Gilbert Burnet, a British bishop and author, born in Edinburgh, Sept. 18, 1643, died in London, March 17, 1715. He took the degree of M. A. at Aberdeen before the age of 14, studied law for a short time, but at the age of 18 was licensed to preach. His sermons from the first were extempore. He declined a living, as being too young for such a charge. After visiting Oxford, Cambridge, and London, he travelled in the Netherlands and France. On his return in 1665 he was made a fellow of the royal society, and soon after, accepting the living of Saltoun, in East Lothian, was ordained by the bishop of Edinburgh. He remained in Saltoun for several years, and drew up a statement of the abuses practised by the Scottish bishops, avowing the authorship, for doing which Archbishop Sharpe proposed excommunication and deprivation, which, however, did not take place. In 1669 he was elected divinity professor at Glasgow, and in the same year published " A Modest and Free Conference between a Conformist and a Nonconformist." In 1671 he married Lady Margaret Kennedy, daughter of the earl of Cassilis. In 1672 he published "A Vindication of the Authority, Constitution, and Laws of the Church," a treatise much at variance with his previous opinions, being so defensive of the doctrine of passive obedience that it was highly approved at court, and obtained for him the offer of a Scottish archbishopric, which he declined.
While in London in 1673 he was made chaplain to Charles II.; but soon after his name was struck off the list of royal chaplains, because he opposed the arbitrary measures of the duke of Lauderdale. He resigned his Glasgow professorship in 1674 and removed to London, where he was appointed preacher at the Rolls chapel and lecturer at St. Clement's. In 1676 he published " Memoirs of the Dukes of Hamilton," compiled from family archives at Glasgow. In 1679 he published the first volume of his " History of the Reformation," for which he received votes of thanks from both houses of parliament, and a request to complete it. The-second volume appeared in 1681, when he also printed " An Account of the Life and Death of the Earl of Rochester," having attended that profligate nobleman at his own request. Dr. Johnson says, " It is a book the critic ought to read for its elegance, the philosopher for its argument, and the saint for its piety." In 1682 he published his " Life of Sir Matthew Hale" and some minor works, and wrote a private letter to Charles II., remonstrating with him on his public misgovernment and private licentiousness, and reminding him of the fate of his father.
The king is said to have read the letter twice, and then thrown it into the fire, but ordered the bishopric of Chichester to be offered to the writer "if he would entirely come to his interest." The offer was declined. He attended Lord William Russell on the scaffold in 1683; was dismissed from his Rolls preacher-ship and St. Clement's lecturership, by order of the king; and on the death of Charles II., early in 1685, retired to the continent. He travelled through the south of France, Italy, Switzerland, and the north of Germany, to Holland, and subsequently published an account of his journey. Visiting the Hague on the invitation of the prince and princess of Orange in 1686, he so actively took part in the preparations for a change of rulers in England, that James II. ordered him to be prosecuted for high treason and demanded his person from the states general, but without effect, as, by taking as his second wife a Dutch lady of great wealth, named Scott, he had previously acquired the rights of naturalization in Holland. Burnet accompanied William to England in 1688 as his chaplain, and was soon after made bishop of Salisbury. In the house of lords Bishop Burnet declared himself in favor of moderate measures toward nonjuring divines, and for the toleration of Protestant dissenters.
He acted as chairman of the committee to whom the bill of rights was referred. In 1689 he preached the coronation sermon of William and Mary. Soon after his installation in Salisbury, he addressed to the clergy of his diocese a pastoral letter, in which was a paragraph capable of being taken as a declaration that the title of William and Mary to the crown might be grounded on the right Of conquest. Three years afterward, in January, 1693, the house of commons ordered the letter to be burned by the common hangman. In 1694 he preached the funeral sermon of Archbishop Tillotson; in 1695 he published " An Essay on the Character of Queen Mary;" in 1696, "A Vindication of Archbishop Tillotson." In 1698 he became tutor to the young duke of Gloucester, son of the princess Anne, and in the same year (having lost his second wife) married Mrs. Berkeley, a rich widow, the authoress of a " Method of Devotion." In 1699 appeared his celebrated "Exposition of the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England;" in 1710, his "Church Catechism Explained; " and in 1714, the third volume of his " History of the Reformation," the introduction to which had appeared separately in 1712. He died of a pleuritic fever.
He left three sons, one of whom (Thomas, afterward one of the judges of the common pleas) published a biography of his father, prefixed to a " History of his Own Times, from the Restoration of King Charles II. to the Conclusion of the Treaty of Peace in the Reign of Queen Anne." This, the most remarkable of Bishop Burnet's numerous works, was greatly ridiculed by Dean Swift, Arbuthnot, and Pope. "Memoirs of P. P., Clerk of this Parish," by Pope, is now the best known of these squibs. Bishop Burnet's published works embrace 58 sermons, 13 discourses and tracts in divinity, 18 tracts against popery, 26 polemical, political, and miscellaneous tracts, and 25 historical works and tracts. Macaulay, in the second volume of his "History of England," has vindicated the character of Burnet for integrity and ability.