“Love God, and He will dwell with you. Obey God, and He will reveal to you the truth of His deepest teachings.” ~Frederick W Robertson
Frederick William Robertson (3 February 1816 – 15 August 1853), oldest of seven children, was born in London, England, not long after the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815), when the praises of men like the Duke of Wellington, Prince of Waterloo, were still being sung. Britain may have conquered Napoleon, but the post-war era, known as the Regency Period (1811-1820) and celebrated in Jane Austen’s novels, was less than peaceful.
New problems surfaced as Britain adjusted from a wartime to a peacetime economy. For instance, when the price of grain declined, wealthy landowners tried to keep up the prices by placing tariffs on imported grain. This, of course, only made bread, a household staple, expensive at a time when the poor were struggling to survive. Further, machines were putting skilled laborers out of work. Demobilized troops were swelling the ranks of job-seekers. Large-scale unemployment, inadequate wages, surplus of unpurchased goods, sordid working conditions, and child labor were generating working-class movements.
Instead of trying to solve these economic and social problems, the government, fearing revolution, turned to repression. A peaceful assembly in Manchester, England, was charged by British troops. This unlawful use of military arms against its own countrymen, where nine were killed and hundreds injured, became known as Peterloo Massacre (1819). Shelley immortalized it in his “A Song: Men of England,” “England in 1819,” “To Sidmouth and Castlereagh” (aka “Similes for Two Political Characters of 1819”).
In the aftermath, the government passed a series of repressive laws, the Six Acts (1819), that effectively stifled reform for decades.
• Training Prevention Act prohibited civilians from training in the use of weapons.
• Seizure of Arms Act gave authorities the right to search houses and seize weapons.
• Seditious Meetings Act banned citizen meetings (freedom of assembly) to discuss public grievances.
• Blasphemous and Seditious Libels Act empowered authorities to seek and confiscate all libelous material (critical of government).
• Misdemeanors Act provided for speedier prosecution (before the accused could pay bail).
• Newspaper Stamp Duties Act increased taxes on newspapers, pamphlets, and periodicals (hoping the masses couldn’t afford them).
Not everyone, in government or out of government, of course, agreed with the government’s actions and, rather, advocated reform to deal with the problems. Reformers in Parliament especially wanted to allow non-Anglicans opportunity to serve in government. Occasionally a piece of reform legislation would make its way successfully through Parliament; for instance, the Factory Act (1833), which supposedly improved working conditions for children (though we today are shocked by such “improvements” as a 48-hour work week for school-aged children).
Robertson, born and reared in such a climate, was an adult by the time Queen Victoria ascended the throne (1837); and, because of premature death, he never lived to know the “lady with a lamp,” Florence Nightingale, heroine of the Crimean War (1853-1856), or the great cultural and revolutionary changes that would come in the last half of the nineteenth century to challenge the Christian faith.
Since his grandfather, his father, and, later, his brothers were all soldiers and since he spent the first few years of his life at a fort, where his dad, a captain in the artillery, was stationed, the army was in his blood and in his manner of life. Naturally, he wanted to be a soldier too when he grew up; but his dad had other plans, and like a good soldier, Robertson submitted to higher authority.
Intended for the Anglican priesthood, he was educated in Yorkshire, England; Tours, France; at the New Edinburgh Academy and Edinburgh University, Scotland; and, eventually, at Oxford University. Shortly before he matriculated at Brasenose College, Oxford (1837)—the year Victoria acceded to the throne—he was offered a soldier’s commission, but turned it down in favor of school. He was no scholar, but he was a thinker. And a maverick. A trait that, as someone remarked, no doubt, would have landed him a courtmartial if he had gone into the military.
Robertson was not long at Oxford when the People’s Charter (1838) was drafted, calling for six reforms (corresponding numerically with the Six Acts):
• universal suffrage for adult males
• secret ballot
• no property qualification for members of Parliament, thus allowing poor men equal access
• salary for members of Parliament, thus allowing working men to leave their jobs and serve their country
• equal constituencies (or apportionment)
• annual elections for Parliament, to curb power
This political reform became the enabling force for the working-class movement (1838-1850), with which Robertson sympathized.
At age twenty-four (1840), while still in school, Robertson was ordained to the ministry and began working in Winchester. In his studies he was gripped by the classics, the Bible, and the missionary exploits of Henry Martyn and David Brainerd, whose influence inspired in him what some considered an unhealthy asceticism. A year after his ordination he received his BA (1841) at Oxford and took a holiday to Switzerland. There, in Geneva, he met and married his wife, Helen, also British, daughter of Sir George William Denys (1788-1857), first baronet, of Easton-Neston, Northamptonshire; the couple was to have two children. On his return to England he became curate at Cheltenham, where he ministered for four years (1842-46), during which time he also earned his MA (1844) at Oxford.
But restless, ambitious, changing and growing in his ideas, unhappy with his low station and the restraints on his life, Robertson was like a racehorse chomping at the bit. He wanted more. So he quit his curacy, traveled to Germany (1846), and for a brief reprieve pastored an English church in Heidelberg. Not long after his return to England, he accepted the pastorate of Trinity Chapel, Brighton (1847), which he held for six years, until his untimely death (1853) at the youthful age of thirty-seven. Trinity Chapel was to become his lifework.
Brighton was not then what it is now (“gay capital of Europe”). It was then a gathering place for intellectual thought, where Renaissance persons of differing religious backgrounds discussed ideas. Thinking persons thronged to Robertson’s meetings. The handsomely groomed pastor, with his pleasing voice, his bookish language, and his typical two-point sermon, became known for his public speaking. He preached on Sunday, morning and evening; he also lectured and participated in social reform. For example, his lecture on “Christianity and Hinduism” (1847), contrasting the two belief systems and, therefore, justifying Christian missions in India, was delivered at the Jubilee Celebration for the Church Missionary Society.
Robertson’s charismatic appeal reached out to include the working classes, who, up to this time, had been neglected or ignored in large, stately churches governed by powerful elite. Robertson obtained the confidence of the working man and even founded a Working Men’s Institute, which garnered civic recognition and community influence. When Chartism (1848), taking its name from the People’s Charter (1838), stirred the country, Robertson sided with the people, though it placed him in an awkward position with his leisure-class constituents, who interpreted defending the rights of the working-class as Socialism.
Robertson was not published while he lived, and perhaps went to his grave thinking himself inadequate, and ultimately to be forgotten, because he’d never written a book. But after his death, his sermons and lectures were collected and published, and, almost at once, he rose to the pinnacle of preachers. He was not a scholarly theologian, but he was a passionate one, who wanted to preach the Word and win people to Christ. Sensitive and educated as he was, he also possessed a literary and emotional nature that expressed itself in aesthetic, cerebral, and formal language. His published works include sermons, lectures, addresses, letters, and literary analysis; but he is best known for his sermons preached at Brighton.
How these sermons came to us is a mystery: perhaps from rough drafts or notes he made himself or perhaps from someone in the audience taking notes (which is the means by which we have Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest: his wife, Biddy, was a stenographer and, after his death, his editor). Therefore, Robertson’s raw sermons, which you may find online, lack the polish of edited manuscripts prepared for public consumption; but what they lack in scholarship and sophistication, they make up for in original thought and creativity. They have substance. Which is the reason some are reproduced here, with emendations.
“There are three things in the world that deserve no mercy: hypocrisy, fraud, and tyranny.” ~Frederick W Robertson
Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee
Photo Credit: Oxford University, England