Pagina-afbeeldingen
PDF
ePub

to the active share he was afterwards to take in the ecclesiastical policy of Scotland, he aspired to add to the art of classical composition, the powers of a persuasive and commanding speaker. With this view he united with some of his contemporaries during the last years of his attendance at college, in the formation of a society, where their object was to cultivate the study of elocution, and to prepare themselves, by the habits of extemporary discussion and debate, for conducting the business of popular assemblies. Fortunately for Dr. Robertson, he had here associates to contend with worthy of himself; among others, Dr. William M'Ghie, an ingenious young physician, afterwards well known in London ; Mr. William Cleghorn, afterwards professor of Moral Philosophy in Edinburgh ; Dr. John Blair, late prebendary of Westminster; Dr. Wilkie, author of the Epigoniad; and Mr. John Home, author of the tragedy of Douglas.

His studies at the university being at length finished, Dr. Robertson was licensed to preach by the presbytery of Dalkeith in 1741, and in 1743 he was presented to the living of Gladsmuir in East Lothian by the Earl of Hopeton. The income was but inconsiderable (the whole emoluments not exceeding one hundred pounds a year :) but the preferment, such as it was, came to him at a time singularly fortunate ; for not long afterwards, his father and mother died within a few hours of each other, leaving a family of six daughters and a younger son, in such circumstances as required every aid which his slender funds enabled him to bestow.

Dr. Robertson's conduct in this trying situation, while it bore the most honorable testimony to the generosity of his dispositions, and to the warmth of his affections, was strongly marked with that manly decision in his plans, and that persevering steadiness in their execution, which were characteristical features of his mind. Undeterred by the magnitude of a charge, which must have appeared fatal to the prospects that had hitherto animated his studies; and resolved to sacrifice to a sacred duty all personal considerations, he invited his father's family to Gladsmuir, and continued to educate his sisters under his own roof, till they were settled respectably in the world. Nor did he think himself at liberty till then, to complete an union, which had been long the object of his wishes, and which may be justly numbered among the most fortunate incidents of his life. He remained single till 1751, when he married his cousn, Miss Mary Nisbet, daughter of the reverend Mr. Nisbet, one of the ministers of Edinburgh.

While he was thus engaged in the discharge of those pious offices which had devolved upon him by the sudden death of his parents, the rebellion of 1745 broke out in Scotland, and afforded him an opporiunity of evincing the sincerity of that zeal for the civil and religious liberties of his country, which he had imbibed with the first principles of his education; and which afterwards, at the distance of more than forty years, when he was called on to employ his eloquence in the national commemoration of the revolution, seemed to rekindle the fires of his youth. His situation as a country clergyman, confined, indeed, his patriotic exertions within a narrow sphere; but even here, his conduct was guided by a mind superior to the scene in which he acted. On one occasion, (when the capital of Scotland was in danger of falling into the hands of the rebels) the state of public affairs appeared so critical, that he thought himself justified in laying aside, for a time, the pacific habits of his profession, and in quitting his parochial residence at Gladsmuir, to join the volunteers of Edinburgh : and when, at last, it was determined that the city should be surrendered, he was one of the small band who repaired to Haddington, and offered their services to the commander of his majesty's forces.

The duties of his sacred profession were, in the mean time, discharged with a punctuality, which secured to him the veneration and attachment of his parishioners; while the eloquence and taste that distinguished him as a preacher, drew the attention of the neighbouring clergy, and prepared the way for that influence in the church which he afterwards attained. A sermon which he preached in the year 1755 before the Society for

propagating Christian knowledge, and which was the earliest of all his publications, affords a sufficient proof of the eminence he might have attained in that species of composition, if his genius had not inclined him more strongly to other studies. This sermon, the only one he ever published, has been long ranked, in both parts of the island, among the best models of pulpit eloquence in our language. It has undergone five editions; and is well known, in some parts of the continent, in the German translation of Mr. Ebeling.

A few years before this period, he made his first appearance in the debates of the general assembly of the church of Scotland. The questions which were then agitated in that place have long ceased to be interesting; but they were highly important at the time, as they involved, not only the authority of the supreme court of ecclesiastical judicature, but the general tranquillity and good order of the country. The principles which Dr. Robertson held on these subjects, and which have, for many years past, guided the policy of the church, will again fall under our review, before the conclusion of this narrative. At present, it is sufficient to mention, that in the assembly of 1751, when he first submitted them to public discussion, they were so contrary to the prevailing ideas, that, although he enforced them with extraordinary powers of argument and eloquence, and was most ably supported by the late Sir Gilbert Elliot and Mr. Andrew Pringle, (afterwards Lord Alemoor) he was

left in a very small minority; the house dividing, two , hundred against eleven. The year following, by a

steady perseverance in the same views, he had the satisfaction of bringing over a majority to his sentiments, and gave a beginning to that system of ecclesiastical government which it was one of the great objects of his life to carry into effect, by the most vigorous and decisive, though the most temperate and conciliatory measures. paper which he drew up in the course of these proceedings, and which will be noticed in its proper place, explains the ground-work of the plan which he and his friends afterwards pursued.

А

The establishment of the Select Society * in Edinburgh in the year 1754, opened another field for the display and for the cultivation of his talents. This institution, intended partly for philosophical inquiry, and partly for the improvement of the members in public speaking, was projected by Mr. Allan Ramsay, the painter, and a few of his friends; but soon attracted so much of the public notice, that in the following year the num

But now,

* The information contained in the following note, (for which I am indebted to the friendship of Dr. Carlyle) cannot fail to be acceptable to those, to whom the literary history of Scotland is an object of curiosity.

“ The Select Society owed its rise to the ingenious Allan Ramsay, (son of the poet of that name) and was intended for philosophical inquiry, and the improvement of the members in the art of speaking. They met for the first time in the Advocate's Library, in May 1754, and consisted only of fifteen, who had been nominated and called together by Mr. Ramsay and two or three of his friends. At that meeting they formed themselves into a society, into which the members were ever after elected by ballot, and who met regularly every Friday evening, during the sittings of the court of session, both in summer and winter.

“ This society continued to flourish for several years, and became so fashionable, that, in 1759, their number amounted to more than 130; which included all the literati of Edinburgh and its neighbourhood, and many of the nobility and gentry, who, though a few of them only took a share in the debates, thought themselves so well entertained, and instructed, that they gave punctual attendance. In this society, which remained in vigor for six or seven years, Dr. Robertson made a conspicuous figure. By his means it was, and by the appearances made by a few of his brethren, that a new lustre was thrown on their order. From the revolution, (when the church had been chiefly filled with incumbents that were ill-educated) down to this period, the clergy of the established church had always been considered in a subordinate light, and as far inferior to the members of the other learned professions, in knowledge and liberal views.

when compared together, on this theatre for the exhibition of talents, they were found to be entitled to at least an equal share of praise; and having been long depressed, they were, in compensation, as usual, raised full as high as they deserved. When the Select Society commenced, it was not foreseen that the History of Scotland during the reign of Mary, the tragedy of Douglas, and the Epigoniad, were to issue so soon from three gentlemen of the ecclesiastical order.

“ When the society was on the decline, by the avocations of many of its most distinguished members, and the natural abatement of that ardor which is excited by novelty and emulation, it was thought proper to elect fixed presidents to preside in their turns, whose duty it was to open the question to be debated upon, that a fair field might be laid before the speakers. It was observed of Dr. Robertson, who was one of those presidents, that whereas most of the others in their previous discourses exhausted the subject so much that there was no room for debate, he gave only such brief, but artful sketches, as served to suggest ideas, without leading to a decision.

“ Among the most distinguished speakers in the Select Society were Sir Gilbert Elliot, Mr. Wedderburn, Mr. Andrew Pringle, Lord Kames, Mr. Walter Stuart, Lord Elibank, and Dr. Robertson. The honorable Charles Townshend spoke once. David Hume and Adam Smith never opened their lips.

“ The society was also much obliged to Dr. Alexander Monro, senior, Sir Alexander Dick, and Mr. Patrick Murray, advocate, who, by their constant attendance and readiness on every subject, supported the debate during the first year of the establishment, when otherwise it would have gone heavily on. The same part was afterwards more ably performed by Lord Monboddo, Lord Elibank, and the Reverend William Wilkie, all of whom had the peculiar talent of supporting their paradoxical tenets by an inexhaustible fund of humor and argument."

ber of members * exceeded a hundred, including all the individuals in Edinburgh and the neighbourhood who were most distinguished by genius or by literary at

* A printed list of the members having been accidentally preserved by Dr. Car. lyle, I need make no apology for giving it a place here, as a memorial of the state of literary society in Edinburgh, forty years ago. LIST OF THE MEMBERS OF THE SELECT SOCIETY,

17TH OCTOBER, 1759.
Rev. John Jardine, minister in Edinburgh.
Francis Home, M. D.
Adam Smith, professor of ethics at Glasgow.
Alex. Wedderburn (now lord chancellor.)
Allan Ramsay (afterwards painter to his majesty.)
James Burnet, advocate (afterwards lord Monboddo.)
John Campbell, advocate (now lord Stonefield.)
Rev. Alex. Carlyle, minister at Inveresk.
William Johnston, advocate (now sir William Pulteney.)
James Stevenson Rogers, advocate.
David Hume.
John Swinton, advocate (afterwards lord Swinton.)
Patrick Murray, advocate.
Patrick Hume of Billy, advocate.
Alex. Stevenson, M. D.
Walter Stuart, advocate.
John Home' (author of Douglas.)
Robert Alexander, merchant.
James Russell (afterwards professor of natural philosophy.)
George Cockburn, advocate.
David Clerk, M. D.
George Brown (lord Colston.)
Rev. Will. Robertson, minister in Edinburgh.
John Fletcher (now gen. Fletcher Campbell.)
Alex. Agnew, advocate.
John Hope, M. D.
Sir David Dalrymple, advocate (afterwards lord Hailes.)
Gilbert Elliot, one of the lords commissioners of the admiralty.
Sir Harry Erskine, bart.
Rev. Hugh Blair, one of the ministers of Edinburgh.
Andrew Stuart (now M. P. for Weymouth.)
Charles Fysch Palmer.
George Morrison, advocate.
Andrew Pringle (lord Alemoor.)
Alex. Monro, sen. M. D.
David Ross, advocate (now lord Ankerville.)
Right hon. Patrick lord Elibank.
Earl of Glasgow.
Sir Alex. Dick, bart.
Robert Arbuthnot (now secretary to the board of trustees for manufac-

tures, &c.)
Adam Fairholme, merchant in Edinburgh.
Major James Edmonstone.
Charles Hamilton Gordon, advocate.
James Fergusson of Pitfour, jun. advocate.
David Kennedy, advocate (afterwards earl of Cassils.)
John Dalrymple, advocate (now baron of exchequer.)
Major Robert Murray (afterwards sir Robert Murray.)
Rey. Rob. Wallace, minister in Edinburgh.
John Gordon, advocate.
Alex. Maxwell, merchant in Edinburgh.
L. VII.

12

« VorigeDoorgaan »