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The Life of James Robertson

IT was hardly to be expected that the Superintendent could escape criticism of his method of handling his men. To him the work was ever first, before all else, and he, therefore, demanded and expected from his men loyalty, sincere and complete. And this, as a rule, he received. Occasionally, however, it was his misfortune to find among the ranks of his workers the lazy, the shiftless, the selfish, the unfaithful, and with these he was relentlessly severe. A minister repeats with great delight a story he once heard from the Superintendent:

"I remember him telling me of a student whose zeal was less than his indolence. He was in charge of a mission somewhere near Regina, and lived in rooms which were attached to the church. Dr. Robertson drove over one morning, knowing that he was due to preach in an outlying station ten miles away at eleven o’clock.

"‘I knocked at the outer door at ten o’clock, sir, and when I got no answer I concluded that he had started on his journey. However, I opened the door and walked in. I went upstairs and rapped on the door of his bedroom. I heard a sleepy voice say, "Come in," and I opened the door and found him yet in bed. He preached that morning without his breakfast, sir.’"

A lazy minister or missionary, and he, alas, is not altogether a rara aris, drew his unmeasured contempt. Writing to a Western Convener, he thus discourses in regard to ministers of this class:

"I fear that the indifference you refer to in ministerial ranks is not confined to Kirkwall and Strabane; I meet it widely, and I am inclined to think it is doing more harm than the Higher Criticism. Men who work hard themselves are intolerant of idle and lazy ministers. Men appreciate an industrious, hard-working minister, and they despise the lazy slouch. But how are you to get such men retired ? They will not resign, they cannot work, to beg they are ashamed."

In a British Columbia mining town in the Boundary Country, no end of trouble might have been saved had the missionary in charge been simply faithful to his duty. As it was, he shirked, to the permanent injury of the congregation and of the cause of religion in that town. The Superintendent visited the town a little later. The missionary then in charge tells the story:

"A year before, a young man had been in charge, and had been exceedingly popular. All agreed that if Blank had just said ‘build a church,’ the church would have been built with little trouble and no strife. Besides, the town was then in its most prosperous condition. That was the tide in the affairs that was missed. But Blank had not ‘bothered.’ Indeed, Dr. Robertson had heard that he had said he did not want to meddle with money matters. How the Doctor did hold this up to scorn! ‘Didn’t want to meddle with money matters! A very fine sort of gentleman, indeed! None of your coarse-grained, commercial sort. Didn’t want to meddle! He was too downright lazy. That is what was the matter with him. Popular preacher! Liked afternoon teas, I suppose. Liked the ladies to tell him how well he had preached on Sunday. But to build a church! No, he was of too fine, ethereal material to meddle with such mundane matters. What did we pay him for anyway? What did we send him here for? To have a good times? To be popular? That’s not the kind of man we want in these mountains.’"

And, indeed, it added not a little to the Superintendent’s burden that he had to assume the load too often that these men refused to bear. While he was full of encouragement for the "tenderfoot," he had little sympathy with a shirker, and exerted himself to develop in his men that indifference to discomfort, toil, and even danger, that was so conspicuous a characteristic of himself.

"Talking with a whining student one day," says one of his Conveners, "who was relating what he considered hardships in the way of uncomfortable beds in which there were crawling things, and irregular meals not always prepared in the most tasty form, the Superintendent began very sympathetically telling some of his own experiences. Sleeping one night in a dug-out, wrapped in his blanket on the clay floor which was several feet below the surface of the ground, he felt cold, clammy things on his neck and face. He would brush them off and turn over, and by the time he was getting off to sleep again there would be another visitation, and so he kept brushing them away the whole night.

"‘And what were these things?’ asked the wondering student.

"‘Well, you see the floor was two feet below the ground, and there was an inclined approach cut out towards the door. The ground was worn away several inches lower than the door, and the lizards would fall over the edge of the cutting and crawl under the door, and during the night creep over the floor. And these lizards were enjoying a warm nest on my neck and face.’

"The poor student stood horrified. The Superintendent enthused for a few moments on lice and lizards and snakes, as though encounters therewith were as valuable as theology in a true missionary’s education, and the complaining dude subsided. His hardships vanished into thin air. He was rebuked and shamed, but could not reply, and the conversation drifted to other themes."

Writing to one of his Western Conveners, he descants thus severely upon the lack of heroism in some of the students of this present age:

"This afternoon, without giving your name, I told the students that there was need of a Professor of Ethics in our Theological Colleges to teach men that when work was not done pay was not to be expected. I find that two or three men that shirked work and were not paid, have been poisoning the minds of men against the West.

In the ordinary student of to-day there is a good deal of poltroonery, and hence cold frightens him when any Northwest point is mentioned."

Greatly disturbed over the failure of men to keep appointments, he wrote to the Rev. C. W. Gordon, who was at that time assisting him in his work, one day as follows:

"Why would not A— go to Melita? M— would do good work there, but he seems to be afraid of getting too much work to do. His grandmother, mother, aunt, and the whole connection were particularly severe on men broad in their theology, or in search of an easy berth—it would be a pity if they have raised an over-fastidious man under their own roof. But try him."

The lash of sarcasm once fell sharp and keen upon a student whose intellectual indolence and a certain fatal facility of speech led him to suppose that no serious preparation was necessary for his sermons on the Lord’s Day. It was after a meeting of a British Columbia Presbytery, and the Superintendent was chatting informally with a number of the men, that methods of preparing sermons came up for discussion. One said he carefully wrote his sermons and generally read them. This particular student was loud in his condemnation of this laborious method, stating that he never read his sermons. The Superintendent looked at him steadily and then blandly asked, "Mr. Blank, do you ever read anything?" The student lapsed into silence and the subject was speedily changed.

His demand for absolute devotion wrought in him a pity not unmingled with contempt for the man who was determined at all costs to enter upon the married state. With the Superintendent, even the sacred and inalienable right of a man to marry was held to be hardly a sufficient justification for his refusal to take a difficult field demanding the service of an unmarried man. With the Apostle Paul, he considered the present distress sufficiently severe to warrant a postponement of marriage.

"What is the meaning," he used to say, "of this unseemly haste on the part of our graduates to be married? One would think that they considered the ministry chiefly as a stepping-stone to matrimony. Can they not wait a year or two?"

A young minister who had rendered fine service in the mission field and was now the pastor of a settled congregation, tells the following story:

"When he had made several remarks which seemed to be designedly personal, I said:

"‘Well, Doctor, it is not at all necessary for you to warn me against that mistake. I have no intention of entering the married state in the near future. In fact, I have no one in view, and it is exceedingly doubtful whether or not I shall ever marry.’

"Immediately on hearing this, the Doctor’s look of abstraction vanished; he sat upright in his chair, stretched out his hand and said with great animation:

"‘Give me your hand, my boy. You are just a man after my own heart.’"

This young minister has persisted with perhaps unnecessary fidelity in the path of celibacy.

The Superintendent could not bear with anything that savoured of indifference to the claims of honour on the part of his missionaries. With him, an appointment accepted carried with it an obligation which honour demanded should be fulfilled. Too often students, after accepting appointments, would calmly write announcing a change of intention, with never a consideration of the effect of such change upon the plans of the Superintendent or upon the interests of the field. Of course, this made confusion and carried disappointment to all concerned. In reference to a case of apparently aggravated selfishness, the Superintendent writes thus vigorously to one of his Conveners:

"I have read Mr. M—’s letter, and I think, it could only have been written by a man half out of his head. If he is not satisfied, and will not be satisfied till he gets to the Coast, then he can go and stay there at his own expense. The Home Mission Fund is not in existence to gratify whims on the part of unreasonable men. The missions on the Coast are not such as he can supply, and we must be judges in such cases. He says he has claims. What are they? For that matter, no one has claims. He would not do at Denman, for he would have miles and miles to row, and sometimes in a rough sea. He would not do at Northfield, for he would have a drive of eighteen miles out to Englishman’s River. At Cooke, we have Lloyd whose home is on the Coast, and his appointment saved us travelling expenses. Pender would give him constant rowing, and this he could not do. Mt. Lehman and Surrey require driving amidst roads almost impassable for four months. Mission is supplied by Thomson whose retention there saves travelling expenses. Mr. M— was placed at Swift Current because trains passed there in the daytime. Were he at Gleichen, Sicamous, or Ashcroft, he would have night trains all the time. This was what he wanted to avoid. He wanted a mission where there was no driving—he could not stand the exposure. This we gave him.

"1 write you in this way that you may know the situation. This man wants the moon, and will not be satisfied unless you give it to him. I do not think he will do in Banff. Copeland writes me he did not do well at Saskatoon, and that his money cannot be collected."

As the work grew, this breaking of faith on the part of missionaries began to embarrass so seriously, not only the Superintendent, but the Gonveners in the various Presbyteries as well, that the matter became the subject of the following overture to the General Assembly by the Presbytery of Minnedosa, through the Synod of Manitoba and the Northwest Territories:

1. Whereas ministers and missionaries have made application to the Home Mission Committee for work, received regular appointments to fields within the bounds of Minnedosa Presbytery, and have accepted the same and have in several instances failed to fill the appointments;

2. Whereas such failures have embarrassed the Executive of the Presbytery and created friction between said Executive and the field to which they have been appointed;

3. Whereas the work of the Church in important fields has been seriously retarded and the cause of Christ injured by such failures, and

4. Whereas such disappointments tend to weaken the faith of our people in the general integrity of our ministers and missionaries, and the vexed delays in supply which inevitably follow, together with the consequent suspense and uncertainty of future supply, rapidly destroys the confidence of our people in the system of supply, and is leading to unrest and dissatisfaction with the general polity of our Church; Therefore, the Presbytery of Minnedosa humbly overtureth, etc.

The overture was transmitted to the General Assembly simpliciter and by the General Assembly was referred to the Assembly’s Home Mission Committee, and there disappeared from view. It is an index of the difficulty of administration often experienced by the Superintendent, that the Synod refused to express approval of the overture, but transmitted it to the Assembly simpliciter.

Occasionally the Presbytery of Winnipeg, as the gateway Presbytery and the Presbytery most easily convened, would be asked to ordain a man en route to a Western field. Sometimes the Presbytery, for one reason and another, demurred. After one such refusal the Superintendent writes to a Western Presbytery as follows:

"The Presbytery of Winnipeg is too large—its men are—for so small a matter as the ordination of a minister. An elephant has a trunk to pick up small things; the metropolitan Presbytery was made without a trunk. Ordain S— yourselves. It is well that efficiency does not depend on ordination."

But he never sulked, nor cherished any feeling of bitterness. The work was too great to permit of anything paltry in spirit or in policy. Nor was he ever known to cherish any feeling of bitterness even against a student, no matter how grievously he had disappointed him. He was ever ready to give a man his second chance. This spirit is shown in a marked degree in a case which caused very considerable trouble at the time. A student employed in the Presbytery of Calgary, left his field without leave from his Convener, and was, in consequence, refused his Presbyterial certificate to college.

The young man betook himself to an American college, and, returning the year following, applied to the Assembly to have his year allowed. The Assembly granted his request, and the young man was joyfully proceeding on his way. But his Convener was a man not to be trifled with, and he promptly entered a caveat. The young man’s course was blocked, and so continued until, upon recommendation of his Presbytery, the caveat was withdrawn. The Superintendent writes as follows to his Convener about the matter:

"Enclosed please find the extract minute of the Presbytery bearing on the Blank case. It was sent me by him, with the simple request that I give my approval. The Clerk wrote me saying he thought Blank had been sufficiently punished, and that if you and I saw fit to release him it would be well. The correspondence with the Presbytery I have not seen, but judge in part what it was by this resolution. Nor am I sure it was quite straightforward. I fear Mr. Blank suffers from ‘lubricity of memory’ occasionally. However, this may be a lesson to him for a long time, and it may be better to err on the side of mercy than to hold the balance rigidly for justice. However, write me and let me know your mind. I told Blank I was sending the extract to you and that I would write results later."

A second letter closes the incident

"Yours of 11th January was duly received here to-day, and, as you know, I entirely agree with your ‘sizing up’ of Mr. Blank. Taking a conjunct view of the whole, however, it is as well perhaps to err on the side of mercy. I am more and more impressed, however, with the laxness of some of our young men, and such conduct, if persevered in, will do much harm. Many of them need a course in Ethics rather than in Theology."

The financial arrangement under which missionaries were employed, was often the cause of misunderstanding and heartburning. It was as follows: Upon recommendation of the Presbytery’s Convener, or of the Superintendent of Missions, the financial ability of the field was estimated at so much per week, the balance required to bring up the amount to full salary was guaranteed by the Assembly’s Home Mission Committee. It was part of the duty of the missionary in charge to see that the field implemented its part of the bargain, and, indeed, that it did its full share in the support of ordinances.

Not infrequently men were found who cherished grievances against the Superintendent, the Convener, and, indeed, the whole Western work, because of the failure on the part of fields to pay the full amount pledged. In many cases these men were discovered to be those who had failed, through ignorance or carelessness or incapacity, to attend with proper diligence to the financial side of their work, and hence left their fields with their salaries in arrears. These excited in no slight degree the wrath of the Superintendent. Upon this subject the following extract from a letter gives us his mind:

"Complaints as to treatment are so common that one scarcely knows what to say; and they are more common in other Churches, and rest on a better foundation than in ours. We had a meeting here with the students last week, when grievances were ventilated, and the matter of deficits and arrears discussed. I frankly told the men that there was another side, and gave instance after instance where men complained where there was no room, because presents made to students amounted to more than the deficit. Frequently men do not discharge their whole duty and people refuse to pay, of which instances were given; men are not acceptable, have not the conditions of acceptable service in them, and such men are apt to have arrears. If in every case these are to be paid, then we must cease to employ them. Here one man has arrears every half year, and yet has a grant of five dollars a week; another follows him and has no arrears, and yet has no grant at all, does not ask any. Should the Home Mission Committee pay a grant of five dollars arrears and all? I doubt it."

The meeting referred to was held in Manitoba College and was the climactic result of accumulated grievances on the score of arrears. A member of the Home Mission Committee who was present at that indignation meeting, thus describes it:

"The room was filled with men hot and apparently thirsting for vengeance. A sympathetic professor occupied the chair. It looked like a bad half hour for the Superintendent. The sympathetic professor stated the reasons for calling the meeting—a growing feeling of dissatisfaction with the methods of administration of Home Mission work. Many students had suffered financially, some so seriously as to be prevented from continuing their college course. There was a strong feeling that something ought to be done. The Superintendent was listening eagerly.

"‘That’s right,’ he said shortly, when the professor had finished. ‘Now let us hear the facts.’

"The facts were slow in coming. At length up rose a student, modest, with the reputation as a hard worker. Hesitatingly he stated his case. His field had been unable to pay the amount estimated, and he was the sufferer to the extent of $60. He would not have spoken, but from a sense of duty. He sat down amid enthusiastic applause. Encouraged by the applause, student number two rose and, touching somewhat lightly upon his own case, launched forth a statement of grievances in general, going somewhat fully into both ancient and recent history. Another followed and then another, telling with variations the same story.

"The case looked black for the administration, and now came the defence. All waited for the long-looked-for opportunity to ‘heckle’ the Superintendent. But the opportunity did not come that afternoon, nor ever, for in not more than half a dozen sentences the Superintendent had them on the defensive by enunciating two principles. First, it was the duty of the missionary to keep his Convener informed of the financial condition of his field, so that any discrepancy might be promptly attended to. Secondly, the supreme end of the Church in conducting Home Mission work was not the furnishing of students with the means of completing their college course. That part was purely incidental. Then he proceeded to elaborate and illustrate his first principle. There were cases of real hardship ; for instance, student number one. In his field frost had cut down the crop, there was no money, consequently, the field was unable to pay its share. The student was too modest to complain, though he should have reported. ‘But we all know Mr. Blank. He should have made a claim for special consideration; such a claim would have been met.’ (Cheers.) And every such claim would be met when properly presented. (More cheers.) But there were other students. And for half an hour he held up to the admiring and delighted gaze of at least a part of his audience, a series of pictures of men who had left their fields with salaries in arrears. One with luxurious habits had bought freely grapes, cigars, etc., but could not pay his board bill. Another was too spiritually minded to organize a Board of Management, much less suggest a subscription list. A third was of so studious a turn of mind that he more frequently wore out the seat of his trousers than the soles of his boots. A fourth exhausted his energies in attending young ladies to picnics, Sunday -school and other. (Great applause.) A fifth disgusted his congregation with slovenly sermons, consequently they ‘would not pay for slop.’ A sixth came away with a large present in his pocket, leaving the Home Mission Committee to pay arrears. A seventh— and so the list went on, gleaming with humour, irony, and now and then with flashing indignation.

"By this time every student was apparently happy, those with real grievances satisfied that their claims would be adjusted, the others unwilling to classify themselves in that terrible list of incompetents. But the real defence of the administration came in the elaboration of the second principle, and here the Superintendent turned himself loose on the theme that lay so near to his heart—the necessity, the opportunity for Home Mission work. Statistics in regard to country and Church, stories of missionary heroism were poured forth with marvellous richness of colouring and detail.

"The close was a word of warm commendation of the missionaries before him who had toiled and suffered in the work, till they were listening with shining eyes and, I have no doubt, each with a lump in his throat. Then they gathered round him, each eager to get that quick, warm, downward grip of the Superintendent’s hand. And that was the end of that indignation meeting."

But where he could not meet his missionaries face to face, and where financial grievances were complicated with questions of rights of Presbytery and of Presbyters, the trouble assumed serious proportions. This was the case with the Calgary Presbytery. The fields in this Presbytery consisted chiefly of vast reaches of sparsely-settled ranching country, of long drawn strips of railway lines, and of a few sordid and drink-sodden mining camps. The work was depressing and difficult, the financial returns from mission fields always precarious and often meagre. The Home Mission grants, therefore, were always large, and these the Committee sought steadily to reduce. Under the inspiration of a visit from the Convener or Superintendent, the fields would promise liberal support, but from any one of a variety of causes, the failure of crop or of cattle market, the shifting of population, the inadaptability of the missionary, these promises often failed of fulfillment. Whatever the cause, all faults were laid at the Superintendent’s door. He was the scapegoat for all offenders.

An appeal for relief from grievances was addressed to the Assembly’s Home Mission Committee by the Presbytery, to deal with which the Home Mission Committee appointed a special Committee, with Rev. Dr. Laing as Convener. The finding of the Committee is embodied in the report, of which the following is an extract, transmitted by Dr. Laing to the Rev. J. C. Herdman, Clerk of the Presbytery and prince of Home Mission


"It is evident that in past years many things happened which imposed inconvenience and even hardships on missionaries. As, however, not a few of these unhappy occurrences have as far as possible been rectified, and the parties more immediately interested seem to be willing to let the past rest, while more particularly under the new arrangement for conducting the Synod’s business, every effort will be made to prevent the recurrence of such things, the General Assembly’s Committee does not deem it necessary to make further reference to the alleged grievances.

"As to the remedies suggested by the Presbytery, the Committee carefully considered these with the following result:

"1. They cannot approve of the suggestion that the whole salary of missionaries shall be guaranteed by the Assembly's Committee.

"2. They think that any reduction in grants should be and naturally will be known to the Presbytery, and that the missionary should be informed of the change; also, that some time should elapse between resolving on the change and giving effect to it.

"3. That no allowance can be made for Sabbaths during which a minister is absent from his field except in cases of sickness or inability to fulfill appointments.

"4. That not only should Presbyteries have a voice in estimating the amounts required from mission fields and congregations, and in the appointments made to them, but that the responsibility in these matters lies primarily and chiefly on Presbyteries.

"5. It was resolved to refer to a small sub-committee to prepare a plan for meeting travelling expenses from the Eastern Provinces to Winnipeg; and for expenses from Winnipeg to the particular field of labour, for which expenses alone the Assembly’s Committee shall be responsible.

"6. Also it was resolved, with the view of preventing misunderstandings, to issue to every missionary appointed by the Assembly’s Committee a commission, stating in detail all the particulars connected with the appointment, and showing clearly what each missionary may expect, without reference to the terms of the appointrnent of any other."

Reading between the lines, it is not hard to see that the causes of trouble lay in the system rather than in the administration. In reference to this, which was at the time to the Superintendent a very painful episode, and all the more because of his high regard for some of those actively engaged in pushing this appeal, notably the Rev. Angus Robertson, than whom the Superintendent had no more loyal friend in after-years, the judgment of the Rev. J. C. Herdman will be illuminating

"The Presbytery of Calgary was formed in July, 1887. When we met and began to get under way for work, we found ourselves almost at a standstill caused by the unpleasant fact that so many of the missionaries of the Presbytery (good men they were, too) had grievances, real and alleged, which Dr. Robertson was supposed to be, or was counted to be, responsible for. Actually then, the first year of our life as a Presbytery had to go to getting together a string of difficulties and disabilities and setting them at length before the Assembly’s Home Mission Committee. I was clerk of Presbytery at the time. I remember that many ‘grievances’ disappeared at the telling, but yet a number remained and had to be taken up seriously. The final answer to all the counts is given in Dr. Laing’s communication. One or two individual cases of hardship were dealt with, in a reassuring way, outside this communication. On the whole, though the grievance list began somewhat pointedly in the use of the Superintendent’s name, the progress of negotiations showed increasingly that whatever grievances had existed were grievances against the conditions, and to a certain extent against the system of work, nowise against the man who was in the first instance held responsible. Of the missionaries then, in this Presbytery, who were most insistent and vehement in their denunciations, one soon after became the most devoted friend and admirer of the Superintendent, and the other greatly modified the aspersions in which he had at first abounded."

It is pleasant to think that, for the last decade of his life, the voice of criticism was never heard from those who wrought under him or in Cooperation with him in the Western field. Mistakes might be made, and as the burdens of the ever-growing work accumulated upon his shoulders mistakes were made, but by that time men had learned to know and appreciate the single-hearted devotion and the sheer greatness of the man who was paying out his life to his cause.

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