Essay / Misc.

F.W. Robertson’s Life and Death

F.W. Robertson (1816-1853) was the kind of preacher people spoke of in superlatives: Charles Dickens reportedly said that “he was one of the greatest masters of elocution I ever knew. To hear Robertson read the church prayers was in itself a liberal education.” He was very popular in his day, and after his death (on this day, August 15) many volumes of his sermons sold briskly.

He started out as a fiery young evangelical of the type that read the journals of Henry Martyn and David Brainerd. Studying at Oxford, he ran up against the Tractarians with their own, competing radicalism. In the end, he developed into neither an Evangelical nor a Tractarian, deciding that both the low church and the high church were too committed to specific doctrines and forms. Robertson opted for a form of Romantic liberal theology, and preached it exquisitely.

The height of his popularity came during his curacy in Brighton, where he preached for six years, beginning in 1847 and lasting until his death, at Holy Trinity Church. The word spread abroad that a great preacher was in the land. Luminaries like Gladstone and Tillotson would go out of their way to hear his preaching.

In the last few years, new light has been shed on Robertson’s personal life. Investigators have discovered Robertson’s private journal from the year 1849. He made his entries in a code that protected its contents from those who shared his household, but is no barrier to later scholars. What’s in the journal? No surprise: extramarital sex. The entry for October 1, 1849: “Four hours in bed with Augusta.” Mrs. Robertson’s name was Ellen, and the name of Augusta’s husband (she had one) is not recorded.

We don’t know everything about Robertson’s life or character, and it’s not possible to say precisely how he dealt with his sin. Did it torture him inescapably, or did he weave elaborate excuses and self-justifications? Was the contradiction between his Christian ministry and his actual life something that pressed down on his consciousness, or was he blithe about it? We don’t know.

One reason we don’t know is that Robertson’s sermons, whatever other merits they may have, are pervasively vague. They are vague with their liberal theology, they are vague as to personal application, and they are vague with poetic suggestiveness. The classic evangelical take-down of Robertson’s overblown reputation is the line: “Robertson believed that Christ did something or other, which, somehow or other, had some connexion or other with salvation.” Spurgeon didn’t coin that one, but he loved to quote it.

To test the vagueness of the sermons, try this experiment: Knowing what we now know about how Robertson spent October of 1849, read his January 1851 sermon about David’s repentance from adultery in Psalm 51. Are there cracks in the sermon, through which we can see anything like the repentance Robertson needed? There are many fine phrases and considerable insight:

Two sides of our mysterious twofold being here. Something in us near to hell: something strangely near to God.

This psalm, written three thousand years ago, might have been written yesterday: describes the vicissitudes of spiritual life in an Englishman as truly as of a Jew.

Conscience, when it is healthy, ever speaks thus: “my transgression.”

We can not help believing that our sentiments towards right and wrong are a reflection of God’s. That we call just and true, we can not but think is just and true in His sight.

I venture to say, into true penitence the idea of punishment never enters. If it did, it would be almost a relief; but oh! those moments in which a selfish act has appeared more hideous than any pain which the fancy of a Dante could devise!

When I read Robertson’s sermon on Psalm 51, I can barely pick up the note of spiritual reality. And just when I think I might be catching it, Robertson swerves the direction of the sermon to an attack on evangelical commitments. In turn, he mocks the ideas of punishment, atonement, heaven, and hell.

Doug Wilson once described the connection between pastoral sin and vague preaching, in a blog post titled “Porn as Liturgical Corruption:”

when men preach wiggle room they often find that other men will frequently like the look of that wiggle room…. This creates a cycle — the minister is being pushed to compromise from within, and once he begins preaching more tolerant (and therefore more tolerable) sermons, he begins to be pulled. He has presented handles to those who would pull him. And so the lie about Jesus that he has allowed to take root in his heart is a lie that works its way into his manuscript. And from there into other hearts.

No doubt there are many explanations for the vagueness of Robertson’s sermonic work. “Robertson believed that Christ did something or other, which, somehow or other, had some connexion or other with salvation.” His sermons were somehow or other about that.

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