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The Life of James Robertson

THESE seven years were years of extraordinary growth in the country and in the city and, consequently, in the mission and college work of the Church. This remarkable development is clearly reflected in the annual reports of Manitoba College and of the Manitoba Presbytery’s Home Mission Committee, and in the reports of the College and of the Home Mission Committee of which he was Convener, the hand of Robertson is very clearly seen, as is his influence apparent in the directing and prosecuting of both these departments of Western work.

At the first General Assembly of the United Church in 1875, a reference from the last Assembly of the Canada Presbyterian Church was brought forward by Mr. Robertson, asking permission to raise thirty-five hundred dollars for the College. This permission was granted and the money raised, with the result that in the following year the College was reported to be in good condition. At that General Assembly it was decreed that henceforth Manitoba College must stand upon its own feet and must no longer be a charge upon the Home Mission fund. The professors were reported as giving, with the two settled pastors, very efficient service in the exploratory and other Home Mission work of the Church. As we read the record of the lives of these men we are amazed at the extent and variety of their labours. No man is allowed to devote himself exclusively to his own special department. Every professor is a home missionary taking his full share of the toil and dangers inseparable from the work. Similarly, Robertson, besides his congregational duties and that wider ministry in behalf of the incoming settlers, began, in the year 1877, a course of lectures in Manitoba College which he continued for a number of years. In this year, too, he was made a member of the College board, and took his full share in the administration of College affairs. He also took an important part in the founding of the University of Manitoba and in bringing about the affiliation of the College with that institution. This proved to be a great uplift to Manitoba College, and at once the Presbyterian constituency in the West began to take a new pride in their college and to plan for its expansion. But the same year saw the terrible grasshopper plague which swept the country bare, and so reduced the revenue that it became necessary for the College to report a serious financial deficit. At once there rose a cry for retrenchment, but to this Mr. Robertson would not listen, and set about a vigorous campaign for further expansion which, however, owing to circumstances over which he had no control, was only partially successful.

But though the College made heavy demands upon him, and though he gave himself with all diligence to his multifarious congregational and other duties as minister of Knox Church, it was the Home Mission work that, more than any other, pressed hardest upon him during these years. It was characteristic of him that at his first Presbytery meeting, before he himself was inducted, he was found earnestly advocating a plan for the maintaining of work in the Prince Albert district, vacated by the death of Mr. Nisbet.

"When I wrote you last, I was talking of going to Portage la Prairie to help to license and ordain Mr. MeKellar to send him away to Prince Albert mission. As you will recollect, Mr. Nisbet, who was our first missionary to that district, died a short time ago. His wife was taken ill and he came down here with her. The five hundred mile journey was too much for her and she died. He was reduced very much owing to the fatigue incident to the journey, and through care and anxiety in reference to his wife. Her death was too great a blow for him and he followed her in about two weeks. The mission in the West was thus left without a pastor. The Presbytery of Manitoba tried to get Mr. Donaldson sent, but the Foreign Mission Committee objected. Things thus indicated that the mission was to be without any supply during winter. On my way here I heard that Dr. M— was going west, and to make Prince Albert his headquarters for the winter. He is a dangerous man, and were he among these simple-minded people for a winter doing all he could to wean them away, I feared for the future of our mission." Needless to say, Dr. M— was not a Presbyterian. "At the meeting of Presbytery I proposed to license and ordain Mr. MeKellar if he would accept a call from our Presbytery. Professor Bryce was instructed to communicate with him, the Presbytery falling in with the suggestion made. The Presbytery agreed to adjourn to meet in Portage la Prairie. Mr. McKellar accepted and we went west and all things were arranged. We got all necessary outfit for him at the Portage, and he holds himself in readiness to go west at once. There is a Mr. McDonald down here just now from Fort Ellice, and I have made arrangements with him to take him west with him and to put him on the other two hundred and fifty miles as soon as possible. Dr. M— would go too with Mr. McDonald, but he would not take him. I expect he will get west some way, but McKellar will be before him and can counteract anything he may try to do there. I am not sure how the Foreign Mission Committee will take the matter, but cannot help it unless we were willing to endanger the existence of our mission. We can, I think, justify our course."

Without a doubt he can justify his course in this instance and in many others to follow. Mr. Robertson is keenly zealous for his Church. He heartily believes in it as a democratic institution eminently suited to the needs of a new country and holding a creed which, entering into the thought and feeling of a people, will do much to establish it in righteousness. Hence, while being fair and honourable with other denominations, he gives himself heart and soul to the extension and consolidation of his own. And once having planted "the blue banner" in any position of importance, he will not see it lowered without a fight. He is out and out, and very frankly, a Presbyterian, and by all honourable means he will maintain the Presbyterian cause where he can. In a letter to his wife he writes:

"I think I told you in my last letter that Mr. Currie was to go west to Palestine. He has gone and is to remain there all winter. Last week Mr. Black of Kildonan and myself were at Headingly consulting about building another church and changing the site. Matters progressed a good deal, and we expect to go up another day and finish. I find that things of that kind are left to myself when sent out. Mr. Black did nothing but sit and listen." Well he has earned the right to sit and listen. Let the younger brother do battle. "We had three hundred dollars subscribed on the spot and a grant of an acre for a new church. We appointed two arbitrators to decide how much the old site and the church are worth, and the man on whose land it is promises to take it off our hands at that figure. Am going to suggest that they have a Tea Meeting which may get one hundred dollars for them without much trouble."

The habit is growing on Presbytery unobserved, as is the case with all habits, of laying upon the minister of Knox Church the burden of Home Mission work, not because he has any less to do than others, nor simply because he is the minister of the leading congregation in the West, and not solely because he is the Convener of the Home Mission Committee, but because he is rapidly developing a genius for administration, a capacity for swift, concentrated action, and, more than all, he has burning in his heart a kind of passion of responsibility for the incoming settlers belonging to his own Church and for the future of the country they are helping to build.

About this time we catch the first notes, low and still distant, of those contending cries on the one hand of appeal from the vigorous and growing child in the West and, on the other, of warning protest from the nurturing mother in the East. It was in this year, too, that Robertson began his long series of railroad missions. In one of his missionary journeys a hundred miles east of Winnipeg, he discovered a thousand men working within twenty miles of the line, with no opportunity for religious privileges of any kind, He held a meeting with them got promises from the men for seventy dollars a month for the support of a missionary, board and lodging promised by the contractor, and thus established his first railway mission. This mission in the year following contributed nine hundred dollars towards the work, and called for a second man.

The Home Mission operations of 1878, as reported to the Assembly, were shown to extend from Rat Portage for seven hundred and fifty miles west, and from the boundary line to Battleford, two hundred and seventy-five miles north. Over this territory forty-four mission fields have been carried on and many more were reported as waiting to be opened up, the liberality of the settlers being abundantly attested by their Voluntarily contributing out of their scanty means almost ten thousand dollars.

And now with each succeeding report from the Presbytery of Manitoba, we begin to get visions of new fields ever opening up on the horizon of unclaimed territory far beyond where, Mr. Robertson addressing the Church, says, "your children are making for themselves homes and are in danger of being neglected and forgotten." We begin to hear now those tales of heroic endurance on the part of the prairie missionary with which in later days we are to become so familiar; of his long journeys from five to fifty miles on a Sabbath day, of his facing the perils of frosts and blizzards and of his cheerful courage through it all.

When the Home Mission report for the Manitoba Presbytery for 1880 was presented, the General Assembly for the first time seemed to become aware of what had been happening during the past ten years. The Presbytery’s western limit of the previous year had been pushed back some three hundred and fifty miles by the demand of far-off Edmonton for a missionary. In the report for this year occur the noble words breathing high statesmanship and high devotion: "Presbytery realizes that the first missionary who appears in any field obtains most important hold. Presbytery regards it as wise and most honouring to Christ, that so soon as any considerable number of people are settled together, the pioneer Presbyterian missionary should visit them and collect the people at central points for prayer and praise in the open, or in a log dwelling of some godly settler. As soon as any region is fairly settled the Presbytery aims to send a resident missionary. The missionary on an average can overtake fifty or sixty families scattered among four or five stations."

The Assembly awakens to the fact that the work in the West must henceforth be taken very seriously. The Manitoba Presbytery this year spends nine thousand four hundred dollars in their Home Mission field, and still the call is for more men and more money. The following year, 1881, the crisis is reached. It is a year of great material progress throughout the whole West. The Presbytery has increased its staff of workers by fourteen, employing in all twenty-one ordained missionaries and fifteen catechists. A thousand miles beyond Winnipeg the field has been occupied, but on every side, from southern Manitoba, from the west and from the northwest, still rises the cry for workers. To the Presbytery the situation appears desperate. Never in the history of the Church has a Presbytery been entrusted with so vast a field, and with such enormous responsibilities. With everything that they have been able to achieve in the way of supplying settlements, the Presbytery is painfully conscious of much work lying undone and many districts lying neglected. Professors, pastors, missionaries and catechists are all working to the limit of their powers, and yet whole sections of the country are unorganized and unexplored. The Presbytery determines upon a bold step. The extraordinary need must be met by extraordinary means. After much deliberation an overture is prepared and sent forward to General Assembly, praying for the appointment of a Superintendent of Missions over the field occupied by the Presbytery. Anent the overture, the veteran pioneer missionary from the West, Dr. Black, is invited to address the Assembly. In a speech of remarkable force, lacking though he is in physical vigour, Dr. Black supports the overture.

The prayer is granted. A committee consisting of Dr. Waters, Convener, Dr. Cochrane, Messrs. Pitblado, King, Macdonnell, Black, Warden, ministers, and Messrs. Laurie, Vidal, McMicken, Munns, elders, was appointed. The committee recommend that James Robertson, presently pastor of Knox Church, Winnipeg, be appointed Superintendent of Missions in the Northwest, his salary to be two thousand dollars, this to cover all expenses while he may be labouring in Manitoba or the immediate neighbourhood. Journeys to distant points such as Edmonton to be paid by the Assembly’s Home Mission Committee.

The appointment of Assembly is telegraphed to Mr. Robertson where, toiling at his work alone, for his wife and family are in the East, he finds himself summoned to make one of the most momentous decisions of his life.

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