Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
Critical Introduction by Edmund K. Chambers
Robert Leighton (16111684)
[Robert Leighton was born in 1611. He was the son of Alexander Leighton, author of Zions Plea against the Prelacy, whose tortures for his faith are famous in the annals of Scotch Presbyterianism. He was educated at Edinburgh, where he graduated in 1631. He travelled in France, visited Douay, and was much influenced by the Jansenists. In 1641 he returned to Scotland, took orders, and became a minister at Newbattle. Here most of his sermons and expositions were written. In 1653 he was chosen Principal and Divinity Professor at Edinburgh. He accepted Episcopacy, at its establishment in 1661, and became successively Bishop of Dunblane in that year, and Archbishop of Glasgow in 1669. Here all his efforts were directed to the promotion of peace between the factions in the Church. Finding this impossible, he resigned his episcopate in 1674 and retired, first to college rooms at Edinburgh, then to Horsted Keynes in Sussex. He died in 1684.
Leightons chief English works are Commentaries on The First Epistle of St. Peter, the first nine chapters of The Gospel according to St. Matthew, and other parts of the Bible, a tract entitled Rules and Instructions for a Holy Life, and a number of Sermons. He also wrote in Latin a series of addresses to university students. These writings were mostly published by Dr. Fall between 16921708. Among later editions are those of Doddridge (1748); Jerment (18058); Pearson (1825); Aikman (1831). All these editors commit the unpardonable crime of tampering with the original text. More satisfactory in this respect is the recent edition by Dr. West (186975, still unfinished). A volume of Selections from Leighton was published by Dr. Blair in 1884.]
ROBERT LEIGHTON is as a March swallow among Protestant theologians. Able controversialists, finished scholars, eloquent pulpiters, these the churches of England and Scotland can boast in plenty; seldom do you find among their borders, more seldom still in their high places, a Pascal or a Thomas à Kempis. Not that such do not exist, but rather that they are inarticulate, bearing their witness by life instead of speech to the truth that is in them. Leighton is a remarkable exception; above all things a spiritual divine, he has yet the gift of tongues to put his wisdom before the world in decent and profitable shape. It is but a lax prose, not ordered into periods and paragraphs, but ebbing and flowing comment-wise, as the exigencies of a text require it. The phrase is strong and sweet, a little careless perhaps, as of one disregarding the conventions of deliberate art. But at its best it rises into passages of extraordinary height, glowing with the rich fire of jewels, ringing with the harmonies of restrained music. Nor do such passages affect one as conscious rhetoric; they are not merely purple patches; every elevation of style corresponds directly to some moment of intensity or ecstasy in the course of the preachers thought. Only Leighton lived in an age when sermons might still be literature; before the eighteenth century had ruled that colour and imagination were out of place in the pulpit. In him, as in Jeremy Taylor or in Donne, dignity of speech is not the first consideration; they are not so far removed, Latinised though they be, from the nervous homespun of Latimer.
Yet if Leighton is an artist, he is so, like Plato, in spite of himself; for of all his teaching, the first and last word is renunciation. The resemblance to Plato is no surface one; Plato is the father of all mystics, of all who, in their detachment from the world, confound its good and its ill in one condemnation, while they follow unceasingly the beatific vision. Such an one was Leighton, always aspiring, always ascetic, extravagant sometimes in his rejection of all mundane things, until with Guinevere, one often feels it impossible to
Breathe in that fine air,
That pure severity of perfect light.
And with the character thus impressed upon his writing, the testimony of his contemporaries agrees. Burnet tells us, 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 minute of my life. The same spirit explains his indifference to the ecclesiastical disputes of his day. To be a peacemaker was his only part in them. He was asked once, so the story goes, Whether he preached to the times. Surely, he said, you might permit a poor brother to preach Jesus Christ and eternity. It is the note of Leighton, both in his life and his writing, to have all the graces; but one misses some of the humanities. Burnet never saw him laugh, and very seldom even smile. So that his gospel is a little ineffective for want of sympathy with the heart of thingsthe laugh of things, Broad as ten thousand beeves at pasture. Yet he has always been a consolation to the spiritually-minded. Bishop Jebb called him a human seraph, and Coleridge, who based upon him the whole of his Aids to Reflection, Plato fortified by St. Paul.