitly to the will of God, he entreated, that if it were not the Divine pleasure that he should then die, some way of deliverance might be opened to him. He then remounted his horse, and the animal being left to itself soon regained the high road.

During the last years of his life, Leighton lived in great seclusion, and as far as it was possible for him, gave up all society. He resumed, however, very actively the duties of a parish priest ; constantly reading prayers and preaching at Horsted Keynes, or in some one of the neighbouring churches, and being a frequent visitor at the cottages of the village ; and long after his decease the poor were accustomed to speak of him with affectionate interest and reverence.

Leighton made devotion mingle with every action of his life. It has been well said of him, "that prayer and praise were his business and his pleasure." In speaking of the Lord's Prayer, he used to say, "Oh ! the spirit of this prayer would make rare Christians ;" and he adopted as a favourite sentiment, "Necesse est, non ut multum legamus sed ut multum oremus."

And once, pointing to his books, he remarked to his nephew, "one devout thought is worth them all." How deeply and diligently he studied the Holy Scriptures his French Bible, now in the library of Dunblane, affords ample proof, by the numerous marked passages, and by the extracts from Jerome, Chrysostom, Gregory Nazianzen, and several other of the Fathers, with which the blank leaves are filled. He was particularly exact in his attendance upon public worship.

Having persisted one Sunday in attending church when hardly equal to do so from illness, he excused his apparent want of proper care, by saying, "were the weather fair I would stay at home, but since it is foul I must go ; lest I be thought to countenance, by my example, the irreligious practice of letting trivial hindrances keep us back from public worship."

The religion of Leighton imparted a peculiar character, even to many of his ordinary actions. As an instance of this, his nephew, when a little child, was so struck by the reverential manner with which Leighton said grace after a meal, as to remark to his brother, "his uncle did not give thanks like other folks." It is said of him, that he seemed to be in a perpetual meditation, and would take occasion from any passing incident to give utterance to some pious reflection. Meeting a blind beggar, he observed, "methinks this poor sufferer cries out in behalf of the whole human race, as its representative ; and let what he so earnestly craves be given him, as readily as God bestows a cure on the spiritually blind who ask it." A person having said to him, "you have been to hear a sermon," "I met a sermon," was his answer, "a sermon de facto, for I met a corpse; and rightly and profitably are the funeral rites observed when the living lay it to heart."

The liberality of Leighton was extreme. When living at Horsted Keynes, with the exception of the small sum which his own wants demanded, all his income was distributed to the poor. His alms he was careful to distribute by the hands of others, as we learn from Burnet, who was his almoner in London. His sister once remonstrated with him upon his munificence, saying, " If you had a wife and children you must not act thus." His reply was, " I know not how it would be, but I know how it should be. Enoch walked with God, and begat sons and daughters."

The accidents and behaviour which usually disturb the temper, had no power to ruflle the equanimity of Leighton. Whilst living at Dunblane, his man servant being desirous of fishing, went off one morning very early, locking the door and taking the key with him, thus making his master a prisoner ; nor did he return until the evening, when the only rebuke which he received from the Bishop was, " John, when you next go a fishing, remember to leave the key in the door."

The kindly and friendly feeling which Leighton always maintained towards those who differed from him in religious opinions, is well illustrated by the following anecdote :—A friend calling upon him one day, found that he was out ; and was told that he had gone to visit a sick Presbyterian minister, having borrowed a horse from the Roman Catholic priest.

Bishop Burnet, in the History of his Own Times describing the character and accomplishments of Leighton, remarks, "that he had a complete command of the purest Latin ; that he was master of both Greek and Hebrew ; that he was deeply read in the whole course of theological learning, and was particularly versed in the knowledge of the Scriptures ; that his memory was stored with the best and wisest sayings of all the ancients, heathen as well as Christian, in the proper application of which he was singularly choice. Speaking of his humility, Burnet says, " that he seemed to have the lowest thoughts of himself possible, and to desire that all other persons should think as meanly of him as he did of himself ; and he bore all sorts of ill usage and reproach, like a man that took pleasure in it."

And again of his temperament, " that he had so subdued the natural heat of his temper, that in a great variety of circumstances, and in the course of intimate conversation with him for twenty years, he never observed the least sign of passion in him, but upon one occasion." All he said had a visible tendency to raise his own mind, and those with whom he conversed to serious reflections. Of his preaching, Burnet remarks, "that it possessed sublimity both of thought and expression. The grace and gravity of his pronunciation was such, that few listened to him without sensible emotion. His style was rather too fine, yet the majesty and beauty of it left a deep impression. He looked upon him self as so ordinary a preacher that he was always ready to employ others ; and when he became Bishop, he preferred to preach to small congregations, and would never give notice beforehand."

The principal works of Archbishop Leighton are, Sermons,—Preselectiones Theologicae,—A Practical Commentary on the First Epistle of St. Peter, (his chief work, and one which has gone through many editions,) —Expositions of "The Decalogue," "The Creed," and "The Lord's Prayer."—His Discourses, one on Matt. xxii. 37—39, the other on Heb. viii. 19, —a Short Catechism,—Meditations, Critical and Practical, on Psalms iv. xxxii. and cxxx.,—Expository Lectures on Psalm xxxix., and other portions of Scripture,—and a volume containing Rules for a Holy Life, a Sermon, and a Catechism."

Source: Robert Leighton, D.D., A Practical Commentary on the First Epistle of St. Peter (London: SPCK, 1853), Vol. 1, v-xx.

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Robert Leighton, servant of Christ


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