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My Days and My Ways

An Autobiography

by Robert Roberts


CHAPTER  TWENTY-FIVE:  “The Ambassador.” –1864.


When my reporting engagement at the General Hospital was completed, I received something over L50 as my share of the remuneration; and having meanwhile obtained an appointment on the staff of The Birmingham Daily Post I was at liberty to deal with this sum in the special way suggested by circumstance.


My wife had gone on a three months’ visit to her native town (Edinburgh) to recover from the hurtful effects of the hardships endured during our few months of Birmingham life; and in her absence, I planned a pleasant surprise for her when she should return.  We had been living in a gloomy house next door to a tavern in Great Colmore Street, which had been taken for us by the friends anxious to get us to Birmingham.  My attention was now called by one of them to some new houses which were being put up in Belgrave Road, a road in the suburbs which at that time lay through fields. They were nearly finished and not all let.  I went to see them.  They were a larger class of house than the house we were in, and more capacious than our meagre effects could furnish.  But the money in hand would enable me to make good the deficiency.  Everything was so new and fresh and clean and bright, with open fields before and behind, that I felt sure it would be a pleasure to my companion to come home to such a place.


It was the year ’64, and I decided to take No. 64, in which we have ever since spent the rough days of our pilgrimage, with sundry alterations and enlargements as required from time to time to make it unnecessary that we should shift to another place, for, with the coming of the Lord always in view, we had resolved to consider our house a mere tent and convenience to be used for the purposes of probation.  “Strangers and pilgrims” the friends of God are in the present order.  Men passing through a country do not surround themselves with permanent appointments.


My sister, who (with her family of four) was living with us, superintended the furnishing and removal arrangements, and in due time, in the midst of bright summer weather, we made the change.  In the midst of the operation, my father and mother arrived upon us from Canada, which brought our domestic garrison to a considerable point of strength.  My father and mother had emigrated to Canada on the invitation of my brother John, who was settled at Ottawa, but did not find themselves at home; and so after a year or two had decided upon giving Birmingham a trial.  They were unable to provide themselves independently, so we gave them accommodation in the new house.  My generous companion found them in occupation on her return, making with my sister and her four children a full and lively house.


I had brought out the first number of The Ambassador during my wife’s absence in Scotland.  The principal part of the original prospectus will be found in The Christadelphian for June 1871, page 198, as an article headed “Glad Tidings of Great Joy to all people.”


This prospectus was sent to all who had subscribed for the penny numbers of Twelve Lectures.  Then response was just about sufficient to cover the printer’s monthly charge; and, as I had never set my mind on anything beyond this, I resolved to go ahead.  A brother in Halifax, Yorkshire, undertook the printing of the magazine and, I think, attended to the despatch through the post of the first few numbers.  This arrangement continued for about two years, and was on the whole satisfactory.  The only inconvenience was the tendency on the part of the said brother to edit as well as print the magazine, which compelled me to request him to set up the type exactly according to copy.  This undeservedly earned for me the character of being “the most pepperish customer on the books.”  The arrangement continued till the request of a Birmingham printer to have the work coincided with the occurrence of an accident to the Halifax printer, from the effects of which he died.


The publication of The Ambassador was a great means of keeping alive and extending the results produced by the labour of Dr. Thomas.  Those results at that time were limited to a very few points in the country, and were in a very feeble form.  David King, Dr. Thomas’s Campbellite opponent in England, took pleasure in parading in his magazine the meagreness of the work as reported in the intelligence department of The Messenger; and seemed justified in his allegation that it was “everywhere dying out.”  Slowly, however, the circulation of Twelve Lectures, the publication of The Ambassador, and the holding of regular meetings for the exhibition of the truth began to tell.  Here and there the truth began to take root.  In Birmingham, the impression was made that naturally results from steady work.  My occupation kept me in Birmingham; and on every Sunday evening I lectured, and also addressed the brethren in the morning, besides conducting a Bible Class during the week.  From about a dozen, the meeting slowly crept up by additions, till it became a comparatively numerous body.


Our growth compelled several unpremeditated developments.  A hymn book was one of them.  The few who met together before we came to Birmingham had fallen into the use of a dozen or so hymns collected and stitched together by a worthy old man named Truman, who has since gone to his grave.  These were millennial and fairly scriptural in character, but were so spoiled with the current theological taint as to be quite unfit for the use of enlightened believers of the Scriptures, as well as being too limited for regular use.  The necessity for a larger and more scriptural compilation pressed itself upon us, and our interest in this direction was stimulated by the advent among us of a musical family who led us in our singing with a flute, violin, and basso.  We had had no difficulty on the question of hymns in Scotland.  There the versified psalms of David are bound up with the Bible at the end, and are in universal use alike among those who hold the popular theology and those who desire to sing with the understanding.  But the Scotch version of the Psalms is almost unknown in England, and eve the English version is a book by itself and not in general use.  I set to work and made a collection from various sources (including the Scotch Psalms).  The collection amounted in all perhaps to a hundred hymns, and was published under the title of The Golden Harp –a pretentious name for a very poor production, but which most comfortably supplied our needs in that line for a few years.


The second matter in which growth forced our hands was the matter of what is known as “church order.”  At first we had no rules.  Our numbers were so few and our proceedings so simple that it would have been pedantic to have employed them.  I felt very averse to their introduction; but we were compelled to consider the question.  The brethren proposed to give me an official status among them as “ministering brother,” but I objected.  Such an arrangement would have artificially separated me from the others, which I felt would be contrary to the spirit of the truth.  The bulk of the speaking fell to me as a matter of necessity, because there was no one else to do it profitably; and to this I was willing to submit, but not to have any title or honorary status connected with it.  There is a difference between doing the work and having an ornamental label.  I have always felt an invincible repugnance tin the latter, and an equal resolution with regard to the former.  I have met many men with feelings just reversed on those points; and some of my difficulties have arisen from this cause; when spiritual incompetence has come forward in the ornamental spirit.


There was a brush on this subject quite early, while we were yet in Ann Street Schoolroom.  A certain brother –most interesting on some points and even lovable and amusing, but of very light weight in all respects –wanted to divide the lecturing with me.  Nothing would have been more to my mind had he possessed the capacity to exercise a scriptural influence, and the ability to enlighten or even to interest an audience; but to have personal vanity performing behind a desk to the spoiling of a work which had been done by hard scriptural labour was an idea which I could not brook, and which I felt I must  on every ground resist.  I therefore informed him that if he persisted in his proposal, I should be under the necessity of leaving the lecturing wholly to him, and going elsewhere in promotion of the work of the truth on independent ground.  No more was heard of the idea after this, but ambition received a wound from which it never recovered.  It is so difficult to get on with men when they are in love with themselves, and so easy to get on with men when they are in love with God.


Instead of accepting a position of personal authority, I drew up a set of rules for consideration which would have the effect of putting the body in complete charge of its own affairs.  These were adopted, and were afterwards modified from time to time in accordance with the lessons of experience.  They substantially remain the basis of ecclesial operation to the present day.  They enable the ecclesia to make a periodical election of presiding and arranging brethren who are subject to its direction once in three months in the quarterly meeting at which they have to report their proceedings for confirmation.


Time has not increased my admiration for such a democratic system.  It was not admiration that led me to propose it at the beginning, but a perception of the necessity for it in  the peculiar circumstances of our century, when there is no basis for the exercise of  Divine authority.  The aim was to combine liberty with order, and law with the absence of authority, and above all to preserve the fraternal character required by the law of Christ.  In this respect, it was a compromise, and therefore like all compromises a little unsatisfactory in some directions.  Nothing else seemed practicable in an age that lacked Divine direction.  Some thought there was direction enough in the Apostolic precepts relating to the choosing of bishops and deacons: some asked why not appoint elders as these?  The answer lies in the great difference between our own age and the Apostolic age in respect of the presence and guidance of the Spirit of God.  There is not in our day that open guidance that would give sanction and authority to ruling brethren.  There may be brethren having the qualifications for the exercise of authority; but how can they exercise authority in the absence of that Divine appointment that confers it?  The brotherhood are comparable in this respect to the servants in a nobleman’s house who have been left to themselves for a time.  There may be those among them capable of taking the headship, but because the nobleman has omitted to name and appoint them, they cannot take the place.


Dr. Thomas had some time previously promulgated an order less democratic and more in harmony with the apostolic institution, but it did not seem quite suitable to our circumstances, and there was no attempt to apply it.  Some years later, Nottingham adopted it, but it was soon found unworkable on some points and was changed.  There are some things in it that are superior to the arrangements we adopted in 1864; by several alterations, we have come nearer to it in spirit as opportunities for revision have arisen.  But the whole spirit of the present age is too intolerant to government; and the materials for trusty and benevolent authority too poor and scanty to admit of any close approximation to the apostolic original.  We can but do the best we can in our evil day, in hope that the Lord will overlook our blunders, and give us a place in that perfectly well-ordered house of authority that will be established in all the earth when the absent nobleman returns.


Between my daily newspaper duties, the getting up of The Ambassador, and the work connected  with a growing ecclesia, my time was fully occupied.  One of the drawbacks connected with my reporting life was the encroachment it made on Sunday time.  This was made as light as possible by the newspaper people in consideration of the purpose for which I had come to Birmingham, but I had to take my turn in routine duty, and had to make frequent calls at the hospitals and police stations for news of the latest accidents and misdeeds.  These calls having to be made after delivering the Sunday evening lecture, were very disagreeable.  The transition from the congenial contemplation of the beautiful things of the Spirit to the handling of the dark and ugly ways of man in this sinful era caused something like the experience of a man who might be ejected into the darkness and the rain from the brightness and joy and warmth of a nuptial feast.


My companion took off the disagreeableness as much as she could.  She would bring me some supper before I started, and would then accompany me on my rounds and come and wait for me in the newspaper office while I wrote out my paragraphs for the printer, after which we walked home together.  These dreary performances were often in bad weather, which made them drearier still, but all things human have an end, and the time came when we had to do this no more.

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