Images de page
PDF
ePub

pletely comprehended the scope of his reasonings against the existence of matter. The influence of this society in diffusing that spirit of philosophical research, which has since become so fashionable in Scotland, has often been mentioned to me by those who had the best opportunities of observing the rise and progress of Scottish literature.

I have entered into these details, partly as they suggest some circumstances which conspired with Dr. Robertson's natural inclination in fixing his studious habits; and partly as they help to account for the sudden transition which Scotland made about this period, from the temporary obscurity into which it had sunk, to that station which it has since maintained in the republic of letters. A great stock both of genius and of learning existed in the country; but the difficulty of overcoming the peculiarities of a provincial idiom, seemed to shut up every avenue to fame by means of the press, excepting in those departınents of science where the nature of the subject is such as to dispense with the

graces of composition. Dr. Robertson's ambition was not to be checked by these obstacles ; and he appears, from a very early period of life, to have employed, with much perseverance, the most effectual means for surmounting them. Among other expedients, he was accustomed to exercise himself in the practice of translation; and he had even gone so far in the cultivation of this very difficult art, as to have thought seriously of preparing for the press a version of Marcus Antoninus, when he was anticipated, by an anonymous publication at Glasgow, in the execution of his design. In making choice of this author, he was probably not a little influenced by that partiality with which (among the writings of Heathen Moralists) he always regarded the remains of the Stoical Philosophy.

Nor was his ambition limited to the attainment of the honours that reward the industry of the recluse student. Anxious to distinguish himself by the utility of his labours in that profession to which he had resolved to devote his talents, and looking forward, it is probable, 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 Gie, 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

1

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 honourable 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 cousin 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 opportunity 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, seemned 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 long been 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 persever

« PrécédentContinuer »