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The Life of James Robertson

AT the close of his first session at Princeton, Robertson returned to Canada for the summer and took up his first mission field, supplying the stations of Thamesville, Botany, and Indian Lands. His experience at his first service was prophetic of much that was to meet him in after-years.

"I arose Sabbath morning between six and seven and got ready for my drive to Indian Lands, nine miles away. After breakfast Mr. Caven got the buggy and we set off. It had rained through the night, but was fair now. Mr. Caven drove me down about a mile and got one of his member’s sons to drive me the rest of the road, as he had to preach himself at eleven. The roads were very muddy and full of water. The time was short, we had a good distance to go, and as we went through mud and water at a good rate, the usual result followed—mud flew in all directions, covering us pretty well up. Soon we came to a part of the road that was through bush. The horse could not trot for water, stumps on one side, quagmire on the other." We well remember those same swamp corduroy roads, common enough in pioneer days. "We scarcely knew which was better, to run against the one or plunge into the other. Judging that the chances lay in favour of the superior resistance of the stumps, we tried the quagmire and succeeded in all cases in getting to the other side."

This is the beginning of a habit that becomes inveterate with him. He has the saving sense of humour that prevents a too serious consideration of difficulties; and further, it little matters what may intervene, our missionary, now and afterwards, invariably gets to the other side.

"After a time we got to our journey’s end. The young man returned and I went on my way amid some rain to the large log house where services were to be conducted, found a good number present, and after introducing myself, was ready to commence. The log house was divided by a partition. In one end services are carried on, in the other cooking and so forth. The preacher stood behind the table—in front and along the sides were ranged planks. From behind this table I was to hold forth."

A situation frequently reproduced, with wide variation of details, in our mud-bespattered missionary’s career. But we are grateful for this initiation, for it was here that he was delivered from the bondage of his manuscript, as we learn.

"The table was so low that I could get little or no help at all from my notes which I placed upon it. I saw it would not do to attempt reading, as I would have to do it from my fist, which would not be a very graceful performance. I, therefore, concluded to extemporize, knowing well, of course, the topics and line of argument contained in my manuscript. I succeeded tolerably, as I judged from the remarks that were afterwards made."

It added not a little to their weight that these remarks fell from no less a person than Mr. Henderson himself, the sermon-taster of Indian Lands, the terror of all missionary students and fledgeling ministers. Small wonder our missionary notes with evident relief and satisfaction Mr. Henderson’s opinion "that the whole was clearly and intelligently set forth." And so to the end of his preaching days will it be with him, whatever else may or may not be said, it is ever "clearly and intelligently set forth."

At the close of the second session at Princeton, Robertson was licensed to preach the Gospel, and after another summer in the mission field he betook himself to Union Theological Seminary, New York, urged to this change by a variety of reasons. In a letter he says:

"I think I am not going to return to Princeton. I have got the best of the course during these two years, and so next winter I will attend Union Seminary in New York. I can thus get acquainted with all the modes of working there and do better, I think, than by spending another winter here. The city will afford me an opportunity of hearing men that no other place will. I can also have access to libraries and so forth, such as I cannot get here, and I will have an opportunity of securing the foundation of a library at a much cheaper rate than at Princeton. Besides, I hope to catch the animus of the place and to benefit from new associations and new scenes."

So in the autumn of 1868 he took up his abode at 9 University Place, New York City, and enrolled himself as a third year student in Union Theological Seminary. Eagerly he plunges into his college work, but great as is the student instinct in him, there is another instinct in him that cannot be suppressed. He is a missionary to the heart’s core. And hence we find him engaged in Sabbath-school work in the Alexander Mission down-town, in connection with Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, of which the Rev. Dr. John Hall was pastor, and with which he had enrolled himself as a member. Before long he is given charge of the work at the mission. This mission had been carried on for a number of years but never with any great degree of success. Many students were to be found glad of the chance to increase by this work their all too scanty living, but few were possessed at once of the physical vigour and the concentrated devotion necessary to make the work truly successful. Robertson possessed both in the highest degree, and entered upon his work in the slums surrounding the Alexander Mission with that tremendous energy which distinguished his every activity.

"I am working away," he writes, "in connection with the mission. The numbers are increasing. I hope before winter is over that we can command a good attendance. The people pay good attention and are very quiet. I am visiting a good deal, but have not got yet thoroughly acquainted with the field. There is a great deal of misery among the people. Their life cannot be a happy one. How many of them live we can scarcely tell."

The terms of engagement are set forth in true American businesslike style in the following document:

"68 Wall Street, N. Y., or 11 East Ninth Street,

"October 9th, 1868.



"To prevent misunderstanding between us as to the terms of your engagement by the Alexander Mission which commenced October 1st, I now write as to the same.

"1st. You are engaged to preach every Sabbath evening and to conduct the weekly Tuesday evening lecture or a prayer-meeting as required; and you are to be present at the Tuesday evening meetings when required as well when the meeting may be a lecture as when it may be a prayer-meeting.

"2d. You are to be present at the teachers’ meetings when held and assist in the consideration of the Sabbath-school lessons, and conduct the meetings if required.

"3d. You are to hold yourself in readiness to prepare with the school managers a programme for making the Tuesday evening meeting or any of the meetings interesting and profitable.

"4th. You are to visit twelve hours per week upon the families connected with the mission, and try and build up the evening meetings by including a greater attendance of adults if possible. After you become acquainted with the field, arrangements will be made as to visiting generally.

"5th. You are occasionally during each month to attend the Sabbath afternoon mission meetings and make pastoral visits, and make the acquaintance of the older scholars connected with the school.

"6th. When the sewing school shall be in session during the winter you are to look in upon the children occasionally gathered in said school.

"7th. You are to make monthly reports of the mission, directed to the treasurer, H. S. Terbell, and hand the reports either to Mr. Thomas S. Adams or to me, and in these reports you are to speak of the work generally, also of any cases of interest, number of visits made, the attendance upon your meetings and of any other matters that may occur as naturally to be reported upon.

"8th. Any cases of need or cases requiring attention are to be reported immediately.

"9th. In short, you are to hold yourself in readiness to attend to any special cases and to care for the interests of the mission generally, and to visit with any teacher desiring your aid in visiting upon members of the school.

"10th. You said you should not continue with us if you found you were not giving satisfaction.

"The only cause of dissatisfaction, I think, could be your metaphysical turn of mind. The people require plain, earnest, practical, illustrative preaching, and if you can satisfy on this point, I have no doubt of your success.

"However, as it is in a measure uncertain as yet how far you may succeed in adapting your preaching to the people, we have thought it best to make your engagement to continue so long as both the mission managers and yourself shall be mutually satisfied with each other, provided, however, that in any event (even if we were satisfied with each other) your term of service or engagement by the mission shall terminate with the 18th of May, 1869, unless renewed for a further term by mutual agreement.

"11th. For your services to be rendered as above you are to receive forty dollars per month, and to make out your account therefor, which, when approved by either Mr. Thos. S. Adams, or myself, will be paid by Mr. H. S. Terbell, treasurer, 39 Walker Street.

"12th. A committee of the Board of Management will from time to time meet with you to talk over the work and its needs, etc.

"Hoping your connection with the mission will be greatly blessed and will result in a church organization, I remain,

"Yours very respectfully,

"In behalf of the Board of
Managers of the Alexander
Mission, King Street.

"P. S. A written reply to the above is requested.

"L. A. B."

Forty dollars a month! In all his life he had never had such wealth at his disposal! But will any one say that with preaching and lecturing, Sabbath-school and sewing meetings and prayer-meetings, not to speak of monthly reports and "attendance upon any teacher desiring aid in visiting members of the school," each and every dollar of the forty was not fully earned ?

The shrewd and business- like managers of the Alexander Mission seemed to hold this opinion, for before three months are passed they are determined to secure the Canadian missionary for their own. A proposition is made to him of which he writes the following letter from University Place, New York, under date Jan. 13, 1869:

"Since I came back a proposition has been made to me about the mission, namely, as to whether I would be willing to stay on here permanently. There are no preliminaries arranged at all about the matter, but granted that an adequate salary, say fifteen hundred dollars to start with, would be given, should I consent to stay? They say they have been for years looking for a man for the work. They once found one, but he proved too weak physically. They say I am just such a one as they have wished for. I have the bodily strength and the mental vigour necessary. Will I accept? They told me to think of the matter till spring and that then I would be able to tell them what I thought of it."

And for the following weeks this business was the occasion of many an anxious thought and the theme of many a letter to her who was concerned in its issue equally with himself. He is very frank with her and does not shrink from discussing the matter from a domestic point of view.

"If I stay here even a year I am afraid my connection with Canada will be gone, and yet I don’t know that I ought to run away from the work. One thing is certain, I would not like to commence housekeeping in New York, nor especially would I like to raise a family here. That may be looking too far ahead, but I think I must look further than next year."

And would to heaven all prospective fathers had the grace and sense to look ahead more than a year! But he is a Scot and the shrewd Scotch thrifty head on him takes note of another aspect.

"Should I stay here merely for one year unmarried, it would be better for me financially than anything I could do in Canada, for I should be some six or seven hundred dollars in pocket a year from next spring, with which to start housekeeping. I have no opinion on the subject as yet; I am merely looking at a few items."

Canny man! It is a matter of life-issues, yes, and of eternal issues, and there is much thought and prayer a-needing before it be finally settled. He must think for more than himself, too, and so he writes as in every letter for advice.

"What advice can you give me on the subject? This is a matter which touches yourself and how am I to act in reference to it? ‘Would you be willing to wait if I should stay here for a year on trial and then go back to Canada?"

Wait! Ay, that she would, but she has waited ten years and he can hardly bring himself to feel that it is right to make her wait longer, and so on through the following weeks he discusses with himself and her. Meantime the work grows under his hand. The poor people come to love and trust him. The school and other departments flourish beyond all expectation. The attendance at all the services is greater than ever before. He begins to feel the pull of the work upon him and the question thrusts itself in upon his conscience, Ought he to abandon his work for any cause? The managers and the people earnestly press him. Dr. Hall adds his solicitations. At length he determines to bring the matter to a clear understanding. His strong, clear sense demands definiteness in the proposition before he can accept or reject. He has a consultation with the managers, the result of which he thus records:

"I met the managers of the Alexander Mission last evening and discussed the whole question. They were ready to grant everything I wanted. The points that were discussed may be reduced to four.

"(1) Organization. They have had preaching for the last fifteen years but never organization. Hence those who have been converted through the instrumentality of the mission have been obliged to connect themselves with other churches. This has all along been a hindrance. When the question of organization was proposed they would not hear of it. They were for the work con-tinning as in previous years. I refused at once to consider the subject at all without this first condition. After discussion they decided that they would organize as soon as I chose.

"(2) Church building. The place in which we worship now is merely a place fitted up by knocking two double houses into one. I wanted them to build or buy a church, and give us a good place to meet in as soon as possible.

This they promised to do as soon as the work would grow a little.

"(3) Am I the man for the place? I questioned my fitness for the work. This they all set aside. Dr. Hall was consulted and he said, ‘Keep him if you can.’ The managers themselves heard me preach and their opinion was that I was decidedly the best they had had in fifteen years ; the teachers, the people, and all of them were unanimous in wishing me to stay. I scarcely knew what to do, so the matter rests there at present.

"(4) Salary. The church promised twelve hundred dollars, but I was told that if I was not satisfied the managers would add more to it. I told them I could say nothing till I had looked about me to see the price of living and so forth. I was given time."

As we read over these four points of his, these words ring in our ears with a strange familiarity, "Organization, Visibility, Fitness, Finance." How often do these key words ring from him in after-years! He meets his managers again and gives them his final decision. He cannot stay with them. To this decision he is brought, not by personal interests nor by family considerations alone, influential as these may be. It is his country that calls him. The unmanned fields of Canada, the little backwoods settlements demand labourers. True, the congregations are small. They are poor. Growth will be slow. The sphere will always be limited, offering small scope for his powers, of which he is beginning to be clearly conscious, but it is his own country, the country of his kindred, and its claims cannot be unheeded.

Before he leaves New York, he is approached by another congregation and offered a large salary to remain. Ambition appeals to him. His fellow students all advise him to stay. His friend Remick writes him,

"Stay, Robertson, and you will become the pastor of a large church in New York. You have the ability and you only need it brought out by circumstances." Dr. Hall urges him not to leave New York. He would be sure to rise much quicker there than he could possibly in Canada or elsewhere. The following letter lets us into his mind:

"I got a letter to-day from Mr. Mac—. He urges a great need of men in Canada, the number of stations without supplies, the number of congregations without pastors. In this respect he is of your opinion, although perhaps on different grounds. You will not decide in favour of any particular place. You will not even allow yourself to think of a place as yet, but all unconsciously you were applying your argument more powerfully than he. You were willing to go with me in my choice, yet you wished to be near your parents, and you were sure they would not move away with you. Your parents would think it very hard if you went away from home to some different country, as would, no doubt, be the case with my father. If I could see my way clear otherwise, I do not think that would hinder me, nor do I think it would you, however difficult for a time."

The future years of separation and of mutual denial of self, each for the other and both for their common Master, offer a striking and pathetic commentary upon this faith of his in her he had chosen for companion. For, during all the long years that followed, so large a proportion of which they spent apart from each other, she never grudged him to his work, though often the denial of love was bitter enough and the weight of responsibility and care almost more than could be borne. But from the first, they were clear about this matter of mutual sacrifice, so he continues:

"We are no longer our own in that respect now. The time for self is gone with us. When we entered this sphere it was with the understanding that we were ready to do the Master’s work wherever He wished. If true to Him, this we must still do or else bear the consequences of going at our own charges. It would be a fearful thing to think of in our future course, that we had regarded self and selfish considerations and not our Master’s work. If his work did not prosper, we could scarcely ever forgive ourselves. But I acknowledge to you that it is not an easy matter for me to decide what to do."

But he had seen his way and it lay towards Canada, and once having seen it, nothing could turn him from it. In a short time he is settled in a small charge at a quarter of the salary offered by the big New York congregation. "The time for self is done." That was the key-note of his life then and after, as all men can testify who knew him well. His long and arduous struggle with severe poverty and untoward circumstances was at an end. By dint of unremitting industry, strong resolve, unswerving adherence to his purpose, he has arrived at the goal he had set before him years before.

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