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Significant Scots
Patrick Forbes


FORBES, PATRICK, an eminent prelate, was by birth laird of Corse and O’Neil, in Aberdeenshire, and descended from Sir Patrick Forbes, (third son of James, second lord Forbes,) armour-bearer to king James II., from whom, in 1482, he got a charter of the barony of O’Neil. From the same branch of the noble family of Forbes are descended the Forbeses, baronets of Craigievar, and the Forbeses, earls of Granard, in Ireland. The subject of this memoir was born in 1564, and received the rudiments of his education under Thomas Buchanan (nephew of the author of the History of Scotland), who was then schoolmaster of Stirling. He next studied philosophy under Andrew Melville at Glasgow, and when that eminent reformer and learned man was removed to be principal of St Andrews, Forbes followed him thither, and was his pupil in Hebrew and theology. Such was the progress he made in these studies, and such his gravity, wisdom, and blamelessness of life, that at an uncommonly early age he was solicited to become a professor in the college. His father, however, suddenly recalled his son, in order that he might settle in life as a country gentleman; and he soon after married Lucretia Spens, daughter of David Spens of Wormiston, in Fife. He lived for some time in rural retirement near Montrose, where his learning and piety attracted a great concourse of visitors, especially of the clergy. At the death of his father, he removed hence to the family seat of Corse, where, to use the quaint phrase of his Latin biographer, Garden, he at once cultivated his books and his fields, regularly performing the duties of a clergyman every Sunday, before his domestics.

At the time when Patrick Forbes entered into public life, the reformed church of Scotland had not settled down into any regular system of ecclesiastical polity, and sometimes things were allowed to be done which would now be considered as at least eccentric, if not indecent. At the same time, the profession of a clergyman, though holding forth little pecuniary advantage, was invested with so much popular power, as to be highly inviting. We hence find, in the instances of Erskine of Dun, Bruce of Kinnaird, and others, that it had temptations even for gentlemen of good estates. It appears that, in the loose system of polity then acted upon, the laird of Corse, merely because he was a devout man, and possessed of some territorial influence, was repeatedly intreated to perform the duties of a clergyman, as if it had been supposed that any little deficiency in point of clerical ordination, that could be urged against him, would be fully compensated by his weight as the laird of Corse. He accordingly did act temporarily as a minister, during the time when the clergymen who had attended the prescribed general assembly at Aberdeen in 1605, were suffering exile from their parishes. Instead of this exciting episcopal interference, we are told that Patrick Blackburn, bishop of Aberdeen, no sooner heard of the excellent ministrations of the laird of Curse, than he, in concurrence with the synod of his diocese, intreated him to take ordination, and become the minister of his own parish. Although this request was made oftener than once, Forbes steadily resisted it, alleging as a reason his sense of the weight of the priestly duties, and of the difficulty of the times. These things, however, being conveyed by some malevolent person to the ear of the primate, (Gladstones, archbishop of St Andrews,) that dignitary sent an order, prohibiting Corse from preaching any more until he should take ordination. Having no alternative, the laird returned to his former practice of family worship, attending the church every Sunday as a private individual, and afterwards exercising upon a portion of the Scriptures before his servants. He went on thus for seven years, and was so far from exciting schism by his well-meant exertions, that no one in the neighbourhood was a more regular or respectful attendant upon parochial ordinances. At length, the neighbouring gentlemen and even the clergy frequented the family worship at Corse, where they heard most able elucidations of the epistles of St Paul, and also those commentaries on the Revelations, of which an abridgment was afterwards published.

At the end of the period alluded to, the minister of Keith, though a pious and worthy man, fell into a fit of melancholy, and, after suffering for some time, made an attempt upon his own life. He had hardly inflicted the fatal wound, when he was overtaken by deep remorse, and, having sent for the laird of Corse, was immediately attended by that devout man, who proceeded to reason with him in so earnest a manner as to open his soul fully to a sense of spiritual influences. The unfortunate man, with his dying breath, renewed the request which had so often been proffered to Forbes, that he would consent to undertake the pastoral charge of the parish; which request, taking place under such impressive circumstances, and enforced at the same time by the eloquence of the neighbouring clergymen and gentry, at length prevailed, and the laird of Corse immediately became minister of Keith. He was at this time forty-eight years of age.

In 1618, Forbes was appointed bishop of Aberdeen, with the sincere approbation of all classes of the people. Attached from principle to the Episcopal form of church government, he concurred in the five articles of Perth, which were that year imposed upon the Scottish church. It does not appear, however, that bishop Forbes used any severe means to carry these articles into practice, for we are informed by Burnet [Life of Bedell] that, by his remarkable prudence, he "greatly allayed, and almost conquered, not only the distempered judgments, but the perverse and turbulent humours of divers in his diocese." In his whole conduct as a bishop, he appears to have been uniformly influenced by an honest and conscientious regard to the obligations of the character which he had assumed, and what he conceived to be the best means of promoting the interests of piety and virtue. He was not only careful to fix worthy clergymen in his diocese, but to make proper provision for their support and that of their successors. He succeeded in recovering many of the revenues which, in the tumults of the reforming period, had been lost or neglected, and he used all proper methods with heritors and titulars of teinds, and others, to make augmentation of stipends; which he had no sooner effected in some cases, than he dissolved the pernicious union of parishes, and established a clergyman in each. Even from his own income, limited as it must have been, he bestowed much upon the poorer clergy. He was very strict in examining those who applied for ordination, and thus secured for future times a superior body of clergy. He was also indefatigable in visiting and inspecting his clergy, a duty which he generally performed in a somewhat singular manner. "It was his custom," says Burnet, "to go without pomp or noise, attended only by one servant, that he might the more easily be informed of what belonged to his cure. When he was told of the weakness or negligence of any of his clergy, he would go and lodge near his church, on Saturday, in the evening, without making himself known, and the next day, when he was in the pulpit, he would go and hear him, that by this he might be able to judge what his common sermons were; and as they appeared to him, he encouraged or admonished him."

Sometime after his promotion to the bishopric, he was appointed chancellor of King’s college, Aberdeen, which institution he raised from a state of utter desolation and neglect, to be one of the most flourishing in the kingdom. He fully repaired the buildings; he increased the library, revived the professorships of divinity, canon law, and physic; and procured the addition of a new professorship in divinity. At length, finding himself drawing near his latter end, he sent for all the clergy of Aberdeen to receive the sacrament along with him, and two days after, March 28th, 1635, breathed his last, with the most pious expressions of hope, and full of religious consolation. At his funeral, which took place in the cathedral church of Aberdeen, Dr Barron preached an appropriate sermon to a numerous auditory, which was afterwards published. [The only works of bishop Forbes, which have been published are his Commentary on the Revelation, printed at London in 1613, (republished in Latin after his death, by his son,) and a treatise entitled Exercitationes de verbo Dei, at Dissertatio de Versionibus Vernaculis.]

This great ornament of the episcopal church in Scotland is characterized in the manner of the time, as a man of singularly clear genius, solid judgment, the highest prudence, piety, and integrity, of much authority in counsel, and invincible fortitude and constancy of mind. Bishop Burnet informs us, that he "scarce ever suffered any man of merit to ask any thing at his hands, but anticipated them; while those whose characters would not bear a severe scrutiny never dared to solicit him. He had a quick eye and sprightly countenance, which proved an additional ornament to his expressions, which were grave and majestic, and of peculiar insinuation and grace. In parliament, he was elected one of the lords of the articles, and his judgment there, and in council, was considered as an oracle."


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