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The Life of James Robertson
THE CALL TO KNOX CHURCH, WINNIPEG


THERE could be only one issue to Mr. Robertsonís period of service in Knox Church. During the few weeks of his ministry he had seized the congregational helm with so firm a grip, had directed its course through fogs and storms with such unerring skill, that the hearts of the members of his congregation turned to him as the wily one in sight to whom they could with confidence intrust themselves. About the middle of April the question of a call began to be mooted. At this time he was confidentially approached by one of the most influential of the citizens of Winnipeg, one of his own elders, to discover whether he would under any circumstances consider a call. As we have seen, opportunities for settling in the West had been offered him by the congregations of High Bluff and Palestine, but to all he gave the same answer. In a letter to his wife he discusses the question.

"I told him that I did not come with a view to settle in the country, and that I was on the best of terms with my own people, and hence never thought of a change. He wished me very much to do so, and expressed himself confidently as to the future of the congregation should I consent to be pastor. What do you say to this? If I wish to stay in Manitoba it is evident I can, if not in one place, certainly in another. What does mamma say? Shall I put my foot down and say no? There is much, very much here to do. It would be no easy charge, but I am not sure that work is to be shirked. But what about poor Norwich? They would think it treason should they hear that I was speaking so.

"None of these things are of my seeking. I may say, however, that I do not feel at home hereónever preached satisfactorily here yet. Nor am I getting much better. Am not quite myself, am bilious. I am afraid of Red River water in spring. They say its tendency is to produce biliousness. Feel a good deal the distracted state of the congregation, too, and am annoyed. What am I to say to these people ?"

A month passed. The matter of a call was earnestly discussed pro and con. One great difficulty in the way of his accepting was the attitude of the Old Kirk party. The adherents of that party were seriously hampered in their line of action by the fact that they were still uncertain as to the result of the union negotiations then proceeding. Should the union fall through, the rivalry between the Churches would, doubtless, be keener than ever, in which case loyalty would forbid members of the Old Kirk party amalgamating with those of the Canada Presbyterian Church. It was for them a truly, difficult situation and, indeed, for all. Robertsonís engagement would terminate by the end of June. People were pouring in every week. The interests of the congregation demanded that some man should be in charge continuously during the summer. About the middle of May a congregational meeting unanimously agreed to ask Presbytery for moderation in a call, offering two thousand dollars stipend but, of course, mentioning no name, though it was perfectly understood that only one man was in the mind of the congregation. Leave was granted by the Presbytery and thus for Robertson the situation became acute. In a letter to his wife of May 15th, 1874, he goes over the matter thus:

"The moderation is to take place in June, and Presbytery meets in July according to appointment, for Presbytery granted the prayer of the congregation at its last meeting on Wednesday. If I am called then what is to be done? I am not asked and can say nothing. I had to promise Presbytery to give a day or, if necessary, two in July. The position is very difficult. Professor Bryce is away in Canada and is not going to return till the fall. He is collecting for the college. Dr. Clark is away, but going to return in July. Another man cannot come here till after I am through and they do not want one if I am called."

His difficulties increase as time goes on. By the end of May he and Dr. Black are left almost alone in the whole Western field. No relief can be expected till the middle of July. Presbytery begs him to remain for the first two Sabbaths of that month, and anxious as he is to return to his congregation and his home, there is nothing for it but that he should agree to the Presbyteryís request. He cannot bring himself to think of leaving the Western fields in such desperate straits. Desperate, indeed, must they have been before he would venture to write his wife in the following strain:

"If I agree to stay here if called, I suppose I cannot return to Canada at all. Could you all come out without me? Mr. and Mrs. Bryce are coming out in September. Could you come then with them? My whole mind gets in rebellion when I think of it, and yet I do not know what I am to do. I do not think I am justified in putting my own feelings in opposition to the best interests of the cause here, and evidently the cause here is of great consequence in the beginning of the history of the province. I wish very much I had some good man to consult with. Bryce says he would accept at once if in my place. Of course, the place is better than Norwich, and will be all the time growing. There is more of a chance here, too, to do well. My only fear is that I am not strong enough for it. If the congregation unanimously call, I shall be in a great perplexity. I am trying beforehand to think of what is to be done if the call comes."

That must have been a hard letter to write and a hard letter to receive. But with him always it is the Cause first. Distressed as he is by his own perplexities and troubled for his wife and family, he is even more deeply anxious for the condition of the mission fields, and hardly pressed by the burden of work laid upon him. Under date May 26th, he writes to his wife:

"I must cut short my letters to you for a time. You must be content with a note instead of a letter. In my last I told you I had to take charge of Professor Bryceís classes in Ladiesí School and College when he was away. To- day, in answer to a telegram from Toronto, Professor Hart went away, and I am to take charge of his classes as well. To do the work of these two men as best I can, and to do my own duties as minister of Knox Church, will require all my time. I am sorry the way things are, but cannot help it now. I am extremely sorry that both these men should be away now and that the field should be left desolate as well by the departure of Mr. Matheson for Canada to attend General Assembly. Messrs. McKellar and Carrie are not expected to start from Toronto till the 1st of Juneóand things will be at sixes and sevens till they are here. There should be a man just now at Pembina when the Emerson colony is coming in. There has been no person in Palestine since the 1st of April, and no hope of one till the 1st of July. Rockwood, Victoria, Greenwood and Woodlands, four stations in a group, can only get supply once in a long time. Gris Isle cannot be opened up at all. The Boyne settlement can have no supply till July. Fraser is the only man between Burnside, Portage la Prairie, High Bluff, Portage Creek, Poplar Point, First Crossing and Totogan. No person, but such supply as we can give, for Pine Creek, Little Britain, Mapleton and three stations at Point du Chene and Headingly. I do not know what to do. I came here for rest, but never had so much work to look after in all my life.

"It is not known when Professor Bryce comes back, Matheson not till July 12th and Professor Hart in October. If the work is not better managed then we must lose a great deal here. This is the best time and yet we are without men to work."

The man is at his witsí end. These empty fields weigh heavy on his heart. He has made this work his own and its breakdown fills him with dismay. How those lists impress us! How characteristic of the man and how prophetic of the future! Undoubtedly for this kaleidoscopic Western mission work, for these rapidly growing and rapidly dividing mission fields, a man thus endowed with this marvellous faculty for details is sorely needed. But he carries these fields in his head, chiefly because he holds them in his heart.

Happily, the union negotiations came to a successful issue and at once the good effect was felt in the congregation. The Old Kirk party in Knox Church was thus set free to unite as, indeed, most of them had desired, in a call to their present minister. But for some weeks the tension for him is still great and the anxiety unabated. This, however, does not damp his impetuous missionary ardour. On the 19th of June he writes:

"Time is passing rapidly and I trust I shall be able to get home soon. Last Sabbath I went to Rockwood and Greenwood to preach, Mr. Vincent preaching in the city. Took a man out with me who came in from Ontario. Got out about nine oíclock and got a young man there ready to start in the morning and warn the people in the settlement of the service. Preached at eleven and had about twenty-five persons in all. Drove ten miles then over the prairie and came to Rockwood. Found only twelve grown-up people here. Preached, and made arrangements to preach two weeks from that day or send some one. There are four townships here, one behind the other, and we must try and have service in all of them during the summer. A good many settlers are going in there and they must be looked after. There is quite a settlement west of those places, too, and service must be begun there. Those young men, the missionaries from Canada, are not here yet and we are very much cramped in supply. We donít know what to do. Things are much neglected. There appears to be no system, no regular laid down scheme according to which to work, and hence but little is done. I feel more every day the need of doing well what is to be done here. There was a great mistake committed in allowing so many of the ministers to go away to Ontario, and another in not having Messrs. McKellar and Currie here two months ago. This is the time for us to work our mission field.

"Immigrants coming in rapidly and in great numbers, land being settled fast. Many are going outside province and soon the tide will go all to the West."

This is an impressive letter. How these imperative and oft reiterated "musts" smite on our hearts! Those four townships, who told him about them? "We must try and have service in all of them during the summer." "Incoming settlers must be looked after." In the settlements to the west "Service must be begun there." How the word hammers us! How the fire of his hot impatience burns against the neglect of these opportunities! Where other men might regret and deplore and do nothing, Robertson burns with indignant resolve that these things shall not continue. That is a noble sentence of his, "I feel more every day the need of doing well what is to be done here." It is the manís conscience, his prescience of the future, his love of his country and his zeal for his cause that, working together, produce this feeling of anxiety and this determination that things must be thoroughly done.

Five days after that visit to Rockwood, on the 24th of June, Dr. Black moderated in a call in Knox Church. There was but one name before the people, and without a dissenting voice a call was made out in favour of the Rev. James Robertson of Norwich, Ontario. The Presbytery of Manitoba sustained the call, appointed Dr. Bryce and Rev. William Cochrane commissioners to prosecute it before the Presbytery of Paris. And so it came that with this in his hand, Robertson came back to his congregation and to his wife to settle the momentous question of his future; momentous not for himself and family alone, but, though he knew it not, for his Church and for Western Canada. The call, signed by forty-three members and forty-eight adherents and duly attested by the Moderator of the Presbytery of Manitoba, was presented on the 11th day of August, 1874, to the Presbytery of Paris. When the parties were called to the bar, there appeared for the congregation of Knox Church, Winnipeg, and the Presbytery of Manitoba, the Rev. William Cochrane, for the congregations of Norwich and Windham, Messrs. Barr, Donald, Dean and others, and the Rev. James Robertson for himself.

The last month had been for him and for his wife one of anxious, earnest, prayerful deliberation. But even up to the day of Presbytery meeting, he was still uncertain as to his duty. After the commissioners had supported their respective causes, he was called upon for his answer, whereupon stating his great difficulties in coming to a right decision, he cast himself upon the judgment of the Presbytery to translate or not as they saw fit. The parties having been removed, the Presbytery proceeded to give judgment, whereupon it was moved by Mr. McTavish, seconded by Mr. McMullen and unanimously agreed, "That the translation sought for be granted and the pastoral tie between Mr. Robertson and the congregations of Norwich and Windham be dissolved with a view to his induction to the charge of Knox Church, Winnipeg, such dissolution of pastoral tie to take place on and after the first Sabbath of September, and that Mr. Robertson be, as he is hereby, instructed to hold himself in readiness to obey the orders of the Manitoba Presbytery after that date."

And, indeed, nothing else could have been done, for when Robertson had told his Presbytery of Paris the story of his six months and a half experience in the far West, he had practically predetermined the action of Presbytery in regard to the call from Winnipeg. The Presbytery, listening to his recital, had become possessed of the conviction that the Church was summoned to vast and important work in that new and wonderful land, and of another conviction as well, that for the strategic position of minister of Knox Church, Robertson was the man. And though Robertson himself might fear that he "was not strong enough," none of his co-presbyters shared his fear, but rather felt sure that there was no man among them so fit for this position of leadership, and hence their minute. And so with a sharp wrench, the pain of which remained for many days and even for years, Robertson was translated from the little country congregations of Norwich and Windham in peaceful Ontario, to Knox Church, the leading congregation of Winnipeg, the bustling, hustling metropolitan city of the West.


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