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The Life of James Robertson

THE joyful and awful solemnities of a Highland Communion are no longer known except in the more remote parishes of Canada and perhaps of Scotland. But fifty years ago the Communion Season was a great event in a Highland congregation. It was, indeed, the great ecclesiastical event of the year. It was more; it was the social event as well. It was the chronological pivot of the seasons. By it men calculated their days. A month before the appointed date, due intimation was made of the approach of the sacred time, and as the announcement fell from their minister’s lips, the congregation experienced their first solemn thrill of self-examination. The ministers from a distance, who six months before had been engaged to assist, were reminded of the engagement and assigned their parts. As the day drew near, the people gave themselves to a general cleaning up -~ both of hearts and of homes. Housewives were especially active "redding up" and stocking larders in preparation for a generous hospitality. For from far and near came the people without thought of invitation, assured of a welcome; every home stood wide open and every table was free.

The season opened on Thursday with a solemn fast, the sermons of the day being especially fitted to assist in the serious business of self-examination. There was no trifling with facts, no glossing over of sins, no juggling with conscience. With truly terrible and heart-shaking eloquence, the preacher pursued the agonized sinner from one "refuge of lies" to another, till, at the foot of the Cross, humble, broken, penitent, but justified by faith, he found peace with God. It was a tremendous experience and through this experience of the fast day the intending communicants passed, emerging as from a bath of fire, with a sense of cleanness unspeakably precious, prepared to enjoy the "further exercises" with chastened exultation. Who that has known this experience can ever forget it? And who can say how much is lost out of the Church’s life by the passing of the Communion Season. To the men of that day there were great and awful verities behind the words "holiness," "sin," "redemption"; and the Church from whose vision these verities have faded has lost the secret of moral and spiritual dynamic.

Friday was the Question Day, the great field-day of Presbyterian democracy, when the ministers and the "men" upon equal terms discussed high themes in their purely theological as well as in their more practical bearing.

On Saturday the "tokens" were distributed to the "intending communicants," and as each went up before the assembled congregation to receive the token of admission to the Table, a solemn sense of responsibility deepened upon the soul.

Then came the Sabbath day, the great day of the feast, when the Table was spread and, after the action sermon and the fencing of the Table, in solemn quiet the sacred emblems were distributed to a people who, with hearth humble, chastened, cleansed, were waiting in glad expectation for the coming of the Master.

The season closed with the Thanksgiving on Monday, a service in which the deepest, sweetest, tenderest emotions flooded the heart. Then from the "Mount of Ordinances" the people descended to the plane of common life with hearth subdued but strong and jubilant and ready for the pilgrimage and the conflict.

He reads Scottish religious life only upon the sheerest surface who finds in it chiefly gloom and heart-heaviness. Gravity there was, for men were facing serious issues earnestly; sorrows, too, the poignant sorrow of honest hearth conscious of their sin. But the deepest emotions, sacredly guarded from curious eyes and indulged with due moderation, were warm gratitude, love, and humble joy.

Young Robertson had been possessed from childhood of deep religious feeling, with a profound reverence for things sacred—the Church, the Word of God, the Sabbath day, but especially the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. He shared with the Highlanders of his time their almost superstitious veneration of that sacred ordinance, and the mere thought of making a public profession of his faith, filled him with awe. In the common opinion of the day, to "go forward" was to assume a most solemn and even dreadful responsibility. To many, doubt was a sign of depth of spiritual experience and of insight into the mysteries; fear was the symbol of profound knowledge of the subtleties of Satan and of the sin native to the human soul. Any indication of assurance or confidence towards God was regarded with suspicion. Consequently, the privileges of "full communion" were supposed to belong only to men of years and of ripe experience. That a young man should take upon himself such a responsibility was regarded as savouring of that ignorance and presumption characteristic of the heart as yet unacquainted with its own possibilities of error and unregenerate pride. And so at a Highland Communion, among those who surrounded the Table, there were comparatively few with young faces. These were to be found in the side pews or in the gallery, regarding with often sadly wistful eyes the observance of the sacred rite.

But with Robertson the sense of duty was overpoweringly strong and, though he shared to a large degree the opinions, the superstitions, and the feelings of his time and of his people, the fact that he had, as teacher of the district school, stepped out into life for himself and assumed the responsibilities of manhood, laid upon his conscience the duty of making profession of the faith that was in him.

As an adherent of Chalmers Church, Woodstock, he had made it his weekly custom to attend both morning and evening services, although this involved a walk of eight miles every Sabbath day. Having made up his mind as to his duty, Robertson immediately approached his minister, the Rev. Mr. McDermot, as an applicant for admission to the church. The minister encouraged him in his purpose and in due time he was accepted by the Session. The week preceding the Communion was one of unusual solemnity to the young man. His thoroughgoing nature, his religious training, his own fidelity to conscience, impelled him to rigid and unflinching self-examination. His motives were viewed and reviewed with the exactest scrutiny. His state of heart was considered with anxious care. His daily life was scanned with searching thoroughness. The experience of that week Robertson never forgot. But the Sabbath morning found him calmly resolved. With a young friend he set off early for his two mile walk to the church. The memory of that serene Sabbath morning is still vivid in the heart of his young friend who thus writes:

"We started as usual to walk two miles to church. As we went along the Governor’s Road there was a bush, ‘Light’s Woods,’ on the south side of the road. Robertson suggested that we turn aside into the bush, not saying for what purpose. We penetrated it a short distance when, with a rising hill on our right and on comparatively level ground, the tall maples waving their lofty heads far above us and the stillness of the calm, sunny day impressing us with a sense of the awful, we came to a large stone. Robertson proposed that we engage in prayer. We knelt down together. He prayed that he might be true to the vows he was about to take, true to God and ever faithful in His service, and then he prayed for me also. This scene was deeply impressed upon my mind. We rose up, put on our hats, regained the road and went on our way to church. The youngest member at the Table that day was the young master from the Corner School."

Uniting with the church, with characteristic energy, he set himself to make good the profession of his faith. He took up Sabbath-school work, taught a class himself, and was frequently called upon to review the lesson before the whole school. But even at this early day, Robertson had the missionary’s eye for the people of the byways and hedges. There were in Woodstock at this time a large number of Gaelic-speaking people from Cape Breton. To these he became a missionary, visiting them and conducting services for them on the Sabbath day in their own language. This instinct for the neglected and forgotten it was that became so large a part of his equipment for the great work that fell to him in later life.

Chalmers Church, Woodstock, may be allowed some laudable pride in the fact that the two great representative missionaries of the Presbyterian Church in Canada in both foreign and home lands—Mackay of Formosa and Robertson of Western Canada—took their first Communion in fellowship with that congregation.

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