HOW THE CANADIAN WEST WAS WON – BY FAITH

Mark 5:21-43

The year was 1869. A recently ordained, young, energetic minister was called to serve Knox Presbyterian Church in Winnipeg. Don’t miss that: it was 1869. It would be another 11 years before the Canadian National Railroad made its way to Winnipeg. Winnipeg was the buffer stop of civilization. The young Rev. Robertson recalls ‘the thrill of hope’ and ‘his heart being filled with gratitude’ as he stood there, bag in hand, looking down the Black Trail which marked the capital of the West with clusters of shops and shacks.” Some would have looked down that Trail leading west into the wilderness feeling forlorn having left behind all the amenities of the big city. But Rev. Robertson looked down that mud trail and saw opportunity and potential. A man of God.

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Centuries before, another man of God stands looking down the dark wilderness road of death. He had been asked to this home by a desperate father trying to save his little girl. This was barren land. “Don’t bother,” the word comes to him. “Death has already claimed her.” But where others saw futility, Jesus saw opportunity and potential.

A man of God.

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Permit me to go back and introduce you to the first man I spoke of, the Rev. Dr. James Robertson, as seen on the cover of your bulletin this morning. He was one of the founding fathers of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. Upon plaques hanging today in Robertson/Wesley United Church in Edmonton and Knox United Church in Calgary, there reads these words:

 

In recognition of the work and worth of the

Rev. James Robertson, D.D. Superintendent of

Home Missions, endowed by God with extra-ordinary talents,

entrusted by his Church with unique powers,

which he used for the good of his Country

and for the Glory of God.

 

Let’s take a moment to discover the worth of James Robertson.

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James was born in Scotland in 1839, which already makes him a good guy. He’s a Scot! He was born in a little village called Dull, now a relic of a once bustling town. By this time, Scotland had done something no other country in the UK had thought about. The Scots had established school in every village in the country. Why the emphasis on education?

A group of Scottish dissenters from the church of England were tired of masses done in Latin and a priesthood which kept the congregates ignorant. So, using the Bible as their guide, they formed teaching sites in each village where everyone could learn to read the Bible for themselves. This became the precursor to our public education system which, interestingly enough, will no longer allow religion in the classrooms. I digress.

James benefited from this emphasis on education by not only mastering the three R’s but learning Latin and Greek as well. At the age of 16, he won a math scholarship but turned it down, deciding instead to emigrate with his family to Norwich, Ontario where he taught school for three years having passed his teacher’s examination without any training.

He then attended University College (University of Toronto) and graduated with a degree in metaphysics. You’re starting to get the picture here. This was one pretty bright guy. Interesting side-line. The time he spent in Toronto was during the Fenian raids here in Niagara. James joined the Queens’s Own Rifles, joined the troops marching down University Avenue, sailed up the Niagara River, walked to Ridgeway and eventually, all the way to Fort Erie. The amazing thing is how he managed not to get shot. James was 6’ 4” tall. Remember this was 1800’s. People were smaller then. James was a Goliath in his time. Imagine him walking through the woods wearing his long, red, wool coat. Might as well have put a target on his back. But survive he did!

After this, James went to Princeton to study for the ministry and then on to Union Seminary in New York. Accounts have it that he excelled academically and became a compelling preacher.

After working for a time, he again turned down an opportunity for a posting to the prestigious 5th Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York, which boasts of being the home to some of the greatest preachers of all time. James decided instead to return to Canada and marry the woman who had been waiting for him for ten years. As far as I am concerned, Mary Cowing’s sacrifice and support of the mission of her church through her devotion to her husband should have earned her a few plaques of her own. For 21 years, James never made it home for Christmas. She single handedly raised their children. Often, her only connection to her husband was the letters he would diligently send to her. But we get ahead of ourselves. Let’s go back to where we started today, with James and his new wife standing at the gates of Fort Garry in Winnipeg. While tending to his duties at Knox Presbyterian Church,

James would often harness his horse Derby, travel 25 miles into the wilderness, at times preaching 5 times a day. It was a fine horse he had gotten himself, for at the end of the day, with his master asleep at the reins, Derby would find his own way home.

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In 1875, with the approaching railroad and with the intention of ministering to the immigrants pouring into the west, the Presbyterian Church appointed the Rev. James Robertson as the Superintendent of Missions for Western Canada. Now, get this. This mission field extended from the west side of the Great Lakes, essentially what is now the Lake of Woods area, to the Pacific Ocean and north to the Yukon. One man to cover all this area! Little wonder he was never home for Christmas. All this area was covered by horse and buggy. He slept mostly in leaking sod huts, often on the floor in front of the fire or, if he was lucky and the family had one, in a chair.

Often he would preach to neighbouring families in these homes where the ceilings were so low he couldn’t stand up straight and often he would have to don his hat to keep the rain from dripping on his notes. He would travel from one cluster of shacks to another knowing one day they would grow into towns, and try to raise enough money to bring in a theological student from Scotland to build a church there.

Story has it that as one of his congregants was writing him a cheque in support of his mission, the 6 ft 4” Rev. Robertson loomed over him and said, “Why don’t you just add another 0 to that number?” which the parishioner did! On another occasion, he was traveling to one of these clusters when he came across a blockage on the road. It was spring thaw and the road was blocked by water, ice and logs. Derby, being the intelligent horse he was, refused to venture across. So James removed his boots and stockings and proceeded to walk the last four miles with, as he reported later, “…his bare feet sticking to the ice.” “A little inconvenience” he later wrote. So you get the picture of his life for 21 years.

In 1870, Manitoba had what they called 9 preaching stations. 21 years later they had 116 churches with another 400 churches further ‘west’. Some scholars have speculated that the reason Canada never had a ‘wild west’ was because the prairies were dotted with churches and families. Churches helped bond these clusters of shacks together, gave people a place to gather, gave them a sense of community and a sense of commitment to the wellbeing of each other.

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Some would have stood at the entrance to the Black Trail and said, “Why bother?” Anytime there is a high quest for something noble and great, you can count on meeting the prophets of doom who cry, “Why bother?”

 

Don’t bother the Master…

there is no use in praying.

Don’t bother the Master…

the problem is too great.

Don’t bother the Master…

even God can’t fix death.

Don’t bother the Master…

this is just the way it is.

Don’t bother the Master…

The most powerful action Jesus took on that day in Jarius’ home may not have been the raising of his daughter. It may have been that, before he even began, he tossed out the naysayers. He literally told those who were laughing at him to get out of the house! With all that negative energy gone, Jesus called on the positive, life giving energy of God, and performed what no one thought possible, new life.

That has to tell us something about the faith of a man who would stand at the gates of the Black Trail and, instead of seeing wilderness, saw an opportunity and potential for something new to be born. It has to say something about the faith of a man who was willing to endure such hardship when he could have easily procured a comfortable pulpit. It has to say something about a man who, like Jesus, was willing to put his life on the line believing God would provide.

In 1885, Rev. Dr. James Robertson was elected unanimously as the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. He moved back to Toronto where his wife now lived, supporting their children as they attended university. After 21 years, imagine Mary having James home everyday! In 1902, at the age of 62, James died and went to walk with his Saviour. Men of God.

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What do these stories have to say to us as we stand at the entrance of our own Dark Trails of tomorrow? You decide.

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Oh, a little P.S. to all of this. Rev. Dr. James Robertson was my wife Nancy’s great-grandfather.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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