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The Life of James Robertson

IF the Superintendent worked his men hard and made large demands upon their self-denial and their loyalty, he gave them, in return all he had of that priceless gift of sympathy expressed not only in words, but in deeds as well. Many a man in financial straits applied to the Superintendent for advice, and not only did he receive advice, but also that financial aid he was too sore at heart or too proud to ask. None knew better than the Superintendent the severity of the trial imposed upon the missionary, and more upon the missionary’s wife, by poverty. And none was quicker in sympathy and readier to help with a loan, to tide over a period of embarrassment. And it is only just to say that where there was an honest attempt at repayment, the Superintendent was never known to humiliate his debtor by pressing for payment. But where there was neither attempt to meet the debt nor any sense of obligation apparent, as was too frequently the case, the Superintendent’s sense of honour was offended and his righteous wrath would burn. He considered it an injury to the honour of the Church that a missionary should be careless of his financial obligations. In this regard he writes to a Western Convener as follows:

"Mr. Blank wrote me about the balance in your hands coming to me. He seems to be in straits, so I allow you to remit him the amount, but when the twenty-five per cent, is sent you from the Committee, I want you to retain that for me. It is to me clear that unless Blank finances differently and better, he is soon to get hopelessly involved, and in such a case his connection with us cannot continue. Please govern yourself accordingly."

Apparently Mr. Blank, however, was able to work upon the sympathies of the Superintendent, for a little later he writes to the same Convener in this way:

"I was sorry to learn of Mr. Blank’s difficulties, but have no idea that his past will in any way be a lesson to him. Those who know him and his family should never have advocated his ordination. When once ordained, he seems to have thought that he was to get a certain salary, and up to and beyond this figure he pitched the scale of his living, and when the part of the salary promised by the people was not paid, he fell into arrears. There is no use trying to keep him up at the present rate. My idea was to get half of mine uow and half next spring, but this now seems impracticable. I must, however, have part now, for I have obligations to meet, and must leave it with you to do your best in the circumstances. He begged me not to ask anything at present, but I could not afford this, as at least a dozen men are in my debt and all are asking favours. I question, in the light of my experience, whether in every case it would not be better to let every man manage his own finances and learn from the outset how to square his outlay with his income. Do not let any of them get you involved. Keep your hands off other people’s paper, if you would escape being scorched."

A very wise advice, indeed, but one exceedingly difficult to follow, especially by a man occupying a high position in the Church. We are glad to learn from the following letter that Mr. Blank made an attempt to meet his obligations:

"Yours enclosing check for fifty-eight dollars in part payment of loan to Blank. I am willing to wait till spring for balance, but see he does not wheedle you out of it—I could not trust myself when he begins to tell his story—as I cannot afford to lose this money. I am sorry for him, but yet his foolish ways are at the bottom of the whole trouble."

And these "foolish ways" are responsible, not only for much misery to those immediately concerned, but to all who seek in any way to assist them. Yet it is because of these "foolish ways" of foolish men that wiser men must bear their burdens. But whether the Superintendent chose the wisest plan is open to question. Perhaps he did, for though his method might be judged by many to be wholly unbusinesslike and his benevolence to be wholly misplaced, it may be that in the long run his folly proved the highest wisdom. There is evidence still in existence that by reason of these advances the Superintendent was financially the poorer by many thousands of dollars. But it is safe to say that he had compensations which could not be estimated in the money market.

Before the Assembly’s Home Mission Committee the Superintendent invariably stood forth as the champion of the West and of the Western missionary. Not unfrequently strict justice and sound business principle were upon the side of the Committee who were acting as trustees for Church funds. The Superintendent’s appeal in such cases was based upon the quality of mercy and that wider justice in which the element of humanity and the claims of a common brotherhood have large place.

The late Superintendent of Missions for North Ontario, the Rev. A. Findlay, whose wide experience in matters of this kind lends weight to his words, gives an instance in the following letter:

"How long ago I cannot say, nor who the man was, but I remember the incident very distinctly. It appeared that the Superintendent had sent a man to some new point, counting on certain returns from the field, but had been disappointed. There was due the missionary somewhere in the neighbourhood of $200, for which the Doctor asked a special grant of the above sum. It was discussed by the Committee at length. A vote was taken on the motion ‘that inasmuch as he had not consulted the Committee in the matter, it be not granted.’ I can see the Doctor yet, his tall figure towering over the head of the Convener as he explained the circumstances to the brethren. When the decision was announced, he resumed his seat with the remark "‘That is an honest debt. I promised him that he should get it, and he shall. I will pay it out of my own pocket.’

"Later a motion to reconsider was carried, and the amount passed."

This failure to consult the Committee was a sore point with the brethren, and the cause of many a severe criticism of their Superintendent, but all to no purpose. He was far from headquarters, the necessity for prompt action was imperative, hence the Superintendent acted and explained afterwards to the Committee, to their amusement or to their fury. Finally they surrendered. The Superintendent could not be "regulated."

There were two passions at work in his heart, the passion of sympathy—and a passion it was—for the hard-worked and poverty-stricken missionary, and the passion to guard his own honour and that of his Church. He was ever ready to show his personal interest in the work of his missionaries, and his delight in its progress by a contribution to that work. To a hard-working missionary in Manitoba, famous as a builder of churches, he writes as follows:

"Please find enclosed check for fifty dollars, being twenty-five dollars contribution towards the Building Fund of the church at Arden, and twenty-five dollars of an advance on salary. I wish very much I could have made your Building Fund a larger contribution, but I have more claims than usual this year.

"Wishing you every success in your work, and expressing my high appreciation of the spirit shown by you and work done as a contribution to the Church."

A missionary striving to give "visibility" to the cause in a British Columbia town, thus writes:

"I sent him an account of the progress we were making towards building the church at Cascade. We had subscriptions for twenty dollars, ten dollars, and so on down. Shortly afterwards I received a letter from him expressing his great pleasure in hearing of the work at Cascade, and adding, ‘Put my name down on your twenty dollar list.’ I told him when I saw him later, that it was with no thought of his contributing that I had sent him the account.

"‘I know it. I know it,’ he answered. ‘But it does me good to encourage the people and the missionary, and it will do the people good to find that there are others beside themselves interested in their welfare.'"

Upon another occasion he wrote a missionary who had passed through an unhappy squabble with a sister denomination in the matter of a union church, in which squabble the Presbyterians had come off, as was usually the case, second-best, as follows:

"But are his people willing to carry out Mr. H—’s dishonourable policy in the matter of services? The building was said to be a union building, and all were to share alike in it till they got places of worship of their own. Will he not concede something on that score? Were I in your place, however, I would arrange to put up a shell of a church, the people giving as much as possible, and the Church and Manse Board loaning you say $500. Why, with that and what your people could do, should you not be able to erect a building without plaster and without seats, but suitable for service? For such a building I would try to send you fifty dollars myself. I shall try to visit you in September, but go on now if you can. I shall write the Board to help you."

But far more than any financial help could be to his men, was the sympathetic understanding of all their trials and their needs. His visit to a missionary always brpught inspiration and fresh courage.

On one occasion it was the writer’s great privilege to accompany the Superintendent on a missionary tour throughout Alberta and British Columbia. The visit to Lethbridge, Alberta, then in charge of the Rev. Charles McKillop, a man whose heroic service and whose personal worth will ever be remembered with pride and affection by those who knew him, was thus recorded at the time:

"Between two and three in the morning we were making our way to the manse, piloted by the minister, I ready to drop at every step, but the chief apparently good for an all-night walk. We spent next forenoon in the study, talking about Lethbridge, its prospects, its depressions; the church, its standing financially and spiritually; the country about, the morals of the community, temperance, Sabbath observance, the Mormon settlement not far away, the state of the work there, etc. At first I thought we were only having a friendly chat, but I soon perceived that the Superintendent was doing his work, and before the chat was over he had got full knowledge of the congregation and its work, its strength and its weakness, its successes and its failures; he had got the minister’s judgment upon the prospects of the country, with the facts upon which the judgment was based ; in short, he had mastered the subject of Lethbridge. During this conversation he had been giving his opinion, too, on many points, suggesting methods of work, pointing out defects, emphasizing the extreme importance of maintaining a high standard in our Western Church, and all in such a way that the minister, instead of feeling as if he were being catechized, felt that he was having a fine time, as, indeed, he was, and that Dr. Robertson could spin a first-class yarn, which also was perfectly true. Next morning, however, when we bade farewell to Lethbridge, he left the minister and the minister’s wife in braver heart for their work, and that is much."

It was a continual source of wonder to his co-labourers in the work how, by the touch of his personality, he could lift a man out of discouragement and defeat into hope and determination to win at all costs.

"I shall never forget," writes one of his fellow-labourers, "the new view I had of our Superintendent one night as he sat in a dreary little room of a Western hotel, trying to brace up a young missionary on his first visit to the wild West.. It was immediately after the meeting of the Synod of Regina. The young man had sat through the Synod, more and more impressed every hour with the snap and swing of its procedure. The wide outlook, the far-reaching plans, the calm courage with which these men of the West assumed their responsibilities, the absence of pettiness and especially of personal considerations, had stirred the young man’s blood. He was ready for anything heroic. But he had been billed for Nelson, British Columbia, and was en route to his field. On the way up, a British Columbia man had been filling him up with ghastly stories about Nelson’s wickedness and Nelson’s depravity, and had ended up his tale by assuring the prospective missionary that the town was dead, too dead to be buried. The missionary was hesitating and unwilling to go forward ; not because of the difficulties and terrors of the town, but because it was dead. He had only one life and he was unwilling to waste it in a funeral service. He had in his hand a call from a Western American town of 1,200 people, with no church and no Christian service, offering him a fine opportunity and, incidentally, although this did not weigh much, a big salary. The Superintendent took him in hand like a father. He had had a fatiguing day at Synod, but there was no sign of weariness in the way he went at that young man. Patiently, kindly, earnestly, he dealt with him, showing the desperate need and the splendid opportunity in Nelson.

"‘Go and see,’ he said finally. ‘Remember you have a great Church behind you, and if in six months you think you are wasting your time, we will take you out.’"

The young man went, and the story of the work done in Nelson by Thomas H. Rogers, the first missionary to that milling town, lives still with the old-timers and with all his co-presbyters. In six months he came to his Presbytery red hot. Abandon Nelson? Never! The very least that would satisfy him was two additional workers. He had demanded three. Ten years afterwards this missionary, looking back through a mist, not of years only, but of tears as well, for his chief was dead, speaks in this way:

"Ten years vanished like a morning mist, and I was standing again on the wharf at Robson, B. C., awaiting the arrival of the big stern-wheeler from Revelstoke with Dr. Robertson on board. I had come over from the Kootenay Valley to the Columbia to meet him. How it all comes back again! I can even hear the raucous cry of the raven from the spruce and cottonwoods across the Columbia hurrying its water past the sloping dock, and a French Canadian telling somebody to ennui that what this country needs is development, with a strong accent on the first syllable.

"All at once the chiming steamboat whistle sounds and the Columbia around the bend is heading straight for the dock as if she would like to devour it. She is twice her usual size, but that is because Dr. Robertson is on board. There he stands, a striking figure in any company, tall, commanding, the only form I saw on that deck. Who will ever forget the huge black planter hat he wore? There is a smile and two or three satisfied nods as he recognizes me standing on a stanchion, thrilled to the marrow of my bones. I was over the rail with my arm around him in short order.

"‘So you came thirty miles out to meet me,’ he soon got time to say.

"‘If you knew what your visit down here means to us, you would not be surprised at that,’ I answered.

"‘How is Martin ?' he asked.

"‘He is well and on the crest of the boom as usual,’ I was glad to reply.

"Rev. D. M. Martin, now of Cannington, and I were the only Presbyterian missionaries south of the main line at that time between the Okanagan Valley and Lethbridge. Now there is a Presbytery.

"On that visit the Superintendent mastered every detail of the Kootenay work, and was able to direct its development from his headquarters in closer touch with his base of supplies.

"In Nelson it soon became known that a great man had come, and a crowded church faced him on his return from the north end of the field. He spoke to the people of the country and the country’s God. He gave facts and figures relating to the wealth of the country, which I have never heard gainsaid, and which astounded his hearers there. And he spoke of the shame of sin and disloyalty to our nation’s God, asking significantly if they were not ashamed of the huge heaps of empty bottles which, after the reduction of freight rates, were shipped out by the car-load. Further, he praised the missionary to the people before his very face.

"‘It’s worth while to hear a man like that talk ; he knows something,’ was the comment of a shrewd lawyer on the sermon.

"It is a fact that he declined the pleasure of a half-day’s fishing, the very best in America, for the sake of the work. This means much to any man who knows how to coil a fifty-foot line.

"This is given as a mere sample of a visit from Dr. Robertson, and I feel assured that from that date the importance of the Presbyterian Church bulked larger than ever before in Nelson, as, in fact, it must wherever he went."

The Superintendent had a quick eye for the man who was down, but still striving to do his best. To his fellow missionaries he might appear a failure, to himself he certainly did, but to his Superintendent the heroism of his losing campaign strongly appealed. The following incident is told by a co-Presbyter of a discouraged man:

"I remember one case of a missionary who had not been well and who had suffered from a sort of chronic disability that at times completely prostrated him. At a meeting of Presbytery he was overcome going to the church, and fainted on the street. We were all very sorry, of course, but did not show the practical sympathy that the Doctor did. After the Presbytery meeting we were all going home, the Doctor and I to Vancouver. This minister was on the train, and was to get off at a station reached about three o’clock in the morning. This was after the Doctor had been so ill that it was feared he would not recover. We were all anxious to spare him as much as possible, and it seemed necessary to take him in hand at times and peremptorily order him to desist from working, so that he could take needed rest. It was not customary for him to take a sleeping-car, so this night, fearing that he would not, I exacted a promise from him before I retired, to do so when he finished his conversation. Next morning when I met the Doctor, I knew he had not been in bed. I at once reminded him of his promise, for I felt guilty in having left him the night be-, fore. He said:

"‘You know how discouraged Mr. H— was, so I waited up to chat with him until he left the train, thinking I could give him some encouragement, and after that it was not worth while to go to bed, for the train was late, and it was nearly morning when he left me.’

"And so he had gone without a night’s rest for the one purpose of giving cheer to a missionary who was discouraged. And as a matter of fact, that man, who had failed before in his field, now succeeded most wonderfully."

A man saved from defeat in the presence of his enemies is a man endowed with victory. And no finer bit of work did the Superintendent do for his Church in many a year, than he did that night.

To see him transacting business, to note his shrewd common sense, his demand for accuracy in detail, one would think that he was lacking in those heart qualities that are necessary to real greatness. But whoever read him so, read him superficially. There is one missionary in the West to-day who can scarecly speak of the Superintendent without tears, for there comes with his name the memory of how, in the hour of his shame, the Superintendent came to him, lifted him, stood beside him, and stood for him till he was fully restored to his place. He is now an honoured minister in a Western Church, and rendering good service. And this is how he writes:

"He never forsook me. When friends became cold and many former acquaintances refused to recognize and speak to me, he stood by me. When, after almost total starvation having faced me and mine, I got a situation, he seemed to be overjoyed. He took up my case, and by his effort on my behalf I was restored to the ministry. No sooner was this done than he wrote me to prepare to come west and take up the work.

"In the winter of ‘99 he spent two days with us. We were proud to have him under our roof. He went away and I never saw him again, but his influence on my life will never leave me."

There is no more difficult or painful duty that falls to a superior officer, than to tell a subordinate that he is unfit and has failed. And it is only the truest sense of loyalty to the trust imposed in him by his Church that forced the Superintendent now and then to tell a missionary the painful truth about himself. To the Convener of a missionary of this kind he writes as follows:

"You will see Mr. Blank’s people and confer with them shortly, but neither he nor they need expect any increase in grant; rather they must be prepared for a reduction. The Church has dealt generously with him and them; he has done more to make himself and family comfortable since he joined us than in all his life before, apparently. His present home, with its comforts, has come to him through his stay with us. And that he is able to keep his children in town is the best proof that he is fairly well-cared-for. Large grants to stations may be made at the start, but they should not be expected to continue, the extension of work forbids it. - . - Keep your eye on this. It is not easy to move a man with such a large family, but the Home Mission Fund cannot be relied upon to perpetuate a state of things that in the last analysis is not equitable."

To the missionary himself he writes in this way:

"Your letter was sad reading, but what do you propose to do? It would seem that there are no openings for you in your own Presbytery, nor yet in the Presbytery adjoining. You would not find it congenial work in the mining district, nor could you easily get about. To come further east would be to remove far from your family; nor are the conditions any better than where you are. I would scarcely advise you to try the probationer’s role, but if you can save little money as a missionary, you could save less as a probationer.

"Your statement of expenses for eighteen months is scarcely fair, is it? You do not need a new buggy every eighteen months, nor a new cutter, nor a new team, nor a new set of harness? Would these not serve two eighteen months? If not, the tear and wear must be unusually heavy. And yet you charge them all to the eighteen months.

"Have you carefully inquired as to the causes of your non-success, and have you tried to remedy them?

When I mentioned your name in connection with a number of fields, they all said no. And yet they all acknowledged that you were a good preacher. I shall think the matter over, and if I can suggest any remedy I shall write you."

That was a difficult letter to write. It required courage of the highest quality, simply because his heart was overflowing at the time with sympathy for the man and his family. It was a great relief to the Superintendent to be able to find another sphere of work for this particular missionary, and to discover that his faithfulness in dealing with him was not lost, for in his new field he is meeting with great success.

Resolute as the Superintendent was that the work should not be sacrificed to the missionary, he was the last man on the Committee to give a man up, and in the Western Synodical Committee, the whole question of supply would often be reopened in the hope of finding a field for a weak brother, whom no Presbytery had been anxious to employ. He would indignantly resent anything like unfair treatment of a missionary on the part of any congregation. The following letter sets his attitude before us in clear light:

"Mr. F— has written me twice about Mr. M—, and I do not know what these people mean. Surely they do not want us to dismiss Mr. M— in the middle of the six months. I wrote Mr. F— that there was a certain orderly way of doing business and that that would be followed. Mr. M—’s reputation is part of his capital, and we do not intend to destroy that to please a few fussy people. They know the Presbytery meets on the 11th, that the half year does not end for a month yet, and I cannot understand why they should become hysterical in this way. He tells me that unless assured of Mr. M—’s removal, they will not go on to build the church. To yield to such a threat as that would be poltroonery. If they will not build without blasting Mr. M—’s reputation, let the church go unbuilt till they come to a better frame of mind. If no higher motive actuated, it does not pay to do wrong. The course pursued is calculated to arouse Mr. M—’s friends to oppose any settlement and so divide a congregation now too weak. Counsel these people to act in a sane and seemly way and not lose their heads. It seems to be nothing to some of them that Mr. M— might be handicapped in getting another place. Ministerial reputation is too delicate for such rough handling. But I shall see you at Presbytery."

His determination to defend the honour of his Church was illustrated in another manner. Visiting a mission field on one occasion, he fell in with a man who had a grievance against the Presbyterian missionary, and on being asked the reason, declared that he had been cheated, that the missionary had refused to pay a bill.

"Bring me the bill," said the Doctor, "and I will pay it. The Presbyterian Church shall not lie under any such charge."

The bill could not be produced and the accuser was convicted of fraud.

Men who have not had the privilege of working side by side with the Superintendent, of sharing his trials and his hardships, have found it impossible to understand that marvellous power he had of binding men’s hearts to himself. The strongest and most enduring strands in that bond were their sharing in a common devotion to a great cause, and their undying admiration for his zeal that never tired, his enthusiasm that never waned, his courage that never faltered. But, more than all, he gripped them with the deep love of a great heart. Writing to one of his Western missionaries, he uses these touching words:

"I highly appreciate the service that you are rendering, and especially the quiet plodding way in which, without pause and without complaint men, like yourself carry on your work. May God sustain you and may your heart be cheered by seeing many brought from darkness to light and from the service of sin to the service of the living and true God!

"There is scarcely a night after I retire to rest that I do not begin at Lake Superior and pay you all a visit before sleep benumbs the brain."

And brain and body and heart were weary enough to need every precious hour of the few left him for sleep.

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