Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Robinson, Robert (1735-1790)

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ROBINSON, ROBERT (1735–1790), baptist minister and hymn-writer, youngest child of Michael Robinson (d. 1747?), was born at Swaffham, Norfolk, on 27 Sept. 1735 (his own repeated statement; the date, 8 Oct., given by Rees and Flower, is a reduction to new style). His father, born in Scotland, was an exciseman of indifferent character. His mother was Mary (d. September 1790, aged 93), daughter of Robert Wilkin (d. 1746) of Mildenhall, Suffolk, who would not countenance the marriage. He was educated at the grammar school of Swaffham; afterwards at that of Scarning, under Joseph Brett, the tutor of John Norris (1734–1777) [q. v.] and Lord-chancellor Thurlow. Straitened means interfered with his projected education for the Anglican ministry; on 7 March 1749 he was apprenticed to Joseph Anderson, a hairdresser in Crutched Friars, London. The preaching of Whitefield drew him to the Calvinistic methodists; he dates his dedication to a religious life from 24 May 1752, his complete conversion from 10 Dec. 1755. Shortly before he came of age Anderson renounced his indentures, giving him a high character, but adding that he was ‘more employed in reading than working, in following preachers than in attending customers.’

Robinson began preaching at Mildenhall (1758), and was soon invited to assist W. Cudworth at the Norwich Tabernacle. Shortly afterwards he seceded, with thirteen others, to form an independent church in St. Paul's parish, Norwich. Early in 1759 he received adult baptism from Dunkhorn, baptist minister at Great Ellingham, Norfolk. On 8 July 1759 he preached for the first time at Stone Yard Baptist Chapel, Cambridge; after being on trial for nearly two years, he made open communion a condition of his acceptance (28 May 1761) of a call, and was ordained pastor (11 June). The congregation was small, the meeting-house, originally a barn, was ruinous, and Robinson's stipend for the first half-year was 3l. 12s. 5d. His preaching became popular; a new meeting-house was opened on 12 Aug. 1764, and Robinson's evening sermons, delivered without notes, drew crowded audiences. He had trouble with lively gownsmen (who on one occasion broke up the service); this he effectively met by his caustic discourse (10 Jan. 1773) ‘on a becoming behaviour in religious assemblies.’

He lived first at Fulbourn, some four miles from Cambridge, then in a cottage at Hauxton, about the same distance off, removing in June 1773 to Chesterton, above a mile from his meeting-house. Here he farmed a piece of land, bought (1775) and rebuilt a house, and did business as a corn merchant and coal merchant. In 1782 he bought two other farms, comprising 171 acres. His mercantile engagements drew the censure of ‘godly boobies,’ but, while securing his independence, he neglected neither his vocation nor his studies. On Sundays he preached twice or thrice at Cambridge; on weekdays he evangelised neighbouring villages, having a list of fifteen stations where he preached, usually in the evening, sometimes at five o'clock in the morning. His volume of village sermons exhibits his powers of plain speech, homely and local illustration, wit and pathos. The sermons, however, were not actually delivered as printed, for he invariably preached extempore.

In politics a strong liberal, and an early advocate for the emancipation of the slave, Robinson showed his theological liberalism by the part he took, in 1772, in promoting the relaxation of the statutory subscription exacted from tolerated dissenters. At Cambridge he was in contact with a class of men, several of whom were on the point of secession from the church as unitarians. In opposition to their doctrinal conclusions he published, in 1776, his ‘Plea for the Divinity of our Lord,’ which at once attracted notice by resting the case on the broad and obvious tenour of scripture. He was offered inducements to conform. ‘Do the dissenters know the worth of the man?’ asked Samuel Ogden (1716–1778) [q. v.]; to which Robinson rejoined, ‘The man knows the worth of the dissenters.’ He had sent copies to Theophilus Lindsey [q. v.] and John Jebb, M.D. [q. v.], with both of whom he was on friendly terms. Francis Blackburne (1705–1787) [q. v.], who thought it unanswerable, twitted the unitarian Lindsey with the silence of his party. Not till 1785 did Lindsey publish his (anonymous) ‘Examination’ in reply. By this time Robinson had begun to recede from the position taken in his ‘Plea,’ which was in fact Sabellian, ‘that the living and true God united himself to the man Jesus’ (Plea, p. 68). His change of view was due to his researches for a history of the baptist body, and to the writings of Priestley, to which he subsequently referred as having arrested his progress ‘from enthusiasm to deism.’ In a letter (7 May 1788) to John Marsom (1746–1833) he scouts the doctrines of the Trinity and of the personality of the Spirit. But in his own pulpit he did not introduce controversial topics.

In 1780 Robinson visited Edinburgh, where the diploma of D.D. was offered to him, but declined. His history of the baptists was projected at a meeting (6 Nov. 1781) of his London friends, headed by Andrew Gifford [q. v.] Robinson was to come up to London once a month to collect material, Gifford offering him facilities at the British Museum, and expenses were to be met by his preaching and lecturing in London. The plan did not work, and Robinson's services in London, popular at first, soon offended his orthodox friends. After 1783 he took his own course. Through Christopher Anstey [q. v.] he had enjoyed, from 1776, the use of a library at Brinkley, two miles from Cambridge. Of this he had availed himself in compiling the notes to his translation of Claude's ‘Essay,’ a publication undertaken as a relief under disablement from a sprained ankle in May 1776. He now obtained the privilege of borrowing books from Cambridge University Library. In 1785 he transferred his farming and mercantile engagements to Curtis, his son-in-law, and devoted all his leisure to literary work. With his spirit of independence went a considerable thirst for popularity, and he was mortified, and to some extent soured, by the loss of confidence which followed the later development of his opinions. Nor was he free from pecuniary anxiety.

By the middle of 1789 his health had begun to fail, and his powers gradually declined. On 2 June 1790 he left Chesterton to preach charity sermons at Birmingham. He preached twice on 5 June, but on 9 June was found dead in his bed at the house of William Russell (1740–1818) [q. v.] at Showell Green, near Birmingham. He was buried in the Old Meeting graveyard at Birmingham. A tablet was placed in the Old Meeting by his Cambridge flock (inscription by Robert Hall; removed in 1886 to the Old Meeting Church, Bristol Road). Funeral sermons were preached at Birmingham by Priestley, at Cambridge by Abraham Rees, D.D. [q. v.], and at Taunton by Joshua Toulmin, D.D. [q. v.] He married at Norwich, in 1759, Ellen Payne (d. 23 May 1808, aged 75), and had twelve children. The death of his daughter Julia (d. 9 Oct. 1787, aged 17) was a severe blow to him.

In person Robinson was rather under middle height; his voice was musical, and his manner self-possessed. His native parts and his powers of acquirement were alike remarkable. His plans of study were methodical and thorough; to gain access to original sources he taught himself four or five languages. His want of theological training led him into mistakes, but ‘his massive common sense was so quickened by lively fancy as to become genius’ (W. Robinson).

His ‘History of Baptism,’ partly printed before his death, was edited in 1790, 4to, by George Dyer [q. v.], who edited also his unfinished ‘Ecclesiastical Researches,’ Cambridge, 1792, 4to, being studies in the church history of various countries, with special reference to the rise of heretical and independent types of Christian opinion. Both works are strongly written, full of minute learning, discursive in character, racy with a rustic mirth, and disfigured by unsparing attacks upon the champions of orthodoxy in all ages. Robinson has much of the animus with little of the delicacy of Jortin. His ‘idol’ was Andrew Dudith (1533–1589), an Hungarian reformer, of sarcastic spirit and great liberty of utterance.

His other publications, besides single sermons and small pamphlets (1772–1788), are: 1. ‘Arcana, or the First Principles of the late Petitioners … for Relief in matter of Subscription,’ &c., 1774, 8vo. 2. ‘A Discussion of the Question “Is it lawful … for a Man to marry the Sister of his deceased Wife?”’ &c., 1775, 8vo (maintains the affirmative). 3. ‘A Plea for the Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ,’ &c., 1776, 8vo; often reprinted. 4. ‘The History and the Mystery of Good Friday,’ &c., 1777, 8vo. 5. ‘A Plan of Lectures on the Principles of Non-conformity,’ &c.; 8th edit., Harlow, 1778, 8vo. 6. ‘The General Doctrine of Toleration applied to … Free Communion,’ &c., 1781, 8vo. 7. ‘A Political Catechism,’ &c., 1782, 8vo; often reprinted. 8. ‘Sixteen Discourses … preached at the Villages about Cambridge,’ &c., 1786, 8vo; often reprinted; enlarged to ‘Seventeen Discourses’ 1805, 8vo. 9. ‘A Discourse on Sacramental Tests,’ &c., Cambridge, 1788, 8vo. 10. ‘An Essay on the Slave Trade,’ 1789, 8vo.

Posthumous were: 11. ‘Posthumous Works,’ 1792, 8vo. 12. ‘Two Original Letters,’ 1802, 8vo. 13. ‘Sermons … with three Original Discourses,’ &c., 1804, 8vo. 14. ‘A brief Dissertation … of Public Preaching,’ &c., Harlow, 1811, 8vo. His ‘Miscellaneous Works,’ Harlow, 1807, 8vo, 4 vols., were edited by Benjamin Flower [q. v.] He translated from the French the ‘Sermons’ of Jacques Saurin (1677–1730), 1770, 8vo (two sermons), and 1784, 8vo, 5 vols.; and the ‘Essay on the Composition of a Sermon,’ by Jean Claude (1619–1687), Cambridge, 1778–9, 8vo, 2 vols., with memoir, dissertation, and voluminous notes, containing more matter than the original ‘Essay;’ reissued, without the notes, 1796, 8vo, by Charles Simeon [q. v.]; also some other pieces from the French. He contributed to the ‘Theological Magazine’ and other periodicals. He supplied Samuel Palmer (1741–1813) [q. v.] with addenda and corrections for the ‘Nonconformist's Memorial,’ 1775–8, and furnished materials for the life of Thomas Baker (1656–1740) [q. v.] in Kippis's ‘Biographia Britannica,’ 1778. In the ‘Monthly Repository,’ 1810, pp. 621 sq., is an account of Cambridgeshire dissent, drawn up by Robinson and continued by Josiah Thompson [q. v.]

Early in life Robinson wrote eleven hymns, of no merit, issued by Whitefield on 1 Feb. 1757 as ‘Hymns for the Fast-Day,’ from ‘an unknown hand,’ and ‘for the use of the Tabernacle congregation.’ In 1758 James Wheatley, of the Norwich Tabernacle, printed Robinson's hymn ‘Come Thou Fount of every blessing,’ which was claimed by Daniel Sedgwick [q. v.] in 1858 on ‘worthless evidence’ (Julian) for Selina Hastings, countess of Huntingdon [q. v.] In 1774 Robinson's hymn ‘Mighty God, while angels bless Thee,’ was issued in copperplate as ‘A Christmas Hymn, set to Music by Dr. Randall.’ These two hymns (1758 and 1774), of great beauty and power, are still extensively used. In 1768 Robinson printed an edition (revised partly by himself) of the metrical version of the Psalms by William Barton [q. v.] for the use of Cambridgeshire baptists; this seems the latest edition of Barton.

[Funeral sermons by Priestley, Rees, and Toulmin, 1790; Memoirs by Dyer, 1796 (translated into German, with title ‘Der Prediger wie er seyn sollte,’ Leipzig, 1800); Brief Memoirs by Flower, 1804, prefixed to Miscellaneous Works, 1807; Memoir by W. Robinson (no relative) prefixed to Select Works, 1861; Protestant Dissenters' Magazine, 1797 p. 70, 1799 pp. 134 sq.; Evangelical Magazine, December 1803; Monthly Repository, 1806 p. 508, 1808 p. 343, 1810 pp. 629 sq., 1812, p. 678, 1813 pp. 261, 704, 1817 pp. 9 sq., 645, 1818 pp. 350 sq.; Belsham's Memoirs of Lindsey, 1812, pp. 179 sq.; Baptist Magazine, 1831 pp. 321 sq., 1832 pp. 336 sq.; Rutt's Memoirs of Priestley, 1832, ii. 67 sq.; Christian Reformer, 1844, pp. 815 sq.; Miller's Our Hymns, 1866, pp. 214 sq.; Browne's Hist. Congr. Norfolk and Suffolk, 1877, pp. 189, 563; Beale's Memorials of the Old Meeting, Birmingham, 1882; Julian's Dict. of Hymnology, 1892, pp. 252, 480, 1579.]

A. G.