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The Life of James Robertson

HAVING decided for Canada, Robertson was relieved of further anxiety as to a sphere of labour. For in Western Ontario there were not a few fields, such as they were, standing vacant. There remained, however, another matter of the first importance demanding due and earnest consideration, and that was his marriage.

The following letter is so unusual with him in its self-revelation, so full of tender affection, that it does much to quell in us anything of impatience with the determined, almost imperious self-confidence, of this young man who has a way of making things move out of the path before him. Hence we give it in full, with the address and date, No. 9 University Place, New York, February 3, 1869.

"Just twelve years ago to-day I left home to endeavour to do somethiiig for myself. How brief the time appears, and yet what changes since! Little did I think at that time that I should be spending the twelfth anniversary of that day in New York City in the last year of my theological course. Less still, that I should be writing a letter to Miss Cowing! Well I know and feel that I have not had the shaping of my own life. Goodness and mercy have followed me, and now I ought to raise my stone of remembrance to Him who is the Author of all my blessings. When I left home then, I was a green lad without any experience of the world —"

That is true enough; no need to tell us that, James, with your "high-water trousers," your unspeakable hats and your clothes so fearfully and wonderfully made, the result of the untutored genius of the travelling tailor. Not but what you had earned money enough to buy you finer, but your brothers and your father were in need of it, both then and in the hard college years afterwards. But green though he was, he had his deep thoughts and his lofty aims, as witness:

"I had some aspirations higher than those of a schoolteacher, but how they were to be realized was more than I knew. The first two years of my course were rather dreary, nothing having been realized. I was too recently from home to effect much. It was when I went to Innerkip that I became fixed in opinions and began to draw out the faint outlines of my future course. Ten years appeared long to look ahead. When once my resolve was taken, however, I was committed to it and my only aim was to attain my goal."

That characteristic of his that came to stand out so clearly seems to have been early bred in his bones. Once committed to a resolve, there is no more shilly-shallying for him, but straight at it he goes. Now he turns to her, who through these years has had the harder part, and speaks thus tenderly:

"With the whole of these ten years you are familiar. You have known all. I had neither ability nor inclination to conceal anything from you. My troubles you have shared and lightened. My joys you have doubled. Your sympathy has ever cheered me in gloomy hours, and the thought of you has often served as a guardian angel in the hour of temptation.

"These ten years have not been without their trials, light though they may seem to me now, but if they have given me more of a spirit of self-reliance, if they have made me more practical, if they have acted as a fire to purge away considerable dross, 1 am content. These difficulties, however, have never made any difference between us. We have been together and separated, but I hope we have only learned to love each other the more. Had our circumstances been different we might not have had so much real pleasure, and although I am buoyant enough in spirit to hope that greater pleasure is in store for us, yet I must say that if the future has in its bosom an amount equal to that of the past I shall not quarrel with it. The future is, of course, to be to me a time of trial; it is to be a time of activity as well, if my life is spared, and as in all the past I have had your sympathy and support, I expect it still in the future, only more. so, inasmuch as you will be equally interested in the work with me. In the past I have worked alone to a great extent. In the future I hope to be in partnership where I shall have a right to expect counsel and advice."

And nothing in the man during this period of his life stands out more honourably than this, his watchful care that there should come no gulf between the student with developing powers and ever-widening views and growing ambitions, and the simple, bright-eyed country lass who had, in spite of herself, given him her heart’s love years ago. What pains he takes that she shall know all about him, not only the more external happenings, but the inner movements of his life as well. With her he shares his thoughts, his changing opinions, his aims, his plans. He guides her reading, stimulates her intellect by suggesting topics of study, so that when he comes to claim her he finds her fit for companionship and ready to share in his life-work.

On the 23d of September, 1869, they were married. Never had man a wife more loyal, more faithful, more steadfast under burdens, more ready to offer herself in sacrifice upon the altar of her own or her husband’s service. For thirty-three years she stood beside him, sharing with equal readiness his sorrow and joy, thus joining with him in his great ministry, in her place and according to her ability, without faltering and without complaining till the very close, assuming after a few brief years the whole care of family and home that he might be carefree for his wider work. Something of what Canada owes to her husband, many Canadians will ever gratefully acknowledge, but what Canada owes to this silent, faithful, courageous woman, no one will ever know.

A few weeks after their marriage, on the 18th of November, 1869, Mr. Robertson was ordained and inducted into the pastoral charge of Norwich, a small village in the southeast of Oxford County, in the Province of Ontario, where they settled down in the cozy little manse to a few years of busy, happy life. Writing of this period Mrs. Robertson says:

"We set up our first housekeeping at Norwich in the manse, a pretty white cottage in a garden. We had plenty of work and we had pleasures too. The people were exceedingly kind and the years passed quickly. Three of our five children were born during these years, Tina with her charms and winning ways, the pride and pet of the congregation, then Willie and Jamsie, sturdy little fellows, fond of their own way."

We should expect just that of Willie and Jamsie, remembering that they were children, and knowing something of the father they had.

There was nothing to distinguish this congregation from scores of others in Western Ontario. There were two out-stations, Southeast Oxford and Windham, attached to Norwich, and these three constituted a charge somewhat widely scattered, involving long drives and very considerable exposure. The congregation was made up for the most part of small farmers who, though in much easier circumstances, retained in their ways of thinking and living much of the primitive simplicity of the early pioneer days. But though the congregation was ordinary, their young minister was by no means so. His very first sermon, such was its extraordinary force and vigour, took the people by storm, and during his stay with them he never failed to grip his people with his preaching. He was frequently asked to exchange pulpits with neighbouring ministers. One day after hearing him preach, the minister of a neighbouring town, himself one of Canada’s most distinguished preachers of that day, exclaimed:

"There’s a man who will one day be great, likely a professor in one of our colleges."

He was a tremendous worker. He planned large things and such were his great physical powers that he could carry through his plans to completion. Difficulties could not daunt him. An incident is related by his wife:

"Having three regular stations and really four others, there was much visiting to be done and much driving. We provided ourselves with a horse and named him ‘Derby.’ He was a fine animal and did us good service. He was well fed and well treated, but he must not let the grass grow under his feet if his master was behind him. If the driver lost his way, for then he was fond of exploration as in after years, he need only to loosen the reins and Derby would bring him safely home, whatever the state of the roads or however dark the night. On one occasion only, if I remember rightly, did he refuse to do his master’s bidding. It was the time of the spring freshets. The pastor was to speak at an important meeting some eight miles distant. Other speakers were to he there too. He got about half-way when the road was blocked by running water, ice and logs. Derby positively refused to go through. Turning to the nearest farmhouse he left there his wife and horse, but he went to the meeting. Taking off his boots and stockings, he rolled up his trousers, waded through the stream and reached the place in time to make his speech, the speech of the evening it turned out, none of the other speakers being able to get there. He afterwards said that he found little inconvenience in the crossing, except that his bare feet occasionally stuck to the ice."

"On another occasion," writes a parishioner of his, "our minister was to dispense communion in his East Oxford charge, and a brother minister from Woodstock was to preach for him in Norwich and Windham, or Bookton, as it came to be called. By some misunderstanding, the Woodstock man came on the Sabbath morning to East Oxford instead of to Norwich. Mr. Robertson had driven out from Norwich, a distance of some nine miles, and scarcely got his horse unhitched when, to his astonishment, the Woodstock man drove up. Mr. Robertson immediately hitched up his own horse again, and rushing his Woodstock friend into the buggy, gave him the whip and reins and said,

"‘Drive on, and be sure you don’t spare the horse. He’ll carry you through.’

"And as the minister drove down the road at a furious pace, Mr. Robertson continued to call after him, ‘Don’t spare the horse, he’ll carry you through.’"

Mr. Robertson was more than a mere minister to his congregation. He was a man with the best of them. It is related how on a Sabbath evening after he had begun his service, the fire-bell rang. At once Mr. Robertson dismissed the congregation, for fire protection there was none, unless such as could be provided by the bucket brigade. It was discovered that a neighbouring hotel was on fire. Immediately the minister took command of the situation, organized the crowd, and by dint of the most strenuous exertions had the fire suppressed. In gratitude for his services, and in sympathy with his exhausted condition, the hotel keeper brought him a bottle of brandy with which to refresh himself.

‘‘Never will I forget," writes another member of his congregation, "the manner in which he seized that brandy bottle by the neck, swung it round his head and dashed it against the brick wall, exclaiming, as he did so, ‘That’s a fire that can never be put out.’"

He had done more work than any two men at the fire, and was in consequence more in need of refreshment than any other, but he had a perfect hatred of drink and drinking habits.

Mr. Robertson was more than minister to his people; he was friend, counsellor, arbiter as well. They came to him not only with their spiritual difficulties, but also with their family troubles and business differences.

"Two of his congregation were in partnership for some time," writes one of his members. "They were both church workers, but when the time of the partnership expired there was some trouble in winding up their affairs. One day when Mr. Robertson was entering the office, he met one of them coming out, bade him good-morning, and receiving a very brief reply, said to the other partner, ‘Mr. W— seems to be in a hurry.’

"‘Yes,’ replied the partner, ‘we have been trying to settle up our affairs, but we are having some trouble.’

"‘I am sorry to hear that,’ says Mr. Robertson, ‘it will never do. If I can do anything to help you I shall only be too glad.’

"The men agreed to have Mr. Robertson act the part of arbitrator and soon both were satisfied."

The five years of their stay in Norwich were to the Robertsons years of hard but happy toil in the congregation, and of quiet domestic joy in their home. To these years how often in the midst of loneliness and separation for them both did they look back with wistful yearning. For never were they to know again the full peace and content and joy of unbroken family life. This their cross was laid upon them, and without murmur they took it up and carried it to the end.

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