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The Life of James Robertson

WITH the Assembly’s telegram in his hand, Mr. Robertson summons his Session, and together they deliberate upon this most momentous call. The Session had been more or less prepared for some such action of Assembly. Long before he was appointed Superintendent their pastor had been superintending. They knew well enough that though the Presbytery’s overture made no nomination for the office, there was only one man to whom the West would intrust their missions, and only one man fit for the work. Impressed as they are with the necessities of Knox Church, Winnipeg, the greater necessities of the vast mission field of the West impressed them more deeply. The Church had called their minister to a larger and more important sphere of labour. With affection and regret, therefore, but without hesitation, they advised his acceptance of the appointment. He wired the Assembly his decision. He will accept the appointment, but stipulates that his salary be that of Manitoba College professors, with all travelling expenses added. In a letter to his wife who, with the family, had gone on a visit to her home in Eastern Canada, he describes his line of action and discusses a little the future. It is dated from the Manse, Winnipeg, June 16, 1881:

My DEAR WIFE : —"Your letter bearing intelligence of your safe arrival at home I just received. The notes of the children from St. Paul I also received. From Chicago I heard through Mrs. Hart. I was glad to find that you all got down there so well, and hope the stay there may do you all good. I am inclined to think that it will be protracted beyond our first anticipations. As you will have learned ere this reaches you, I have been appointed Superintend-dent of Missions in Manitoba and the Northwest by the unanimous vote of the Assembly. I have accepted the appointment. Would like to have communicated with you ere taking the final step, but the Assembly’s call was urgent and there was no time to write. I called the Session together on receipt of telegram and consulted with them. They regarded the offer as a step in advance and would not oppose the wish of the Assembly, thinking it useless. They regarded me as the most fit man for the position, the most fit, they thought, in the Church. They considered the office necessary in the interests of the Church, and telegraphed to this effect to the Assembly. The salary offered was two thousand dollars and I was to pay my own travelling expenses. After maturely considering the question, I telegraphed ‘Accept call of Assembly, but cannot live here respectably on conditions stated. Make salary equivalent to that of professors of Manitoba College and travelling expenses.’ To this Cochrane replied at once, ‘You are appointed on condition stated and will enter on work in July.’ He is coming out here to induct or help induct. I will arrange as soon as convenient for going over all the fields, returning here in the fall, after which I will likely go east to spend the winter. . . I regret much that I shall be away from home a great deal. This cannot be helped." How little either of them guessed how pathetically prophetic of their future experience were these words! The future is to them quite unknown. They had made arrangements for the building of a house and the establishing of a home in Winnipeg. "What now about building?" he writes. "Am I to go on at once and build, or to postpone till next year? The money for the house has been paid and I can proceed, but if you are to stay down all summer and I am to go down in the fall, it would seem as if we had better postpone building till next year. You could get a house in Woodstock and the children could go to school there. But when you write you could let me know what you think of the new situation. As you see, I am yet in the manse. They are in no hurry fixing it up. I make my own bed and clean my own boots and fix up my own room, and board at the Queen’s. Time will decide my future."

The parting from Knox Church was not without pain to minister and people. The congregation were losing their first minister and he had made them what they were. The minister was severing the bond that had been strong enough to draw him to this new land and had grown stronger during the seven years of his labour in it. But to both people and minister the feeling that the Church had called him to a wider sphere and to higher work, made acquiescence easier. To the congregation the loss of their pastor at that particular period in their history was a serious blow. The line of cleavage between the two elements in the congregation was still pretty clearly defined. Indeed, many feared that once the strong unifying personality of the minister was removed, disintegration would ensue. Happily these fears were groundless, though to a certain extent they were shared by the minister himself. Writing to his wife soon after his appointment he says:

"There are elements in the congregation that are difficult to manage. They may now divide according to their predilections. The Knox Church part may try to get a Kirk minister, while the other will likely get an Old Canada Presbyterian. In any case I fear that a division is inevitable and perhaps this will help the matter. I am sorry to part with a congregation which I was to so large a degree instrumental in building up."

The affection and the regret with which his people bade him farewell find expression in various addresses and presentations. The address from the Session was as follows:


"In taking leave of you on your entrance upon the responsible duties of Superintendent of Missions in Manitoba and the Northwest, we as a congregation desire to express our heartfelt appreciation of the services which, as our pastor, you have rendered us during the past seven years.

"When your pastorate began we were a mere handful, and worshipped in a small, plain structure. Under God you have been the means of building up a large congregation, and to your perseverance and energy was largely due the erection of our present beautiful place of worship. Your genuine piety, courteous manners, and deep solicitude for the welfare of all with whom you came in contact, have won you lasting gratitude. The afflicted and the stranger have always found you a true friend and wise counsellor. Many of your self-denying acts are known to your friends, but we are satisfied that very many are known only to yourself and to Him who seeth all things.

"In addition to the various duties of your pastorate, you have responded to the calls that came to you from time to time to take an active part in the educational interests of our country, in temperance, and in all matters pertaining to the general weal.

"We wish you Godspeed in your new and honourable sphere of labour, and ‘Now the God of peace that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, make you perfect in every good work to do His will, working in you that which is well pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.’

(Signed) "THOMAS HART, M. A., B. D.,

"Session Clerk."

Without a doubt the fineness of touch in the diction of this address and the warmth of affection breathing through its words, reveal the hand of that very fine Christian gentleman who was the minister’s fidus Achates, Professor Hart. And few things in this period of Mr. Robertson’s life are more beautiful than his affection for the man who, when he might have easily allowed himself to be prejudiced by his sense of loyalty to his own Kirk against him who represented another Church, received him instead with generous affection and stood by him with unshaken loyalty, then and through all the following years during which it was given these two to live and work together.

But nothing touched the minister more than the farewell of the ladies of the congregation. Loyally had they stood by him, and with unwearied fidelity had they toiled with him in the varied departments of work represented in the congregation. In those days the men were often so absorbed in the rush and crush of business that much of their work as members of the Church had been relegated too often to their wives and daughters. But nobly had they answered to the often unreasonable demands of the congregation, and without faltering they had followed the leadership of their pastor. Their devotion to him and their regret at his departure found expression in the following address, which was accompanied by a gift of $632.00:


"We, the ladies of Knox Church, Winnipeg, cannot allow the tie to be severed that has bound us, pastor and people, without expressing to you on behalf of the congregation our appreciation of your devoted services during the past seven  years.

"The congregation at the beginning of your pastorate was small in number and very poorly provided for the work of advancing Christ’s cause in the then unorganized community in which our lot was cast.

"We rejoice to acknowledge your services to the congregation in the very earnest assistance given by you in the erection of our church building, which has been a credit to the city and a factor in advancing our cause.

"We remember gratefully your attention to your duties at the three turning points of life—morning, noon, and night— when, in performing the initiatory ordinance of our Church, in uniting together kindred hearts, and in performing the last sad rites, you were always willing to lend your aid.

"We would thank you for the faithful instruction given from the sacred desk, for the instruction given to the young of the congregation, and the private advice so affectionately given to the disconsolate or the wayward.

"We regret at the present time the absence of your beloved partner in life, who has with such kindness and at great personal sacrifice, done her duties in a quiet and unobtrusive manner as pastor’s wife.

"We congratulate you on the high honour paid you in the unanimous call given by the highest court of our Church, to the office which you now occupy. We feel it to be a matter of great importance to our cause at the present time, to have one so well fitted as yourself for the work of advancing the rapidly spreading principles which we profess, in the great Northwest, and knowing that an expensive outfit is necessary for your onerous work, we beg that you will accept, as conveyed by the gentlemen of the congregation through our hands, this purse of $632.

"We pray that God’s blessing may still attend you; that you may be preserved safe in your abundant labours, and that you may have an ‘inheritance among all them that are sanctified.’


In connection with the presentation of this purse an incident occurred that cut Robertson to the quick and aroused very considerable feeling at the time among the people. By two of the speakers on the occasion of the

presentation, this gift was referred to as being intended for the purchase of an outfit for the new Superintendent. This interpretation was immediately and strongly repudiated by the ladies who had solicited the subscriptions in the following note sent soon after the meeting was held:

"Winnipeg, July 27, 1881.

"A difference of opinion having been expressed as to the object for which subscriptions were solicited for a purse to be presented to the Rev. Mr. Robertson, we beg to say that the money was obtained for Mr. Robertson’s personal benefit absolutely.



These ladies had no intention of making contribution to the Assembly’s Home Mission Committee. Not they. Their gift was to their minister whom they loved, and they determined that there should be no uncertainty in the matter.

Mr. Robertson’s farewell sermon was preached to a densely crowded congregation on the 24th of July, 1881. His text was Philippians 1: 27: "Only let your conversation be as it becometh the Gospel of Christ: that whether I come and see you, or else be absent, I may hear of your affairs that ye stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the Gospel."

It was a brief but comprehensive statement of the progress of the city, the country and the congregation during the seven years of his pastorate, and closed with an earnest appeal to the congregation to be worthy of their great opportunity to measure up to their responsibility as the premier congregation of this new country, and with a few words of affectionate farewell.

From the Ladies’ Missionary and Charitable Associations there came the following address, which was accompanied by the gift of a valuable gold chain:


"We, the ladies representing the Missionary and Charitable Associations of Knox Church, Winnipeg, beg to present to you, on beginning the important duties to which you have been called in behalf of the missions of our Church, our warmest congratulations. We believe that the work of our Church for missions is but in its infancy; that we have not yet begun to realize the importance and urgency of our Saviour’s command, ‘Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature.’ We feel that at the threshold of the great Northwest especially, an important duty rests on us of sending the Gospel to our fellow countrymen who are settling on these wide prairies, and also to the wandering tribes who are crying at our doors.

"We regret that our efforts have resulted in raising so little means in the past, but we rejoice that in your appointment there has been recognized the importance of this great work, by calling one so useful as you are to this sphere.

"But while this is the case, we would not forget the past. We are glad to know that it is your intention still to reside in our midst. We pray for the speedy return to health and strength of your beloved partner in life, and your family.

"Be pleased to accept this chain in memory of past associations, and kindly regard it as a token of our desire that we may be still closely joined together in the mission work of the Church, and that you and yours may be bound up with us in the same bundle of life and may reach the same heavenly home.



"July 26th, 1881."

On July 22d the Manitoba Presbytery met at Portage la Prairie and made arrangements for the induction of Mr. Robertson into his new office. In severing the pastoral tie between the minister and congregation of Knox Church, Presbytery, in a formal resolution, took the opportunity of recording its high appreciation of the service rendered by Mr. Robertson not only to the congregation and the community, but to the whole Church in the West, and expressed the most earnest hopes for his success in his new work. For the most part there was enthusiastic approval of the appointment, though there were not wanting those who predicted difficulties, constitutional and other, in the working of the new office.

The induction of Mr. Robertson to his new position was deemed by the Presbyterian Church an event of sufficient importance to warrant the appointing of a special Commission for this purpose, consisting of the Rev. Dr. Cochrane, Convener of the Home Mission Committee, and the Rev. George Bruce of St. Catharines. Others took part in the interesting function, among them Professor Hart and Rev. A. Bell. The service was held on the evening of July 26th, in Knox Church, with Professor Bryce in the chair.

In the eloquent address of the Convener of the Home Mission Committee occurs this very significant sentence:

"To Mr. Robertson is due largely the present standing of Presbyterianism in Winnipeg and the great Northwest." The Convener, at least, of the Committee that has had charge of this vast and growing work has had borne in upon him something of the magnitude of the toils endured and the service rendered to the Church and to the Western country by the minister of Knox Church during the seven years of his pastorate. It will be some years yet, however, before he will come to his own with the church as a whole.

Thus, carrying with him the affection of his people to whom he has ministered for seven years, the gratitude of the Committee which he has served with such conspicious success, the esteem and confidence of the Presbytery of which he has been for these years a guide and leader, the Superintendent enters upon his new sphere of labour, not without his fears and misgivings, but Conscious of a high resolve to do his best to serve his country and his God as opportunity may be his.

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