« AnteriorContinuar »
sensitive organization—“the sadness of one whose spiritual ideal was always infinitely beyond his practice.” Yet he threw himself into his work with the courage of a soldier and the enthusiasm of a Loyola. The effect was quickly apparent. He labored especially among the poor and working-men and, devoted much time to the Sunday-Schools. Under the predecessor of his rector, who had been suspended for drunkenness, not a hundred people went to church, and the affairs of the parish had fallen into a lamentable condition. But now, the hearty, earnest, united work of rector and curate, made it necessary to open two churches at once, both of which were crowded to overflowing. His outward activity was the natural expression of his intense spiritual feeling. As with many other earnest young ministers, his enthusiasm for a time took on the form of asceticism. His searching introspection revealed much remaining evil in his heart, which he thought to eradicate by self-denial, practiced in self-imposed outward observances. He sought, by austerities, to overcome temptations and hindrances which sprung from his peculiar temperament. He restricted himself in food and sleep, and curtailed expenses that he might have more of time and of money to bestow on the poor. He read the lives of Brainard and Martyn, and emulated their example of devotion. He was much in prayer, and the burden of his prayer was that he might have "an objective, disinterested love of Christ, and that possession of God which arises from love to others.” Thus, with a morbid self-dissection, he was trying vainly, to realize the life of whole-souled evangelical faith, according to his high ideal.
His preaching during that first year was occupied much with analysis of doctrine and “ full of forcible appeals to the consciences of men, and of deeply-felt descriptions of the love of God in Christ.” There was power in these presentations, but not that full measure of power which marked his later sermons. Under a feeling of despondency, he judged his ministerial life in Winchester a failure. In the sounder judgment of others who saw and experienced its effects, it was more than
ordinarily successful. His earnest, professional opposition to others' sin was not in vain, though, perlaps, its greatest immediate effect was a reflex and unconscious one in the morbid struggle with his own sin.
So intense a life, both outward and inward, was too much for his physical frame. At the end of a year of labor, his health broke down. Reluctantly, he yielded to the advice of friends and physicians, and after being admitted to priest's orders, sought relief in a visit to the Continent. He traveled mostly on foot, up the Rhine, and through the Jura to Geneva. The oxygen of the Swiss mountain air invigorated body and soul. In his journeyings, he was still the earnest Christian, speaking to strangers whom he met with a facility and force such as few can command.
He lingered for some time at Geneva, and engaged with a deep, personal interest, in some discussions on Christian experience with the venerable Dr. Malan, who, discerning the peculiar temperament and spirit of the man, said prophetically, “Mon très-chere frère, vous aurez une triste vie et un triste ministere.” While there also, he formed a marriage connection, on short acquaintance, with a lady of respectable family whom he chanced to meet. The utter silence of the biographer respecting his subsequent domestic life seems significant of truth in the vague rumors which reach us of unhappy consequences from that hasty step. He probably lacked that which for the “triste vie” of Malan's prediction, he peculiarly needed, the cheerful sympathy and support of a congenial spirit in the most intimate of earthly associations.
On returning to England, Mr. Robertson, after a brief interval of further rest, accepted the curacy of Christ Church, in Cheltenham, in the summer of 1842, and for nearly five years, continued there to labor. His congregation soon felt his peculiar power of fascination, “the fascination not only of natural gifts of voice and speech and manner, but also of intellect warmed into life by the deepest convictions." Not only the the refined and cultivated were charmed, but one tells us how as he spent a summer-holiday in a rural parish, he preached, and “goodly farmers and rustic laborers crowded the church and listened to him, all eyes and ears, with a pleasant mixture of delight and astonishment.” His influence was felt also in private. He was the conscientious and faithful pastor of his flock, and vrithal “a marvelously bright and eloquent talker.” Everywhere, he left the impression of genius, inspired by the love of Christ and consecrated to the work of Christ.
Unfortunately, a mistaken idea of what was due to the clerical profession, led him at this period to abstain from most of the healthful exercises which he loved, and which his manly physical frame and excitable temperament especially required. To this, no doubt, in part, was due that heavy cloud of melancholy which rested on his soul during all his years in Cheltenham. By resolute will, he made them, nevertheless, years of active and fruitful, though to himself unsatisfactory labor. They were also years of intellectual advance and spiritual growth. Ile read much of history, poetry, metaphysics, and on the exciting questions of the day, and he had the rare faculty, by deep, discriminating thought, of extracting from what he read and appropriating as his own, whatever was presented by living, practical truth. In society, too, he was always a learner. The conversations in which he was himself the brilliant center, contributed to increase his resources, as he caught the ideas and felt the stimulus of other minds in contact with his own. And all this self-culture and labor for others had their spring in a present, prevalent desire, like that of the great apostle, “to have a conscience void of offense towards God and towards men,” and to form his life after the pattern of the life of Christ, ever before him as the type of the highest life.
But what most marks this period was that transition that fearful conflict of soul before referred to, which resulted in some change of opinions and sympathies, and a new style of dealing with human souls. Concerning it, we have but a few hints. Physical derangement made the action of the mind morbid. The studies and discussions just spoken of had something to do with it. The exciting controversy of the day respecting the “ Tracts for the Times” exercised his mind severely in a scorching review of all religious doctrines and practices, that he might reach some independent and settled convictions. He had seen the emptiness of High Church notions, when in college, and discarded them. Now, came a recoil from “Evangelicalism," so-called, occasioned by the apparent heartlessness of high professions on the part of its advocates, and their denunciatory spirit. Of this recoil, the biographer speaks thus: “Ile was so pained by the expressions of religious emotion which fell from those who were living a merely fashionable life, that he states himself, in one of his letters, that he gave up reading all books of a devotional character, lest he should be lured into the same habit of feeling without acting. His conception, also, of Christianity as the religion of just and loving tolerance, and of Christ as the king of men through the power of meekness, made him draw back with horror from the violent and blind denunciation which the “religious” agitators and the “religious" papers of the extreme portion of the Evangelical party indulged in under the cloak of Christianity. “They tell lies," he said, “in the name of God; others tell them in the name of the Devil; that is the only difference.” Then we have a fact, without explanation, thus stated: “An outward blowthe sudden ruin of a friendship which he had wrought, as he imagined, forever into his being—a blow from which he never afterwards recovered—accelerated the inward crisis, and the result was a period of spiritual agony so awful that it not only shook his health to its center, but smote his spirit down into so profound a darkness that of all his early faiths but one remained, It must be right to do right.” And for the rest, we have only this picture of the dark hour, drawn by himself some years afterward, in a lecture to working-men at Brighton,
“ It is an awful moment when the soul begins to find that the props upon which it has blindly rested so long are, many of them, rotten, and begins to suspect them all; when it begins to feel the nothingness of many of the traditionary opinions which have been received with implicit confidence, and in that horrible incertainty begins to doubt whether there be anything to believe at all. It is an awful hour-let him who has passed through it say how awful—when this life has lost its meaning and seems shrivelled into a span; when the grave appears to be the end of all, human goodness but a name, and the sky above this universe a dead expanse, black with the void from which God himself has disappeared. In that fearful loneliness of spirit, when those who should have been his friends and counselors only frown upon his misgivings and profanely bid him stifle doubts, which, for aught he knows, may arise from the fountain of truth itself; to extinguish, as a glare from hell, that which, for aught he knows, may be light from heaven, and everything seemed wrapped in hideous uncertainty. I know but one way in which a man may come forth from his agony scathless; it is by holding fast to those things which are certain still,—the grand, simple landmarks of morality. In the darkest hour through which a human soul can pass, whatever else is doubtful, this at least is certain. If there be no God, and no future state, yet even then, it is better to be generous than selfish, better to be chaste than licentious, better to be true than false, better to be brave than to be a coward, Blessed beyond all earthly blessedness is the man, who, in the tempestuous darkness of the soul, has dared to hold fast to these venerable landmarks. Thrice blessed is he who—when all is drear and cheerless within and without, when his teachers terrify him and his friends shrink from him-has obstinately clung to moral good. Thrice blessed, because his night shall pass into clear, bright day.”
The morning came to Robertson, at last, after his night, and brought the blessing—not in the form of exulting joyhis shattered health and over-sensitive temperament forbade that-but in the form of spiritual freedom, freedom in the possession of clear and positive convictions, freedom to work in his own way, under the mighty impulse of those convictions. But, for a time, the agony of the crisis prostrated him, and he was compelled to seek relief in a second visit to the Continent. Communion with nature, amid the wild scenery of the Tyrol,