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The Life of James Robertson

THESE were the ante-union days. Negotiations for union were being carried on between the church of Scotland in Canada, popularly known as the Kirk, and the Canada Presbyterian Church. The issue was still doubtful, and for all who were desirous of seeing one great Presbyterian Church in the Dominion, it was a time of great anxiety. As is almost always the case, the danger to the cause of union and the delay in its consummation arose not so much from essential differences in foundation principles, but from local and often personal rivalries and jealousies, the very existence of which was one of the strongest arguments for union. Throughout the whole of Canada the greatest interest was taken by Presbyterians in the discussions, and in many places intense feeling was aroused. This was true of the congregation of Knox Church, in far-away Winnipeg. Here, though the congregation had been formally received by the Presbytery of Manitoba and was, therefore, a congregation of the Canada Presbyterian Church, there was a very influential portion of the congregation adhering to the Kirk who naturally were anxious to secure the greatest advantage possible for their own party. The result was strife which only became more bitter as the congregation grew in strength by accessions from the East, and as the prospects of union became more and more cloudy.

With the congregation in this condition, Mr. Robertson took charge. It was a situation requiring the guiding of a man of strong common sense, of fairness, and of a high sense of duty. And it is no small tribute to Mr. Robert. son that he was not found wanting. He takes his wife into his confidence in regard to affairs in the congregation as follows:

"Things here are not in a good state. The two parties in the church are quite distinct, and they are likely to continue so, as far as I can judge. They have been jealous of each other all along, and the prospect of a failure of union in June is having an influence just now. I am afraid that both parties were for union on the condition that things should be more or less in their own hands. It was perhaps unfortunate that four-fifths of the congregation should be Canada Presbyterians and the remaining part only belonging to the Kirk, but so it is. The most of the Kirk party are men of influence and respectability, while the other party, although having several men of wealth and high social standing, are more or less socially below them. This has had its influence. It became with the Kirk party a question of patronage because of their position, etc., and to this the other would not submit. It looked as if the former were saying, ‘We will give respectability and social standing to the church, we will give considerable cash, too, but you must let us have things our own way, and get our minister in the church.’ The other party could not be expected to do that, and here they took issue. I believe this question has a great deal to do with the present state of things.

"Some time ago elders were chosen, and organization was asked and granted by the Manitoba Presbytery. This gave offense, because by this action the congregation became connected with the Canada Presbyterian Church. The Old Kirk party could not accept office as elders because to do so, since the church is in connection with the Canada Presbyterian Church, they must join that Church. This they could not do. The congregation drew up a constitution and came to presbytery to sanction it. Presbytery did so, and this again was another grievance. Dr. Clark then was sent for by the Kirk party in a quiet way, to come up here and it was supposed that in the general chaos he would be elected pastor, because supposed to be superior to anything here. This, too, failed. Then again Dr. Clark was sent away and I was taken in here to preach. I told them that I was not a candidate present or prospective for the pulpit, and that if they gave a call to Dr. Clark or anybody else, I was prepared to resign my position to-morrow, but that I would and could not in deference to anybody, give Dr. Clark the pulpit now. I came here to supply the pulpit and no other did so, at the request of the congregation, at personal sacrifice—congregational and family sacrifice—and if they would not agree to fulfill their part of the arrangement, I would at once go away—I represent the Church in Canada and could not yield to Old Kirk or any other.

"The whole of the Canada Presbyterian people are of one mind in having me here. The Governor and the other party come to church regularly, and I am on good terms with them. I am only blamed, I suppose, because I happen to be acceptable as a preacher. It is exceedingly unpleasant, but I suppose I must make the best of it."

Sensible man he is, but none the less is the situation vexing to his soul. Through the weeks that follow the unhappy squabble goes on. Meantime, the congregations are growing in numbers and the services in interest, so he wisely resolves to keep out of the trouble and let the parties fight out their foolish petty fight between themselves. And indeed, there is no need for him to interfere, for both parties appear to be under sufficiently able generalship.

"I am happily not in the matter at all," he writes under date April 30th, 1874. "The difficulty is between themselves and Professor B—. He has been working in the interests of our Church, as he ought, but still for the common good. The other party thought he was doing for the Canada Presbyterian Church altogether. Hence, everything was looked on with suspicion." It was a condition fruitful in mutual misunderstanding, the most innocent deeds and words being misinterpreted, as witness, "The late trouble was with Dr. Clark. It appears that Professor B— in speaking to Dr. Clark, said that if this contention and strife were to continue, that if there was no way of peace, it was the opinion of some men in the congregation that it would be better to separate. The Doctor then asked who they were that would be apt to go. Professor B— replied that he did not now know, he only knew those who were Old Kirk in their antecedents. This was only what any person might have said. The construction put on his words is, that the Canada Presbyterian Church party wish the others to leave the church, which is quite another matter. Feeling has run high about this whole matter for a week or two; now all other grievances are not thought of in comparison with this last. I do not think they will go off.

"I am personally and as a preacher not in the case at all. I understand that even Mr. McM— who is the head of the other party, speaks very favourably of my preaching. Governor Morris still attends. He was there last Sabbath and I had quite a chat with him after service was over. He appears to be a quiet nice man. If he was alone there would be no trouble. It is a great pity Dr. Clark is here at all." With which all will devoutly agree.

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