His Days and His Ways
A Continuation of the Book as a Biography
CHAPTER FORTY-TWO: Removes to Australia (1897).
Brother Roberts returned to Birmingham in August, 1896, as he said, “to find many changes among some things unchangeable. The local ecclesia (he continued) is much larger: the general ecclesia is much livelier: the outlook in the field of foreign politics, where lie ‘the Signs of the Times,’ is much brighter. In the human elements of the situation, the tendency to new transformations is as steady and persistent as the changes in the shapes of the clouds on the most tranquil of days. Friendly friends are friendlier: unfriendly friends are not improved: some worldly believers are worldlier: some crotchetty ones more crotchetty: some treasured ones are in their graves: others are visibly wending their way thither, as in a sense we all are. As for our own clouded sky, it is broken up into masses with a wind rising to blow them over the horizon. As for Israel’s Hope, ‘Higher yet that star ascends.’ ”
In connection with this last remark. I am reminded of one of my early “editorials” of over twenty years ago (Jan., 1896). Sister Roberts was quite interested in it, and remembers it to this day. Mr. Stead had brought out the Review of Reviews Annual for 1896, and had actually painted a picture (in fiction) of the Restoration of Israel! I dished it up under the heading, “The Hope of Israel in Caricature.” It is not uninteresting reading at the present time (1917) when we are on the eve of some sort or realization of the vision.
“Blown over the horizon,” of Brother Roberts’ allusion above, was rather a disquieting simile; and when he announced the proposed transfer of himself and family to Melbourne, Australia, with the idea of “spending every alternate year in England”! “friendly friends” were sad. “If my vote had to settle the matter,” said one of these, “you would not have to go.” And so said the present writer, and many others. But we all recognised the hand of God in human affairs, and awaited developments.
I think I have heard that the late Mr. W.E. Gladstone said he once wrote something on Homer “to clear his head.” In the early part of 1895, about the time of the severe illness mentioned in the last chapter, brother Roberts did the like. Indeed, I think his head might have given way but for this kindly distraction. But he himself will tell the tale by means of the following extract from The Christadelphian for October, 1896: --
“WHERE IS JOHN SMITH?”
This question was suddenly asked me, in a most unexpected place –in the heart of the Queensland bush, far from open country, seated at dinner with six or eight others round a table in a shanty, in the midst of surrounding wood. The question was asked with all eyes fixed on me.
I replied “What John Smith?” –to which the response was a shout of laughter, followed by a statement that the company in that thinly-settled neighbourhood had received from England the first number of an anonymous work, entitled, “England’s Ruin; or JOHN SMITH’S answer to Mr. Blatchford’s plea for Socialism, as contained in the widely circulated work, Merrie England,” and that the said first number accompanied by the expression of the opinion that the author was the editor of The Christadelphian. They had read the pamphlet, and they were sure the opinion was correct.
This was a severe ordeal for a man with a secret, especially a man who could not claim to fall back upon Sir Walter Scott’s technical right, under similar circumstances, to a plea of “Not guilty.” I could not lie, and appear ignorant was evidence of guilt: I said if they would keep the matter to themselves, I would tell them. There was an object in secrecy, which I would explain.
Some twelve months ago, there appeared an impassioned plea on behalf of the wrongs of working men. It was entitled Merrie England. It was in the form of a series of letters to an imaginary John Smith as representing the working classes, in the same way that John Bull represents England. The book sold in thousands upon thousands, and created a great impression. It was sent to me to read. I read it. It struck me as affording a great opportunity of showing not only the hopeless nature of Socialism as a scheme of human government, but the complete adaptation of the gospel of the kingdom to all the woes of man. It was while I was beginning to get better or my recent illness that I set myself to the writing of it, which helped to divert my mind from the sorrows of the hour. I wrote an answer, letter by letter, as from the said John Smith (being in truth an ingredient of the great impersonal individual addressed by Mr. Blatchford).
But I thought it would have little chance of a public circulation if its authorship were known, and therefore I approached a London publisher through a third party, and the publication took place in penny numbers. Many thousands have been sold, but on nothing of the scale of Mr. Blatchford’s book. The Bible flavour has been unfavourable to popularity. The sale has now practically stopped, except in Australia.
The author explained that the publication had been “no profit to him, but the reverse”; and this remark holds good with reference to the greatly superior edition I issued when Mr. Blatchford re-issued Merrie England in 1908. (England’s Ruin was this time issued in one pamphlet of 162 pages, with portrait, price sixpence, in cloth one shilling.) It is well worth reading, and will presently be more in season than ever.
We “awaited developments” and they developed. In July all arrangements had been made for the removal to Australia. There was a farewell tea-meeting in the Temperance Hall, Birmingham, on July 22nd, and painfully pointed reference was made to Acts 20, where Paul took leave of the Ephesian elders who “sorrowed most of all for the word which he spake, that they should see his face no more.” If I remember rightly, one brother applied the passage openly and emphatically with only too true a presentiment. Privately I had argued with brother Roberts the inexpedience of the contemplated step from a merely human point of view; but had been “floored” with Luke’s words concerning Paul and some at Caesarea who attempted to dissuade him from going up to Jerusalem; “And when he would not be persuaded, we ceased, saying, The will of the Lord be done” (Acts 21:14). To this day I could only answer, “Amen.”
This recalls another curious incident. Brother Roberts and I were in strong and hopeless disagreement about a certain business detail concerning transfer of premises. He “would not be persuaded,” and I, feeling that right and reason were on my side, was equally loth to give way. Suddenly he said, “Oh, brother Walker! Let’s draw lots.” In a moment we did so, and “the lot caused contentions to cease and parted between the mighty” (!) –(Prov. 18:18). The lot come out in my favour, and, in view of subsequent developments, I am fully persuaded that in this matter also “the will of the Lord was done.”
The reflections at the tea-meeting aforesaid, if somewhat sorrowful, were of a very edifying character. Brother Roberts had been “just forty years at work,” over thirty of them in Birmingham. He had “just finished the public exposition of the Scriptures in Birmingham, on a method that had taken us through the whole Bible, beginning at Genesis and finishing at Revelation.” He “commended the brethren to God and the word of His grace,” as did Paul those of whom he took leave (Acts 20:32). This only could give them “an inheritance among the sanctified.”
Brother Roberts lectured in the Temperance Hall, Birmingham, for the last time on Sunday, July 25th. The subject was appropriate, and in a manner prophetic: “The Last Message.” But he spoke of the Apocalypse. Nevertheless that was his “last message” to Birmingham, though another was projected. On the following Tuesday, he left Birmingham for London, sister Roberts and her daughters having preceded him. I saw him off at New Street Station, feeling a deep and irremovable presentiment that I was saying Good-bye to a man of God whom I should see no more in the land of the living this side of the judgment seat of Christ.
Our travellers sailed from Southampton in the ss. Darmstadt on August 2nd, touching at Genoa and Naples on the voyage. It is interesting to note the descriptions of fellow-voyagers of places you yourself have visited, and I followed the record of “A Second Voyage to Australia” (The Christadelphian, September, 1897, and onwards) with as much interest as the previous Diary. But of course there was an inevitable sameness, though the conditions were now so much pleasanter. Pleasanter in some ways; but one smiles at the encounters of brother Roberts with “Eglon and Company,” some very boorish and drunken nuisances who would have pitched him overboard had they darted. He didn’t quite know how to handle them; though in some respects he did admirably. There was a lecture on August 29th on “Nebuchadnezzars’ dream,” and brother Roberts’ notes concerning the date that it is sister Roberts’ 67th birthday.” She is now within about six months of 87, and is still most interested in all the activities and outlooks of the Truth. What other interest remains in mortal life at 87? There was another lecture on September 5th, in the steerage. This led to the discovery of brother Ralph Holmes, to the mutual surprise of all parties. We never know who may be our fellow-voyagers. Once in the Mediterranean and angel appeared on board (Acts 27:23).
The vessel reached Melbourne on September 12th, and our travellers found themselves in a new world. They settled down at Coburg, a northern suburb of Melbourne, in “Orient House,” which had been built by brother Firth. I notice that in The Christadelphian for April, 1898, in which this chapter appears, there appears also the last chapter of The Law of Moses. Brother Roberts just finished this for the press before his death. This again reminds me of another curious circumstance. It is thus alluded to in the Preface to The Ministry of the Prophets: --
“This book is really supplementary to one dealing with the ministry of the greatest of the prophets save the Lord Jesus Christ, that is Moses. ‘The Law of Moses’ is the title of the last work of Robert Roberts. It deals with the Law as ‘a rule of National and Individual life, and as the enigmatical enunciation of divine principles and purposes.’ Moses’ work was the building of the house of God in Israel, as it were by a faithful servant. The work of the later prophets was the carrying on of the affairs of the household. ‘The Law and the Prophets’ is a natural sequence, and on the completion of the aforesaid book the present was suggested to the author (then in Australia) by his fellow-labourer in England. The reply was the first chapter in print, the idea having naturally occurred, and having borne fruit.”
The first portion of The Ministry of the Prophets was written by brother Roberts in the course of his journeyings, and at sea on the Pacific Ocean. When brother Roberts died in 1898, I took up the thread with Isaiah ch. 6, which begins, “In the year that King Uzziah died.” My first contribution appeared in The Christadelphian for December, 1898. It was with some surprise and amusement that I afterwards learnt that the “later hand” had not at once been detected even in some will-informed quarters. In fact, sister Roberts herself is hazy as to where the break occurs even to this day! I thought the incident was a good testimony to the oneness of mind on divine things that existed between brother Roberts and myself. As to the literary problem, I always maintained that he could not write half-a-dozen pages without my recognition of the authorship. Like those lynx-eyed Queenslanders, I bowled “John Smith” out with the first ball.
There were one or two courses of special lectures in Melbourne, and then brother Roberts began his travels again. He visited Gippsland, Albury, Sydney, Newcastle, Toowoomba, Southbrook, Brisbane, and Rockhampton, returning to Sydney in the middle of March, feeling quite unwell. Hearing that sister Roberts was ill in Melbourne, he returned at once, for her sake, and for recuperation in preparation for another visit to New Zealand, in which she was to accompany him. Another visit to Ballarat took place about this time; but something hindered as regards Adelaide. And Melbourne itself was troubled by an unhappy divorce case, the echoes of which lasted for many years.
On May 21st brother and sister Roberts sailed from Melbourne for New Zealand via Tasmania (Hobart), landing in New Zealand at Invercargill (The Bluff) in the extreme south. Here the unfortunate subject of this biography had literally to scramble out of the steamer and train on to the platform to deliver a lecture that had been arranged. “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh” certainly; and a stout heart well stored is necessary for such experiences. From Invercargill, where our travellers renewed the acquaintance of brother and sister Mackay, very old friends, they went north, visiting Riverton, Otautau, Balclutha and Dunedin. At Dunedin they met a brother Heenan, who in the early days found a copy of Eureka on a second-hand bookstall. The price was L4 15s! but the bookman let him have a read at 2s per week, the hire going towards the purchase! “Buy the truth and sell it not,” saith the proverb (Prov. 23:23); but we do not often come across such a curiously literal illustration of the initial obedience to Wisdom’s voice. It reminds me by contrast of a clever engineer of my acquaintance, who after rejoicing for a while in the truth, sold Eureka and all his books “for an old song” – “clearing out old stock,” as he profanely expressed it.
From Dunedin brother and sister Roberts departed on June 16th for Timaru, where Russellism and other “isms” had deflected some from the hope of Israel. Brother Roberts found some more contention for the faith here by reason of this strange departure. From Timaru they left for Christchurch on June 18th, and thence, on the 28th (Port Lyttleton) to Wellington, where they met brother and sister Lesueur. Thence to Napier and Wanganui, meeting brother and sister Dexter and others. Other places visited were Hawera, Stratford, and New Plymouth, whence they departed by steamer for Auckland. From Auckland there was a visit to Ngaruawahia, returning to Auckland, whence they sailed for Sydney, reaching that port on August 5th and Melbourne on August 10th.
Berean Home Page