Prone to Wander: The Life and Faith of Robert Robinson, Pt. 2
Pastor of the Dissenters
His ministry began with 34 people huddled in a “damp, dark, cold, ruinous, contemptible hovel” in a town that despised Dissenters. Still, he remained faithful to his calling, and in time a new church meeting house was erected, and within fifteen years there were two hundred families in the church, with morning congregations of six hundred and evening gatherings of eight hundred. He reached a thousand more through his itinerant preaching in surrounding villages during the week. At a time when the percentage of Dissenters was falling in most of the counties around Cambridge, Robinson’s influence increased their numbers significantly in Cambridgeshire.
Robinson was unquestionably a beloved and effective pastor for three decades in Cambridge. This was his principal ministry. We don’t know a lot about his continued use of hymns, but there is a note in the church book that will seem familiar to anyone today who has met with conflict over styles of music in church: “Heady people . . . found fault with certain tunes.” These were the so-called “sprightly tunes” introduced in the Sunday evening lectures, designed to reach a wider “town and gown” audience. Evidently some church members did not like Robinson’s “seeker friendly” methods.
Tolerant to a Fault
In the mid-1770s, Robinson was increasingly drawn into public activism to defend religious and civil liberties. He was keenly aware that the laws of the land still imposed disabilities on Dissenters. Robinson was driven to study church history to defend the cause of Nonconformists. For him, the Reformation was principally about freedom of conscience, rather than doctrinal statements. “The right of private judgment,” he wrote, “is the very foundation of the Reformation.” He came to dislike the binding of anyone’s conscience by a statement of faith.
In the political sphere, he was an active voice for parliamentary reform (and was mentioned by name in the House of Commons by Edmund Burke). He was also an early opponent of slavery and the slave trade, preaching and petitioning against it. He stated clearly that slavery was incompatible with Christianity. On the same principal of liberty, he welcomed the American and French Revolutions. In fact, he was visited by General Reed, Washington’s second-in-command, who offered him passage to America and land if he would drop everything and come.
Robinson was a man open to other viewpoints and tolerant — perhaps to a fault. He was friendly with political and theological radicals, including Unitarians and others who denied Christ’s divinity (Socinians). There was a small Socinian group in his congregation in Cambridge, and he refused to take sides against them when division opened up over the question.
Like many others before and since, Robinson wanted to appeal only to the Bible and not to any statements of faith or creeds. But there is always a danger that this way of thinking can lead to an unhealthy elevation of private judgment. If we think we can recover the true Bible message on our own, without any dependence on doctrines derived from Scripture and received by the wider church, we may indeed find ourselves “prone to wander.”
When Freed from Sinning
How far Robinson, in fact, wandered theologically by the end of his life is a question still debated. If he hadn’t gone to Birmingham and preached in Priestley’s church just days before his death, he might have been remembered differently. A year before he died, he reaffirmed what he had written earlier, that the Socinians were mistaken brethren, and in one of his last letters he affirmed he was neither a Socinian nor an Arian.
Six years after Robinson died, the Anglican evangelical John Newton wrote to Robinson’s biographer, saying that he hoped his own spiritual history would terminate where Robinson’s began. He worried that Robinson in his later years was more inclined to help people doubt than believe. And he worried Robinson had been traveling the same road as Joseph Priestley from skepticism to Unitarianism.
It is hard to know for certain. But Newton was surely right about the early years of Robinson’s ministry. There is abundant evidence from the 1750s and 60s to show that Robinson was animated by an evangelical faith and piety that was later compared to Jonathan Edwards.
We should also remember with some sympathy that Robinson was, late in life, a broken man. By 1790, the year he died, he was physically and mentally ill. His sermons became incomprehensible, and some described him as insane. He never recovered from the death of his 17-year-old daughter Julie in 1787. He faced a financial crisis that could have sent him to debtors’ prison. And many of his friends had turned against him.
Thinking of his suffering at this distance, the final verse of his great hymn takes on more poignancy. The verse isn’t sung much anymore, but we can perhaps imagine Robinson at the end singing its first quatrain, trusting, as we all must, in Christ’s “boundless grace” as the ultimate hope in the face of death:
On that day when freed from sinningI shall see thy lovely face, clothèd then in blood-washed linen. How I’ll sing thy boundless grace.
– Bruce Hindmarsh