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The Life of James Robertson

THE work being done in Knox College at this period was not up to that high standard demanded by the ministry of the Presbyterian Church, and there was, consequently, considerable dissatisfaction among the students attending. Hence, when the College opened in the autumn of 1866, a large number of Canadian students found their way to Princeton, which, under the Hodges, was then attracting men from both continents. Among the Canadian students was James Robertson, who, though an ardent lover of his country and of her institutions, was determined that nothing that he could prevent should stand between him and a thorough equipment for the life-work he had chosen. He had striven towards this goal too long and at too great sacrifice to be checked now in any degree, so turning his back upon the college which naturally should have been his alma mater, he entered the seminary at Princeton as a student in theology for the session 1866—67.

It was not long before there arose among the Canadian students at Princeton heart-searchings as to their duty to their own Church and their own country, when their days of preparation were done. The following letter shows Robertson’s mind on two questions to which in after life he was forced to give very careful consideration; the questions, namely, of the relative claims of Canada and the United States upon Canadian students and the question of the manning of our colleges. It is written from Princeton Seminary under date of the 12th of Jan., 1867.

"I have heard nothing from Mr. G— nor from Mr. MacC—. Mr. D— tells me that Paris Presbytery took up and discussed the matter of so many students coming over here. There was no definite action taken upon the subject. It would be a good thing if it would rouse men to think of what is needed to be done for Knox College. D— says there are only thirty men attending Knox this year. If the college is to serve the purposes of the Canadian Presbyterian Church, it must be overturned and laid on better principles." The young man is somewhat radical in his remedies, but without a doubt both colleges and churches have severely suffered from lack of courage to apply just such remedies. "I hope they may start a college at Montreal and get some men from Britain. Should Canadians come over here, the inducements to stay are such that many will be persuaded to do so. Should a person go out into the field here, there are plenty of opportunities to get places and the chances are much better than in Canada. Men who have nothing to do with politics, who merely look to do good, will not think much about being under a different flag. The acquaintances formed would soon lead them to forget old prejudices and live contented here. I see the effects already on our own men. If such is the case with men who are here but one year, what will be the result with men who may take three, and who may enter relations that make it an inducement to stay? Moreover, when a person gives himself to the work of the ministry, he should not arbitrarily decide where he is to go. He is to do his Master’s work, and that wherever he is called to do it. He must not scruple to live under a flag different from that under which he was born if God in His providence so directs." With which liberal spirit we would heartily agree, but it is interesting to observe how in later years when looking at the subject from another point of view, Mr. Robertson saw reason to modify his opinion very considerably. Meantime, in a man of his strong national prejudices and deep patriotic feeling, these sentiments do him no dishonour. "And by coming here," he proceeds, "and being brought into contact with the work and seeing an evident need of his services, and being in a true sense of the word ‘called,’ is he to refuse merely because he happens to be in the lJnited States ! Should such be the spirit of Christians, no heathen need look for a ray of light from a Christian country." The logic of this can hardly be considered faultless, but he goes on:

"Is not the principle involved in this the very one that is chief among the reasons for having a Presbyterian college in Montreal ! There is the same clashing of claims between East and West in Canada, only here, instead of the claims being those of rival provinces, they are those of rival countries. These boundary lines, however, are political and not spiritual. They divide the kingdoms of this world and not that of Christ. His kingdom extends to all. No man can justify himself in making a resolution to go to a place to study and refuse to stay whatever circumstances may arise. He would then be making a distinction where his Master had made none."

From the graver subject of this letter he turns with that love of humour that afterwards marked him so strongly, to retail two stories brought in by one of his fellow students.

"One of the students was attending a negro prayer-meeting. The leader was offering up prayer and in so doing offered special petitions for the children, praying that they might be ‘ filled with all manner of concupiscence.’ Another leader, in praying for a young lady who was lying ill, petitioned ‘That she might be restored again and permitted to go about like a roaring lion seeking whom he might devour.’"

Let us hope that mercifully the petitions were not granted.

College life at the seminary in Princeton, at least with the Canadian contingent there, was an earnest business. These men had left their homes under pressure of high purpose and at no small cost. They were called upon to incur no inconsiderable financial outlay, to sacrifice personal and family ties as well as national sentiment. Hence they were determined to make the most of the privileges which Princeton had to offer them. The following extract gives us a glimpse into the workshop where they were being hammered and fashioned into preachers of the Gospel.

"Our class preaching commenced Tuesday. I got a sermon in to-day for criticism. I am afraid I must be severe on the man and I am sorry, for he is a good fellow. I must, however, in justice to him and to myself, tell him what I think of it. We get two sermons every week, half an hour long, with a written criticism of fifteen minutes on each. The exercise is good for the mind." Good for the mind it is without a doubt, and would there were more of this same wholesome exercise in the making of our preachers to-day!

"I have just come in from hearing two of our Canadian preachers, Messrs C— and F—. They did very well indeed. The American students thought a good deal of them too. I heard one of them say that he never heard anything in the seminary to beat it. I feel very sensitive for the honour of Canadians here. I only now realize that, in sentiment at least, I am a Canadian." A Canadian ! That he is, and ever growing into a better. His twelve years of Canada have made this young Scot no less a Scotchman, but they have tinged his blood with a strong Canadian strain. We shall come across this feeling for Canada’s honour once and again during his life.

In another letter he writes: "Thursday night came, and though an excitable character, I seemed to grow more cool and collected as the time drew near for me to preach. There were four of us to preach ten-minute sermons. I came third. The modus operandi is as follows. One gets up and preaches; the professor then criticises him on his manner and matter. Of course, everything is taken notice of, a word mispronounced, a gesture inappropriate or awkward, a proposition not correctly expressed, anything, in short, that is not just as it should be is corrected. Now a man is criticised for bad pronunciation, then for want of proper enunciation, now for speaking too loud, then for having a nasal twang. It is rather difficult to steer clear of all the shoals. I got no criticism, only that the whole was very clearly stated and tersely expressed, and that the line of argument was clear throughout. I was rather excited at first, but soon grew confident. I took my manuscript with me, but did not need it while I was speaking. Every eye was fixed on me and not a move was made." That is easy enough to believe. We have seen something of this fixed and motionless attention, and we are prepared to believe it true even of that most critical of all critical audiences, and in those crude days.

"After the whole was over, the Canadian students and some of the Americans came in to ‘congratulate’ us, as they term it. There seems to be a spirit of good-will among all the students towards us, but the Canadians have a decided preference for each other, and when one of the number preaches, all are sure to be there and feel as if the name and honour of the country were at And no unworthy sentiment this, for these young exiles to cherish, and not without its effect upon themselves and their after-career.

"It appears the preaching last night was more than usually attractive, and there is a good deal of comment on it to-day. One of the students of the second year was in seeing me. He told me that if I sermonized like that to any congregation they would not appreciate it at all, but he said they were all interested in it at once from the novelty of the method and the compactness of style." A method and a style most surely, whose novelty and compactness by no means diminished with the passing years, as many congregations, both East and West, can attest. "Those who spoke with me did remarkably well. I could judge of their work, of course, but can say nothing of my own. Junior though the year is, and few in number, we have the name of having more real talent than any other year, by admission of the students of the other years themselves." No great need here for the Scotch-man’s prayer, "Oh, Lord, gie us a good conceit of ourselves." The pride of class, however, and the joy of the dawning consciousness of strength may well be pardoned. All loyal-hearted, strong men have it, but with consistent modesty as here. Moreover, we are not to forget that this outpouring of the soul is not for all, but for the one true and loving heart with whom he shares all his secret thoughts and emotions.

Outside the class room this same eager spirit prevails. At table and in their walks, those young men are keen to exercise their intellectual muscles, more especially those governing their dialectic powers. Nor do they shrink from high themes, themes political, themes theological, themes ethical, heaven and earth furnishing them, but all worthy and befitting the thing they would become. For instance: "The other Canadians here and myself had rather a keen discussion for about a week. I found myself against the whole of them and had to oppose them in detail and in conjunction." And we can, without much exercise of imagination, feel something of the stern joy with which he stepped into the fray. "I was, however, in the right as I thought,"—most assuredly !— "and succeeded at least in shutting them up if not in convincing them. In fact, I got the champion of the band to contradict the principles laid down by himself, and to crown all, yesterday afternoon, Dr. Hodge and Dr. Moffat at conference took my view of the same subject and argued my opinions as correct. The question was whether emulation or the desire of superiority was wrong per se, I saying it was not, they saying it was. They all got their opinions from Professor Young, who was in Knox College, Toronto." Which, knowing somewhat of that prince of dialecticians, we may take leave respectfully to doubt. "And they stick to them as fast as they can. I really deplore the case of men who in this way get to pin their belief to what a man teaches even when they cannot maintain their ground for themselves." The young man himself appears to be reasonably secure from this danger. "If I can break the spell that seems to hang over the minds of some of these men in this respect, I will do a good deal. The mind of a man should be left free in the search after truth, and not confined by trammels which only serve to warp it and dwarf its otherwise noble powers." Not even to Prof. George Paxton Young will our young dialectician surrender the free independence of his mind. Not he, though to few in his day might he so reasonably surrender as to that same Professor Young.

Again the theme is heaven. "In my last I told you of a discussion I had with one of the students and the result of it. Before I had that one off, another arose between that same man and another. I took part in the affair." An "affair" of this sort was ever a delight to his soul. "The subject was the nature of heaven and from that the nature of our bodies after the resurrection. One of the students looked upon heaven as a state and denied the reality of the material body after the resurrection. I took the opposite view, and so we contended. The whole number of the Canadians got into the affair, taking difierent sides. It was the subject at meals and during any spare time." Truly these college men took themselves and their work seriously.

Next time the opponent happens to be a down-easterner, and being a senior and a Yankee as well, he may fairly be supposed to be an adept in the art of debate. He is unfortunate, however, in the subject.

"We are going to the Sunday-school here as usual. One of the teachers who goes out is from the New England States. He is a fine man. We generally discuss something on our way back. In going, Mr. C—, the superintendent of the school, is with us, as we room in the same building. He with the other two, are a year in advance of me. We were discussing the Shorter Catechism questions for two Sabbaths now." Beware! our Highlander is on his native heath here. We can see him advance with joyous step upon his foe. "We came to disagree on the second one, and I was obliged to indoctrinate Mr. C—." We should expect nothing less, the benighted New Englander not having been privileged with the teaching of the parish school at Dull, not to speak of catechisings at the relentless hands of the minister of the parish; and we doubt not that he indoctrinated Mr. C— not without a fine pity for the latter’s unhappy state and a fine Highland, modest pride in his own blood and breeding, as witness: "I find that a Yankee does not know everything, and that most of them cannot argue even with a Scotchman."

Living as they do under an alien flag, these young men are intensely interested in the doings in Canada, and there are great doings there at this time. The question of temperance is appearing in the political world and the advocates of total abstinence and prohibition are proposing legislation thereupon. A long campaign is before them. Longer, indeed, than their most prescient leader can forecast, and they have need of all their courage, for against them as yet are arrayed a distinguished band of economists and theologians, not to speak of place-hunting politicians and drouthy electors. But they may well fight on. The stars in their courses are with them.

But overshadowing all other Canadian questions is that of Confederation. The loosely-tied bundle of Provinces are about to be welded into one solid State. And on these matters our young dialectic student has opinions, nor is he chary of setting them forth. These are interesting enough to us to-day, viewed in the light of history. We look in upon them at the breakfast table one morning and listen to their talk.

"It is Monday morning. I rise, split up some old shingles, fix them in the stove, place some small wood on top, and by applying a match, have the whole blazing in a short time. While the fire is getting a-going, I wash and dress. Pat gets up and does the same. Then I sit down to read Taylor’s ‘Manual of History.’ Breakfast is announced in due time. We all assemble. Mr. Sinclair acts as general distributor of provisions, assisted on the left by Pat. Mr. McKay acts as mother for us all, carefully pouring out the coffee and supplying the requisite quantity of cream (?) and sugar, while your humble servant acts as chaplain. We sup our porridge, and then partake of our coffee and toast." Frugal fare, but luxurious in comparison with that of other men from Dull who, carrying on their back a bag of meal, bore that which was to be their main support in the ascent of Parnassus and other hills of intellectual difficulty. "For the first few minutes nothing is said, but after a little Pat inquires

"‘Is there anything new in the Globe this morning?’

"‘Yes,’ says McKay, ‘it contains an account of the dinner given by John A. Cartier was there. Cameron was in the chair and they had a jolly time of it. These are the really great men of Canada, and not one of them said a word about Brown. They can get along without him. It is the names of John A. and Cartier which will be remembered in the history of our country and not that of Brown.’"

Canadians of to-day will be slow to accept that judgment as final, but Mr. McKay must be allowed his say.

"‘They spoke also of reciprocity, but very little. They have just fooled Brown out. They have returned from Washington. There is no treaty, and so Brown might as well have kept in the cabinet.’

"‘Yes,’ says Robertson, ‘but if Brown had remained in the Cabinet he would have been responsible for this abominable conduct.’

"‘What conduct ?’ inquires McKay hotly.

"‘The conduct of offering the terms they did to the Americans,’ says Robertson.

"‘What terms, man ?'

"‘The terms of Derby’s recommendation.’

"‘What’s the matter with the recommendations ?' says McKay.

"‘The matter with them! Why the whole press of Canada, except the Free Press, condemned the terms.’

"‘But how do you know these terms were offered ?'

"‘The American papers say so,’ replies Robertson, ‘and Galt’s friends do not deny it.’

"‘That’s so,’ chimes in Pat, ‘every one knows that Brown has been the means of preventing the too humiliating terms, which the Government would have given, from being offered. He has been far more useful out of the Government than in it.’ " Which all will acknowledge at this day an unquestionable fact.

"‘But,’ persists Mac, ‘he had no influence in the Government, and that is why he left it.’

"‘He has done far better then,’ replies Pat, ‘to leave it, if he could do more out than in.'

"‘Oh, pshaw!’ says Mac impatiently, ‘these men could have done with Brown just as they liked.’

"‘That they could not,’ says Robertson, ‘or else they would have kept him in the Cabinet and saved the howl that was raised against them.’

"‘Well, he has not the ability that these men have, at any rate,’ says McKay.

"‘Why not? He has gained influence and is steadily gaining influence still. He has won over the majority of the Upper Canadians and has more weight in Canada West than any other man now.’

"‘Why then,’ retorts McKay, ‘why then does John A. carry on the Government ?'

"‘Any one can see that,’ replies Robertson, ‘because he sides in with the Lower Canadians.’"

And that is not far from the mark. We have, even in our day, known somewhat of that astuteness of the practical politician that knows how to utilize inharmonious elements in the national life and make them all serve in turn.

"‘It is a manifest fact that John A. has been losing influence in Upper Canada for the last fifteen years and it was through Brown that his Government was brought to a standstill.’

"‘Then how is it that John A. has brought on this Confederation ?'

"‘John A.! Not a bit of it. It is due to Brown’s steady influence, for never would John A. and Cartier have consented to anything of the kind till Brown brought them to a dead stand. Brown is the man, after all, we have to thank.’"

So it would appear that Brown, the object of much obloquy in that day and afterwards, had even then not a few to do him honour, and more will join that company as Canadians come to understand their history.

"‘That’s so!’ cries Sinclair. ‘Everybody knows that’s true, and so does Mac, but he won’t acknowledge

it. He’s going to be a lawyer himself and he wants to fish a little for office. I fear he will be as venal as the rest of his brethren.’

"‘That, however, would be better,’ continued Sinclair, ‘than trying to gain a little notoriety by opposing Dunkin’ s bill. Did you hear about that, Robertson ?'

"‘No, I did not.’

"‘Well, you see this youth here had nothing better to do but try to help these poor drunkards get liquor easier and cheaper. What a generous youth he is!’

"‘Surely he was not guilty of that!’ exclaimed Robertson.

"‘Yes, that he was.’

"‘Well,’ explained Mac, ‘I was opposed to the bill as it stood.’

"‘Oh, yes!’ said Sinclair, ‘you could not get all the good done your noble soul desired, and so you must do none at all.’

"‘Well,’ replied Mac, ‘that bill would do no good anyway.’

"How do you knows You did not give it a trial.’

"'I says Mac, ‘that if liquor was cheaper and if there were none of these restrictive measures,’ the people would be much more sober than now."

An argument, by the way, not unknown even in this advanced day, but deserving of respect more for its hoary age and its marvellous tenacity of life, than for any inherent value.

"But Mac continues, ‘Look at the old country! See how much they have to pay for whiskey, and yet they are more drunken than here.’

"‘Prove that,’ flashes Robertson. ‘And even supposing that to be the case, you cannot institute a comparison between any two countries in regard to these things. The one thing you ought to do is to compare any two towns in the same country. Where a duty of thirty cents a gallon was placed on whiskey in Canada, a good deal less of it was drunk, as appeared in the reports, and since duty was put on in the States, several million fewer gallons were drunk. And besides, Mac, you are just talking nonsense, for you are saying, "Put on plenty of duty and far more will be drunk; give it to them for nothing and they will not have it." But there’s the bell. We must be off. We have the old chief to-day and he will be in on the minute.’ "

And so we may leave them to their serious work, and more serious play. They will bring no discredit on their country, and, please God, may serve her well ere their day is done.

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