1902 Encyclopedia > Frederick William Robertson

Frederick William Robertson
English preacher

FREDERICK WILLIAM ROBERTSON (1816-1853), one. of the most brilliant and influential preachers of modern times, was born in London, on 3d February 1816. The first five years of his life were passed at Leith Fort, where his father, a captain in the Royal Artillery, was then resident. The impressions made upon the child in those early years were never effaced; the military spirit entered into-his blood, and throughout life he was characterized by the qualities of the ideal soldier,—courage, self-devotion, sense of duty, hatred of cruelty and meanness, chivalrous defence of the weak. In 1821 Captain Robertson retired to-Beverley, where the boy was educated first at home, then at the grammar-school. At the age of fourteen he spent a year at Tours, from which he returned to Scotland and continued his education at the Edinburgh Academy and university. His father, who had remarked and fostered his singular nobility of character, his passion for purity and truthfulness, and his deepening religious feeling, now proposed that he should choose the church as his profes-sion, but received the decisive answer, "Anything but that; I am not fit for it." At the age of eighteen he was accordingly articled to a solicitor in Bury St Edmunds, but the uncongenial and sedentary employment broke down his health in a year's time. It was then resolved to yield to his deep-rooted craving for a military career: his name was placed upon the list of the 3d Dragoons then serving in India, and for two years he devoted himself with ardour to the work of preparing for the army. But, by a singular conjuncture of circumstances and at the sacrifice of his own natural bent to his father's wish, he matriculated at Brazenose College, Oxford, just two weeks before his commis-sion was put into his hands. Oxford he did not find wholly congenial to his intensely earnest spirit, but he read hard, and, as he afterwards said, "Plato, Aristotle, Butler, Thucydides, Sterne, Jonathan Edwards, passed lika the iron atoms of the blood into my mental constitution." At the same time he made a careful study of the Bible, committing to memory the entire New Testament both in English and in Greek. The Tractarian movement had no attraction for him, although he admired some of its leaders. He was at this time a moderate Calvinist in doctrine and enthusiastically evangelical. Ordained in July 1840 by the bishop of Winchester, he at once entered on ministerial work in that city, and during his ministry there and under the influence of Martyn and Brainerd, whose lives he affectionately studied, he carried devotional asceticism to an injurious length, rising early, refraining from meat, subduing his nature by self-imposed austerities, and binding himself to a system of prayer. In less than oa year he was compelled to seek relaxation; and going to Switzerland he there met and married Helen, third daughter of Sir George William Denys, Bart. Early in 1842, after a few months' rest, he accepted a curacy in Cheltenham, which he retained for upwards of four years. " It was during this period that the basis of his theological science was entirely changed; his principles of thought attained, but not as yet systematized; his system of inter-preting the Bible reduced to order; his whole view of the relation of God to man and man to God built up into a new temple on the ruins of the old." The questioning spirit was first aroused in him by the disappointing fruit of evangelical doctrine which he found in Cheltenham, as well as by intimacy with men of varied reading. But, if we are to judge from his own statement, the doubts which now actively assailed him had long been latent in his mind: "a man who had read theological and philosophical controversy long before with painful interest—a man who at different times had lived in the atmosphere of thought in which Jonathan Edwards, Plato, Lucretius, Thomas Brown, Carlyle, Emerson, and Fichte lived—who has steeped his soul and memory in Byron's strongest feelings—who has walked with Newman years ago to the brink of an awful precipice, and chosen rather to look upon it calmly, and know the worst of the secrets of the darkness, than recoil with Newman, in fear and tender-ness, back to the infallibility of Romanism—such a man is not likely to have been influenced by a few casual state-merits of difficulties which he had read of a thousand times before." This was written from Heidelberg in 1846. The crisis of his mental conflict had just been passed in Tyrol, and he was now beginning to let his creed grow again from the one fixed point which nothing had availed to shift: " the one great certainty to which, in the midst of the darkest doubt, I never ceased to cling —the entire symmetry and loveliness and the unequalled nobleness of the humanity of the Son of Man." After this mental revolution he felt unable to return to Cheltenham, but after doing duty for two months at St Ebbe's, Oxford, he entered in August 1847 on his famous ministry at Trinity Chapel, Brighton. Here he stepped at once into the foremost rank as a preacher. His church was thronged with thoughtful men of all classes in society and of all shades of religious belief, with those also who relished brilliant and sometimes impassioned oratory, and with those who felt their need of sympathetic and helpful teaching. But his closing years were full of sadness. His sensitive nature was subjected to extreme suffering, partly from the misconstruction and hatred of the society in which he lived, partly from his inability to accomplish the heavy work of his position. He was crippled by incipient disease of the brain, which at first inflicted unconquerable lassitude and depression, and latterly agonizing pain. On the 5th June 1853 he preached for the last time; and on the 15th August of the same year, at the age of thirty-seven, he found relief in death.

The causes of his success as a preacher are obvious. His fine appearance, his flexible and sympathetic voice, his manifest sincerity, the perfect lucidity and artistic symmetry of his address, and the brilliance with which he illustrated his points would have attracted hearers even had he had little to say. But he had much to say. Mb sermons were ever more compact. They were the utterance of a full, vivid, and penetrating mind. He was not, indeed, a scientific theologian ; but his insight into the principles of the spiritual life is unrivalled ; and for men approaching the truth from the same side as himself he is an invaluable guide. His own lonely and in-dependent struggle had taught him where foothold was secure, and had enabled him to throw light on many a forgotten stepping-stone of truth. As his biographer says, thousands have found in his sermons " a living source of impulse, a practical direction of thought, a key to many of the problems of theology, and above all a path to spiritual freedom." In bis hands spiritual facts assume an aspect of reasonableness which is irresistible. Religion is felt to be no longer a mystery for the exercise of professional minds, nor an extravagance suitable for enthusiastic temperaments, but an essen-tial of life for all, and in line with the order of things in which we now are. For his sermons obtained their large circulation partly because they were new in kind. They marked the transition from the period in which religion was treated as a series of propositions to that in which it is presented as an essence penetrating the whole of human life. The accusations of heretical and dangerous teaching wdiich were persistently brought against him, though possibly not so malignant as he himself supposed, were certainly more mis-chievous than the teaching against which they were levelled. Few men have ever more perfectly understood the spirit of Christ, and few have so fully made that spirit their own.

Robertson's literary remains include five volumes of sermons, two volumes of expository lectures, on Genesis and on the Epistles to the Corinthians, a volume of miscellaneous addresses, and a Key to 'In Memoriam,' Robertson's Life has been written by Stopford A. Brooke. (M. D.)

The above article was written by: Rev. Marcus Dodds, D.D.

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