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Reviews | Robert Roberts

Robert Roberts

Islip Collyer

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182 pages

Robert Roberts

The Testimony review (from September 1975)

Robert Roberts

THE STUDY OF the life and character of any man or woman, apart from a Divine assessment, is always one of unusual difficulty and complexity. Even when a detailed daily diary has been kept with the personal opinions of the writer and the reactions of other people a great deal of interpretation and even guesswork is involved. When the study is based on personal recollections, fragmentary data, and an autobiography which, as Islip Collyer points out, cannot give an adequate picture, there is a real challenge to the skill and imagination of the writer. The author has used the available material to give us a picture, not just of the works of Robert Roberts, but also of his character.

It is made quite clear from the start that Robert Roberts believed wholeheartedly in the “Ways of Providence”. Here it is wise to recall what he wrote on this very subject. “There is such a thing as chance, as distinct from what God does. The whorl of a cloud of dust before the windy gust coming round the corner of the house illustrates the point. His purpose does not require Him to decide which shells any or every child on the seashore shall pick up and which throw away, unless the incident be a link in a purpose being worked out, and then the hand of the child will be guided. This illustration touches a great fact which it is important to see clearly … It constitutes the platform of providence. There could be no such conception of providence if everything were due to direct Divine volition. This conception requires that some things are God’s doing, and some are not.” From early days we see this principle in operation when he comes across a copy of The Herald of the Kingdom by Doctor Thomas and later discovers that his elder sister is receiving it regularly every month. We are told, “The boy read and was fascinated”.

Later on we learn that in order to help the small ecclesia at Huddersfield he took special care over a series of twelve lectures, and wrote them out in full, contrary to his usual practice of relying on notes. These lectures formed the basis for Christendom Astray, a book which has probably contributed more to the acceptance of the Truth than any other human work.

Another example of his attitude to Divine providence is related by Islip Collyer. Brother Roberts was experiencing a heavy storm in the Atlantic when on his way to bury Brother John Thomas: “He was perfectly satisfied that whatever happened would be right. If God had work for them to perform they would be preserved, but he did not think there was any assurance that the continuance of their lives was necessary. Even in those early days he was quite ready for that dreamless sleep which would so seem to hasten the final judgement, and he was not at all disposed to set any value on human personalities.”

It is particularly noticeable that his choice of work was advantageous to the overriding work of the Truth. He was a journalist first in Aberdeen, and then in Edinburgh where there were improved opportunities for development. He lost the Edinburgh job due to an error in copying a legal document. Better prospects opened up further south in Huddersfield. Later, he felt that the community in Birmingham needed his help and gave up the post in Huddersfield to eventually become a reporter on the Birmingham Daily Post. Here again he hesitated; he would have preferred a weekly paper where he would have his weekends free for the work in the ecclesias. Often work for the paper involved work on a Sunday, but it was not long before he managed to become the reporter for the bankruptcy court in Birmingham which left his week-ends free, but no doubt was less interesting and less remunerative than his previous position.

The work of preaching was not without antagonism. How different from these days of apathy! At a series of special lectures at Dorchester, for example, “At the first of the lectures there was such a constant interruption and uproar that it was almost impossible to make the people hear even when reading the Scripture. When the meeting was over there was an ugly rush for the platform. The lecturer and his friends were let out at the back door. In the street at the back it seemed that pickets had been stationed, and a wolf-like howl brought the mob charging round from the front … The next night the police were at the Town Hall and the mob behaved rather better. The third night, however, was worse than ever, there being turmoil and confusion in the hall, and in spite of the police there was serious mobbing on the way home. Stones were thrown, always a sign that the devil has broken loose. Still worse things threatened for the last night. It became known that arrangements had been made for an organised riot.”

All of this must be seen against the background of growing ecclesias with the almost inevitable clash of personalities and the introduction of false doctrines such as that of partial inspiration of the Scriptures. All of this weighed heavily on Robert Roberts as did also the poverty that existed among many brethren and sisters, often because they had espoused the Truth. This led him into a number of disastrous business ventures undertaken with the laudable intention of alleviating suffering in the community.

Even in the Roberts’ family there were the almost inevitable trials that are common in life and even more so in those days than now. We read of the loss of their infant daughter a little more than a year after their marriage. Later they suffered the loss of a four-year-old son and a two-year-old daughter within a few days of each other. Islip Collyer mentions the joy which Robert Roberts found in his family and home in spite of all the work he did as a speaker and the tragedies we have mentioned. One would have been very interested to have been told much more of this side of his character and the burdens that must have been shouldered by Jane Roberts (neé Norrie) in order that he should be able to carry out the work of speaking and writing for which he is remembered most.

In this study we have an example of a faithful disciple who in spite of all the difficulties of the way, both personal and ecclesial, was never deflected from his faith in the whole purpose of God.

Brother Roberts and his family eventually moved to Melbourne, Australia, due to the good offices of the brethren there. The intention was that he should revisit England at frequent intervals. After some twelve months or so he felt it imperative to visit the United States’ ecclesias and it was while on his way there that he fell asleep in Christ Jesus. He was buried alongside Dr. Thomas, and Islip Collyer’s concluding words seem most appropriate: “Two stalwart labourers who had sacrificed all human interests on the altar of their faith lay side by side in the prison-house of death. Through the blood of the Everlasting Covenant they had been made ‘prisoners of hope’, awaiting the unerring judgement of the last day.”


(Originally published in the September 1975 edition of The Testimony Magazine (pages 358-359), and is reproduced by kind permission.)

The Testimony review (from May 1984)

Robert Roberts – a Study of Life and Character

WRITING about the life and times of a brother in Christ who has fallen asleep is a very difficult task, and one that in the view of some should never be undertaken. It is true of course that neither the competence nor the prerogative to enter into conclusive judgement on our brethren is given to us. It is also true that it is at the least unwise, and probably positively wrong, to single out certain brethren for special mention and praise as soon as they have been laid to rest. In those cases thus treated, the reason is simply that the brother concerned is well known because his particular sphere of activity in the Truth has made him so. But there must surely be others whose pilgrimage is virtually unknown outside their own ecclesia, but who will nevertheless be welcomed by the Master’s gracious favour at the judgement seat. Why then should we review and recommend a biography of Brother Robert Roberts?

The answer is that as the times of the Gentiles finish their course and humanity rushes onward to destruction we have increasing reason to be grateful for the work and heritage left us by brethren like Robert Roberts. His character and personal faithfulness must be left for Christ to judge. We can, however, be certain that the Truth that he loved and defended was and is the Truth, and inasmuch as his work has enabled us to exist within a community that still professes that same Truth, we should be grateful. Brother Collyer does not attempt to disguise the fact that in certain circumstances he felt that Brother Roberts could have taken another and possibly wiser course of action. Nor does he attempt to set up the writings of his subject alongside those of the inspired Scriptures, which would be quite wrong. What his book does do, however, is to assist us in learning certain lessons from the life of Brother Roberts that are applicable to our own day and generation.

Brother Islip Collyer was well qualified to write this book, for his own life and work in the Truth overlapped with that of Brother Roberts. Because of this personal intimacy just one sentence is all that we need to know about the character of the man: “The present writer has never met anyone to compare with Robert Roberts in the apparently spontaneous movement of conversation to the rich fields of Scripture, in the perfectly natural way in which every thought was given a turn in the direction of the great things which dominated his mind” (page 8). There are many incidents recorded in this biography illustrative of this point, especially those on his voyage to Australia. It is worth reflecting that this ability and desire to turn conversation to the things of the Word appears to be a dying art in our community. Not that the present writer is in any position to judge his fellow disciples. It is perhaps most true in respect of our communication with those outside the covenants of promise, and is becoming increasingly true in our relationships with each other. How often do we make a deliberate effort, when talking to our brethren and sisters after meetings, to ensure that at least part of the conversation is on a Scriptural topic? Let us heed the example of Brother Roberts and, more importantly, the words of Malachi: “Then they that feared the Lord spake often one to another: and the Lord hearkened, and heard it, and a book of remembrance was written before Him for them that feared the Lord, and that thought upon His name” (Malachi 3:16).

One passage from the book is revealing about another aspect of Brother Roberts’ life. Robert Roberts was the sole editor of a monthly periodical, The Ambassador, and in those days was himself responsible for writing a large proportion of the material published therein. This required dedication and hard work, not just for a short period, but over months and years. Until 1868 he performed his editorial duties alongside his daily tasks of earning a living for his family as a reporter in the bankruptcy court in Birmingham. The lengthy passage which follows gives some idea of the volume and variety of work he had to perform in the Truth’s service. It also highlights the debt that the ecclesias owe to Brother Roberts, even today, for establishing sound practices for the conduct of ecclesial affairs. These practices have stood the test of time, and have provided the basis in many respects of interecclesial fellowship amongst those congregations who have adopted the name Christadelphian.

Many “probably had no idea of the amount of work involved. Indeed, even now it can only be appreciated by those who have had some experience and who possess a good measure of reconstructive imagination. It was not merely the incessant travelling, speaking, writing and editing. Problems and knotty questions were coming in from all over Great Britain and even from beyond the seas. If anyone found a difficult passage of Scripture, the Editor was asked for an explanation. If a recalcitrant member carried democratic liberties to an extreme, causing trouble and contention in the meeting, the Editor was expected to put matters straight. There were problems of exposition, of ecclesial management, and of the application of Scriptural precept to modern life, some problems difficult, some amusing, and some absurd. Answers were sometimes given in the magazine, sometimes in private letters, and sometimes by word of mouth. For the most part these problems were new; there was no tradition to which they could be referred, they needed thought and application. For the most part the answers to difficulties revealed a remarkable maturity of judgement in so young a man. They certainly needed hard work.” (page 51)

Brother Collyer goes on to show how the burden became almost impossible with the expansion of The Ambassador, and how in 1868 Brother Thomas opened the way for the provision of a living from the Truth for the editor. He also shows that, contrary to the views of the critics in those days, such a provision was perfectly Scriptural, and contravened no Divine principle at all.

There is just one other section in the book which in the current ecclesial context deserves detailed attention. That is, the chapter which deals with “The Inspiration Division”. The relevance of some of these events of precisely 100 years ago will emerge as we proceed.

It is not necessary here to pursue the details of how the dispute originated, progressed and ended. Suffice it to say that in 1884 a new magazine, The Exegetist, appeared in the Brotherhood, and that its first issue contained material akin to that put forward by the higher critics, who denied the plenary inspiration of the Scriptures. Quite properly these ideas were challenged, and a certain amount of controversy in print ensued, some of it from Brother Roberts’s pen in The Christadelphian.

The first thing to be noted, if useful lessons are to be drawn, is that no hasty division took place. Indeed, as Brother Collyer points out, “at a meeting of managing brethren in Birmingham (in January 1885) Robert Roberts resisted a suggestion that a general meeting should be called immediately” (page 112). Instead, for the next six months the policy he pursued was one of attempting to have the issue calmly and rationally discussed whenever possible, always being willing to answer questions raised, however elementary they appeared to be.

When, after six months, another meeting failed to resolve the dispute, Robert Roberts decided on “drastic action”. “He sent a circular letter to all members in Birmingham setting forth the issue and enclosing a postcard for reply from all who were prepared to stand aside from the idea of a partially inspired Bible” (page 113). In taking this action he was standing for what he sincerely and genuinely believed to be the Truth, and with his doctrinal position, of course, we wholeheartedly agree. In Islip Collyer’s words, he “was actuated by a single-hearted desire to be faithful in his work” (page 114). He was moreover exercising a prerogative that he had explained some months earlier: “I shall refuse to remain associated with any assembly that tolerates the doctrine that any part of the Bible is not Divine” (page 113). He had also explained at the same time that this was not an authority which he had in order to divide the ecclesias, but merely the “individual prerogative … to step aside from evil” (page 113).

The effect of the postcard was divisive. As a device for dealing with the issue it was criticised by many as, for example, “high-handed, despotic, outrageous”. One infers from Brother Collyer’s general comments that he was not totally sympathetic to the method used. Having said that, he does make it quite clear that he felt that Brother Roberts was standing for sound doctrine. As for the motives of the editor, Brother Collyer is equally clear. He notes that, viewed from a human standpoint, to provoke a split in the Brotherhood was potentially disastrous for The Christadelphian. The certain result would be a drop in circulation, and that drop might be so great as to cause an end to the magazine and thus to the source of Brother Roberts’ living. No editor who acts from selfish or personal motives is likely to put such things at risk. Robert Roberts acted unselfishly for the sake of the Truth. To use his own words: “the only interest I am seeking to promote is the interest that God has committed to the hand of every faithful servant” (quoted on page 115).

There are lessons to be learned from this brief foray into Christadelphian history which are very much applicable to our own day. From time to time genuine difficulties arise over vital doctrinal or moral issues. It is sometimes difficult to be certain as to the best procedure to be adopted in a particular set of circumstances. Eventually an individual or group of individuals may decide that something must be done, and so will set in train a certain course of events. How should other brethren and sisters act in these circumstances, given that many may feel that the individual or group have acted too soon, or too late, or in the wrong manner? It seems to this writer that the criteria laid down by Brother Collyer in this chapter should form the basis of judgement. Firstly, is there a genuine doctrinal or moral problem? If so, have those who have taken some initiative acted in a way likely to serve their own personal, selfish ends, or have they acted in defence of the Truth while leaving themselves open to personal loss in whatever way? If there is a genuine problem, and if those concerned have acted unselfishly, then faithful disciples should associate themselves with the action taken, unless of course it can be specifically shown to be unScriptural.

The wise man reminds us that there is “no new thing under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9), and so lessons can be drawn from one generation in the Brotherhood and applied to another. Thus the biography of Brother Roberts can be heartily recommended to all brethren and sisters, and not just for the treatment given to the issue highlighted above. There is indeed much of value here, whether in relation to ecclesial conduct or the individual dedication of the disciple.


(Originally published in the May 1984 edition of The Testimony Magazine (pages 158-160), and is reproduced by kind permission.)

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