Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Forbes, William (1585-1634)

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480140Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 19 — Forbes, William (1585-1634)1889James Cooper

FORBES, WILLIAM (1585–1634), first bishop of Edinburgh, was the son of Thomas Forbes, a burgess of Aberdeen, descended from the Corsindac branch of that house, by his wife, Janet, the sister of Dr. James Cargill [q. v.] Born at Aberdeen in 1585, he was educated at the Marischal College, graduating A.M. in 1601. Very soon after he held the chair of logic in the same college, but resigned it in 1606 to pursue his studies on the continent. He travelled through Poland, Germany, and Holland, studying at several universities, and acquiring the friendship, among others, of Scaliger, Grotius, and Vossius. Returning after five years to Britain, he visited Oxford, where he was invited to become professor of Hebrew, but he fell sick, and was advised to seek his native northern air. Ordained, probably by Bishop Blackburn of Aberdeen, he became minister successively of two rural Aberdeenshire parishes, Alford and Monymusk; in November 1616 (pursuant to a nomination of the general assembly) he was appointed one of the ministers of Aberdeen; and at the Perth assembly in 1618 was selected to defend the lawfulness of the article there proposed for kneeling at the holy communion. In the same year, in a formal dispute between him and Aidie, then principal of Marischal College, he maintained the lawfulness of prayers for the dead. Such doctrines would not have been tolerated elsewhere in Scotland, but in Aberdeen they were received with favour, and on Aidie's enforced resignation in 1620 the town council of the city, who were patrons of Marischal College, 'thought it meet and expedient' that Forbes 'salbe earnestlie dealt with to accept upon him to be primar [principal] of the said college, with this alwayis condition, that he continew his ministrie in teaching twa sermons every week as he does presentlie.' In the end of 1621 he was chosen one of the ministers of Edinburgh. He went with reluctance, and before he had been there many months he got into trouble with the more unruly of his flock. His zeal for the observance of the Perth articles was distasteful to many, and when he taught that the doctrines of the Romanists and the reformed could in many points be easily reconciled, discontent was succeeded by disorder. Five of the ringleaders were dealt with by the privy council; but Forbes felt that his ministry at Edinburgh was a failure, and more trouble arising from his preaching in support of the superiority of bishops over presbyters, he gladly availed himself of an opportunity to return to Aberdeen, where in 1626 he resumed his former charge, to the great joy of the whole community. In 1633, when Charles I was in Scotland for his coronation, Forbes preached before him at Holyrood, and his sermon so pleased the king that he declared the preacher to be worthy of having a bishopric created for him. Shortly afterwards the see of Edinburgh was erected; Forbes was nominated to it, and was consecrated in February 1634. In the beginning of March he sent an injunction to his clergy to celebrate the eucharist on Easter Sunday, to take it themselves on their knees, and to minister it with their own hands to every one of the communicants. When Easter came he was very ill, but he was able to celebrate in St. Giles; on returning home he took to bed, and died on the following Saturday, 12 April 1634, aged 44. He was buried in his cathedral; his monument was afterwards destroyed, but a copy of the inscription is in Maitland's 'History of Edinburgh.' A fine portrait of him by his friend and townsman, Jamesone, is preserved in the hall of Marischal College, Aberdeen. He was married, and left a family, of whom one of the younger sons, Arthur, is said to have become professor of humanity at St. Jean d'Angel, near La Rochelle. Forbes's anxiety for a reconciliation with Rome and his zeal for episcopacy made him obnoxious to the presbyterian party in the church of Scotland, but his great learning and piety are indisputable. 'He was,' says Bishop Burnet (Pref. Life of Bishop Bedell), 'a grave and eminent divine; my father that … knew him well has often told me that he never saw him but he thought his heart was in heaven, and was never alone with him but he felt within himself a commentary on those words of the apostles, "Did not our hearts burn within us, while he yet talked with us, and opened to us the scriptures?” He preached with a zeal and vehemence that made him forget all the measures of time; two or three hours was no extraordinary thing for him.'

Forbes himself published nothing, but in 1658 a posthumous work, 'Considerationes Modestae et Pacificae Controversiarum de Justificatione, Purgatorio, Invocatione Sanctorum Christo Mediatore, et Eucharistia,' was published from his manuscripts by T. G. (Thomas Sydeserf, bishop of Galloway). Other editions appeared at Helmstadt (1704) and Frankfort-on-the-Main (1707); while a third, with an English translation by Dr. William Forbes, Burntisland (Oxford, 1856), forms part of the 'Anglo-Catholic Library'. Though lacking the author's final touches, and in parts a mere fragment, it is yet a work of great depth and learning; it deals with what may be called the imperial questions of the Christian church, and from its combined seriousness and moderation it has powerfully affected many who have had at heart, like Forbes, reunion of the church on a catholic scale. Besides the 'Considerations,' Forbes wrote 'Animadversions on the works of Bellarmine,' which was used by his friend and colleague at Marischal College, Dr. Baron (1593?-1639) [q. v.], but the manuscripts seem to have perished in the 'troubles' which so soon began. A summary of his sermon before Charles I is given in the folio edition (1702-3) of the works of Dr. John Forbes.

[Vita Auctoris, prefixed to Considerationes Modestae; Records of Town Council and Kirk Session of Aberdeen; Gordon's Scots Affairs (and other publications of the Spalding Club), Calderwood, Burnet, Wodrow MSS. (Glasgow Univ. Libr.); Bayle's Dictionary; Irving's Lives of Scottish Writers; Grub's Eccles. Hist. &c.]

J. C.