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The Life of James Robertson

THE Superintendent possessed in an extraordinary degree that quality so essential to the public speaker, a sensitiveness to the temper and feeling of his audience. He was quick to read faces, and quick to detect and analyze the play of emotion.

Early in his career as Superintendent, he visited a newly-settled district on the North Saskatchewan, a district which he discovered to be settled largely by people of Scottish extraction. On the Sabbath morning they gathered for a service on the leeside of a little poplar "bluff." It was their first service in that lonely new land. Most of them had come for many miles by waggon, by ox-cart, on horseback, and on foot. The Superintendent, standing upon an upturned waggon box, announced that Psalm so heart-penetrating for homesick folk:

Lord, Thee my God, I’ll early seek;
My soul doth thirst for Thee;
My flesh longs in a dry parched land,
Wherein no waters be.

Through the first verse they bravely sang, but not without some quavering. The second verse they found more difficult.

That I Thy power may behold,
And brightness of Thy face,
As I have seen Thee heretofore
Within Thy holy place.

The voices faltered and many broke into sobbing. At the third verse none could sing. Then the Superintendent preached to them of home and God and their duty to the new country. The folk of that community would be unwilling to let the story of that service die out of their traditions.

The Superintendent was never more at home than when addressing a crowd of rough men, whether miners, railroad men, or lumbermen. On one occasion he was visiting Rossland, a British Columbia mining town then at the height of its boom. Mr. H. J. Robertson was the missionary in charge, and by sheer grit and energy, and by unfailing tact, he had got the first church built in that part of the mountains, and this was the night of its opening. One who was present thus describes the meeting:

"The Superintendent stood up before that mining crowd and began to address them upon what would seem to many a strange theme, Home Missions. But in his magic hand the subject became at once arresting. The men listened with open eyes and ears to that thrilling series of statistics, incidents, and appeals. After all was over one of them said to me in a grave, subdued excitement:

"‘Say, ain’t he a corker !' and then solemnly, after due thought, ‘He’s a Jim Dandy corker!’

"Most of them were lads from Eastern Canada or from the Old Land across the sea, and the burr in the Doctor’s voice, the genuine human warmth and the manly straight. forwardness of his address, went straight to their hearts. As he closed with an appeal for a pure and manly Christian life, in the name of all that was best and noblest in their past, picturing for them their homes, and reminding them of the dear ones there, many a poor fellow found it necessary to surreptitiously wipe away the tears that gathered, lest they should fall and shame him.

"After the meeting the fellows gather round him, some to claim personal acquaintance, for the Doctor has travelled far, others to make inquiry in regard to their ‘people.’ And then many a chap goes to his shack and writes to his mother that night."

His perfect courtesy made it easy for the Superintendent to adapt himself to any circumstances. A service having been arranged in a lumber camp about twelve miles away from a British Columbia village, in company with a lady who was interested in the work and who was to assist in the singing, the Superintendent drove out to the camp, the missionary following on a broncho. The party arrived, by appointment, in time for supper. The ordinary lumbermen’s supper of pork and beans, and fried potatoes, and pies and cakes, was on this occasion supplemented, in honour of the Superintendent’s visit, with an extra in the shape of a stupendous and altogether marvellous and fatal plum pudding.

"Nothing could be more admirable than the heroism with which the Superintendent attacked that supper, although the balking of both Superintendent and lady at the plum pudding, appeared to lay upon the missionary the necessity of doing duty for the whole party, which he did by insisting upon a second supply. By the time the supper was over, the foreman and the men within hear-lug of the Superintendent’s stories, were more than ready to listen to his sermon. The sermon was based upon those immortal words that have become known to Christian people the world over as the Golden Rule. And by no other words could he have got so quickly their sympathetic attention. From the study of the Golden Rule, it was easy to pass to the commendation of Him whose rule it was and whose whole life so conspicuously illustrated it. The closing hymn was ‘The Sweet By and By,’ and the men, standing up in the dim light of the smoky lanterns, sang it with no delicate shadings, but with throats full open. It was their only way of expressing their appreciation of the Superintendent and of his sermon, for there was no collection."

It was a large part of the Superintendent’s duty to stimulate the liberality of his Western missions, and to develop their sense of independence. The following extracts from letters to Conveners will indicate the policy he followed and the ideals he set before his fellow-workers:

"In making appointments see that they are for a definite period, and that they terminate at a fixed date. Should it be found that a missionary is not acceptable, he should not be continued in the field, for his usefulness is impaired, and the field suffers. Every consideration must be given to all our missionaries, but the men are for the work, and not the work for the men. Every man should know, whether ordained or not, that if unacceptable the Church cannot carry him."

"Mr. M— tells me the Presbyterians are about as strong at Wetaskiwin as the Methodists, and I wrote him saying that, if practicable, steps should be taken to build a church. I warned him against any union arrangement of any kind, and asked him to tell his people to reserve their strength for an effort of our own. It is most desirable that visibility should be given to our cause there and that the people should know that we are not there simply on a visit."

"I want to call in to see you next week. I am going up to Rosedale which must become self-sustaining. It is situated in one of the best districts in the whole West, it has received long and generous help, it is in a good financial position and should go off the list unasked. If it has not spirit to do that, then it must be forcibly ‘weaned.’ I was at Franklin and they agreed to rise to $700 a year.

Dauphin should go off the list now, too, and Mekiwin, Arden, and Macdonald should call and soon be self-sustaining."

He was constantly being challenged and quizzed by members of the Assembly’s Home Mission Committee upon the aid-receiving capacity of the Western Mission fields, until he became sensitive on this point, and he used to seize every opportunity to inculcate upon these missions the doctrine of self-support. In regard to this habit of his, a missionary writes:

"Our congregation was on the augmented list. He was not long in finding out by a few direct questions what the state of the congregation was. He soon asked:

"‘When can you become self-sustaining?’ And in parting he said, ‘See that the calf does not suck the mother longer than is necessary,’ and then added, ‘The East is doing great things for the West, and the West must do all it can to help itself.’"

The Superintendent had an unfailing instinct for the right word in the right place, and he used to excite the admiration of his missionaries by getting congregations to do at his simple request what they had for weeks been begging them in vain to do.

Having received a report on one occasion, that a railway missionary had been unfortunate enough to "fall out" with his rough and ready congregation, the Superintendent paid a visit to the gravel-pit where the construction gang were working for the day. At the noon hour he obtained permission to address them. He discussed with them his never-failing theme, Home Missions, and to such good purpose that, before he had done, he had won the sympathy of the entire crowd.

"Now," he said, "men, we have sent you this summer our missionary, Mr. Blank, and I have no doubt he has given you faithful service. And we believe that you are willing to show your appreciation of that service and to help in this great work of Home Missions. I want some man to head a subscription list for the support of this summer’s work."

Not a man moved. The Superintendent waited in silence. At length he called out, "Is there not a Presbyterian here? It’s a queer crowd that has no Scotchman in it, or a ‘blue nose,’ or a ‘herring-back’ (men from the Maritime Provinces) and if there is that sort of Presbyterian here, it is the first time I ever knew him to refuse to support his Church or to pay his just debts."

It was not long before the subscription list was completed.

The Superintendent could be relentlessly severe when a congregation, or especially when a Board of Management, were detected trying to shirk duty and to escape responsibility. A congregation in a little Western town which was just emerging from a boom, found itself somewhat heavily in debt. The Superintendent visited the congregation and after the usual Home Mission address, called the Board of Management together and proceeded to investigate with the most searching minuteness. The financial side of the congregational life, the assets and liabilities, the methods of raising and of spending moneys, and finally the debt to the Church and Manse Board, all passed under strict review. The debt to the Church and Manse Board amounted to $600.

"Has the interest been paid ?" inquired the Superintendent.

"No," said the Chairman, a young business man of the town.

"Has there been any attempt to pay it?"

"No," replied the young man, and proceeded to suggest that it really did not matter much about a debt of this kind; that, in fact, the Church and Manse Board might show a better spirit than to press a weak and struggling mission to pay this debt.

"Sir," said the Superintendent, and the vibrant voice took a deeper note and a richer burr, "the Presbyterian Church pays its debts, and any congregation proposing to repudiate the just claims against it must be prepared to write itself off the roll of Presbytery"

And such was the gleam of indignation that shot from under the shaggy eyebrows, that the unfortunate repudiator hastened to disclaim any intention of repudiation. And the whole Board united in a solemn promise to set about the raising of that debt with all possible speed.

There was one occasion, however, when the Superintendent took quite another tone with a congregation which he was visiting. The account is given by one who was present at that meeting. It was in a mission station of Northern Alberta.

"1 remember well the day we drove from Innisfail to Olds. It was late in August, and the sun was shining in all its splendour upon magnificent fields of wheat. It was a sight to rejoice one’s heart, but there was no rejoicing that day, for the night before a frost had fallen and the whole country was waiting anxiously to know the full extent of the injury. As the day wore on, the Doctor would now and then stop to examine the ears of grain. One could hardly have a more perfect symbol of smiling deception than those same fields of wheat so apparently rich in value, but so actually worthless for market. As the afternoon wore on, the certainty of total loss for the district became well established.

"The Superintendent was to address a meeting in a little schoolhouse not far from the village of Olds. As we drove up to the door, we could not fail to notice the gloomy faces of the men gathered outside. For many of them the failure of this crop was the blighting of their last hope. I wondered how he would handle that crowd. I shuddered as I thought of the possibility of his delivering his Home Mission address with its appeal for more liberal support. I need not have feared. The Superintendent knew his men, and more than any man of them felt the bitter disappointment of that day, for he bore the load of hundreds of like sufferers.

"At first there was no word of Home Missions, but with exquisitely tender emphasis he read the immortal words of the Master that have stood between so many discouraged hearts and despair. ‘Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth where moth and rust doth corrupt. . . . Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven. . . . Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. . . . Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat or what ye shall drink.

Behold the fowls of the air. . . . Your heavenly Father feedeth them. . . . Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. . . . Therefore, take no thought saying, what shall we eat, or what shall we drink.

Your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things.’ Then leaving the desk, he drew near them and began to comfort them like a father. He spoke of the things that were left, that no frost could touch, the eternal treasures which even here and now men may possess. And then he turned to his great theme, for he could not long be denied, and talked to them about ‘the work we are carrying on in this country.’ But never a word of depression or of discouragement did he utter. His statistics and his stories were all to show the triumphs of faith and endurance that irradiate the history of Western missions. His final words were those not often heard from his lips.

"‘We are not here to-night to ask you for support, we are here to help. Don’t be discouraged. Better days are sure to come. Be faithful to your Church. You cannot do much this year, but your Church will not forget you. Trust in your heavenly Father and hold on.’

"Even in the gathering gloom one could see the change wrought in the faces of his hearers. They were their own men again. The hopelessness was gone. Their vision of eternal things had pierced the clouds of disappointment and revealed the treasures that neither moth nor rust nor frost could take away. I had seen the Superintendent do many fine things, but never anything quite so fine as he did for those people that evening."

Dr. Robertson was gifted with the rare capacity for winning the confidence of men who might be supposed to be quite hostile to his cause and to himself. It was while he was making his first trip through Alberta and was soliciting subscriptions for the erection of a Church in connection with one of his mission stations, that he came upon a young Scotchman who rejected his appeal, asserting with an oath that he had never known a professing christian "who wasn’t a blank hypocrite anyway."

"Well," said the Superintendent, "I am sorry, sir, that you had such a poor mother."

"What do you mean, sir?" was the angry retort. "What do you know of my mother?"

"Was she a professing Christian?"

"She was."

"And was she a good woman?"

"She was that, but," feeling his equivocal position, "there are not many like her."

"We want to make Christians like your mother in this country, and that is why we are building this church."

Before the interview was over he had added another name to his subscription list.

He was greatly assisted in getting hold of men by his marvellous memory for faces, and missionaries all over the Western country relate instances of this remarkable faculty of his.

In Edmonton he was introduced to an ex-member of the Northwest Mounted Police.

"I know you, sir," said the Superintendent promptly.

"How is that? I never met you."

"Seven years ago I met you at McLeod."

The man was amazed. "Sure enough," he said, " I was orderly in the Barracks there at that time."

At the close of a service in Balmoral, Manitoba, an Englishman came up and said:

"You don’ t know me, but I wish to thank you for your address."

"Yes, I do know you," replied the Superintendent. "I saw you in Winnipeg in such a house on such a street, let me see, just seventeen years ago."

Needless to say, the man was perfectly astonished, for he remembered that he had lived in that house, at that time.

But perhaps the most remarkable of all the instances reported is that of a man whom the Superintendent came across in a mining camp in British Columbia. The young man was standing amid a crowd of his fellows, pouring forth a stream of profanity. The Superintendent stood looking at him steadily for a few moments, then went up to him and said gravely and sadly:

"Your godly father and mother would be grieved to see and hear you now."

"What do you know of my father and mother?" said the young man rudely. "You don’t know me."

"Don’t I? I ought to, for if I am not greatly mistaken, you were a lad in my Sabbath-school class in Woodstock twenty-two years ago."

Further conversation revealed this statement to be true. The young man was dumbfounded, and overwhelmed with shame.

"Yes," he acknowledged, "I was in that And afterwards, to the Superintendent alone, he told the sad tale of a careless and sinful life, ending with a promise of repentance and return.

This ability of his to grip and hold individuals even while he rebuked them for their sins, often gave him entrance to a crowd or a community that otherwise would have been closed to him. There is a famous story of an encounter he had with a young cowboy in Fort MeLeod, which the old-timers of that town love to recount.

It was the Superintendent’s first visit to that part of the country. Coming by the Lethbridge stage, he made the acquaintance of the stage-driver Jake, famous for his skill with the lines, famous also as a master of varied and picturesque profanity. Arriving at the stopping-place, the Superintendent gave his coat to the bartender, who tossed it into a corner behind the bar.

"Hold on there," said the Superintendent. "I have a bottle of lime juice in the pocket."

"Oh," replied the bartender with a wink (those were prohibition days), "I never heard it called that before," and nothing short of sampling would convince him of the harmless character of the beverage.

Later in the afternoon, the Superintendent was pinning up a notice of a service to be held on Sunday, the day following. A. young fellow strode in, read the notice, glanced at the Superintendent, and immediately broke forth into a volley of oaths. The Superintendent listened quietly till he had finished, then said blandly:

"Is that the best you can do ? You ought to hear Jake. You go to Jake. He’ll give you points."

The derisive laughter that followed completely quenched the crestfallen young man. In the evening the Superintendent came upon him in the street, got into conversation with him, found he was of Presbyterian extraction, that he had been well brought up, but in that wild land had fallen into evil ways.

"Come now," said the Superintendent, "own up you were trying to bluff me this afternoon, weren’t you?"

"Well, I guess so," was the shamefaced reply. "But you held over me."

"Now look here," replied the Superintendent, "you get me a good meeting to-morrow afternoon, and we’ll call it square."

The young man promised, and next day’s meeting proved him to be as good as his word.

But above all qualities that gave him his power over the people and enabled him to win and to hold their affection and their confidence to the very end of his life, was his genuine sympathy with them, arising from his intimate acquaintance with the conditions under which they lived. For by experience he came to know their trials, their hardships, their loneliness, their privations, their self-denials. And it was this sympathy that made him at once so truly their friend in the West and so mightily their advocate in the East.

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