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The Life of James Robertson

THE Superintendent’s first business was to get his men, and this proved to be as difficult a task as the catching of the proverbial hare ; more so, indeed, for as a rule the hare stayed caught and without further ado went duly into the soup. But the men after being caught had to be held and handled with extreme care. The sudden and wonderful expansion of missionary work between the years 1881 and 1885 created an unusual demand for missionaries, far greater than could be supplied by the graduates of our Colleges. One consequence of this inadequacy of supply was a keen competition for desirable men on the part of the various Presbyteries east and west, the principle of selection being too often every man for himself; with the result that in spite of stern regulations by the Home Mission Committee against "private arrangement," the Con veners nearest the source of supply, for obvious reasons, often fared much better than those more remote. And although the Home Mission Committee made earnest efforts to furnish the Superintendent with his full quota of men, it came to pass that when the supply was exhausted, many Western fields were still vacant.

In 1885, the situation was so serious that the Superintendent was sent to Union and Princeton Theological Seminaries in search of men. His visit to Princeton is described by one who has given long and distinguished service to the West and who still holds an honoured place in his Church.

"As I sat one evening in my room at the ‘Old Seminary,’ Princeton, in February, 1885, a rap was heard at the door. Thinking some friendly neighbour was coming, I roared out in student fashion, ‘Come!’

"Slowly the door swung back, and there, as if waiting a more formal invitation, stood a tall, gaunt-looking stranger. I arose and assumed a civilized demeanour when the stranger advanced and, extending his hand, said, ‘How do you do, sir? My name is Robertson, from the Canadian Northwest. I saw your name, sir, in the directory in the hall, and came to your room thinking there might have been an error in one of the initials. We had an R. C. Murray in our Western work last summer, who is taking a post-graduate course somewhere, and I thought possibly it might be he who roomed here.’

"To set him at his ease on the matter of intrusion, I said

"‘No, sir, I am S. C. Murray, and I am very glad to see you, Mr. Robertson. I have been reading a good deal about our Northwest, and I have thought of venturing west myself when I get through.’

"There was a sudden light in the eye as he almost greedily asked, ‘Are you a Canadian?’

"‘I am.’

"‘When do you graduate?’

"‘This year.’

"‘How many Canadians have you in Princeton this year?’

"‘Nineteen altogether.’

‘‘‘How many graduate?'


"‘Where could I see these men? I am most anxious to meet with all the Canadian students before I leave tomorrow.'

"‘If you will remain here, I will go at once and ask them to meet you, and I shall be very glad to have you occupy this room this evening and to-morrow, as you may be able to arrange interviews with the fellows.’

"‘Thank you, sir, very much; that is very kind of you, indeed.’

"From that time Mr. Robertson was my very warm friend, and never awaited an invitation to my home, and, no matter when he came, he was a welcome guest.

"In a short time the Canadian boys came dropping in. That evening and the next forenoon we heard of the great Canadian West, its resources, its vastness, its future. ‘How about the winters?' How are settlers supplied with fuel?' ‘How will the rebellion affect missions?' ‘Do you think the country will ever be well settled?' All manner of questions were put, not forgetting ‘What salary do you pay your men?' of course. I shall never forget the magnificent confidence of the man as, with one prophetic sweep, he brushed aside all the questioners’ doubts by exclaiming:

"‘If there is anything, young gentlemen, in Divine Providence, I cannot believe that He has locked up such vast resources as are found in the Canadian West, without intending that country to be one dlay well populated.’

"He dipped into the future as far as human eye could see, saw the vision of the West and all the wonder that would be. I had to attend lectures part of the day, but had opportunity to see a good deal of the man and hear a good deal of the West. When we were alone he said:

"‘I want to tell you about my coming here. A few of us met in Toronto, and we were feeling keenly the need of men. We knelt in prayer to ask Divine guidance. Immediately upon rising, two or three of the Committee said almost simultaneously, "Mr. Robertson, go down to Union and Princeton and see what you can do." I left Toronto at once, and you know, sir, how I got to your room. And as you have been waiting for the providential guidance as to your future field, I think you should have no difficulty in settling the difficulty now.’

"And I hadn’t."

The student came in July of that year, and with the West he has been identified ever since, taking his full share of the toil, exposure, and privation incident to the planting of the Western Church, and winning and holding to the very end the affection and the esteem of his great chief.

It was at the Assembly of 1885, as we have seen, that the attempt was made to establish a Summer Session in Theology in one of the colleges. But the college selected by the Assembly declined the experiment, and the Superintendent and his Committee were left to struggle as best they could with the question of supply for the Western fields.

Like other questions, the Western service could be viewed from different standpoints, with very different results. There was the view-point of the theological graduate seeking a congenial field of labour. And it would not be surprising if Ontario, offering all the comforts and congenialities, physical, literary, social, of a civilized community should make strong appeal over the remote, laborious, unbroken fields of the far West. There was the view-point also of the college professor, who, ambitious for his college and with an eye for future harvests, would prefer to sow his seed in the fertile fields of wealthy Ontario. It is not impossible to understand how he might offer such advice as one professor did to a favourite graduate. "Oh, Mr. Blank, there is surely no need for you to go West. You would find no difficulty in securing a good congregation in Ontario." Of course, there were other students and other professors; students whose ears were open to the call of service without regard to place or circumstance; students to whom the call to difficulty, privation, and peril came with irresistible force, and who stood ready to follow the trail whether leading east or west. There were professors, too, who placed Church before College and who were quick to recognize the day of opportunity for the Church and for Canada.

These students and these professors were the joy of the Superintendent’s heart. His view-point in regard to Western missions was very easily arrived at. The future of Canada was bound up with that of the country lying beyond the Great Lakes. The concern of the Church was that the foundations of empire in that vast land should be laid in righteousness. The rapid development of that country created immediate and pressing demand for missionary effort. Before all other fields this took preference, and for these present formative years the claims of this work upon the Canadian Church were paramount. With him it was The West, The West, and ever The West. The vastness of responsibility, the magnificence of opportunity, the urgency of need kindled in his heart a fire that never burned low, much less died out. He could never get all his fields filled, and in consequence he was always hungry for men, and the longer the list of his vacancies, the fiercer this hunger grew. From college to college he went year after year haranguing, appealing, pleading for men and with varying success.

"I am going," he writes, "to all the colleges to advocate a larger number of grads going West. We must advance in our present policy. Four or five licentiates went to Princeton this winter to take a post-graduate course, simply because not called last summer—and they will come out next spring fresh like an old maid the second term. Oh, the folly of thinking you have a call to preach, and will not hear a voice from any place but Ontario!"

In a letter to that sturdy pioneer missionary, Rev. D. G. McQueen, be says with fine irony:

"Fort Saskatchewan should have an ordained man now if possible, but men are very scarce, and our young men religiously avoid missions and augmented congregations. Providence never guides their steps to them. He seems to take charge of places with large salaries and comfortable surroundings, and missions ‘and such’ are left to - So I interpret the caut I am compelled to hear."

Successive disappointments wrought in him a distrust of the motives animating some of those studying for the Gospel ministry. To a Western Convener he allows himself to write as follows:

"Our young graduates in the East think that God calls them to places where the work is easy, the meals good and the beds soft, and that a call where work is hard and the climate severe must be from the evil one, and I fear they act on this impression."

To another he writes in a somewhat severe strain in regard to the supply for a difficult British Columbia field:

"As for Princeton, I do not think that we have got the man yet that will suit. I am afraid that the most of our men have neither grit nor leg enough to climb 5,000 feet and travel thirty-five miles in the specified time, and we don’t want any Mr. F—’s to go in there. Missionary fakirs are the worst fakirs, and it would seem as if Canada was getting quite a number of them now. I think they should be left severely alone, and I am of the opinion, moreover, that some men are possessed not so much of love for mission work as of hatred for other work. These are not the men for us."

There is no doubt of that, for these are the men whose courage will break, to the ruin of the cause and the discouragement of all who labour in it. Bat the Superintendent has in a marked degree a saving sense of humour, and a gleam of this same grim humour of his lights up his most doleful letters.

"Men not available, and although you could make even a husky team ‘get’ by picturesque profanity, you cannot start an ordinary Ontario man. He simply looks at you, rubs his hands, and says, ‘I think I shall stay at home this winter. I’ll think about it in the spring. I hope I am not disappointing you.’ Keep F.— at Beaver and M—at Leduc —better a dinner of herbs than starvation."

In the following manner he strives to bring comfort to a Western Convener sorely disappointed in the quality of the supply sent him:

"Your letters are always welcome, and there is no mistaking your fist, but you were in bad humour when you wrote the last. We could have stationed your men for you, but we did not think that quite fair, and so sent them through that you might put the big ox in the wide stall and the small one in the narrow. And, truth to tell, we took some of them because they offered for a year, on the certificate of members of the Committee; our eyes never beheld them. Faith plays a very important part in the appointments of the Committee. S— has backed out, and H— was sent to take his place. He is not much to look at, but he is a good one to work—so I am told. I take all responsibility for your appointments. If you get some hickory sticks and some plain basswood, people are unreasonable in supposing that you can change the inferior into the superior timber."

The Superintendent was especially critical of those who would pick and choose their spheres of labour. One year he was sorely put out by the attitude of a number of men who, finding it impossible to secure appointments to the Foreign Mission field for which they had volunteered, declined service in his beloved West.

"I pleaded the case with them," he writes, "and finally a number of them promised to lay the matter before the Lord. I told them that they need not take the trouble, for I could tell them now what the answer would be, for I had found that whenever a man proposed to ask the Lord about Western work, the Lord as a rule indicated a less laborious sphere. Indeed, if I were to judge by the experience of these men, I would be forced to believe that the Lord had a kind of grudge against the West."

He discovered a peculiarly fine vein of sarcasm in dealing with men who shrank from the hardships of missionary life and were fertile in excuse. In the following manner he writes a British Columbia Convener:

"A number of men were approached with a view to going to Horsefly, but all complained of some ailment or physical defect that seemed to incapacitate them for this field. One had something the matter with his spine, another had his back wrenched by a chair being pulled from under him at college, a third could not ride without becoming seasick, the mother of a fourth was old, the father of another delicate and he could not go away so far, while the sixth was engaged to be married and Horsefly was not a place to which to take a wife. I hope that next spring so many of the men will not offer excuses of that kind when approached."

The Superintendent used to relate with grim relish an experience with a college graduate, a young man of fine ability and of genuine missionary spirit, who, under the inspiration of one of those great addresses of the Superintendent’s, offered for Western work. Greatly delighted with his spirit and with his appearance, the Superintendent selected a field in British Columbia remote from civilization and calling for very considerable self-denial.

"But to my surprise, sir," said the Superintendent, relating the incident, "the very next morning I received a letter declining the appointment. I afterwards learned the cause. This sudden change of mind was due to his young lady and her family. For on hearing the news of the appointment, it appears that the mother burst into tears, the sister went into hysterics and the young lady herself lapsed into a succession of swoons from which nothing would recall her but a promise that her lover would abandon forever so desperate a venture as a British Columbia mission field. I was hardly surprised to learn, he added with evident relish, "that within a year that engagement was broken. And for his sake, sir, I was glad of it."

There were times when the Superintendent allowed his disappointment and desperation to extend the sickly hue of suspicion from the students to the college in which they were trained, and to the professors whose stamp they were supposed to bear.

"There is something sadly wrong," he writes, "about our young men and the mission field, and the same disease seems to trouble the American Church, as their reports disclose. People are praying for a revival of religion; the dry places of our Church, the places that need most to be revived, are the colleges, including the professors, for had the professors done their duty all the years of the past, the state of things we have would not exist. The Church has left the College to forage all over the Church for itself; the professors, consequently, wish as many of their own students as possible to be settled in Ontario and in good charges, so that the congregations of these men may help the College. There is, consequently, no effort made to keep the frontier before the students. Nor do professors go out to see the field for themselves; they stick about the towns or go to Britain, watering-places, etc., and the wants of the field are not known. The American Assembly is bringing this matter before the colleges, and, evidently, if their students shirk the work, the Assembly would like to know why. I wish to visit these colleges ere long and tell the students a few plain things.’’

And without a doubt this wish was gratified to his own relief and, let us hope, to the wholesome stirring of these same dry bones.

On another occasion, hearing that a college professor had been criticising a proposal to bring out men from Britain, he proceeded to deal with the situation in the following manner:

"I got him into the chair in a meeting in his own college last week, and gave him an exposition of the situation, and showed how absurd it would be for us to have work undone, asking British people to help us to do it, getting their financial help, and yet refusing their men, when our own refused to go even when subsidized by British funds. I told of my experience of writing to nearly thirty graduates last autumn, and of getting one—a solitary grad. to go. He had nothing to say, but affirmed that he was favourable to men going west. My reply was that his students did not heed his advice then, for since I was Superintendent we had got but an average of half a man a year."

The need of missionaries for Western supply at length passed beyond the bearing point, and compelled the serious attention of the whole Church. In 1891, the question of a Summer Session in Theology was revived. Overtures requesting the establishment of such a session were presented to the General Assembly from the Presbyteries of Toronto and of Brandon. These overtures were discussed with more than ordinary eloquence and energy, and were sent to a Committee representing almost all the great departments of the Church’s work. The Committee laboured with the proposal for many hours and finally reported unfavourably to the proposed change. At this juncture a Western representative, Professor Bryce, backed up by Professor Scrimger of Montreal, submitted an amendment asking for the establishment of a Summer Session in Manitoba College. This was fiercely opposed, but at length it was given to another Western representative to suggest a solution that seemed to indicate the way of least resistance. On motion of the Rev. Hugh McKellar, the matter was remitted to the various Presbyteries for judgment. The following year forty-six Presbyteries reported, thirty-three favouring the establishment of a Summer Session and twenty-three expressing preference for Manitoba College. This report was again referred to a Committee, large and influential. Once more the Committee laboured with the question and referred the whole matter back to the Assembly. A motion to lay on the table was proposed and lost. Finally, on motion of Rev. D. M. Gordon, former minister of Knox Church, Winnipeg, the Assembly agreed that a session in Theology should be held in the summer of 1893 in Manitoba College, which session was duly held, Principal Grant, Professors Maclaren, Scrimger and Thomson, and the Rev. Peter Wright of Portage la Prairie, assisting the staff of Manitoba College.

To the Assembly of 1893 the Superintendent was able to report that during the previous winter, in anticipation of the Summer Session, twenty-six Mission stations, with a constituency of over 1,200 Presbyterian families, had enjoyed Gospel ordinances and with an increased expenditure of only $1,400. The Summer Session was proved to be an unqualified success, and for nine years continued to give most valuable service to the Church, both west and east.

But in spite of the relief thus afforded, the phenomenal expansion of settlement consequent upon the growing volume of immigration into Western Canada, rendered the supply of mission fields increasingly difficult, until in 1900 the Superintendent in his report is forced to say somewhat bitterly;

"For a number of years past the supply of missionaries has been inadequate for winter service, and the work of the Church has accordingly suffered. Last winter, seventeen missions were without supply, and several more with only partial supply. This spring, after all the men available for Western work were selected, there were still fourteen vacancies. Subsequently, eight of those appointed declined to serve in the West, bringing the vacancies up to twenty-two. By getting men from Britain and the United States, by appointing graduates of the Bible Training School in Toronto, and through the efforts of a few gentlemen who have the interests of the West at heart, a number of these vacancies have been filled, but eleven missions at this moment stand vacant. This lack of supply has done great harm in the West already; it has inflicted severe, irreparable losses on the Church in Northern Ontario, and should be remedied. The supply of men in the Church seems ample. The moment a prominent congregation in the West is vacant, letters pour in asking for a hearing—many of them from men who never had a charge. Were the General Assembly to require all graduates to labour a year in the mission field before settling, great relief would come to Home Mission work. And if, while engineering, law, and medical students are salted with heavy fees, the Church exacts no fees from the theological student, surely it is a small thing that they give one year’s service to advance her work, especially when they are liberally remunerated. And if not, why should the students not pay for their own education ?"

Eleven fields unmanned meant between thirty and forty preaching stations unsupplied, and this, to the Superintendent, seemed well-nigh intolerable. In that year overtures from the Presbytery of Algoma and the Synod of British Columbia, with a strong resolution from the Assembly’s Home Mission Committee, were presented to the Assembly, asking, among other things, that the course in theology should be extended from three to four years, the last year to be spent in a mission field. The overture was, as usual, debated at great length, referred to a Committee, killed and decently buried beneath what proved to be a perfectly futile resolution, the truth being that the General Assembly knew full well that the democratic spirit in the Presbyterian Church now and then runs, to seed to the utter subversion of all discipline, and that in consequence it was impossible to enforce any such regulation as that desired by the overture.

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