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ROBERTSON, JAMES, Presbyterian minister; b. 24 April 1839 in Dull, Scotland, one of the eight children of James Robertson and Christina MacCallum; m. 23 Sept. 1869 Mary Ann Cowing in Blandford Township, Ont., and they had five children; d. 4 Jan. 1902 in Toronto.

James Robertson attended the parish school in Dull and then in 1855 immigrated with his family to Upper Canada, settling near Woodstock. In 1857, at age 18, he began to teach school. His period as a teacher was marked by two events which would shape the course and quality of his life. He decided to become a minister of the Presbyterian Church and he fell in love with Mary Ann Cowing. In 1863 he matriculated at the University of Toronto; he attended University College for three years, joined the university corps of the 2nd Battalion, Queen’s Own Rifles, and saw action against the Fenians at Ridgeway in 1866 [see Alfred Booker*]. For the next two years he studied at Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, N.J., and he then spent one year at Union Theological Seminary, New York City. While in New York he engaged in city mission work with such success that he received attractive offers to remain. Nevertheless, he returned to Canada, married Mary Ann Cowing after a ten-year courtship, was ordained on 18 Nov. 1869, and was inducted into the pastoral charge of Norwich, Ont.

Robertson keenly felt the claims of the vast mission field of the northwest and in 1874 he began a fruitful seven-year pastorate at the recently organized Knox Church in Winnipeg. The congregation flourished under his leadership. He was, moreover, indefatigable in his efforts to help incoming settlers; he actively supported Manitoba College [see John Mark King*], being a member of its board of management from 1875 to 1901 and for a time a lecturer in moral philosophy and theology; and he played an active part in the founding of the University of Manitoba in 1877 [see Alexander Morris*]. Nothing, however, claimed his energies and imagination so much as the work of home missions. In 1881, when the church decided to create the position of superintendent of missions in the northwest, it appointed Robertson and inducted him into this office on 26 July. He had found his life’s-work.

His immense field stretched from the Lakehead, Ont., to Edmonton and would eventually include British Columbia and the Yukon. At the meeting in 1882 of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada he presented the first of a series of remarkable reports. Regarding his first tour of his region, which had begun in August and lasted until 12 Dec. 1881, he told the assembly, “I travelled in all by buggy 2,000 miles, preached on 96 different occasions, and delivered about 400 addresses.” The report contains a detailed description of the eight districts of his territory. He discussed the resources, state of settlement, economy, condition of the churches, ministers or lack thereof, and general promise and problems of each community. Robertson was captivated by the west and had great expectations for its future.

During his first tour Robertson clearly perceived the needs of the church in the west and devised a strategy to meet them. Financial resources had to be secured to assist struggling settlers in the building of churches and manses. Only in this way would the Presbyterian cause be given “visibility and permanence,” a phrase which became his battle-cry in his financial campaigns. Thus, he developed the Church and Manse Building Fund of Manitoba and the North-West, which proved to be a powerful instrument of church extension. In 1887 he reported to the General Assembly that “for the eight years prior to the existence of the Fund only 15 churches and manses were built, or not quite an average of 2, while since the existence of the Fund the average has been nearly 21 a year.”

An even greater need was for ministers who would be effective on the frontier. The successful minister, he summarized, “must commend himself to [the people] as a man and a Christian. With them the office and denomination will avail little; but personal character and pulpit power much. . . . The large amount of travel requires men of youth and physical endurance.” His men must be intelligent – Robertson was no anti-intellectual – and also practical. In a letter to his wife, he told of his frustration with one missionary, “a green Glasgow man,” to whom he remonstrated that he “would far rather have a man know less Latin and more Horse, and that without some knowledge of horses a man was useless.” To obtain ministers he worked closely with his friend John Mark King, principal of Manitoba College, but his recruitment took him to other Canadian theological colleges, as well as to Princeton and Union. When he found ministers, he guided, rebuked, encouraged, and supported them; in return they loved him because no one cared about them as he did or knew so intimately the difficult conditions in which they worked.

In order to meet the demands for financial support and leadership, Robertson had also to awaken the wider church to the importance of the west. Indeed, in this sense he became a missionary to eastern Canada. His constant travelling, financial campaigns, reports, speeches, and occasional articles all became a means for educating the whole church about the west, its promise, and its claims. His stature and place in the church were recognized in 1888 when the Presbyterian College of Montreal honoured him with a dd and in 1895 when he was elected moderator of the General Assembly.

At the time of his death, the Toronto Globe recalled that at an earlier period it had said of Robertson: “No man living knows more about the Canadian Northwest, its resources, its development, its social, moral and religious conditions and necessities.” The home mission committee located the source of his effectiveness in the fact that he had “gained the respect and confidence of every class of the population. Amid farms, or ranches, or mines, or villages, or cities, he was equally known and venerated.” On another occasion the committee employed a striking comparison to indicate Robertson’s role in the rapid development of Presbyterianism in the west. It noted that the one presbytery, with its four congregations and 18 missions, which existed at the beginning of his superintendency had developed into 18 presbyteries, with 141 congregations and 226 missions giving service at 1,120 points. “These remarkable results,” it continued, were due in no small measure to Robertson’s “statesmanlike leading and to [his] untiring personal labours.”

Despite his affliction with diabetes, Robertson had kept up his prodigious labours until his death in Toronto at age 62. He belonged, however, to the west and was buried in Kildonan cemetery, Winnipeg.

Gordon Harland

AO, RG 80-5, no.1869-002156. GRO-E, Dull, reg. of births and baptisms, 24 April 1839. UCC, Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario Conference Arch. (Winnipeg), Biog. file, James Robertson; Presbyterian Church in Canada, Manitoba Presbytery, minutes, 1875–84; Synod of Manitoba and North-West Territories, Home Mission Committee, minute-book, 1884–1902; records, 1884–1902. Univ. of Manitoba Libraries, Dept. of Arch. and Special Coll. (Winnipeg), mss 56 (C. W. Gordon [Ralph Connor] papers). Globe, 6 Jan. 1902: 10. C. W. Gordon [Ralph Connor], The life of James Robertson, d.d. (Toronto, 1908); Postscript to adventure: the autobiography of Ralph Connor (New York, 1938; new ed., intro. Clara Thomas, Toronto, 1975). Catherine Macdonald, “James Robertson and Presbyterian Church extension in Manitoba and the north west, 1866–1902,” Prairie spirit: perspectives on the heritage of the United Church of Canada in the west, ed. D. L. Butcher et al. (Winnipeg, 1985), 85–99. J. S. Moir, Enduring witness: a history of the Presbyterian Church in Canada ([Hamilton, Ont., 1974?]). PCC, Acts and proc., 1882–1902.

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Cite This Article

Gordon Harland, “ROBERTSON, JAMES (1839-1902),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 4, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/robertson_james_1839_1902_13E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/robertson_james_1839_1902_13E.html
Author of Article:   Gordon Harland
Title of Article:   ROBERTSON, JAMES (1839-1902)
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1994
Year of revision:   1994
Access Date:   March 4, 2024