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The Life of James Robertson

WHILE Presbytery was discussing the Winnipeg call, a little woman was waiting the issue in the Norwich manse, anxious and praying foróshe hardly knew what. For though she had read in her husbandís heart solicitude for the future of the Western country which he had already grown to love, and longing as yet unacknowledged even to himself to have a hand in its making, and though in her heart of hearts she knew there could be only one result of the deliberations in progress, still she waited, anxious and hoping that somehow it might be that their present quiet and happy life might remain undisturbed. And so it was with a sinking of heart that she received her husbandís report that by a decision of Presbytery they were under orders for the West. She realized fully all that was involved, the breaking of those bonds that had bound her to the people among whom they had made their home for the past six years, the leaving behind of her own folk, the facing of the new land and all its unknown terrors, the uncertainty of the life before them, the isolation, the heart-sickening loneliness, all this she had already gone over till she knew it like a well-conned lesson. But this day for the first time what had been an anxiety and a fear, became a reality which must be faced at once. And face it she did, however her heart might sink, without a word of murmur or regret. The new land and the new life were to her unknown, but she knew her husband and could trust his judgment. There would be hardship and loneliness, but these she was ready to share with him. Besides, he had heard the call, and to that call he must give heed, and she was not the one to bid him pause. Nor did he pause. Leaving his family behind him in the meantime at Norwich, he proceeded westward in the second week of October, 1874.

His journey was uneventful. His route lay through the United States by Duluth, thence by train to Glyndon, and thence to Crookston, where he hoped to find the boat for Winnipeg. To his chagrin he found the boat gone, and Crookston full of impatient passengers, among them the Bishop of Saskatchewan with his whole family who had been there for five days unable to get passage. What was he to do? He was due in Winnipeg for his induction on Tuesday of the following week. The next boat would not arrive in Winnipeg till Thursday. Should he wait patiently, or impatiently, with the worthy Bishop and then take a pleasantly tedious boat trip down the sinuosities of the Red River? No such programme would suit this impetuous traveller. He writes his wife:

"Found the boat gone. The next would not get down till Thursday night and unless I came by stage I could not arrive at all for induction. So got away from Crookston on Sabbath evening. The roads were good and we made good time. Arrived in Winnipeg on Tuesday morning about four oíclock. They had all been despairing of my being here on time, except a few brave souls who maintained that such was not the character of the man. Got nicely rested before induction came on. Presbytery met in the afternoon at two oíclock and I attended."

Very different was the welcome waiting him this time from that which met him at his first coming to Winnipeg. Then, without a word of greeting, he made his way to his uncomfortable hotel, chilled to the bone with his long drive through the fierce January frosts and depressed with loneliness and homesickness. Now he is welcomed by hosts of friends and by a united and enthusiastic congregation. As that day he looked upon Winnipeg, the impression made upon him by the straggling city never left him. Many years afterwards, recalling his feelings, he writes:

"I stood at Fort Garry gate and looked over the black trail with its clustering variegation of shops and shacks that marked the main street of the capital. From that day, my hope for the West has never faded, nor have I ceased to be grateful for its rich opportunities for service."

His congregation and, indeed, the whole city were waiting him. His letter to his wife goes on:

"The meeting at the induction was quite a large oneó the church was full. It was also a good representation of all parties in the Church. There were quite a number of strangersópeople belonging to our own Church who had come here during my absence. They appeared to be all hearty and pleased. The Kirk people, too, I think, will work well. I want to pursue the policy of forgetfulness of the past, and active effort for the cause of Presbyterianism and Christianity for the future."

He came at a time when he was badly needed. The congregation had become somewhat disorganized during the interregnum, and there was much sickness, for the city was full of the typhoid fever that for many years continued to haunt the banks of the Red River. In addition, immigrants were arriving in large numbers, some distributing themselves in shacks and tents upon the prairie on the outskirts of the city, others pushing on to seek the better country that to them seemed to lie nearer the setting sun. By "the Dawson route" and by steamer they came, many of them poor, some of them sick, all lonely, all needing help, comfort and cheer. Robertson took hold of the situation with a firm grasp. First he proceeded to organize his force of workers.

"Things here are quiet," he writes to his wife under date October 30th. "There is still a good deal of sickness with fever, but there are very few deaths. The weather has turned cold now, and I think we shall have no new cases. I have done a good deal of visiting, but there is a great deal yet to be done. I am falling in with new people every day, and no person seems to have any idea of where our people are. Things are not in a good state generally, but they may take a better turn soon now. There is much work to be done and single-handed I cannot overtake it all. The Sabbath-school has been low owing to sickness and no one being here to take an interest in it. Next week we have a meeting of teachers and expect to do something to set matters right. Prayer-meeting and all have suffered, but we hope to make things better there too."

And again a week later he writes:

"Am very busy visiting, etc., here just now. Had a meeting of Session last night and tried to get things in order. We did a good deal of business and found members willing to aid as much as possible. We agreed to have regular meetings once every month and oftener if necessary. We agreed to get some men in the respective districts into which the city is divided to aid the elders in keeping trace of those coming in and going out. Session are going to visit themselves as much and as faithfully as possible. Measures are to be adopted to see strangers to seats and to welcome those who come to our services, and we are also to arrange about advertising services in papers and posting notices in boarding-houses and hotels. We have adopted measures to have a society for the relief of the poor, too, and I expect we shall get some aid in attending to cases of real want. Things are beginning to be organized, and before long we shall be on our way. We must vigorously push and do what we can, for unless this is done we must suffer. I meet with people who have never been in our church yet although here all summer. I am coming in contact with people and finding out Presbyterians of whose existence Session and congregation were ignorant. Such things must not be if it can be prevented."

Again that imperative "must" makes itself felt. The Session and congregation gather about him loyally. The leaders of the Old Kirk party, won over by his courtesy, his preaching power and his administrative ability, attach themselves to him. Dr. Clark retires from the city and after a short experience of mission work, retires from the Presbyterian Church into the Anglican fold where we lose sight of him forthwith. There was no place now for party feeling or division. The pressing necessities of their work forced minister and people to united and earnest cooperation. Never a boat or stage arrived but the minister of Knox Church was there to seek out and welcome first the Presbyterians and then any others that may need him. Dr. Young, the veteran missionary of the Methodist Church, once remarked in those times, "There is no use of my going to meet incoming travellers. Robertson is always there and they are all Presbyterians anyway." Not all Presbyterians, but certainly a very large proportion of them, and it was characteristic of Robertson that he frankly accepted responsibility for these from the moment of their arrival in a new country, and to these he gave himself without stint of time or energy or means.

Immediately the congregation begins to grow in strength and in unity. As the winter approaches, the problem of increased accommodation looms up.

"Church affairs quiet," he writes. "Our attendance is good, especially at night. Measures must be adopted about a new church during this winter. The question of our site is not settled and hence nothing can be done. The Hudsonís Bay Company want to give us a lot in another place. This we are unwilling to take, for the present site is central. More room, however, we must have. Book racks are put in all pews and we are to have psalm-books also. They are sent for."

Thus his first winter passes, his days filled with varied work that taxed even his great physical powers to the utmost and left him often spent of strength and greatly needing the care and comfort of his home and family.

About the end of the first year of his pastorate, his wife and children arrived in Winnipeg. That was a great day for them all. Its incidents never faded from his wifeís mind during the twenty-five years that followed. It was in early September. The boat came late at night to the wharf that lay imbedded in the muddy bank of the Red River. It was black and rainy when Mrs. Robertson, standing on the deck piled high with baggage and freight and crowded with passengers, her two children beside her and her baby in her arms, saw by the dim light of the wharf her husbandís tall form under an umbrella held high. The baby was crying, and to the fatherís disappointment, refused utterly to go to him. So up the long flight of steps, slippery as only Red River mud can make things slippery, they toiled, and through the muddy streets to the hotel for the night. It was a dismal enough introduction to the new country for the wife, but next morning the sun was shining brightly over this wonderful Western town. Her husbandís friends and her own came about her, offering hospitality of heart and home, and soon Mrs. Robertson found herself happy and content, busy to the full with her own and more with her husbandís work, to his infinite comfort and peace.

During these years Winnipeg was full of young men. By scores and by hundreds they poured in, the most adventurous, the most enterprising, the most ambitious of the peoples from which they came. To win and hold these men, Mr. Robertson organized a Bible class that became one of the most striking features of the congregational life and work. His method of teaching stimulated thought and provoked discussion. Those were vigorous days, and the young men and young women who attended the class were intellectually alert and keen, so that many a day the hour passed unnoticed, and long before the discussion was done the time for closing had come. In this way and by regular social gatherings of the class at his own house, where he was as young as the youngest of them, the minister grew into the affection and confidence of the younger portion of his congregation.

The story of the Knox pastorate during those seven years, from 1874 to 1881, so remarkable in Winnipegís history, deserves separate telling, so rich is it in striking incident and so vivid with the shifting colours of that kaleidoscopic period. But here it can have no larger space. As pastor, Mr. Robertson was indefatigable in his toil, unstinted in his sympathy, unfailing in resource. Old timers in Winnipeg are full of stories that illustrate his tact, sympathy, humour. Here is one.

An old Scotch lady lay dying. The minister visiting her could elicit from her mind, dulled by approaching death, no response. Falling back upon his long unused Gaelic, he repeated a Psalm and offered prayer in that ancient tongue. The effect was immediate and magical. The eye lighted up, the spirit came back again for a few brief moments, recalled by the sound of the mother tongue of her childhood days.

A friend of those early days tells of another incident illustrative of the courage and endurance of her minister:

"His pastoral duties often called him to take long drives into the surrounding country. These drives in winter time were always attended with hardship, sometimes with danger. Once during the winter of 1877 he went to Stony Mountain to perform a marriage ceremony. On his return a storm came up with startling suddenness. The sun was shining brightly and there was no appearance of a storm, when Mr. Robertson noticed a great white cloud like snow rolling along near the ground, while the sky still remained clear. In another instant the storm was upon him, a blizzard so blinding that the horse stopped, turned round, and left the trail. With a great deal of difficulty he got the horse back to the road, unhitched it from the cutter, took off the harness, and let it go, then set off himself to fight his way through the storm. A short distance from Kildonan he overtook a man driving a load of wood who had lost his way, and who was almost insensible from cold and fatigue. He turned the horses loose and took the man with him to a house in Kildonan. After half an hourís rest he set off again for Winnipeg, for he had left his wife sick in bed and he well knew she would be in terror for him. So once more he faced the blizzard, and, after two hoursí struggle, he reached his home."

During the seven years of his pastorate the congregation continued to grow, not only in numerical and financial strength, but in spiritual life and in missionary zeal. The congregational report at the end of the first year of his pastorate showed 100 families, 100 communicants, three elders, a small Sabbath-school and Bible Class, with insignificant contributions to the Mission funds of the Church. At the end of the second year, 1876, the figures stood : families 135, communicants 177, elders 9, Sabbath-school 120, Bible Class 45. In 1878, the statistics showed a still greater advance: families 185, communicants 233, Sabbath-school and Bible Class 250, and in addition to paying a stipend of $2000.00, the congregation contributed $160.00 to Home Missions, $75.00 to French Evangelization, and $100.00 to benevolent purposes. The last year of Mr. Robertsonís pastorate the annual report recorded 265 families, with an additional 125 single persons, 411 communicants, Sabbath-school and Bible Class 350, contributions to Home Missions $280.00, to schemes of the Church $532.00, to benevolence $483.00, a total for all purposes of $9,359.00, no insignificant sum for such a congregation.

With his business men he was simple, direct and manly in his methods. His managers consulted him regularly and his advice came to be trusted and followed. He despised the circuitous and ethically doubtful methods employed too often for the raising of money for church purposes. "Donít charge for your social," he said once to his Ladiesí Aid; "when we want money, Iíll ask the people for it straight." And ask the people he did, and with such good effect did he practice this habit, that when the large undertaking of building a new church was upon them, he went to his men and in a single week raised twelve thousand dollars of the twenty-six thousand needed. That church building was at once a triumph of architectural skill and test of congregational loyalty and of ministerial genius in finance.

There is no doubt that it was during his pastorate in Knox Church, that Mr. Robertson received that training in business method and financial management that proved so valuable to him in his later career. And certain it is, too, that if Knox Church owed much to his leadership and his organizing genius, he owed much to Knox Church and to the able and vigorous men with whom he was brought into contact day by day in his administration of the congregationís affairs in those stirring and strenuous times.

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