Life and Letters of Frederick W. Robertson, M. A


Incumbent of Trinity Chapel, Brighton, 1847-1853. Edited by STOPFORD A. BROOKE, M. A. Two Volumes. Boston : Ticknor & Fields.
THE Life and Letters of Mr. Robertson will find a most extended and appreciative welcome among a large company of sympathizing and grateful readers on both sides of the ocean. The way has been prepared for them, and their most hearty reception has been assured, by the acquaintance opened for us with his mind and heart through the extensive circulation of the several volumes containing his Sermons and Addresses. When the first of those volumes was reprinted here, it wrought an immediate effect upon hundreds, who were instinctively drawn to its perusal, and who have since seized with avidity upon each subsequent opportunity furnished them for possessing themselves of everything that could be put into print which would renew and intensify that effect. An exhaustive review of that one department of our religious literature which embraces utterances from the pulpit would, we believe, fully establish these two positions: first, that the ability shown alike in the composition and in the delivery of sermons is at least equal in each age and generation to the average of that which is exhibited in the forum and at the bar; and, second, that preachers of extraordinary power appear at just such intervals and under just such conditions as will best assure us of a reserved and as yet unrecognized capability in the pulpit, redeeming it from the charge of a general dulness and exhaustion. It was at the very time when the newspaper press of England and America was reiterating and illustrating this charge, not without many tokens that supported it, that the sermons of Mr. Robertson were offering at least one signal exception to its truth, sufficient even to silence it within the range of his ministry. An eminently able and effective preacher appears often enough to reassert the loftiest ideal of his profession, and, what is more, to vindicate it against the distrust and contempt to which it may seem to be exposed by the “popular preachers.” As we write, there is circulating through the papers a very striking paragraph from an article by that distinguished divine, Mr. Caird, in which, with a sharp criticism, he deals, as we should suppose a man of his high tone would deal, with the theme of popular preaching, especially as to its effects upon the dispenser of it and upon the crowds who gather to it. Mr. Robertson shrank from the repute of it, and the inflictions which it visits, as he did from sin. He knew full well, that, as the popular taste and standard were not educated to an appreciation and approval of the very loftiest style of ministration, the more of curious, gaping notoriety, or even admiration, he might draw towards him, the poorer was the incense.
Yet there must be a fallacy somewhere involved in the common judgment on this subject. For Mr. Robertson certainly was a popular preacher; and yet, as he never made the slightest concession to any of the arts or trickeries, the displays or exaggerations, which are supposed to be essential conditions of that repute, his own example and experience may stand as at least an exceptional proof of the possible dignity and solidity of the position. When he had been addressing a thronged congregation, who hung, impressed and awed, upon his utterances, he goes home to write about the scene and its circumstances in strong disdain, almost with angry contempt, as if it were a reproach to himself. Did not the large majority of his hearers receive in their hearts and minds the electric power of his earnest and ever instructive speech ? Suppose it were true, as he had painful reasons for knowing, that there were always before him frivolous, emptyeaded, and unappreciative hearers, the hangers-on of a fashionable watering-place, who went to listen to him because he was the rage ; such as these could be only a scattering among his auditors. Suppose, too, that the captious, the jealous, the bigoted, and the conceited were represented there, intending to catch matter for bringing him under public odium in their own circles, because he trespassed upon the borders of heresy, or shocked the conventional standards of snobbish society, or spread his range broadly over the widest fields of moral and political relations; the very presence and purpose of such listeners were, to one of his grandeur and purity of spirit, a new inspiration of courage and fidelity. On the whole, so far as Mr. Robertson really came under the designation which he so dreaded to bear, he has made it an honorable one. Perhaps it would not be saying the right, as it certainly is not saying the best thing about his sermons, now so widely circulated on both sides of the Atlantic, to speak of them as meeting any popular taste. Would that we could estimate so highly the craving and the standard, among what are called religious readers, as to assert for him a favoritism equal to that accorded to a Cumming, a Spurgeon, or even a Chalmers, Chalmers may have spoken from what was, in his time, the highest round of elevation at which he would have been listened to by those who demanded fidelity to an accepted doctrinal system as the basis for whatever eloquence, logic, rhetoric, or unction might avail in presenting it. But Mr. Robertson rose to a higher plane, and took a far wider horoscope. His freest ventures require that he have readers able and willing to share them.
The biographical materials now furnished will afford a high gratification to readers on this continent, who, after perusing the sermons of Mr. Robertson, have felt a keen desire to know something about the man. We believe that very many of those readers, after availing themselves of the information concerning him imparted in these volumes, will turn back again to his discourses to give them a more deliberate study. He was a man to engage the profoundest interest of those who live to scrutinize the elements of character and the developments of a lifehistory and work in an individual whose mission is that of a reconciler and a reconstructor of opinions, creeds, and theories, in one of the great transitional periods of thought and belief.
The biography before us is a model which cannot be too closely followed by any one who in time to come shall be privileged to have a subject for his pen at all resembling, or approximating to, the character and career of this extraordinary man. The editor was himself rarely privileged for his work in the quality of his materials, and he has shown an admirable skill in their use. His chapters begin with the statement of dates, facts, incidents of a biographical or local character, marking the life-periods, the external relations and positions of Mr. Robertson, and are then substantially made up of his correspondence. We can recall now no collection of letters which can be compared with these for comprehensiveness of matter, felicity of diction, and elevation of tone and sentiment, in discussing alike the commonplace and the loftiest themes of didactic and spiritual religion, under the most vitalized and intense dealing with it in our modern life. If we should utter all we have felt, as we have lingered as if entranced over many of these pages, we should fail of carrying with us those who, not having yet read them, would, after their perusal, pronounce our encomiums inadequate. Mr. Robertson’s life was a short one, covering only thirty-seven years. There was nothing conspicuous in the sphere of it. He held only the lower offices of his clerical profession. Yet we believe we can say, without exaggeration, that no one member of that profession, from its bishops down to its curates, with perhaps the single exception of Dean Stanley, has so wisely divined or so ably presented as he did the modifications which must be made in the popular dispensation of religion through the Church, if it is longer to expect a hearing, or even its present show of tolerance, from those who share the average intelligence of the age.
This man, who so nobly, and with a rare consistency of character and life, fulfilled the office of a minister of the Prince of Peace, seems all along to have had a heart divided by its first love for a military life and service. Many readers will find a puzzling problem in reconciling themselves to this fact, as it shows tokens all through his career that the preference of his youth was also that of his experienced manhood. His honored father still survives him as a Captain in the Royal Artillery, retired from service. Three brothers in the military service also survive the preacher. He was brought up, as he often writes, in camps and barracks, and loved no sound as he did the boom of artillery. It was a grievous cross to his cherished inclinations, when he was sent by parental authority to the University. Being there, he had no misgiving as to the choice left him for life. He gave himself heart and soul to the ministry, and that, too, under views of doctrine and duty, to be followed out in its discharge, amazingly unlike those to which the free, expanding, and grandly independent growth of his own rare powers finally led him. Would he have been the same heroic, conscientious, and devout man as a soldier that he was as a minister ? the reader will more than once be prompted to ask over these pages. He would have been a splendid example of heroism and chivalry in any cause which his conscience could have espoused. But if military orders had constrained his loyalty in behalf of some of the infamous predatory outrages which English arms have of late years visited upon India and China, could a man such as he was have retained his commission ? His letters give abundant proof that his ecclesiastical superiors had no prerogative sway over his conscience. How could he have borne the constraints of subordination in following a flag which recognizes no scruples of distinctions between right and wrong when it rallies its champions ? However this might have been, certain it is that all the grand imagery of the battle-field and the fight, of spear and breastplate, shield and sword, of soldierly manliness and fidelity, by which St. Paul symbolizes the warfare of life, and the armor of those who would come off conquerors, is literally and gloriously realized in Mr. Robertson’s course and in himself. He was a soldier of the sublimest type, — a bold, earnest, self-denying, effective, and high-souled battler of the worst foes of man, and the gentle, kindly, loving defender of the weak, the unfriended, the wronged. He had no occasion to regret the overruling of his wishes which left him free to fight the enemies of truth and righteousness.
During his student-life at Oxford his mind seemed to have been held in a balance by his affections between those who had committed themselves respectively to the Tractarian and the Evangelical parties. The solution which he was to work out for himself of any real perplexities involved in the issue between them was to lead him clear of both of them. His own devoutness and sincerity, aided no doubt by the domestic and social influences of his early religious training, set him forward, in the first experimentings as a curate, as an earnest disciple of the “ evangelical ” fellowship. He made a faithful trial of its principles and methods. His reading and his self-training, his standard of fidelity, and the tone and style of his ministerial work, were all dictated by the teaching of that school. He outgrew it, and cast aside all that belonged to it: he came utterly to detest and loathe its characteristic peculiarities. Ever remaining heartily loyal, as he believed, in essential doctrinal conviction, and in practical conformity, to the Church of England, he allowed himself a range of liberty within the terms of its formulas, which left him, as he felt, not only unfettered, but also quickened by the inspiration of a freedom restrained by no other bounds than those of humility and reverence. His power of apprehension, his skill in analysis, his keen sagacity and penetration in detecting the kernel of truth through all husks and integuments, made him the most facile of critics, as well as one of the most trustworthy interpreters of conflicting theories. His magnanimity and catholicity of spirit gave him an almost preternatural comprehensiveness of sympathy with minds and consciences struggling in opposite directions for satisfaction. He engaged himself upon all the freshest problems which the Critical, scientific, and radical restlessness of our age has opened. We believe that professional experts, and even the foremost pioneers in the new fields which have thus been opened, will find valued help, either of cheering encouragement, or of wise, restraining caution, in his passing comments on their materials or methods. He was wholly free of that conceit and superciliousness of temper by which most of the rash and blatant empirics of “ advanced thought ” manage to disgust the slow and conservative makeweights of moderation. If we should attempt to express in a single phrase the charm and loftiness of Mr. Robertson’s personal and representative manifestation, we should say, that he, more than any other man of the age, was the saint of the new liberalism, even of the extreme radicalism. More than any other conspicuous man who had cast aside and spurned the old traditionalisms of credulity, ignorance, and prejudice, he consecrated free-thinking. For each single negation he offers a positive belief, or a tenable ground of belief, which substitutes an efficient and quickening tenet for a faith such as will satisfy and sanctify. Of course he shocked and startled many, but none through flippancy or irreverence. He was capable of a holy indignation, and even occasionally, it would seem, of bitterness of tone, when he knew, by a divining spirit which no sham or hypocrisy could blind, that he was challenged not in the interests of truth, but of falsehood. Like all great and searching souls, he had a dark shadow of melancholy often cast over him. He is another witness to us of a well-certified truth, that deep thoughts, while they are in process, not in repose, are sad thoughts. What sort of friends he had, and by what tenacity of love, reverence, and gratitude he held them, and how the delicate ties which bound them to his heart were felt by him as inspirations to fidelity in such lofty trusts, a score of letters in these volumes will touchingly illustrate. As we have been enjoying their perusal with a rare delight, we have anticipated the same experience as multitudes around us will share in.