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The Life of James Robertson

IT is neither fitting nor necessary to reproduce here the many resolutions recording the admiration, esteem, and affection for the Superintendent of Missions and the many expressions of regret at his early death—he was only sixty-three—from Church courts and Committees, nor is it necessary to publish any of the scores of letters from distinguished citizens of Canada and from humbler friends, breathing love and gratitude for his public services to the nation as well as for his personal qualities. But it seems right that here there should be found a place for a few of these expressions that embody the sentiments of those who wrought with him in official relations in different parts of Canada. There have been selected these four. The first is from the farthest west of all the Presbyteries, the Presbytery of Westminster:

"The Presbytery of Westminster having learned with profound regret of the death of Rev. Dr. James Robertson, Superintendent of Missions in Manitoba, the Northwest, and British Columbia, desires to place on record its deep sense of the loss the Church has sustained.

"For twenty years the leader and representative of the Church in the outposts of the rapidly-advancing frontier of our Western civilization, he endured cheerfully the hardships of pioneer life and discharged with splendid fidelity and magnificent success the arduous duties of his important but difficult position.

"Possessing in rare combination the statesman’s outlook and the prophet’s fervour, and animated by an unfaltering confidence in our country’s future, he formed his plans with a far-sighted wisdom that the course of events has abundantly justified, and bringing to the performance of his great work the admirable qualities of mind and heart for which he was distinguished, and displaying the highest type of true patriotism as well as the most attractive form of Christian service, he laid broad and deep the foundations of national and religious life in the western half of the Dominion of Canada.

"A man of heroic mould, but of tenderest heart, charitable in his judgments of men, generous and sympathetic in his dealings with them, he was himself a living embodiment of that Gospel which he preached as the only hope for the individual or the nation.

"His whole career was an exemplification of the spirit of devotion and self-sacrifice which he expected to see manifested by the servants of the Church whose work he was appointed to superintend. Genial and kindly in his disposition, and keeping himself in closest touch with the world’s best thought, his visits to the homes of the missionaries, living in isolated positions and doing their work under many discouragements, were a source of keenest delight and an inspiration to nobler effort.

"While mourning his loss, the Presbytery gratefully recognizes that the story of his life will form one of the brightest pages in the Church’s history, and expresses the conviction that the future of the country will show with increasing clearness the impress of his marked individuality.

"To the sorrowing members of his bereaved household the Presbytery begs to extend its respectful sympathy, commending them to the Father of mercies and God of all comfort who comforteth us in all our tribulations."

There was one body of men with whom, more than any other, Dr. Robertson was closely associated in his life-work, and that body was the Home Mission Committee of the Synod of Manitoba and the Northwest Territories. He was its first and only Convener, and twice a year for seventeen years the Superintendent met with this Cornmittee to formulate policy and to make plans and to discuss ways and means; and every year of their work together strengthened the bonds that bound them, till they became, indeed, a band of brothers. It was not his official position as head of the Committee, but his personal qualities that drew and held their love and confidence. There is no word in this resolution but properly carries with it its full weight of meaning

"It is with deep sorrow and an overwhelming sense of loss that we, the members of the Synod’s Home Mission Committee of Manitoba and the Northwest Territories, deplore the absence from our Committee to-day and from henceforth, of our Convener, the Rev. Dr. Robertson, Superintendent of Missions. This Committee has never known another Convener, for since its organization in the year 1884, seventeen years ago, Dr. Robertson has guided our councils and presided at our deliberations. During the twenty-one years of Dr. Robertson’s superintendency, the Home Mission work of our Church in Western Canada has developed with a rapidity unparalleled in the history of Christian missions, so that the one Presbytery of 1881, with its four congregations and eighteen missions, has developed into eighteen Presbyteries with 141 congregations and 226 missions, giving service at 1,130 points ; and to-day in the Canada that lies west of the Lakes, we have the foundations of a great Church laid solidly and well.

"We, whose privilege it has been to be associated with Dr. Robertson in this work, know in a measure how much these remarkable results have, under God, been due to the statesmanlike leading and to the untiring personal labours of our late Convener. But neither we, nor the Church as a whole, will ever be able fully to estimate the value of the service he gave in this Western country, nor how much our country owes to Dr. Robertson’s fervent patriotism and wise administration.

"For his position and his work Dr. Robertson was thoroughly furnished. To his strong common sense and sound judgment he added a genius for administration, for the selecting of men, and for the mastery of detail, a singleness of aim, and a true sympathy with his fellow-workers; and thus it was that he was able to gain and to hold, and ever more and more firmly, the confidence and the admiring affection of those who shared with him in his toil. How often at this table have we been stimulated by his faith, cheered by his hope and courage, rebuked by his surpassing self-devotion, and encouraged by his sympathy. To-day we mourn not only the leader who has so surely shown us the way, but the friend and brother to whom our hearts were knit with true and tender ties.

"The loss the church has sustained in the death of Dr. Robertson is greater than we know. Our loss, as a Committee, and that personal loss which we each feel in our own lives by his removal, we are not yet able to measure; but with the Church we bow in humble submission to the will of God, in the faith that the influence of that strenuous and devoted life will long abide in the whole Church, and especially in this section of it to which he gave his life; and that we who laboured with him will continue to feel the uplifting influence of his splendid and heroic self-devotion. And we earnestly pray that the same Lord who so richly endowed His servant and gave him to us these many years, will not forsake the work just begun, but will continue it to the end.

"To the bereaved wife and family we offer our sincere and respectful sympathy. We measure the greatness of their loss by our own, and pray for them the consolation of the Divine Grace, and abiding presence of Him who has declared Himself to be the husband of the widow and the father of the fatherless."

The Church and Manse Building Fund owed its existence to Dr. Robertson, and this Fund under his administration became a means of blessing to Western Canada greater than can be estimated. With the members of the Board intrusted with the interests of this Fund, the Superintendent of Missions kept in close and cordial relation, and hence this resolution properly finds its place with the others:

"At its first meeting after the lamented death of the late Rev. James Robertson, D. D., Superintendent of Missions, the Church and Manse Building Board wishes to place upon record its recognition of the importance of his services in its department of the Church work, and its sense of the loss sustained in his removal.

"Dr. Robertson was the founder of this Fund. He collected nearly all the money which constitutes its endowment, he recommended from his personal knowledge a very large number of the loans and grants which it made, he advocated the enlargement of the sphere of its operations so as to include, as it now does, British Columbia and a large portion of New Ontario, and in general his assistance was invaluable in administering its business because of the extent of his information, the sanity of his judgment and the depth of his interest in the work. The success of this Fund which has dotted the West with churches and manses will be an enduring monument of the enthusiasm, the strenuousness and the far ambition of Dr. Robertson’s life."

The following is the resolution by the General Assembly’s Home Mission Committee (Western Section). It was composed of those who stood among the very ablest men in the Church. It was the Committee under whose authority the Superintendent of Missions worked, and there is no more striking testimony to the quality of his work and the character of the man than the increasing hold the Superintendent gained upon the confidence of the Committee whose servant he was. And as the members of this Committee came to see more clearly the single-hearted devotion and the sane and sound judgment of their Superintendent, the more there grew up in their hearts a profound affection for him, and a willingness to be guided by his counsel.

"The Home Mission Committee (Western Section) of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, at its first meeting after his decease, does hereby record its sense of the noble character and splendid achievements of the late Rev. James Robertson, D. D.

"Appointed by the Church in hesitation and doubt to the office of Superintendent of Missions for Manitoba and the Northwest, in 1881, he lived to enjoy every honour the Church could bestow, and to behold, amid the marvellous development of the Canadian West, largely as the result of his own efforts, the cause of religion militant everywhere, and flourishing in almost every part.

"In the West, by his wonderful versatility, he gained the respect and confidence of every class of the population. Amid farms, or ranches, or mines, or villages, or cities, he was equally known and venerated. He was always looked upon as a hero, of the type the West is proud of, and spent himself in tireless labours for the spiritual welfare of that vast region. A loyal Presbyterian, he was no sectarian. He wanted the West for righteousness and the fear of God.

"To the missionaries under his superintendence he was a comrade and most welcome adviser. A visit from him was a stirring of hope and energy and trust in God. Quick to condemn sloth and mismanagement, he was yet quicker to sympathize with genuine misfortune and eager to relieve it.

"In the older portions of the Church in Canada, and across the Atlantic, he was known as an enthusiast in his work. It was due to his frank and pressing appeals that the money was raised for extending the territory of Home Missions, and equipping the fields with churches, manses, and pastors.

"It is a satisfaction to this Committee to remember the perfect harmony and cheerfulness with which he and its members co-laboured. While the docile servant of the Committee, he was at the same time its chief leader and ruler. Knowing the difficulties best, he was yet the most ardent and progressive spirit of all.

"We praise God that He gave our Church such an apostle, and recognize the Divine kindness which called him to his reward. While we feel the human impossibility of filling his place, we remember that he in our position would be undaunted, and face with confidence the task of carrying on the immense enterprise which he began, and has left magnificently incomplete. We pray for faith as we recall some of his last words, ‘The next few years are critical in this work. The night cometh.’

"This Committee would convey to the family their tender sympathy in the sorrow into which they have been plunged, and pray that the God of all grace and consolation may be to them a present and abiding refuge."

For many years the Presbytery of Calgary formed the western limit of the Superintendent’s mission field, and the history of no other Presbytery in the West is so full of the romance of missions. The Home Mission Committee of that Presbytery, under the leadership of the Rev. Dr. Herdman, who himself became afterwards one of the Superintendents of Missions for the Western Church, was always the pride of the Superintendent’s heart. Between these two men there existed from first to last the very strongest ties of personal affection and esteem. It is not surprising, therefore, that upon the wall of Dr. Herdman’s church this tablet should hang:

recognition of the
worth and work of the
Rev. James Robertson, D. D.,
Superintendent of
Presbyterian Home Missions
from 1881 to 1902,
This tablet
in a church and city situated centrally among missions, is
erected conjointly by Presbytery
and congregation.
"‘Let no man glory in men, for all
things are yours, whether Paul, or
Apollos, or Cephas.’
"Canada, West of the Great Lakes, was his mission field."

In the cemetery of old Kildonan, above the grave that holds his dust, there stands a block of granite bearing this inscription:

"Rev. James Robertson, D. D.,
Pastor of Norwich 1869—1874
First Pastor of Knox Church, Winnipeg,
Superintendent of Western Missions

"Endowed by God with extraordinary talents, entrusted by his Church with unique powers, he used all for the good of his country and for the glory of God. The story of his work is the history of the Presbyterian Church in Western Canada, and while Western Canada endures, that work will abide.

To his memory and to the Glory of God this stone is erected by a few of those who loved him and counted it a joy to labour with him in his great work."

That monument of granite will become dust, blown by passing winds, but coeval with Time the monument of his Life will stand to the glory of His name who made him what he was.

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