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The Life of James Robertson

THE Presbyterian Church is a democratic institution and historically and sensitively loyal to two great principles in polity, one the supremacy of Presbytery, the other the parity of Presbyters. The first principle guards against the encroachment on the part of any other Church court or of any Church dignitary upon the absolute authority of Presbytery, a body which owes its existence ultimately to the will of the people. No right is more jealously guarded by Presbytery than that of absolute control over all congregations and ministers within its jurisdiction.

The principle of parity of Presbyters opposes itself to every assumption of authority on the part of any individual, no matter how richly endowed in mental and spiritual gifts or how vested with authority by virtue of office. Before the Presbytery all Presbyters stand equal, and any authority held or exercised is so held and exercised only by delegation of Presbytery.

It was inevitable that in the exercise of the functions of his office the Superintendent should come near to being wrecked upon these constitutional rocks. It was ominous of future trouble that immediately after the appointment of the Superintendent, and when the regulations governing his office were being discussed, the Rev. H. McKellar, a worthy and conscientious member of the Manitoba Presbytery, should feel it his duty to oppose with might and main the use of the word "oversight" in defining the Superintendent’s duties, and should feel called upon to table his dissent against the finding of the General Assembly in this regard. To his mind "oversight" was an un-Presbyterian infringement upon the rights of Presbytery and a denial of the doctrine of the parity of Presbyters. But the word went into the regulations and the thing into the duty of the new Superintendent, and with a vengeance. For not unfrequently the Presbytery or the Home Mission Committee would find itself ignored and would be asked, with what grace it could muster, to approve, homologate, or condone some action of its Superintendent as in the following instance:

In the discharge of the duties of his office, the Superintendent happened upon a congregation which had reached such a stage of development as seemed to demand for its highest good the settlement of a pastor. The procedure in such cases is clearly defined in the Book of Forms. The Presbytery is consulted by the congregation, leave is obtained to moderate in a call, the congregational organization and standing are thereupon carefully examined, the congregation duly summoned by edict of Presbytery to exercise its right of call, and having exercised this right the Presbytery proceeds, if satisfied that the interests of all have been guarded, to sustain the call and effect a settlement. In this particular case the Superintendent finds the congregation clearly in need of a pastor, but absolutely without organization, there being not even a Communion Roll. The presence of a pastor would greatly strengthen the cause not only in that congregation, but in the whole community. Moreover, the congregation has fixed its affection—most happy circumstance—upon a certain minister who, it is believed, reciprocates this feeling. What is to be done? The proper and ordinary course is well known to the Superintendent, but there are other considerations. The Presbytery will not meet for weeks, perhaps months; the calling of a special meeting is a serious matter involving expenditure of money and time on the part of brethren who have little of either to spend. Why put the brethren to this expenditures Why, indeed, when the Superintendent can do all that is necessary himself, and when the Presbytery will doubtless approve, homologate or condone, if need be, at its first meeting, what he does? The Superintendent assumes Presbyterial powers, issues the edict, summons the congregation, grants leave to moderate in a call, has the call issued forthwith, sustained, accepted, the minister duly settled and the whole business reported to Presbytery at its first meeting, with the suggestion that the proper and only course now open to that court is to approve, homologate or condone if need be. And this, indeed, the Presbytery perforce and very sensibly proceeds to do and then sits back to digest its surprise, horror or indignation, according to the temper or ecclesiastical training of each Presbyter concerned.

To most of the brethren the Superintendent’s course appears to be the only one open to a man of earnest purpose and of common sense, and so the whole matter is accepted with a smile. But it would be strange, indeed, if some worthy brother were not found to whom the whole procedure appeared not only entirely un-Presbyterian, but also little short of sacrilege. The Superintendent, however, neither unduly affected by the deprecatory smile of approval or the upraised brow of horror, goes calmly on his way to do it again, if the exigencies of the work should demand.

But there were those in whose breasts this rough shod trampling upon the rights of Presbytery and of Presbyters rankled and who were determined that this should end. Hence, once and again the Superintendent is arraigned before the Home Mission Committee and Presbytery only to make his defence with smiling urbanity, or with hot indignation, according to the nature of the criticism, to the effect that at all costs the work must be done, with Presbytery or without Presbytery, as the case may be, and then depart to his work unrepentant, though promising to exercise all care in the future, but leaving in the minds of his fellow-Presbyters no assured confidence that such care will result in any marked change of conduct. With most of his brethren forgiveness was easy, when from his long-drawn and arduous tours the Superintendent came back to them with his marvellous reports that told only of the things accomplished, and made light of the toils endured. There were some, however, who allowed themselves to import such bitterness into their criticisms of the Superintendent and his methods in these early years, as would suggest that they were not wholly free from personal animus. The following anonymous letter which appeared in the Toronto Mail would seem to be the outcome of such animus. The letter has value now, as showing the atmosphere in which the Superintendent did his work, and the seriousness of the hostility he now and then encountered. The letter is a curious survival of a spirit long since dead and buried, and is as follows:

"Another matter that demands immediate attention is the abolition of that nondescript office of Superintendent now paraded in Winnipeg. For pity sake if we are to have a bishop let him be a man of education and culture, of enlarged mind and entire devotedness to his work, and not a man of very little education, of wretched pulpit ability, of abnormal sectarian bias, of little judiciousness and of less sense, who fell into this position which had been humanely provided for him before the fall, when he was kicked out of the upper windows of Knox Church of Winnipeg, to make room for a better man; who, unbishoplike, lives apart from his family

with his wife’s friends, while he boards like a boss-walker at Winnipeg’s Queens, which grand hotel is the land bourse of the Northwest where speculators from everywhere congregate and gamble in ‘Manitoba dirt.’ If there must be such an office, let it be filled by a pious and laborious minister of the Gospel and not by a moneyed land-grabber who deceived the Church by his assumption of zeal and his long-winded, threadbare, harangues on the greatness and fertility of that country. Two thousand dollars a year and all his travelling expenses to and from the Northwest several times in the year should be saved to be applied in Supplementing four or five congregations in that country. How such men as the Revs. Gordon and Pitblado of Winnipeg can consent to continue such a farce, is more than I can understand. Of this I am sure, for I have heard it, that there is a wide-spread dissatisfaction throughout all that country at the career of the present incumbent of the superintendency who is only fit and infinitely fitter to ‘run’ a farm than to ‘oversee’ what in reality amounts in some degree to a bishopric.

"I call upon the enlightened Moderator of the General Assembly to stand up and utter his undisguised Scottish sentiment about this Superintendent matter. I call upon the able and pious ministers of Winnipeg to come to the fore and aid their people in that great prairie land by having immediate and liberal measures devised in their behalf. I call upon the members of the Home Mission Committee to drop at least a score of our moribund East-Oxford-like stations in Ontario and apply the money thus wasted in assisting (if only for two or three years) our Presbyterian people and their families out in the Northwest. And if in their wisdom this queer Superintendency be perpetuated or even upheld but one year more, for conscience sake appoint a man to it who will, at least to some little extent, resemble Chaucer’s ‘Poor Parson’ supposed to refer to Wyclif:

"‘Wide was his parish and houses far asunder;
But he ne left not for ne rain, ne thunder;
In sickness and in mischief to visite
The forest in his parish moche and light
Upon his fete and in his hand a staff."
—Prologue to Canterbury Tales.

"‘That man is mistaken who thinks to prevail upon the world by conforming himself to its fashions and manners’ (Quesnel). I would humbly add thereto ‘speculations’ in Northwestern lands by so-called Superintendents.

"Yours, etc.,

"March 21, 1883. A BLUE PRESBYTERIAN."

With this letter, however, very few if any of those most severely critical of the Superintendent and his methods would be found to sympathize. The chief effect of its publication was to elicit a storm of indignant protest against such a venomous attack. The following letter would fairly represent this general feeling of indignation:

"A letter appeared in your issue of the 23d inst. on the condition of the Church in the Northwest, to which as a member of Knox Church, Winnipeg, I beg space for a few words in reply.

"I shall not trouble you with any comment upon the paragraph referring to the ‘fact,’ which is not a fact, that there is not a settled Presbyterian minister on the C. P. B., west of Portage la Prairie. As I fail to see what connection an ‘old cranky congregation' in East Oxford has with the state of the Church in the Northwest, I need notice it no further than to call attention to the animus of the writer who, if I am not mistaken, is a ‘tramp of a minister’ who makes the state of the Church (not that he cares for the Church) the pretext for a vile attack upon the Superintendent of Missions. Any one who has the privilege of knowing the Rev. Mr. Robertson, the Superintendent of Missions, intimately, does not need to be told that the statements respecting him are either utterly false or the cruellest misrepresentation and give expression to the bitterest malice. Far from being ‘kicked out of the upper windows of Knox Church,’ Mr. Robertson was never more beloved by his congregation than he was when, at the command of the General Assembly, the pastoral tie was severed.

"In proof of this, were it necessary, I might refer to the minutes of the Session of the congregation, and if ‘A Blue Presbyterian’ wishes to know how Mr. Robertson is still lovingly regarded by his late congregation, let him come and witness the affectionate greeting he always receives. As to Mr. Robertson’s education, there is abundant evidence in the letter of ‘ A Blue Presbyterian’ that he is not competent to judge. As to his pulpit ability, if I may be permitted to use a sporting phrase, I would say one hundred to one Mr. Robertson as against ‘A Blue Presbyterian.’ As to his sectarian bias, it must be ‘abnormal,’ for Mr. Robertson gained and retains the respect and good-will of all sects. As to his ‘little judiciousness’ and ‘less sense,’ suffice it to say that hitherto Mr. Robertson has enjoyed the confidence of the Church.

"Extreme personal dislike of Mr. Robertson, coupled with a dog-in-the-manger spirit, pervades every line of ‘A Blue Presbyterian’s letter. Can it be true that in his extensive travels in ‘that vast country’ he was in the position of the dove which left the ark, and that all this overflow of bile is because the Superintendent did not follow the example of Noah and take him in?

"Yours, etc.,


"Winnipeg, March 31, 1883."

To Mr. and Mrs. Robertson, the first letter brought the greatest pain, as is evidenced by the following letter, of date March 30th, 1883:

"I suppose you saw that letter that appeared in the Mail of Friday. I think it must have been that to which you referred in your letter on Monday. I never saw it till I came here. It is a most diabolical attempt to ruin my character, but I trust it will fail. The Home Mission Committee came nobly to my rescue, and I am going to see if I cannot have the matter set right here, etc. The Mail apologized for inserting it already. I went to see Dr. King, but he was out. This has worried me a good deal. I do not like to suspect any one. The Home Mission Committee would feel like insisting on putting any one guilty of such an action out of the Church. But I trust we shall get over all this with God’s help."

The Assembly’s Home Mission Committee, then convened in Toronto, deeply resented this slanderous attack upon its honoured and trusted Superintendent, and gave the matter into the hands of a Committee consisting of Dr. King, Dr. Cochrane, Messrs. Macdonnell, Farries, and McKenzie. This Committee presented the following report which was unanimously adopted:

"The Home Mission Committee having had its attention called to an anonymous communication which, as admitted by the editor, was allowed without due consideration to appear in the Toronto Mail of Friday, 23d of March, reflecting injuriously on the Committee’s administration, and throwing very grave and slanderous aspersions on the character of the Superintendent of Missions in the Northwest, resolves as follows:

"1. That the statements contained in the letter respecting the working of the Home Mission field both in the Northwest and in Ontario, are in many particulars misleading and untruthful.

"2. That Mr. Robertson, the Superintendent of Missions, has proved himself to be an intelligent, indefatigable and self-sacrificing agent of the Church; that during the short period in which he has filled the position, he has been singularly successful, in developing the liberality of the people in Manitoba and the Northwest, both in the support of ordinances and in the creation of a Church and Manse Building Fund; in securing the accession to the field of valuable labourers, both ministers and students, and, generally, in promoting the rapid extension of the work therein.

"3. That the Committee has seen with pain and indignation this attempt to damage the ministerial standing and personal character of Mr. Robertson, not refraining from invading even the privacies of domestic life; that it assures him of its deep sympathy with him under an attack at once so undeserved, so malignant, and so cowardly; that it embraces the opportunity to express the high esteem in which its members hold him for his mental vigour, his breadth of view, his devotion to the Church’s interests, and his zeal in discharging the duties of his difficult position, and to assure him of its hearty support in carrying on the work to which the highest court of the Church has called him."

Somewhat similar in spirit and even more cowardly in manner was the attack made upon the Superintendent and his administration from another quarter. With his customary vigour the Superintendent defends himself and with good effect, as appears from a letter written to his friend Professor Hart:

"From Dr. Cochrane I learned that Mr. Blank was sending down statements to him about our financial state that are absolutely false. He represented that we are $1, 700 behind for the work of last summer, and, of course, he laid the blame on my shoulders. The fact is, that if the stations pay as expected, every cent will be wiped out. Our assets and amounts due from stations cover our liabilities. The Doctor kindly read letters received, that will compel me to make Mr. Blank keep a copy of all letters sent for perusal, for I find that he is a sneak and a coward, not sticking to the truth by any means in his statements. This I showed the Doctor to his satisfaction.

"The difficulty in Dr. Reid’s office was no difficulty at all. Instead of our account being overdrawn, there was something coming to us. Not only so, but a check of $64 of Mr. Moodie’s charged against us was paid, and $150 sent to Mr. Warden not accounted for. It likely went to pay some minister sent out permanently. The tactics of the gentleman are now known and he can be checked."

While the mission work of the West was administered by the single Presbytery of Manitoba, the Superintendent, by frequent consultation with members of his Committee, was able to prevent friction to a large extent, but after the erection of the Presbyteries of Brandon and Rock Lake and of the Synod of Manitoba and the Northwest Territories, each of these three courts having its own Home Mission Committee and Home Mission Convener, the occasions of misunderstanding and the opportunities of friction were, of course, multiplied fourfold. In the disposition of men and in the payment of grants it was charged that the Synod’s Home Mission Committee, and especially the Convener of that Committee, who also was the Superintendent of Missions, acted arbitrarily and without consulting the Presbytery authorities.

The irritation in the Presbyteries of Brandon and Rock Lake found expression in various appeals to the Assembly’s Home Mission Committee, but at length was embodied in two overtures from these Presbyteries to the General Assembly of 1886. The General Assembly receiving the overtures, determined to get to the bottom of the difficulty. There was an uneasy feeling in the mind of the Assembly that there must be some serious cause for the discontent and the irritation that was said to be so wide-spread in the West. The overture from the Presbytery of Brandon sought relief against the method presently in vogue of distributing grants, and prayed for the abolishing of the Synod’s Home Mission Committee. The overture from the Presbytery of Rock Lake prayed the General Assembly so to amend the instructions given to the Superintendent of Missions as to prevent the powers entrusted to him from conflicting with the undoubted rights and privileges of Presbyteries. The overtures were supported in the Assembly and afterwards in Committee by men, some of whom were warm personal friends and admirers of the Superintendent’s who were opposed, some to the idea of a superintendency altogether, and others to the peculiar methods employed by the Superintendent and the Synod’s Home Mission Committee. The fate of the overtures is told in the following extract taken from a letter written by one who took a somewhat prominent part in the settlement of the affair:

"The chief speaker in the presentation of these overtures was the Rev. James Todd, at that time minister of Burnside. Mr. Todd was strong on constitutional law and saw no place in the government of the Presbyterian Church for such a personage as a Superintendent. He has presumably changed his mind since that day, for he now occupies with credit to himself and no little usefulness to the Church, the position of Superintendent of Missions in the New England States, in the interests of the American Presbyterian Church. The debate in the Assembly was lengthy and complicated, and after three several motions had been proposed, it was agreed to refer the matter to a special Committee to be made up

"1. Of the Home Mission Committee,
"2. Western Commissioners who were present at the Assembly, and
"3. Six members of the Assembly nominated by the Moderator.

This Committee met and spent a whole evening in deliberation. Feeling, especially among the Western members, was tense, and the discussion will long linger in the minds of those who were present at it. The chief men in advocacy of the policy recommended in the overtures were, in addition to Mr. Todd, Rev. C. B. Pitblado, of St. Andrew’s Church, Winnipeg, Dr. Bryce, and Mr. W. D. Russell. The leading men who advocated the maintenance of the Superintendency were Rev. P. M. Gordon, minister of Knox Church, Winnipeg, Professor Hart, Messrs. Arch. McLaren of Springgeld, and A. B. Baird, of Edmonton. The time of the Committee was taken up chiefly in the discussion of specific instances, showing the unsatisfactory nature of the management of Home Missions in the West. The Committee insisted that it needed such specific instances in order to judge of the merits of the case. The opponents of the Superintendency were somewhat at a loss, because as is usual in such cases, what they were able to present was in a considerable measure only hearsay evidence, about the details of which, when they were cross-examined, they were rather hazy. The gist of the charges was that the Superintendent had acted in an arbitrary way, overriding or failing to give effect to the decisions of Presbyteries, transferring men from one field to another without Presbyterial authority and such like. The feature of the evening which lingers most clearly in my mind is Dr. Robertson’s defence. It was a masterpiece; he had perfect control of his temper (something which could not be said of every member of the Committee), and he had the advantage, too, of replying to charges in which he was more complete master of the facts than any one of those who brought the charges. Indeed, he, in excess of candour and with some humour, pointed out in one or two instances where the allegations against him were not as strong as they might have been made, and indicated where his fault had been greater than alleged. He took up in detail the instances brought forward, and showed that however arbitrary his conduct looked on a partial statement of the facts, when the facts were fully stated, his procedure was seen to be not only capable of defence, but the most suitable and even the inevitable course in the circumstances. The freedom from bitterness which marked his statement, the marvellous memory which kept in view the names and details of each case, the organizing faculty which made him ready, at risk to his own reputation, to make the most of every strategic situation, and his manifest devotion to his work made that evening an impression which, instead of causing the Church to mistrust him, placed him higher in her confidence than he had ever been before. The report of this Committee when it was presented to the General Assembly contained a large number of clauses dealing for the most part with the constitution and work of the Synodical Home Mission Committee. But among other things the Committee declared that ‘It is undesirable to effect any change in the regulations affecting the duties of the Superintendent or his relationship to the Synod or the Presbyteries within its bounds.’ And in another clause the Committee recommended to the Assembly to place on record its appreciation of the services rendered by the Superintendent of Missions ‘whose labours have resulted so beneficially in the furtherance of the work of the Church in the Northwest.’ "

This deliverance of the Assembly broke the back of all opposition to the Superintendency and cleared the air of all the clouds of suspicion and distrust that had hovered about the administration of Western missions. It also defined more clearly the limits within which the various committees and officials should exercise their functions, and revealed this fact, that as in so many cases the misunderstandings and difficulties that had arisen were to be traced not so much to the perversity of those engaged in the work, as to defects in the system under which the work was carried on. Henceforth the Superintendent will claim no powers but such as are delegated by Presbytory, though it is to be feared that he will continue to be what an indignant critic once called him, "a walking Presbytery himself." There will be criticism both of the man and of his methods, and there will be misunderstandings with Committees and Conveners, but the triumph of the Superintendent, both before the Committee and upon the floor of the General Assembly itself; was so complete and so conspicuous, that no one henceforth will ever venture to hale him before any Church court soever. And it is fair to say that those who opposed him that day were, for the most part, uninfluenced by personal animus, and those who continued to be co-labourers with him in Western work came to give him full confidence and affection, freely forgiving what in their judgment they could not approve as being in harmony with Presbyterian polity.

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