Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Robertson, Frederick William
ROBERTSON, FREDERICK WILLIAM (1816–1853), divine, the eldest of a family of four sons, was born in London on 3 Feb. 1816. His father, Frederick Robertson of St. Anne's, Soho, was an officer in the royal artillery; his grandfather had been a colonel, and both hereditary influence and actual environment conspired to imbue his character with military influences. He was educated successively at Beverley grammar school, at Tours, at the New Edinburgh Academy (where he was a contemporary with James Moncreiff, afterwards lord advocate) and at Edinburgh University. His father, whose other sons had embraced the military profession, was desirous that Frederick should become a clergyman, but he refused from a sense of unworthiness. His own inclination was for the army, but he consented to be placed in a solicitor's office, and remained there until his health was evidently breaking down under the uncongeniality of his employment. His father obtained the promise of a commission, and Robertson studied ardently for his intended profession until, in 1837, the delay of the appointment, and the constant pressure of his father and of friends, induced him to yield his own wishes, a sacrifice which he found the easier as he had 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, nevertheless suffered from some minor defects disastrous in his public position—fiery vehemence, exaggerated sensitiveness, and an entire lack of humour. He went into fits of passion over his detractors' iniquity without any countervailing perception of their absurdity, and every petty annoyance still further impaired the nervous energy which, apart from all merely external causes, was continually preying upon itself. The fire and emotion of the private correspondence published by Mr. Stopford Brooke (a selection from a great mass) would alone suffice to exhaust a delicate constitution. In February 1853, when he delivered at the Brighton Athenæum a lecture on the poet Wordsworth (who had received his honorary degree at Oxford during Robertson's undergraduateship), his health was visibly declining. Shortly afterwards, yielding to the entreaties of his congregation, he consented to seek rest for a time, and leave his church in the hands of a curate. The gentleman he selected was objected to by the vicar of Brighton on the ground of some personal offence given a few years before. Robertson, with his usual high spirit, refused to withdraw his nominee, and the consequent necessity for continuing to officiate killed him. He died of inflammation of the brain on 15 Aug. 1853, the sixth anniversary of his appearance at Brighton. More than two thousand persons followed him to the grave. His widow remarried, on 5 Feb. 1862, the Rev. Edward Houghton Johnson (d. 1880) of Aldwick, Sussex. Robertson left a son, Charles Boyd, who entered the foreign office; and a daughter, Ida Florence Geraldine, who married, first, Sir George Shuckburgh, ninth baronet, and, secondly, in 1886, Major Henry James Shuckburgh.
Robertson's private letters would alone justify a literary reputation, with their vehemence of emotion, beauty of description, depth of thought, and refinement of taste. His fame, notwithstanding, must mainly rest upon his ‘Sermons preached at Trinity Chapel, Brighton,’ published after his death (1st and 2nd ser. 1855, 3rd ser. 1857, 4th ser. 1859, 5th ser. 1890). These sermons abundantly prove that the secret of the preacher's power was not merely personal. Few compositions of the kind have been read with more eagerness or have exerted a wider influence, yet none have found their way to the public under greater disadvantages. They are for the most part derived either from imperfect shorthand notes or from simple recollections written out by himself in an abridged form for the benefit of friends. Most discourses subjected to a similar ordeal would have become a mere caput mortuum, but the most conspicuous characteristic of Robertson's is their vitality. Eloquent, in the ordinary sense, they are not, nor do they shine by learning or scholarship, which Robertson did not possess in any extraordinary measure. They are simply the effusions of a mind whose genius was turned to preaching, as that of other minds to poetry. Their theology would generally be called broad-church, but presents few traces of influence received from Kingsley, Maurice, or any other broad-church leader. Robertson thought entirely for himself, and, as he was always thinking, the character of his teaching must have undergone considerable modifications. The direction he would have taken may be easily surmised, but cannot be certainly known.
Descended from military ancestors, surrounded with military associations, endowed to the full with military instincts and aptitudes, the description ‘soldier of the Cross’ in relation to Robertson stated a literal fact. He felt towards wrong and sin as a soldier feels towards dastardly enemies, and attacked hostile opinions and uncongenial habits of mind as he would have mounted a breach or stormed a battery. He thus offends by perpetual overstatement, especially in his private correspondence. He was nevertheless preserved from narrowness by his admirable gift of recognising what was excellent in every party. With all his fieriness, he was by no means deficient in tact, and he was always ready to defer to authority in externals; inwardly he would and must have his own way. His intense subjectivity made him indifferent to the authority of antiquity, on which the high-church party laid stress, and, though admiring and venerating many of the tractarian leaders, he became more thoroughly estranged from them than from the evangelicals.
Besides his sermons, hardly any of which were printed in his lifetime, Robertson was the author of several lectures and addresses (published separately in 1858), which, together with a few public speeches and other productions, have been collected and published as his ‘Literary Remains’ (1876, 8vo). The most important are those delivered in connection with the working-men's institute at Brighton, especially the inaugural address (1849) and the two ‘Lectures on the Influence of Poetry on the Working Classes’ (1852), which comprise a defence of ‘In Memoriam’ against the ordinary reviewing of the day. He also made a translation of Lessing on the ‘Education of the Human Race,’ and an analysis of ‘In Memoriam’ (London, 1862, 8vo), ‘an endeavour to give the keynote of each poem in the series.’ Both these works were included in the above-mentioned volume. His ‘Expository Lectures on St. Paul's Epistle to the Corinthians’ were published after his death (London, 1859, 8vo, several editions). In his youth he wrote much verse, some specimens of which have been privately printed under the title of ‘A few Extracts from the Early Poetical Writings of F. W. R.’ They do not possess much merit.
[By far the most important authority for the biography of Robertson is his ‘Life and Letters,’ by the Rev. Stopford A. Brooke (1865); a most thorough and sympathetic piece of work, notwithstanding obvious reticences no doubt unavoidable at the time. The ‘Life’ by the Rev. T. Arnold (1886) is a book of comparatively little authority, but has many interesting notices of Lady Byron and other friends of Robertson. See also the chapter on Robertson in Gilbert Sutton's ‘Faith and Science,’ 1868, Louis Dumas, ‘Un Prédicateur Anglais,’ Montauban, 1894, and Crabb Robinson's Diary, passim.]