Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Barclay, Robert (1648-1690)

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BARCLAY, ROBERT (1648–1690), quaker apologist, was born at Gordonstown, Morayshire, 23 Dec. 1648. His father, David Barclay, the representative of an ancient family formerly called Berkeley, was born in 1610, and served under Gustavus Adolphus. On the outbreak of the civil war he accepted a commission in the Scotch army. He was a friend of John, afterwards Earl Middleton, who had also served in the thirty years' war. Barclay commanded part of the force with which Middleton repelled Montrose before Inverness in May 1646. On 26 Jan. 1648 he married Catherine, daughter of Sir R. Gordon, and bought the estate of Ury, near Aberdeen. During Hamilton's invasion of England in the same year he was left in a command at home; but retired, or was dismissed, from active service when Cromwell entered Scotland after Preston. We are told that Barclay and Middleton were ‘always on that side which at least pretended to be in the king's interest.’ Barclay's estate was forfeited, and, in order, it is said, to regain possession, he obtained a seat in the Scotch parliament after the death of Charles, and was also one of the thirty members for Scotland returned to Cromwell's parliament of 1654 and 1656 (Acts of Scotch Parliaments, iii. part ii.) He was also a commissioner for the forfeited estates of the loyalists. He was arrested after the Restoration, apparently in 1665 (see a warrant for his committal to Edinburgh Castle, 23 Aug. 1665, in Additional MS. 23123); but was released by the interest, it is said, of his friend Middleton.

He had lost his wife in 1663, and at her dying request recalled his son Robert, who had been sent for education to his uncle, then rector of the Scotch college at Paris. The father was afraid of catholic influences, and the son tells us (treatise on Universal Love) that he had in fact been ‘defiled by the pollutions’ of popery. He obeyed his father's orders, and returned at the cost of losing the promised inheritance of his uncle, and for a time remained in an unsettled state of mind. His father was converted to quakerism, through the influence, it is said, of a fellow-prisoner in Edinburgh, James Swinton, and declared his adhesion to the sect in 1666. Robert Barclay followed his father's example in 1667. He studied hard at this time; he learned Greek and Hebrew, being already a French and Latin scholar, and read the early fathers, and ecclesiastical history. In February 1670 he married one of his own persuasion, Christian, daughter of Gilbert Mollison, an Aberdeen merchant, by his wife, Margaret, an early convert to quakerism. He soon afterwards turned to account a degree of learning and logical skill very unusual amongst the early quakers in controversy with one William Mitchell, a neighbouring preacher. ‘Truth cleared of Calumnies’ appeared in 1670, and ‘William Mitchel unmasqued’ in 1672. In 1673 he published a ‘Catechism and Confession of Faith;’ and in 1676 two controversial treatises. The first of these, called the ‘Anarchy of the Ranters,’ was intended to vindicate the quakers from the charge of sympathy with anarchy, whilst repudiating the claim to authority of the catholic and other churches. The second was the famous ‘Apology.’ Barclay had already put forth ‘Theses Theologiæ,’ a series of fifteen propositions referring to quaker tenets. They were printed in English, Latin, French, Dutch, and divines were invited to discuss them. A public discussion took place upon them (14 March 1675) in Aberdeen with some divinity students. It ended in confusion, and conflicting reports were published by the opposite parties. The ‘Apology’ itself, which is a defence of the ‘Theses,’ was published in Latin at Amsterdam in 1676. A copy of it was sent in February 1678 to each of the ministers at the congress of Nimeguen; and an English version was printed in the same year. It provoked many replies, and has been frequently republished.

Meanwhile Barclay was suffering persecution at home. In 1672 he had felt it incumbent upon him to walk in sackcloth through the streets of Aberdeen, though at the cost of grievous agony of spirit (Seasonable Warning to the People of Aberdeen). He was imprisoned at Montrose in the same year. In 1676 he travelled in Holland and Germany, and there made the acquaintance of Elizabeth, Princess Palatine, who had taken an interest in quaker principles. She was, it seems, distantly related to him through his mother. He heard during his journey of the imprisonment of his father and some thirty other quakers in the Tolbooth at Aberdeen. He returned with a letter from the princess to her brother, Prince Rupert, asking him to use his influence for the prisoners. Prince Rupert, however, was unable to speak to the king on account of a ‘sore legg.’ Barclay obtained an interview with the Duke of York, afterwards James II, and the king gave him what he calls ‘a kind of a recommendation,’ referring the matter to the Scotch council. The council declined to release the prisoners unless they would pay the fines and promise not to worship except in the common form. Barclay returned to Ury, and was himself imprisoned in November 1676 (see letters in Reliquiæ Barclaianæ). His father had apparently been released on parole (Besse's Sufferings of the Quakers). Robert was released in April 1677, after a confinement of five months, during which he composed a treatise on ‘Universal Love,’ and wrote a letter of remonstrance to Archbishop Sharp.

After his release Barclay joined Penn and George Fox in a visit to Germany, and they had an interview with the Princess Palatine, which has been described by Penn. In 1679 Barclay was again arrested, but released after three hours' detention. By this time he, like Penn, was enjoying favour at court. He frequently saw the Duke of York during his government of Scotland, and was a friend and cousin of James's adherent, Perth. In 1679 he obtained a charter from the crown, in consideration of the services of himself and his father, constituting the lands of Ury a ‘free barony, with criminal and civil jurisdiction;’ and his charter was confirmed by an act of the Scotch parliament in 1685. He probably hoped to use the privilege on behalf of his sect. Another appointment was more useful for the same purpose. In 1682 a body of twelve quakers, under the auspices of his friend Penn, acquired the proprietorship of East New Jersey. In 1683 the Duke of York gave a patent of the province to the proprietors, who had added to their body twelve associates, including Perth and Barclay. Barclay was appointed nominal governor, with right to appoint a deputy at a salary of 400l. a year, and with a share of 5,000 acres of land. One of his brothers, John, settled in the province, and another, David, died on his passage thither. The constitution of the province was intended to be a practical application of the quaker theory of toleration, and to provide an asylum to the persecuted.

Barclay continued to reside at Ury, where his father died, 12 Oct. 1686. He continued to have much influence with James. In a ‘Vindication,’ written in 1689 (Reliquiæ Barclaianæ), he defends himself against the suspicion, explicable by his intimacy with James and Perth, of being a Jesuit and a catholic. His wife and seven children were a sufficient proof that the first suspicion was groundless, and he denies that he had any leaning to catholicism, though he confessed to loving many catholics. He says that he never saw James till 1676; but he believed in the sincerity of James's zeal for liberty of conscience, and, he adds, ‘I love King James, and wish him well.’ Barclay admits that he used his influence with James on behalf of his friends, but denies that he had ever spoken of public affairs. He had received no pecuniary favour, except a sum of 300l. in payment of a debt incurred by his father on behalf of Charles I. He disowns, he says, all political bias; but he held that every established government would be found to favour the doctrine of passive obedience maintained by the quakers. It is said that Barclay visited James at the time when William was expected. Barclay asked whether no terms of accommodation could be arranged; and James replied that he could consent to anything not unbecoming a gentlemen, except the abandonment of liberty of conscience. (This is stated on the authority of his widow in the Genealogical Account, p. 86.) Barclay visited the seven bishops in the Tower, to justify a statement of which they had complained, that they had been the cause of the death of quakers, but assured them that the statement should not be used to raise prejudice against them.

In his later years Barclay seems to have published nothing except (in 1686) an English version of a letter to a Herr Paets in defence of the quaker theory of personal inspiration, originally written in Latin in 1676. It has been praised as a pithy exposition of his principles.

He died at Ury 3 Oct. 1690. He left three sons and four daughters, who were all alive fifty years after his death. His wife died 14 Dec. 1722, in the seventy-sixth year of her age.

Barclay's great book, ‘The Apology,’ is remarkable as the standard exposition of the principles of his sect, and is not only the first defence of those principles by a man of trained intelligence, but in many respects one of the most impressive theological writings of the century. In form it is a careful defence of each of the fifteen theses previously published. It is impressive in style; grave, logical, and often marked by the eloquence of lofty moral convictions. It opens with a singularly dignified letter to the king, dated 25 Nov. 1675. The essential principle (expressed in the second proposition) is that all true knowledge comes from the divine revelation to the heart of the individual. He infers that the authority of the scriptures gives only a ‘secondary rule,’ subordinate to that of the inward light by which the soul perceives the truth as the eyes perceive that the sun shines at noonday. The light is given to every man, though obscured by human corruption, and therefore the doctrine of reprobation is ‘horrible and blasphemous.’ All men, christian or heathen, may be saved by it. The true doctrines of justification, perfection, and perserverance are then explained and distinguished from the erroneous doctrines of catholics and protestants which, according to him, imply rather a change in the outward relation than the transformation of the soul which accepts the divine light. He then proceeds to deduce the special doctrines of the quakers in regard to the ministry, worship, and the sacraments from the same principle, rejecting what seems to him to be outward and mechanical; and (in the fourteenth proposition, on the power of the civil magistrate) argues against all exercise of conscience by secular authority. The last proposition defends the quaker repugnance to outward ceremonies and worldly recreations. Barclay's affinity to the so-called Cambridge Platonists and to the mystical writers is obvious. He quotes Smith's select discourses with approval; and speaks with reverence of ‘Bernard and Bonaventure, Taulerus, Thomas à Kempis,’ and others who have ‘known and tasted the love of God.’ His recognition of a divine light working in men of all creeds harmonises with the doctrine of toleration, which he advocates with great force and without the restrictions common in his time. For this reason he was accused of leaning towards deism, and is noticed with respect by Voltaire. In fact, if we dropped the distinction which with him is cardinal between the divine light and the natural reason, many of his arguments would fall in with those of the freethinkers, who agreed with him in pronouncing external evidences to be insufficient, though with a very different intention. Barclay's principal writings are as follows: 1. ‘Truth cleared of Calumnies,’ 1670. 2. ‘William Mitchel unmasqued,’ 1672. 3. ‘Seasonable Warning to the Inhabitants of Aberdeen,’ 1672. 4. ‘Catechism and Confession of Faith,’ [1673]. 5. ‘Theses Theologiæ,’ 1675. 6. ‘The Anarchy of Ranters,’ 1676. 7. ‘Apology for the true Christian Divinity, as the same is set forth and preached by the people called in scorn Quakers,’ 1678: a version of the ‘Theologiæ veræ Christianæ Apologia,’ published at Amsterdam, 1676. 8. ‘Universal Love, considered and established upon its right foundation,’ 1677. 9. ‘The Apology vindicated,’ 1679. 10. ‘The Possibility and Necessity of an Inward and Immediate Revelation,’ 1686: an English version of a Latin letter to Paets, written in 1676.

The ‘Catechism’ and ‘Apology’ have been frequently reprinted; and the ‘Apology’ has been translated into Dutch, German, French, Spanish, Danish, and (part of it) into Arabic.

Barclay's works were collected in 1692 into a folio volume, called ‘Truth Triumphant,’ with a preface attributed to Penn. They were republished in three volumes in 1717–18, and have also been published in America. Full details and references to some manuscripts still unpublished are given in Smith's Catalogue.

[A Short Account of the Life and Writings of R. Barclay, 1802; Genealogical Account of the Barclays of Urie, 1740; the same edited by H. Mill, 1812; Life by Wilson Armistead (adding little to the above), 1850; Reliquiæ Barclaianæ, a (lithographed) collection of letters, privately printed 1870 (a copy in the British Museum); Life by Kippis, in the Biographia Britannica; Diary of Alexander Jaffray, by John Barclay, (1833); Besse's Collection of the Sufferings of Quakers, vol. ii.; Smith's Catalogue of Friends' Books; Sewel's and Croese's Histories of the Quakers.]

L. S.