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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Frederick William Robertson (1816–1853)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
AMONG the souls which refused the haven where Newman had found peace, because they dreamed of longer voyages and of undiscovered lands, few so suffered in the lonelier seas of their choice as did Frederick William Robertson. His short intense life was spent in a spiritual isolation from his fellows, which was partly the result of temperament, partly of his ability to see clearer and farther than most men into the mysteries of existence. He never found home. It seemed, indeed, as if a divine nostalgia drew him out of the world. He left it still young, struggling, the questions upon his lips, the desire in his heart; faring forth into the lands of God as one who could not mistrust the divine Lover, and would fain learn of himself the meaning of the confused earthly existence, which had only deepened his dejection. He was indeed the embodiment of the religious spirit of the end of the century. He exhibited its most striking characteristics: its dependence upon conduct rather than emotion; its glorification of morality; its humanism, its hunger for God, hidden under a pantheistic composure; its adoration of Jesus, as the one wholly comforting figure in the bleak perspectives of human history; finally, he held its conception of Christianity as a life, not a creed. The man who wrote, “The religion of Christ is not a law but a spirit, not a creed but a life,” had felt within him the forces of a new realization of religion as yet unperceived by his generation. He suffered in consequence the pangs of those who travail to bring forth the new which will supplant the old.  1
  His short life of thirty-seven years was lived in a transitional period of England’s spiritual development, when through the prayers of both ritualist and evangelical might be heard strange voices speaking of strange things,—of a universe emptied of God, of man without a soul.  2
  Robertson was born in 1816, in London. His father was a captain in the Royal Artillery; the boy grew up therefore in the atmosphere of the military life, and imbibed not a few of its nobler ideals. Until he was five years old he was at Leith Fort, where his father was stationed. In 1821 the latter retired to Beverley; there Robertson attended the grammar school, going later to Tours for the sake of learning the French tongue. After a year he returned home, continuing his education at the Edinburgh Academy and then at the University. His elevation of character, his nobility of mind, led to a proposal from his father that he should enter the church; but he refused on the ground of his unworthiness. At the age of eighteen he was articled to a solicitor in Bury St. Edmunds; but a year’s study so undermined his health that he was obliged to give up the project of studying the law. His name was then entered on the list of the 3d Dragoons. He spent two years in preparation for military service; but on the eve of receiving his commission, in 1837, he matriculated at Brasenose College, Oxford. There he read extensively, coming under the influence of Plato and Aristotle, of Butler and Jonathan Edwards. With the Tractarian movement he seems to have had little sympathy, his temper at that stage of his development being evangelical. He was being drawn gradually into the church: in July 1840, he was ordained by the Bishop of Winchester, and immediately entered upon ministerial work in that place. His enthusiasm led him, however, into excesses of self-denial and of religious exercises, so that his health being undermined, he was obliged to go abroad within a year.  3
  It was during his sojourn in Switzerland that he met and married Helen, third daughter of Sir George William Denys. Upon his return to England in 1842 he accepted the curacy of Cheltenham, where he remained for four years; a period of great importance in his life, for his religious views were gradually undergoing a radical change. Of a temperament characterized by its reasonableness and by its sensitiveness to reality, what he considered the extravagance and the cant of the extreme evangelical party filled him with repugnance. Moreover he had come under the influence of Carlyle and Emerson, and was beginning to think that dogma occupied too large a place in religion. He himself was too much of a man of the world in the best sense, to remain long fettered by what he believed to be provincial in a church party. He cut loose therefore from his moorings, and ventured out upon that sea which stretches beyond the limits of the world. At first he was to encounter only night and the terror of the unknown.
          “It is an awful moment,” he writes, “when the soul begins to find that the props on 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 insecurity begins also 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 shriveled into a span; when the grave appears to be the end of all, human goodness nothing but a name, and the sky above this universe a dead expanse, black with the void from which God himself has disappeared…. I know of 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. 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 a coward.”
  4
  Like many other noble spirits of the time, he found in right conduct, in the keeping of the commandments, that “upon which his soul might assuredly rest and depend”; despite the suffering incident upon his growth, he entered through this new hope into a conception of Christianity as being primarily not a theological system but a life, not a religion of emotion but one of principle. He believed that under this aspect of it only could it become a universal religion, making its appeal not to the changing intellect but to the eternal conscience of the race.  5
  These new phases in Robertson’s development led to his giving up the curacy of Cheltenham, and—after a short residence abroad, and a few subsequent months at Oxford—to entrance upon his famous ministry at Trinity Chapel, Brighton. There he preached sermons which attracted the attention of all England, and there he endeavored to realize his new conception of Christianity, which seemed little short of heretical to his generation. He founded a workingman’s institute, and was called a socialist; he preached the religion of holiness, and was accused of heresy: yet his sermons seem wholly reasonable and beautiful to this generation. They exhibit a remarkable clearness of spiritual insight, profound knowledge of human nature, and a sweetness, born of strength, most winning in its warm humanity. Nevertheless his teachings were misunderstood; in obscure ways he was persecuted. His sensitive spirit, which could expand only in the atmosphere of sympathy, drew into itself in pain. He suffered likewise from religious doubt and terror. He had chosen the eternal rather than the finite; but its vastness struck a chill to a nature made for the uses of love, for the intimacy and definiteness of affection.  6
  He died on the 15th of August, 1853, knowing that his unfinished life could be completed only in the lives of his spiritual children, breathing the air of a time more friendly to a wider interpretation of the gospel.  7
 
 
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