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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

XII. Divines of the Church of England 1660–1700

§ 7. Robert Leighton and his Preaching

Robert Leighton, who was ordained priest at the age of thirty and became a famous preacher, was principal of Edinburgh university from 1653, and professor of divinity there. In 1661, he became bishop of Dunblane; in 1669, archbishop of Glasgow. By the simple beauty of his life, he gave visible expression to the idea of true tolerance, which no one in all the seventeenth century more sincerely advocated and more fully exemplified. He was, at the same time, one of the great preachers of his day. His style is simple and dignified, abounding in aphorism rather than in epigram, powerful yet not rhetorical: its excellence is the reflection of the spirit within, of the inspiration which filled the writer’s heart. To Coleridge, it seemed that Leighton’s writings, beyond anything outside the Bible, suggested “a belief of inspiration, of something more than human”; they were “the vibration of that once-struck hour remaining on the air.” And Burnet’s description of his preaching conveys, with remarkable fidelity, what the student of English literature may recognise as the secret of his influence and, also, as the note of his prose:

  • His preaching had a sublimity both of thought and expression in it; and, above all, the grace and gravity of his pronunciation was such that few heard him without a very sensible emotion: I am sure I never did. It was so different from all others, and, indeed, from everything that one could hope to rise up to, that it gave a man an indignation at himself and all others. It was a very sensible humiliation to me, and for some time after I heard him I could not bear the thought of my own performances, and was out of countenance when I was forced to think of preaching. His style was rather too fine, but there was a majesty and a beauty in it that left so deep an impression that I cannot yet forget the sermons I heard him preach thirty years ago.