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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

§ 8. Burnet as a Theologian

If Leighton was a Scot, he had assimilated the English manner, as he had the English theology, and, when he resigned the archbishopric, he retired to a little village in Sussex where he preached and ministered. If he would not say, writes Burnet, that the English was “the best constituted church in the world, he thought it was truly so with relation to the doctrine, the worship, and the main parts of our government.” George Herbert, most typical of anglicans, was his favourite poet. He died at an inn in London, under the shadow of St. Paul’s, in the arms of Burnet, his fellow countryman and disciple, who learnt from him what was best in his own religious thought and work.

With Leighton, indeed, Burnet is naturally coupled, for both were Scotsmen of liberal opinions who rose to high place in an episcopal church. As a historian, Burnet, whose labours in this kind extend beyond the general range of the present volume, will receive notice later; but he was a man of boundless activity, and it must not be forgotten that he said with truth that his thoughts had “run most, and dwelt longest, on the concerns of the Church and religion.” As a theological writer, Burnet, who lived to witness in the Hanoverian succession the triumph of his party, and died on the day when George I met his first parliament, had a distinct position and a considerable influence. He was intimately conversant with ecclesiastical matters during something like half a century, and set a conspicuous example—to be largely followed—of how it was possible to be at the same time a latitudinarian, a whig and an energetic bishop. Born in the land of presbytery and Calvinism, he became an episcopalian and an anglican. He was a convinced supporter of episcopacy as the original order from which the others derive. But his interest lay in personal religion more than in theology. He regarded “the function of the pastoral call as the highest on earth.” Of him, more, perhaps, than of any other writer of his age, is it true that le style c’est l’homme. He was an energetic Scot, of intense and perpetual vigour and vivacity, irrepressible and, at all times, without the slightest doubt as to the truth of his own opinions or the folly of other people’s. He was a glorified “man in the street,” always aware of, and intensely impressed by, what partisan laymen were saying; exceedingly afraid of seeming to have “a clerical mind”—a fear which often prevented his own views from being received as an expert judgment; and always ready to show that great statesmen were right and great ecclesiastics were wrong. He was a keen student, a man who read quickly and formed conclusions clearly, yet not a great scholar or endowed with a scholar’s mind; a kind, generous, enthusiastic man, a genuine patriot as well as a strong partisan, but not at all a deep thinker; changeable in opinions, and one who changed generally with the party in power, or with the popular voice; a man who bulked large in the public eye, too large for his judgment to have the same weight with the wise or with posterity. He was extraordinarily deficient in taste, and, indeed, in real distinction of mind or feeling. His manner of writing about ecclesiastical questions reflects all this. He is omniscient, unsympathetic and narrow; and his judgment of the religion of his own day is often strangely distorted. He is typical of a certain side of English churchmanship.