Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 48.djvu/411

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always lived under strong religious influences; and one of his chief motives for wishing to enter the army had been missionary zeal. He matriculated from Brasenose College, Oxford, in May 1837, and five days afterwards received the offer of a commission in the 2nd dragoon guards, which he declined. Had he entered the army he would have made an excellent officer; but the world would not have heard of him, unless as the subject of a court-martial.

Robertson's antecedents did not promise a brilliant university career. Although working hard, he obtained no distinction, and his residence was chiefly important to him for his thorough study of Plato and Aristotle, whose works eventually exerted much influence upon his mind. For the time he seemed no more than a budding evangelical curate, much out of harmony with the ecclesiastical atmosphere in which Oxford was then steeped. Among his Oxford friends, however, was Mr. Ruskin. He was ordained in July 1840, and took a curacy in the parish of St. Mary Kalendar, in the poorest part of Winchester, where, between the strenuousness of his labours and the unwisdom of his asceticism, his health broke down within a year. Having graduated B.A. in 1841 (M.A. 1844), he travelled, and spent a considerable time in Geneva, where he made the acquaintance of César Malan. Malan said to him: ‘Vous aurez une triste vie et un triste ministère.’ This melancholy prognostication seemed fulfilled in his ministry at Cheltenham.

On 6 Oct. 1841 he married Helen, third daughter of Sir George William Denys (1788–1857), first baronet, of Easton-Neston, Northamptonshire, whom he had met at Geneva. Some eighteen months later he became curate to Archibald Boyd, afterwards dean of Exeter, then incumbent of Christ Church, Cheltenham. Many causes may be assigned for the despondency which overclouded nearly the whole of his residence at Cheltenham, but probably none was so powerful as one of which he was himself unconscious, the inevitable chafing against the equally inevitable restraint of his subordinate position. About 1845 he became conscious of having outgrown both the sphere which he had entered and the ideas with which he had entered upon it. The consequent breach of his most cherished friendships occasioned him intense pain, and drove him in 1846 to seek repose in Germany, where he was aided to recover balance of mind by the success with which he for a time filled the pulpit of the English church at Heidelberg. Returning with calmer feelings and more settled views, he applied for clerical work to Bishop Wilberforce, who, although dissenting from some of his opinions, offered him the charge of St. Ebbe's, a parish in the poorest part of Oxford. Robertson entered enthusiastically upon this duty, and the church was beginning to fill with undergraduates when he received from trustees the offer of the incumbency of Trinity Chapel, Brighton. This, notwithstanding the pecuniary advantage, he was unwilling to accept, but yielded at length to the advice of Bishop Wilberforce. Removing to Brighton, he preached his first sermon there on 15 Aug. 1847.

There is perhaps no parallel in English church history to the influence of Robertson's six years' ministry at a small proprietary chapel. That his eloquence should soon fill it was a matter of course. The extraordinary thing was that he should so soon come to be an important force in the community, and that, scarcely publishing anything, he should acquire so much influence and celebrity far beyond its limits. It can only be said that he was not only a man of genius, but a man of unique genius. Many pulpits were occupied at the time by men to whom the title of genius would not be misapplied, but they were without exception party men, and representatives of some particular school of thought. Robertson belonged to every party and to none; there was no school with which he did not feel deep sympathy on many points, and none from which he was not divided by irreconcilable differences. Alone among the divines of his day he was entirely untrammelled, original, and fearless. His power was greatly increased by his singular ability for dealing with the working classes, whose estrangement from the churches was deeply lamented by thoughtful persons, but with whom, before Robertson's advent to Brighton, few of the clergy had been able to do anything. Robertson speedily obtained their full confidence, and the most dramatic episodes of his ministry are connected with his foundation of a working men's institute and with the controversies and the public recognition which grew out of it. His celebrity was no doubt also promoted by the incessant cavils of influential cliques in Brighton society, and of representatives of various religious parties, who one and all resented his frequent dissent from them far more than they valued his frequent agreement. These attacks, and the intense annoyance he felt when he found himself deserted by individual members of his congregation, undoubtedly shortened his life. Robertson, whose character, in all points that were comprehended within the region of morality, was not only stainless but exalted,