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The Life of James Robertson

THE reports of the strange wild land west of the Lakes, and of the settlements forming, kept coming back to Eastern Canada through many channels. By private letters, by traders, travellers and explorers, and by John Black’s regularly recurring petitions for assistance, the Christian people of Eastern Canada began to be aware of that distant point of British North America, and to have a conscience towards it. At length, in response to his appeals for helpers, Rev. James Nisbet was sent out in 1862, and for four years this missionary assisted the heroic Black, ministering to the settlements at Kildonan, Little Britain, Fairfield, Headingly, Park’s Creek, and Fort Garry.

But in addition to the burden of responsibility which he carried day by day for his people scattered thus widely through these growing communities, Black’s heart went out towards the native races whose proximity made constant appeal to his conscience and to whom many of his people were bound by ties of blood. It is this yearning after the Indian peoples of the land that inspired his famous letter sent in 1864 to the Synod of the Canada Presbyterian Church.

"I am not satisfied," he writes in noble complaint, "with our Church’s position in regard to missions. We are doing nothing directly to spread the Gospel among those that are without. We are leaving the high places of the field to other communions; and, what is worse, there are places of the field left uncultivated and uncared for altogether because we and others are not doing our share of the work. I do not lightly esteem the work our Church is actually doing. I recognize with thankfulness the energy and zeal She is displaying. I do not forget her great work in Canada, or her missions to her own people in British Columbia and Rupert’s Land. It is of vast importance to keep what we actually have, and to establish ourselves with the very earliest in the new colonies. I would not have this work cut short, but rather prosecuted more vigorously. Still, there is another branch of the Church's work in which we clearly fail. We have no heathen mission. If ‘missions are the chief end of the Christian Church,’ then so far, at least, we fail in our chief end. We are incomplete, we lack one essential part of the Church’s equipment, we do not fully implement our great commission, ‘Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature.’ I am not satisfied with this state of things. I feel it a check on my prayers for missions that we are not labouring for missions. I have little heart in trying to stir up a missionary feeling amongst the people when I cannot point out an appropriate channel by which that spirit may vent itself, nor can I plead freely for a liberal collection for the Foreign Mission Committee when in the usual acceptance of the term, we have no foreign missions at all.

"I cannot but think that many of you must feel on this subject much as I do. The missionary element seems to enter into the very conception of a church, but in looking at our own, we see that that element is wanting, and we feel there is something deficient. We try to persuade ourselves that our work is rather among our own people than among the heathen, and for a time, when the pressure of a special need is upon us, we make ourselves think so, but when the pressure is removed and our thoughts and Christian instincts return to their natural course, our former dissatisfaction returns, we feel that there is something wanting, something incomplete, a duty undone or not attempted to be done. Nor does it seem to mend matters much that we contribute to the missions of the other Churches. There seems to be a conscience for our own Church that nothing will satisfy but direct, earnest effort on our own part, a mission or missions of our own. It is surely time that the present state of things was changed and our Church put in her right position; that she should be put ahead of other Churches and, what is far more, abreast of her duty in doing the work of God among the heathen. I think, instead of finding such a work a burden, we should feel it a relief, that we should feel a liberty and enlargement in our minds which we do not experience. I know that many of you have been giving this matter prayerful and earnest thought, and that various plans and schemes have been proposed; but now it is surely time to take practical action. Let this be the distinction of the Synod of 1864. Let it begin the work of heathen missions, and first of all, let it acknowledge the claims of the heathen of our own country, of British North America. I for one would not have you think in the meantime of any other field. Other fields may be, indeed, more promising, but that is not the question. Providence clearly points out this field as ours, and that is all we have to look at. Nor is it so discouraging as is sometimes supposed. I know of nothing more cheering anywhere than the state of the Episcopal missions in the far North under the charge of my dear friends Mr. Kirby and Mr. McDonald. And there are points yet unoccupied where we might hope to labour, if not with equal, at least with an encouraging measure of success. Details about one of them are already in the hands of your committee.

"And do not be afraid of expense. There can be little doubt that such an effort made by their own Church, and giving them a mission of their own, would call forth, by God’s blessing, a spirit of liberality among our people which would disappoint all our fears and make us glad and thankful."

Two years later, the desire of Dr. Black’s heart was satisfied in the appointment of Nisbet as missionary to the Cree Indians of the plains. Nisbet established his mission at a point of the North Saskatchewan five hundred miles northwest of Fort Garry, where he founded the town of Prince Albert, which thus became the headquarters of the first Presbyterian mission to the Indians of the northwest, as also the nucleus of a rapidly growing white settlement.

After eight years of unwearied service, Nisbet and his devoted wife, a native of Kildonan, returned to the old home, spent and broken in health, both to die. They sleep in the sacred ground of the old Kildonan churchyard, but their work abides.

Meanwhile the staff of workers continued gradually to increase, till between the years 1866 and 1870 there were five ordained ministers in the field: Black, Nisbet, Matheson, Fletcher, and McNab. But far beyond the powers of these men the settlements were extending. The streams of immigration kept steadily trickling into the Red River valley, till the rising tide flowed far out upon the plains east, west and north, so that in addition to the claims of the settlements already supplied with Gospel ordinances, daily appeals came from groups of settlers strewn over the prairie at such points as High Bluff, Rockwood, Portage la Prairie, and Palestine.

The year 1870 was, undoubtedly, the annus mirabilis in the history of Western Canada. It was the year of the First Rebellion, the year when the change of government from that of the Hudson’s Bay Company to that of the Dominion Government went into practical effect; it was the year, too, that saw the birth of the Province of Manitoba; it was the year when Canadians discovered their great West. By Presbyterians it is remembered as the year in which Manitoba came near enough to the Eastern Church to be considered a home mission rather than a foreign mission field, and the year also in which the Presbytery of Manitoba was erected.

The organization of that Presbytery, which took place on the 16th of June, 1870, was conducted with appropriate solemnities, full care being taken to have everything "done decently and in order." The official sermon was preached by the Moderator appointed by the Synod of the Canada Presbyterian Church, Rev. John Black, from the text: "Therefore seeing we have this ministry, as we have received mercy, we faint not." It was a brave text, uttered first by a brave man, and now after many centuries chosen by a brave man to set his fellows and himself at their work with sufficient faith and courage. And they had need of both courage and faith, for the responsibilities and the opportunities of that day. The sermon done, the assembled congregation of Kildonan folk remained to meet with the "fathers and brethren." There they sat, three ministers, Black, Fletcher, and McNab, the fourth, James Nisbet, being five hundred miles away at his lonely post among the Crees, and their elders, Angus Polson, John Sutherland, and Donald Gunn. There they sat to deliberate concerning the affairs of the kingdom in that land so remote and limitless and so rapidly swallowing up the incoming people for whom they must care. Their moderator had bidden them "faint not." Faint? Not they. Men wearing such names faint not easily. With assured confidence they grappled with their business and when they rose for the benediction that sent them off to their various fields, several great things had got done. They had named and set forward as pace a congregation in the capital city of the province, Knox Church, Winnipeg. They had organized a Home Mission campaign and they had planned a college. In very deed there was no "fainting" in John Black and those who sat with him in presbytery. Under their hand the work rapidly progressed.

The General Assembly of the Canada Presbyterian Church, of course, granted the prayer of this Presbytery’s overture and duly established Manitoba College as an institution for higher learning. The site chosen for the college was Kildonan, suitable buildings having been provided by the congregation. A college meant professors. Accordingly, next year, 1871, Rev. George Bryce, M. A., came West to be the first professor in Manitoba College, to preach for the congregation of Knox Church in Winnipeg and incidentally to enter upon that career of missionary activity which he has pursued ever since with such remarkable energy and zeal. A few months later, in the following year, the Church of Scotland Synod, cooperating with the Canada Presbyterian Church in both the missionary and educational movement, sent out the Rev. Thomas Hart, M. A., as professor of Manitoba College, who, coming to the West and finding the mission work far beyond the powers of those in the field, took up in addition to his college duties his full share of missionary labour, in which varied service for thirty-five years he has toiled on with unwearied zeal and unassuming devotion.

But toil as they might, the whole force of ministers, missionaries and professors could not keep pace with the country. Along the black trails by which the freighters made their way West and North, the pioneer prairie "schooners" steadily streamed, for no matter if land in abundance and of the best lay unclaimed at the door of the settlements already formed, the far cry of the alluring West haunted the newcomers and they could not rest till they had passed beyond the limits of civilization, leaving their Church to follow if she cared or could. Day after day and week after week this stream passed on unheeded of all except those who had been bidden to watch.

It was no easy task to secure missionaries for Western Canada. The country was remote, the field was hard, distances were great, privations many, isolation trying. Occasionally a man broke down and retired to the East. Nisbet dropped at his post and ever as the Presbytery met, rumours were exchanged of settlements still beyond, unreached by the message of the Gospel. No wonder if that cry of the West, new then, now grown so old, for men and more men began to assail Eastern ears with unvarying insistence. From sheer monotony of its repetition the Church began to grow indifferent to the cry. Besides, every man was busy with his own, and the West was very far away. But in one case and that a most notable, the call found response. The young, vigorous, and ambitious congregation of Knox Church, Winnipeg, proud of its newly organized Session and its, for the second time, enlarged church, seeking a minister, approached no less a person than the Convener of the Home Mission Committee himself, Rev. William Cochrane, with a view to call. They were not encouraged to proceed. But in the Convener’s Presbytery of Paris there was a young minister who, ever on the alert for the neglected and outcast, was continually stirring up his Presbytery to Home Mission effort, James Robertson, of Norwich. To him the appeal was sent to go West to preach in Knox Church for six months, to spy out the land, find out the true condition of things and report. The West had often appealed to him as a field for missionary effort. He was in need of a rest and change, and so he resolved to see this new and wonderful land, to give such help as he could for the space of time indicated and to return. It was the dead of winter and no time to go exploring that land of frosts and blizzards. Besides, it was the holiday season. But for Robertson frosts and blizzards had little terror, and times and seasons mattered not when the call of duty sounded. There was work to be done. He had undertaken to do it and the sooner he was at it the better. So he left his home, his wife and family of babies a day or two before the New Year and set his face westward.

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