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ROBERTSON OF IRVINE.

By WALTER C. SMITH, D.D. ON N the 27th of June, 1886, Scotland lost | than any other Scotsman of his age. For no

one of her choicest spirits—one of the one ever met him who did not feel the spell brightest, nimblest souls it has ever been my and the charm of subtle genius which he good fortune to meet, and I have known threw on all around him. a few, like Norman MacLeod and Dr. And now he has "gone over to the majoJohn Brown, who were brilliant enough to rity "—the first time he ever did so, for his have mothers bidding their children note way in life was apart, among the few who them as they passed, and remember in the think for themselves, and mostly think what coming years that their eyes had once seen will be a faith to the coming generation. A them. William

little band of Robertson, in

such men, withdeed, had not

out any concert, made a name

though they for himself in

came in the long literature, and

run to know was not widely

each other well, known where

has for many his voice had

years now been not been heard.

quietly leavenA Scottish

ing the Scottish minister has not

Church, in all much chance to

its branches, do that, unless

with ideas that he neglect his

have already proper work, or

wrought is gifted with a

deeper change superabundance

than any of bodily

have had since strength. He

the Reformahas too much

tion-deeper, preaching to do,

perhaps, in its too many visits

spiritual issues to pay to his

than even that Aock, too many

great movement meetings

wrought. They attend, and in

were not given general too

to polemics; much “serving

they were more of tables," for

reflective than nothing in his

combative; they town or parish

were also rather goes on well

eclectic in their without him ; From a photograph by]

[T. and R. Annan, Glasgow. philosophy; and being at William Bruce Robertson.

mostly believeverybody's

no call, he has little leisure, and less calm for the single school of opinion embraced the kind of study that literary work requires. whole truth, while some, like Robertson, Robertson had not a robust constitution, had held the Hegelian doctrine of “the harindeed no more vigour than was needed for mony of contraries,” and regarded Calvinist his day's work, which was often interrupted and Arminian as both alike right, and by uncertain health. Besides, he was not both alike wrong, and both reconcilable very methodical, and did not economise time, when looked at from the proper point of not being ambitious of fame, but only faith- view. They had caught their inspiration, ful to do his duty. Had he been different, no doubt, from John MacLeod Campbell he would have left, I think, a bigger mark of Row, and Erskine of Linlathen, at

[graphic]

we

to

ing that

XXVIII—7

"

whose flame also Maurice had lighted his helped it into a wide popularity. But torch ; but unlike these, they did not quarrel William Robertson was one who heartily and with the common creed of the Church, which consciously worked for this very end, with a they mainly accepted as one side of the truth, faith which never wavered, and a brilliancy though nowise the most important side of it; of eloquence which carried persuasion to all meanwhile they gave special prominence to who heard him. “He gave none offence," its other and weightier aspect, which was the he was never suspected of heresy, though at faith whereon their own souls lived. Hence one time he had a little foolish trouble about the moral idea of God's Fatherhood took the a Christmas service. Perhaps one reason for place in their teaching which used to be held this immunity was that his way of working by the metaphysical idea of Infinite Power and was so purely artistic, for his sermons were Will. They did not deny the latter doctrine, rather poems than speeches, and moved in a but they exalted the other above it, as being region high above our common wranglingsgreatly more significant, and also more of a a region of vision and affirmation that took spiritual power to touch the human heart. little note of denials. But however it was, At first people shook their heads, and he had a great part in the revolution doubted whereto such things were tending. which has so clothed the hard skeleton of An atmosphere of suspicion surrounded them, seventeenth-century Calvinism with living and had they not been mostly effective flesh and glowing beauty, as to make that preachers, they would soon have been winning which aforetime was to many

almost stranded as "stickit-ministers," who must revolting. They are nearly all gone now, drift into school teaching of the humblést sort. the men who wrought this change, and the But they were some of them orators, some rising generation has hardly yet had time to poets, some scholars, and all honest workers develop others of equal mark to some of them, whose power in the community could not be so that it feels as if our Scottish world was a overlooked, and by their labours the Scottish good deal poorer to-day than it was while pulpit has quietly passed through a very they lived. But though the falling of the remarkable change. You shall hear there leaf may bring sad thoughts, no doubt the now very little about the divine sovereignty, next spring will bourgeon as rich as ever. and far more about the divine love. Cal. The younger race have a wider culture on the vinistic decrees and predestinations are no whole than that which is passing away; and longer allowed to direct and limit the grace as I think of the graves which have lately of God. The atonement is no more preached closed over some of our noblest and best, I as a bargain according to which so much read in their “Resurgam ” that their spirit suffering was endured for so many souls, shall not die out among us, but revive in a neither is the shedding of animal blood re- fit succession of like-minded men to carry on garded as the master-key to open up its the good work they began. meaning, for it was not meant to appease an It is now just four-and-twenty years since angry God, but to reveal a God of love. I first came to know William Robertson, Least of all are the terrors of hell any more then in the prime of his life and fulness of brandished with the view of driving those his fame as a preacher. He was to lecture in by fear who will not be drawn to God by the Glasgow Corporation Gallery on “Martin love. Divine Sovereignty, Predestination, Luther," and having myself to address a meetAtonement, Wrath are nowise denied, for ing that evening, I came to the hall late, after there is, beyond doubt, a truth in the heart hurrying through my work, I fear, in a rather of each of them. But the other side of the unsatisfactory way. There was, as usual when medal is now chiefly presented as being most he appeared in public, a dense crowd, and potent for good; and that other side the it was with difficulty I squeezed into the Church never questioned, though it was but place, where the passages were as closely dimly present in her creed, and often / packed as the seats by a throng of breathstrangely absent from her pulpits. Among , less hearers—breathless in more senses than those who helped to work this great revolu- one, for if the speaker entranced them, the tion William Robertson was one of the fore- air was like to choke them. On the platform most, and he was, I think, more typical of I saw a young-looking figure, rather below their special work than any other man. Nor- the middle height, with a rolling Byronic man MacLeod roused antagonisms ; Princi-collar, and long, waving, sandy-coloured hair, pal Tulloch created doubts as to his ortho- and my first feeling was one of disappointdoxy; John Ker was hardly reckoned to ment, as if he had “got himself up” in the belong to the party, though in truth he picturesque, poetic fashion which young

that con

men affected who wrote sonnets to the moon. in 1820, near Stirling, where his father, a That, however, soon vanished. It was im- solid, judicious, much-esteemed man in his possible to look on that fine face, with its day, cultivated a farm, and had charge of great dome of forehead, its large grey-blue the collieries of Plean, being greatly trusted eye, and the mouth with its lines of blended both for his faculty and his probity. I have humour and pathos, and especially it was heard Robertson speak of him lovingly ; but impossible to listen to that rich, mellow, he seems to have had more affinity with his musical voice, and not feel that here was a mother, a Bruce, and, as he believed, lineal man of veritable power, with a strange mas- descendant of that Rev. Robert Bruce who tery of all human emotions. When I came was one of Knox's immediate successors in in, he was describing the condition of Europe, the High Kirk of Edinburgh, and showed and the helplessness of its leaders to under- a good deal of Knox's spirit during the stand their

age and the little monk who was stormy days of James VI. and his son beginning to make such a stir. As his Charles. They say the royal blood of the manner was, he sketched a series of vivid Bruces was in that minister of St. Giles'. I pictures, each wonderfully perfect as an his- cannot tell; but, at any rate, he had not a toric portraiture, and at the close of each, as little of the patience and the courage if it were the only argument worthy of its quered freedom at Bannockburn. On that side impotence, he repeated the same refrain, Robertson was rather proud of his lineage. "Cuckoo ! cuckoo !” The effect was perfect. He would joke about it, and yet at bottom As learned doctors of divinity, subtle but one felt that he clung to it. His earlier worldly cardinals, shrewd but nowise far- education he got at home from his brother seeing statesmen, counselled what was to be James, who had been taught by a man of done about this new thing, of whose real some note in his day, Browning of Tilliemeaning none of them had the dimmest idea, couitry. James was afterwards a minister in because it was spiritual and they were not, Edinburgh, and somewhat narrow in his nothing could well have expressed how views; but he introduced his brothers and utterly helpless they were in such an emer- sisters to Shakspeare, and taught them even gency like that quietly - spoken “cuckoo ! to act one of his plays, which was a bold cuckoo ! " which was all the discussion he thing to do in a pious dissenting household gave them. I do not now remember the hitherto more familiar with Ralph Erskine's general drift of the lecture, which he often "godly sonnets” than with stage plays of any delivered after that, though I think it never kind. From his brother's instructions Wilwas written out. But I remember very well liam passed to Glasgow University; but what coming away from the meeting and saying was his record there I do not know. Afterto myself, “That is a man I must know, for wards he seems to have studied theology in it will do me good to know him.” Nor was Edinburgh, for it was during those early it long till we became acquaintances— friends, years that he formed a close friendship with brothers knit close to each other by ties De Quincey, whose memory was dear to him which only death could break, and not even to the end of his days. At that time the death, for they are as strong to-day as ever. bright, little, eloquent opium-dreamer was I forget where we first met-perhaps at in one of his many monetary troubles, and Norman MacLeod's, perhaps at Dr. A. B. having gone to visit his lawyer on some busiMcGrigor's ; I cannot tell where our hands ness, had been asked to spend the night first clasped ; but our souls came together there, and prolonged his stay for several that night, though he knew it not, as he dis- months, never going out of doors, seldom out coursed of Martin Luther to the more of his bedroom. Robertson seems to have thoughtful and cultured citizens of Glasgow been acquainted with his host, and through in their Corporation Gallery, and from that him was introduced to his strangely interestday till now, whether we met often or only ing, and rather perplexing guest. I never after long intervals, there never was a shadow heard any details of their intercourse, though came between us, except this last sad shadow he has often told me of the bright evenings of death.

he had in that old house in Prince's Street A fitter hand than mine will, I trust, yet now swept away to make room for the Contell the story of his life, though truly of servative Club. They were both night-birds, story there is very little to tell. Commonly whose discourse grew brighter as the small there is not much incident in a thoughtful hours of the morning passed, and I can easily student's career-not, at least, of the kind picture the eager lad-for he was still in his that the unthinking care for. He was born teens—and the thoughtful, broken visionary prolonging their talk till the sun began to where people of all sorts came to get their gleam on Arthur's Seat, and loth to part souls fed and refreshed. I heard him preach even then, for in all their life neither of there only once, in the handsome new church them was ever quite done with what he had which he built, and which was not exactly in to say. After his theological studies were such pure taste as I should have expected finished, being still too young to be “licensed” from him; but his architect was a man of as a preacher—for he was not yet of age- some genius, and not much culture, and on Robertson went to Germany, where he learnt the whole he adapted Gothic architecture to church history from Neander, and made the preaching purposes, perhaps, as well as can acquaintance of Ulrici. Many years after, easily be done. Robertson's church must be I think during the closing year of his life, a place to speak in, and sing in, if it was to these two met again for the last time, and be of any use to him, and this had been manhe described to me with effusion the kindly aged along with a good deal of architectural greeting he had got from the old Shak- efficiency. I do not remember much of his spearian critic, who, after the lapse of more sermon that day. We had sat up too late than forty years, had not forgotten the the night before, singing old Latin hymns, “kneipé” where they had discoursed of the and talking of new modern teachings, and I Elizabethan drama together. In Germany think he had made only a few notes on the he learnt much which he could not have backs of letters and other accidental scraps of learnt in Scotland-got new glimpses into paper. But I remember well how his musical theology, caught up the spirit of Hegel, and voice rang through all the house, and its kept to it alĩ his life, but, above all, came lowest notes were heard by a vast congregato know the great literature of its later days, tion, all eager not to lose a syllable, as he and the new and serious art, too, which had discoursed on the words, " There was silence its birth about those times. Perhaps this in Heaven for the space of half an hour.” last had the strongest influence on his charac- What his line of thought was, I cannot ter, which was essentially artistic, embody- now tell. But I remember a series of picing all its thoughts in pictures, and express- tures, of the white horse, the red horse, the ing them in rhythmic sentences.

black horse, and the pale horse with its rider Leaving Germany he travelled into Italy Death, and how the preacher declined to in company with two other youths, and got give any historic account of those symbols, his first glimpse of the land of beauty in but wrought out a high ethical purpose from which he was to spend so many fruitful days the apocalyptic vision. That was the first ere the end. But it was only a glimpse at time I heard him preach, and the effect he this time, for he must return home, and be produced on me was exactly the same as I come a preacher, which he did, I think, when have often experienced since. It was not the only twenty-one years old, soon getting power of eloquence, but of poetry. He was settled in Irvine, where his whole ministerial an improvisatore rather than an orator. You life was passed. In those days it was a were not so much roused to action as rapt in pretty little town on the river of the same wonder and delight, and as I listened, and name, with only a stretch of

grey sand dunes thought that I had to preach in the afterbetween it and the sea, and the hills of Arran noon, it seemed to me that I should be offerlooming large in the golden twilights. It ing a glass of beer to people who had been was not very different, I dare say, from what quaffing at champagne all the morning. it had been when Burns came there, a simple- I do not think he ever wrote either lecture hearted youth, to learn flax-dressing, and or sermon in full

. For essentially he was a mend the poor fare in his father's house at speaker, or rather singer, and the subtler Ayr; and there he met Highland Mary, the spirit in him was apt to evaporate in the redeeming angel of his life, as well as Davie process of writing. Certainly nothing of his Sillar and others, who helped so much to wreck I ever read possessed the wonderful charm of it. When Robertson went there, it had still a all that came from his lips. Of course, voice deal of old Scottish character to show-men and look, and dramatic action, are always and women whose humours added to his main elements in the power of an orator; store of jest and tale. But he had a pastor's and in his case they united to form quite a work specially to do there, and ere long his unique type of eloquence. But the differpresence filled and pervaded the whole town.ence between his speaking and his writing There was of course a parish kirk, and two was so marked that I can only explain it on free kirks, besides others of less weight; but the principle that, never being meant for his church very soon became the kirk of Irvine, writing, it was spoilt by the mechanical process through which it was made to pass. but after spending a whole day had to give People advised him often-after a long mono- it up in despair. So he took his way home, logue on some favourite theme, I frequently and Robertson accompanied him to the train. entreated him—to set down and prepare his Just as it was about to start, T. looked out bright suggestive thoughts for the press of the window and said, "Well

, you're a But he never did, and latterly I came to the queer fish, Robertson,” to which he got an conclusion that he was right, and that the instantaneous reply, “Well, you're a queerer only way to save those thoughts from perish- fisher, T.," and the train steamed away. ing would have been to keep a short-hand Many similar stories are told of his bright writer at his elbow. Only, the presence of and nimble wit which never failed, and yet such a chield “takin' notes” would most never stung. I have heard that one day, as likely have tied his tongue. Certainly he Principal Caird, I think, was walking down needed a Boswell, and I often blame myself Irvine High Street with him, a girl carrying that, content with the pleasure he gave me, a pat of butter came flying up to him, for I never wrote down what I had heard. Had girls everywhere, and girls of all ranks, took I done so, we should have had a book to-day instinctively to him. After speaking a few that men would not willingly let die—a book words, he rejoined the Principal, who reof the higher art criticism that Ruskin would marked, “I suppose that is one of the pillars have rejoiced in, a book of theology that the of your church.” “No," was the answer, Church would have held most precious. “ only a flying butt(e)ress.” One rarely met Those who did not know the man may him without carrying away some

"small naturally think I exaggerate, and that I see change" of this kind along with the heavier him large through the golden haze of affec- sums which he drew from the bank at will. tion and regret. How otherwise could one And besides such trifles as these, he had so gifted pass away, and leave so little trace commonly some fresh stroke of humour to that he ever had been? Yet I am sure that provide laughter for a serious talk. Adven- every one who ever met him even for a pass- tures happen to the adventurous, and the ing evening will endorse what I have said, humorist is sure to meet with incidents to and that multitudes, not in Scotland only, feed his humour. Thus, speaking one day but in England and in Italy, will be ready in Glasgow City Hall to some three thousand to affirm that, if he has done little or nothing, children, after delighting them with a variety he appeared to them capable of doing any of stories, he thought it might be well to thing he chose.

point the moral of one of them. He had It was often hoped that he might be per- hardly, however, begun to say, "Now, this suaded to leave Irvine, and take some leading teaches us," when a little ragamuffin in the charge either in Glasgow or Edinburgh. But front bench cried out, “Never mind what it he could do what he liked with the good folk teaches. Gie's another story.” “Ilearnt from in Irvine. He could be frequently away from that rascal,” he said, “to wrap the moral well home, which was a necessity to him, and they in the heart of the story, not to put it as a were always delighted to see him back. Å sting into the tail. For stories are like piclegal wit said, when he was called to that tures, and their lesson should be felt, but Church, that the Presbytery "might induct never obtruded.” But humour is near of kin him into Irvine, but they could never settle to pathos, and sometimes, after a long evenhim there.” And it was true; he had to ing's talk, it was hard to say whether the outmove about a good deal; people wished him come of it was mirth or sadness, he passed to go here and there, and stir up their souls with such rapid alternation " from grave to a bit; and besides, he needed, himself, to gay, from lively to severe." I remember have frequent changes and large human vividly an account he once gave me of the fellowships. Therefore his heart clung to death of a young Scotch engineer at PontreIrvine because it “ gave him a longer tether” sina, and his burial there under the snowy than he could well have got elsewhere, and Alps on a wild stormy day, which touched so his first was also the only charge he ever me, I think, more than anything I ever heard. had. In connection with one of these at It is too long to repeat here, and besides, I tempts to remove him, a story is told which should only mar it in the telling, so that all well illustrates his ready and nimble humour. who heard it from his own lips will probably Dr. T., a brother minister and friend, under- thank me for not "ploughing with his heifer, took to sound him, before a certain influential but leaving them the memory of his touchcongregation took any formal steps to "call" ing pathos unspoilt. him. T. was very well fitted for this task, Thus the years sped on amid preaching,

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