AT the close of his first session at
Princeton, Robertson returned to Canada for the summer and took up his
first mission field, supplying the stations of Thamesville, Botany, and
Indian Lands. His experience at his first service was prophetic of much
that was to meet him in after-years.
"I arose Sabbath morning between six
and seven and got ready for my drive to Indian Lands, nine miles away.
After breakfast Mr. Caven got the buggy and we set off. It had rained
through the night, but was fair now. Mr. Caven drove me down about a mile
and got one of his member’s sons to drive me the rest of the road, as he
had to preach himself at eleven. The roads were very muddy and full of
water. The time was short, we had a good distance to go, and as we went
through mud and water at a good rate, the usual result followed—mud flew
in all directions, covering us pretty well up. Soon we came to a part of
the road that was through bush. The horse could not trot for water, stumps
on one side, quagmire on the other." We well remember those same swamp
corduroy roads, common enough in pioneer days. "We scarcely knew which was
better, to run against the one or plunge into the other. Judging that the
chances lay in favour of the superior resistance of the stumps, we tried
the quagmire and succeeded in all cases in getting to the other side."
This is the beginning of a habit
that becomes inveterate with him. He has the saving sense of humour that
prevents a too serious consideration of difficulties; and further, it
little matters what may intervene, our missionary, now and afterwards,
invariably gets to the other side.
"After a time we got to our
journey’s end. The young man returned and I went on my way amid some rain
to the large log house where services were to be conducted, found a good
number present, and after introducing myself, was ready to commence. The
log house was divided by a partition. In one end services are carried on,
in the other cooking and so forth. The preacher stood behind the table—in
front and along the sides were ranged planks. From behind this table I was
to hold forth."
A situation frequently reproduced,
with wide variation of details, in our mud-bespattered missionary’s
career. But we are grateful for this initiation, for it was here that he
was delivered from the bondage of his manuscript, as we learn.
"The table was so low that I could
get little or no help at all from my notes which I placed upon it. I saw
it would not do to attempt reading, as I would have to do it from my fist,
which would not be a very graceful performance. I, therefore, concluded to
extemporize, knowing well, of course, the topics and line of argument
contained in my manuscript. I succeeded tolerably, as I judged from the
remarks that were afterwards made."
It added not a little to their
weight that these remarks fell from no less a person than Mr. Henderson
himself, the sermon-taster of Indian Lands, the terror of all missionary
students and fledgeling ministers. Small wonder our missionary notes with
evident relief and satisfaction Mr. Henderson’s opinion "that the whole
was clearly and intelligently set forth." And so to the end of his
preaching days will it be with him, whatever else may or may not be said,
it is ever "clearly and intelligently set forth."
At the close of the second session
at Princeton, Robertson was licensed to preach the Gospel, and after
another summer in the mission field he betook himself to Union Theological
Seminary, New York, urged to this change by a variety of reasons. In a
letter he says:
"I think I am not going to return to
Princeton. I have got the best of the course during these two years, and
so next winter I will attend Union Seminary in New York. I can thus get
acquainted with all the modes of working there and do better, I think,
than by spending another winter here. The city will afford me an
opportunity of hearing men that no other place will. I can also have
access to libraries and so forth, such as I cannot get here, and I will
have an opportunity of securing the foundation of a library at a much
cheaper rate than at Princeton. Besides, I hope to catch the animus of the
place and to benefit from new associations and new scenes."
So in the autumn of 1868 he took up
his abode at 9 University Place, New York City, and enrolled himself as a
third year student in Union Theological Seminary. Eagerly he plunges into
his college work, but great as is the student instinct in him, there is
another instinct in him that cannot be suppressed. He is a missionary to
the heart’s core. And hence we find him engaged in Sabbath-school work in
the Alexander Mission down-town, in connection with Fifth Avenue
Presbyterian Church, of which the Rev. Dr. John Hall was pastor, and with
which he had enrolled himself as a member. Before long he is given charge
of the work at the mission. This mission had been carried on for a number
of years but never with any great degree of success. Many students were to
be found glad of the chance to increase by this work their all too scanty
living, but few were possessed at once of the physical vigour and the
concentrated devotion necessary to make the work truly successful.
Robertson possessed both in the highest degree, and entered upon his work
in the slums surrounding the Alexander Mission with that tremendous energy
which distinguished his every activity.
"I am working away," he writes, "in
connection with the mission. The numbers are increasing. I hope before
winter is over that we can command a good attendance. The people pay good
attention and are very quiet. I am visiting a good deal, but have not got
yet thoroughly acquainted with the field. There is a great deal of misery
among the people. Their life cannot be a happy one. How many of them live
we can scarcely tell."
The terms of engagement are set
forth in true American businesslike style in the following document:
Wall Street, N. Y.,
or 11 East
"October 9th, 1868.
"To MR. JAMES ROBERTSON.
"My DEAR SIR:
"To prevent misunderstanding between
us as to the terms of your engagement by the Alexander Mission which
commenced October 1st, I now write as to the same.
"1st. You are engaged to preach
every Sabbath evening and to conduct the weekly Tuesday evening lecture or
a prayer-meeting as required; and you are to be present at the Tuesday
evening meetings when required as well when the meeting may be a lecture
as when it may be a prayer-meeting.
"2d. You are to be present at the
teachers’ meetings when held and assist in the consideration of the
Sabbath-school lessons, and conduct the meetings if required.
"3d. You are to hold yourself in
readiness to prepare with the school managers a programme for making the
Tuesday evening meeting or any of the meetings interesting and profitable.
"4th. You are to visit twelve hours
per week upon the families connected with the mission, and try and build
up the evening meetings by including a greater attendance of adults if
possible. After you become acquainted with the field, arrangements will be
made as to visiting generally.
"5th. You are occasionally during
each month to attend the Sabbath afternoon mission meetings and make
pastoral visits, and make the acquaintance of the older scholars connected
with the school.
"6th. When the sewing school shall
be in session during the winter you are to look in upon the children
occasionally gathered in said school.
"7th. You are to make monthly
reports of the mission, directed to the treasurer, H. S. Terbell, and hand
the reports either to Mr. Thomas S. Adams or to me, and in these reports
you are to speak of the work generally, also of any cases of interest,
number of visits made, the attendance upon your meetings and of any other
matters that may occur as naturally to be reported upon.
"8th. Any cases of need or cases
requiring attention are to be reported immediately.
"9th. In short, you are to hold
yourself in readiness to attend to any special cases and to care for the
interests of the mission generally, and to visit with any teacher desiring
your aid in visiting upon members of the school.
"10th. You said you should not
continue with us if you found you were not giving satisfaction.
"The only cause of dissatisfaction,
I think, could be your metaphysical turn of mind. The people require
plain, earnest, practical, illustrative preaching, and if you can satisfy
on this point, I have no doubt of your success.
as it is in a measure uncertain as yet how far you may
succeed in adapting your preaching to the people, we have thought it best
to make your engagement to continue so long as both the mission managers
and yourself shall be mutually satisfied with each other, provided,
however, that in any event (even if we were satisfied with each other)
your term of service or engagement by the mission shall terminate with the
18th of May, 1869, unless renewed for a further term by mutual agreement.
"11th. For your services to be
rendered as above you are to receive forty dollars per month, and to make
out your account therefor, which, when approved by either Mr. Thos. S.
Adams, or myself, will be paid by Mr. H. S. Terbell, treasurer, 39 Walker
"12th. A committee of the Board of
Management will from time to time meet with you to talk over the work and
its needs, etc.
"Hoping your connection with the
mission will be greatly blessed and will result in a church organization,
"Yours very respectfully,
"In behalf of the Board of
Managers of the Alexander
Mission, King Street.
"P. S. A written reply to the above
"L. A. B."
Forty dollars a month! In all his
life he had never had such wealth at his disposal! But will any one say
that with preaching and lecturing, Sabbath-school and sewing meetings and
prayer-meetings, not to speak of monthly reports and "attendance upon any
teacher desiring aid in visiting members of the school," each and every
dollar of the forty was not fully earned ?
The shrewd and business- like
managers of the Alexander Mission seemed to hold this opinion, for before
three months are passed they are determined to secure the Canadian
missionary for their own. A proposition is made to him of which he writes
the following letter from University Place, New York, under date Jan. 13,
"Since I came back a proposition has
been made to me about the mission, namely, as to whether I would be
willing to stay on here permanently. There are no preliminaries arranged
at all about the matter, but granted that an adequate salary, say fifteen
hundred dollars to start with, would be given, should I consent to stay?
They say they have been for years looking for a man for the work. They
once found one, but he proved too weak physically. They say I am just such
a one as they have wished for. I have the bodily strength and the mental
vigour necessary. Will I accept? They told me to think of the matter till
spring and that then I would be able to tell them what I thought of it."
And for the following weeks this
business was the occasion of many an anxious thought and the theme of many
a letter to her who was concerned in its issue equally with himself. He is
very frank with her and does not shrink from discussing the matter from a
domestic point of view.
"If I stay here even a year I am
afraid my connection with Canada will be gone, and yet I don’t know that I
ought to run away from the work. One thing is certain, I would not like to
commence housekeeping in New York, nor especially would I like to raise a
family here. That may be looking too far ahead, but I think I must look
further than next year."
And would to heaven all prospective
fathers had the grace and sense to look ahead more than a year! But he is
a Scot and the shrewd Scotch thrifty head on him takes note of another
"Should I stay here merely for one
year unmarried, it would be better for me financially than anything I
could do in Canada, for I should be some six or seven hundred dollars in
pocket a year from next spring, with which to start housekeeping. I have
no opinion on the subject as yet; I am merely looking at a few items."
Canny man! It is a matter of
life-issues, yes, and of eternal issues, and there is much thought and
prayer a-needing before it be finally settled. He must think for more than
himself, too, and so he writes as in every letter for advice.
"What advice can you give me on the
subject? This is a matter which touches yourself and how am I to act in
reference to it? ‘Would you be willing to wait if I should stay here for a
year on trial and then go back to Canada?"
Wait! Ay, that she would, but she
has waited ten years and he can hardly bring himself to feel that it is
right to make her wait longer, and so on through the following weeks he
discusses with himself and her. Meantime the work grows under his hand.
The poor people come to love and trust him. The school and other
departments flourish beyond all expectation. The attendance at all the
services is greater than ever before. He begins to feel the pull of the
work upon him and the question thrusts itself in upon his conscience,
Ought he to abandon his work for any cause? The managers and the people
earnestly press him. Dr. Hall adds his solicitations. At length he
determines to bring the matter to a clear understanding. His strong, clear
sense demands definiteness in the proposition before he can accept or
reject. He has a consultation with the managers, the result of which he
"I met the managers of the Alexander
Mission last evening and discussed the whole question. They were ready to
grant everything I wanted. The points that were discussed may be reduced
"(1) Organization. They have
had preaching for the last fifteen years but never organization. Hence
those who have been converted through the instrumentality of the mission
have been obliged to connect themselves with other churches. This has all
along been a hindrance. When the question of organization was proposed
they would not hear of it. They were for the work con-tinning as in
previous years. I refused at once to consider the subject at all without
this first condition. After discussion they decided that they would
organize as soon as I chose.
"(2) Church building. The
place in which we worship now is merely a place fitted up by knocking two
double houses into one. I wanted them to build or buy a church, and give
us a good place to meet in as soon as possible.
This they promised to do as soon as
the work would grow a little.
"(3) Am I the
man for the place?
I questioned my fitness for the work. This they all set
aside. Dr. Hall was consulted and he said, ‘Keep him if you can.’ The
managers themselves heard me preach and their opinion was that I was
decidedly the best they had had in fifteen years ; the teachers, the
people, and all of them were unanimous in wishing me to stay. I scarcely
knew what to do, so the matter rests there at present.
The church promised twelve hundred dollars, but I was
told that if I was not satisfied the managers would add more to it. I told
them I could say nothing till I had looked about me to see the price of
living and so forth. I was given time."
As we read over these four points of
his, these words ring in our ears with a strange familiarity,
"Organization, Visibility, Fitness, Finance." How often do these key words
ring from him in after-years! He meets his managers again and gives them
his final decision. He cannot stay with them. To this decision he is
brought, not by personal interests nor by family considerations alone,
influential as these may be. It is his country that calls him. The
unmanned fields of Canada, the little backwoods settlements demand
labourers. True, the congregations are small. They are poor. Growth will
be slow. The sphere will always be limited, offering small scope for his
powers, of which he is beginning to be clearly conscious, but it is his
own country, the country of his kindred, and its claims cannot be
Before he leaves New York, he is
approached by another congregation and offered a large salary to
remain. Ambition appeals to him. His fellow students all advise him to
stay. His friend Remick writes him,
"Stay, Robertson, and you will
become the pastor of a large church in New York. You have the ability and
you only need it brought out by circumstances." Dr. Hall urges him not to
leave New York. He would be sure to rise much quicker there than he could
possibly in Canada or elsewhere. The following letter lets us into his
"I got a letter to-day from Mr.
Mac—. He urges a great need of men in Canada, the number of stations
without supplies, the number of congregations without pastors. In this
respect he is of your opinion, although perhaps on different grounds. You
will not decide in favour of any particular place. You will not even allow
yourself to think of a place as yet, but all unconsciously you were
applying your argument more powerfully than he. You were willing to go
with me in my choice, yet you wished to be near your parents, and you were
sure they would not move away with you. Your parents would think it very
hard if you went away from home to some different country, as would, no
doubt, be the case with my father. If I could see my way clear otherwise,
I do not think that would hinder me, nor do I think it would you, however
difficult for a time."
The future years of separation and
of mutual denial of self, each for the other and both for their common
Master, offer a striking and pathetic commentary upon this faith of his in
her he had chosen for companion. For, during all the long years that
followed, so large a proportion of which they spent apart from each other,
she never grudged him to his work, though often the denial of love was
bitter enough and the weight of responsibility and care almost more than
could be borne. But from the first, they were clear about this matter of
mutual sacrifice, so he continues:
"We are no longer our own in that
respect now. The time for self is gone with us. When we entered this
sphere it was with the understanding that we were ready to do the Master’s
work wherever He wished. If true to Him, this we must still do or else
bear the consequences of going at our own charges. It would be a fearful
thing to think of in our future course, that we had regarded self and
selfish considerations and not our Master’s work. If his work did not
prosper, we could scarcely ever forgive ourselves. But I acknowledge to
you that it is not an easy matter for me to decide what to do."
But he had seen his way and it lay
towards Canada, and once having seen it, nothing could turn him from it.
In a short time he is settled in a small charge at a quarter of the salary
offered by the big New York congregation. "The time for self is done."
That was the key-note of his life then and after, as all men can testify
who knew him well. His long and arduous struggle with severe poverty and
untoward circumstances was at an end. By dint of unremitting industry,
strong resolve, unswerving adherence to his purpose, he has arrived at the
goal he had set before him years before.