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John Forbes of Corse, Theologian (b. 1564, d. 1635)

By Nancy Forbes

As you can see from the simplified diagram of the Forbes Clan, all those who bear the Forbes name can claim their origins from Sir John de Forbes (said “of the Black Lip), 1332-1405. From this origin, the clan was then split into four branches, Lord Forbes, Pitsligo, Tolquhon, and Brux, with the Forbes branch further splitting into the branches Forbes, Corsindae, and Corse/Craigievar.


Those of us who have traced their origins back to the Corse/Craigievar branch, have discovered that in the 17th century the Corse branch produced some renowned theologians, several of whom who gained considerable acclaim and are still studied by scholars and historians today. One of the most prominent was Patrick Forbes of Corse (1564-1635), who studied theology at the University of Glasgow and St. Andrews University under the well-known Scottish theologian Andrew Melville.


Patrick was very devout but didn’t actually enter the ministry until age 48. He subsequently became Bishop of Aberdeen and is buried in the Aberdeen cathedral. He was regarded well by his contemporaries, which in the age of the Reformation’s religious turmoil, plots and political intrigues, was not always easy to achieve. His son, John Forbes of Corse (1593-1648), achieved just as much if not more acclaim as a theologian and minister.

Of course, this history must be placed in context, as at that time, Scotland was in the midst of the Reformation. This major religious conversion was the process by which Scotland broke with the Catholic Church and the papacy, and developed a predominantly Calvinist national Kirk, which replaced the institutions of the Catholic Church, such as monasteries, priories, and chapels. This national Kirk (church), was strongly Presbyterian in outlook, and was part of the wider European Protestant Reformation with Martin Luther that took place from the sixteenth century. (The new film” Mary Queen of Scots”, about the Catholic Stuart Queen, takes up much of this history when Mary returns to Scotland in 1560 to claim the throne and return Scotland to the Catholic faith.)


In 1638, a more extreme and intolerant group of Protestants formed called something called the New Covenant. The Covenanters eventually became the de facto government of the country and instigated a period of intolerance, persecution, and injustice to those who did not swear an oath to their faith. In fact, in their desire for political power, they aspired to become the government for Scotland, Ireland and England. They were finally defeated by the English Parliament and Oliver Cromwell in 1658.

Doctor of Divinity, John Forbes was a man of honor and deep conscience (known as one of the so-called Aberdeen doctors) and when he was pressured to join the Covenantors, he refused, publishing an important tract questioning the legitimacy of the Covenant. The Covenantors had him removed from his post as Professor of Divinity at King’s College and banished him to his estate at Corse, which he had inherited from his father, Patrick. Matters escalated and later, in 1648, the governing Covenantors made all Scottish adults swear to follow them, on pain of confiscation, and of being declared enemies to God, king, and country. Forbes, who thought obedience to them was out of the question given his firm beliefs, was forced to escape prosecution by sailing to the Netherlands in April 1644, with his surviving son George. From there, he continued to preach and write prolifically on theological matters. Many of his tracts and books are still published today and read by adherents to the Puritan faith. One must appreciate and value the bravery and conviction it took for Forbes to refuse to abandon his faith and follow his conscience, under threat of persecution and even death for treason.  Many of his writings can be found today online on the Post-Reformation Digital Library.

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