Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Forbes, John (1593-1648)

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FORBES, JOHN (1593–1648), of Corse, professor of divinity, second son of Patrick Forbes of Corse, bishop of Aberdeen [q. v.], and Lucretia, daughter of David Spens of Wormiston, Fifeshire, was born on 2 May 1593, and entered King's College, Aberdeen, in 1607. In 1612 he visited his exiled uncle at Middelburg, and then passed to the university of Heidelberg. There he studied theology under the care of David Pareus, and made good use of the famous library, rich in Eastern manuscripts, for which the university was celebrated. He remained there till 1615, when he removed to Sedan, and continued his studies under his kinsman and hereditary friend Andrew Melville. He afterwards spent some time at other foreign universities, and was ordained at Middelburg in April 1619, by his uncle, John Forbes (1568?-1634), [q. v.], and other presbyters. He married about this time a Middelburg lady, Soete Roosboom, and returned the same year to Aberdeen, of which his father was then bishop. In 1620 he was appointed by the synod professor of divinity in King's College, a post for which he was pre-eminently qualified by his talents and character, his classical and Hebrew scholarship, and his profound acquaintance with the history and literature of the Christian church. His course of lectures comprehended the history of doctrine, moral theology as based on the Decalogue, and the duties of the pastoral office. His first publication, 'Irenicum Amatoribus Veritatis et Pacis in Ecclesia Scoticana,' Aberdeen, 1629, was highly commended by Archbishop Ussher. In this work he defends with great learning and moderation the lawfulness of episcopacy, and of the innovations in worship allowed by the synod of Perth in 1618. On his father's death in 1635 he succeeded to the estate of Corse, his elder brother having predeceased him. He contributed a Latin sermon, a 'Dissertatio de Visione Beatifica,' and Latin verses to the bishop's 'Funerals,' and probably supervised the whole collection. In February 1637 he took some part in furthering Durie's plans for uniting the reformed and Lutheran churches. Charles I's measures for remodelling the church of Scotland provoked religious strife and the signing of the national covenant by multitudes. Forbes, though he deplored the action of the king, considered the covenant an unlawful bond, and in April 1638 he published a tract against it entitled 'A Peaceable Warning to the Subjects in Scotland.' In July following the Earl of Montrose, Henderson, and other covenanting leaders, lay and clerical, visited Aberdeen to make converts to their cause. Forbes and five other doctors of divinity put into their hands a paper containing queries concerning the covenant, and a famous discussion followed, which was conducted in writing. The doctors argued against the covenant as unlawful in itself, and as abjuring episcopacy and Perth articles, to which they had sworn obedience at their ordination. In 1639 subscription was made compulsory. Great efforts were made to induce Forbes to sign. The covenanters acknowledged his orthodoxy and high Christian character, and delayed proceedings in his case in the hope of his submission. After much perplexity he gave his final answer, that he could not profess what his conscience condemned, and he was thereupon deprived of his chair, and forced to leave the official residence, which he had himself given to the university. The synod of Aberdeen petitioned the general assembly to allow him to continue his professorial duties without taking the covenant, but this was refused. He made no separation from the church, now presbyterian, but attended its services and received the communion as formerly. At the time of his ordination he probably preferred presbytery, but his mature views on the subject were 'that episcopacy is legitimate and agreeable to the word of God, that in churches governed by the common council of presbyters there is a defect, but that it is not essential, and does not destroy the nature of the church, nor abrogate the right of ordination and jurisdiction,' In 1643 the solemn league and covenant was sanctioned by the assembly and parliament, and all adults were ordered to swear it on pain of confiscation, and of being declared enemies to God, king, and country. For Forbes, who thought the solemn league vastly more objectionable than the national covenant, obedience was out of the question, and to escape prosecution he sailed for Campvere 5 April 1644, with his son George, the sole survivor of nine children borne him by Soete Roosboom, who had died in 1640. He visited the chief towns in the Netherlands, but made his headquarters at Amsterdam, where he prepared for the press his great work, 'Instructiones Historico-Theologicae de Doctrina Christiana, et vario rerum statu, ortisque erroribus et controversiis, jam inde a temporibus Apostolicis ad tempora usque seculi decimi-septimi priora,' Amsterdam, 1645. This work received the imprimatur of foreign divines and theological faculties, and gained him the reputation of being one of the greatest theologians of the reformed church. Burnet says of him that he was 'perhaps inferior to no man of his age,' and of this work that 'if he had been suffered to enjoy the privacies of his retirement and study to give us the second volume, it had been the greatest treasure of theological learning that perhaps the world has yet seen' (Pref. to Life of Bedell). In Holland Forbes preached frequently in the Scots and English churches, and often joined in the Dutch and French services, receiving the holy communion whenever he had opportunity. He returned to Aberdeen in July 1646, and spent the remainder of his life in seclusion at Corse. He died 29 April 1648, and was buried in the churchyard of Leochel. He had lived an eminently devout and Christian life, and was emphatically 'a lover of truth and peace.' His 'Diary,' or 'Spiritual Exercises,' kept from 3 Feb. 1624 till the end of 1647, reveals throughout the character of a saint. He was small in stature, of a dark complexion, studied standing, and when at Aberdeen sought recreation in the game of golf. His son George married a daughter of Kennedy of Kermuck. A second edition of the 'Instructiones' was published at Geneva in 1680, and in 1702-3 his whole Latin works were printed at Amsterdam in two folio volumes. This edition contains a Latin translation of the diary, posthumous treatises on moral theology and the 'Pastoral Care,' and his previously printed works, with additions and corrections from his manu- scripts. The original English copy of the 'Diary' is preserved at Fintray House by his representatives and has never been published.

[Life by Dr. Garden, prefixed to his Works; Irving's Lives of Scottish Writers; Bishop Forbes's Funerals (Spottiswoode Society, Edin- burgh), 1845.]

G. W. S.