Frederick William Robertson was born in London in 1816, and was educated at Edinburgh Academy and Brasenose College in Oxford. He was ordained in 1840.
Robertson served as a curate in Winchester, Cheltenham, and Oxford; in 1847 he became the incumbent of Trinity Church, Brighton, where he ministered for six years until his death in 1853.
It is one of the paradoxes of Robertson’s ministry that his real fame only began after his death. The posthumous publication of six volumes of sermons and addresses and of his Life and Letters by Stopford Brooke carried him at once to the front rank of English preachers. His place there has never since been challenged.
Indeed, Canon Charles Smith, in his study of The Art of Preaching in the Church of England, calls Robertson “the one great preacher in the history of the English Church.”
Robertson came from a family of soldiers and it was an intense disappointment to him in his early manhood that he could not follow in that succession.
At his ordination the text given to him by the Bishop was “Endure hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.” It was an appropriate word. Few men have ever entered the ministry with a higher sense of duty or have submitted themselves to a more rigorous discipline of life and thought.
He fought the good fight of faith with courage but he was never “the happy warrior,” for he was often wounded in spirit as well as suffering in body. His life was austere and lonely and it is not without significance that one of the greatest of his sermons was on “The Loneliness of Christ.”
Nothing dates so quickly as sermons but his sermons still retain their power. There is little in homiletical literature to compare with them for wealth of thought, depth of insight, warmth of feeling, beauty of language and clearness of style. His sermons refute the belief that one cannot preach theology.
How did Robertson come to reach the heights as a preacher? He had gifts of the first order — a glorious bell-like voice, physical vitality, prodigious reading, clearness of arrangement and thought. He was a highly original thinker who depended very little on quotations from others.
Yet even he needed the stimulus which comes from contact with other minds. In a letter written toward the end of his life he says: “I have spent this evening in reading thoughtfully Neander’s Doctrine of St. John, imbuing my mind with a tone of thought for next Sunday. I find that to be the only way my mind works. I cannot copy nor can I work out a seed of thought, developing it for myself. I cannot light my own fire but whenever I get my fire lighted from another life, I can carry the living flame as my own into other subjects, which become illuminated in the flame.”
Robertson was steeped in the Bible and his preaching was mainly textual and interwoven with biblical phrases of surprising power. He formed the habit of committing to memory a portion of the New Testament daily while dressing in the morning. He possessed great powers of arrangement and once said to a friend that “owing to this practice, no sooner was any Christian doctrine or duty mentioned in conversation, or suggested to him by what he was reading, than all the passages bearing on the point seemed to array themselves in order before him.”
He gave part of every day to devotional reading, and found it of great service for his work. His mornings were sacred to study. His methods are described in advice he gives in a letter to a friend:
“The book is worth reading in this way: study it, think over each chapter and examine yourself mentally, with shut eyes, upon its principles, putting down briefly on paper the heads, and getting up each day the principles that you gained yesterday. This is not the way to read many books, but it is the way to read much; and one read in this way would do you more good and remain longer fructifying, than twenty skimmed.”
In his earlier years as a curate, Robertson gave Saturday mornings only to the preparation of his sermons, but later — under the influence of his rector — he studied for them on Thursday and Friday, and wrote them carefully on Saturday. In Brighton he seems to have given up this practice and to have been content with a well-thought out plan of the sermon, of which he had no other record than a few jottings on a piece of paper.
At the height of his power in 1849, his words came forth like fire and sometimes so inflamed his delivery that the bit of paper with notes which he held in his hand and consulted at the beginning of his sermon would be crumpled up and forgotten.
For Sunday morning he would prepare a textual sermon; at the afternoon service he took a longer passage and delivered an expository lecture. Every sermon began with a clear analysis of the text. What does this text mean? What did the writer mean to convey? What does it mean to us today?
These are his homiletical maxims: Preach positively, not negatively; preach the two contrasting ideas of the text; preach suggestively, not exhaustively. By preaching positively he meant to follow Christ who stressed the light rather than the darkness.
As an example, take the sermon The Three Crosses on Calvary. In the negative manner we might start with the impenitent thief and then lead up to the central Cross. Robertson lets it dominate the entire sermon. He puts first the dying hour of devotedness, second, the dying hour of impenitence, and third, the dying hour of repentance.
By preaching suggestively, Robertson meant that one should make a large truth clear and luminous. Start the hearer thinking about its bearing on the issues of the day and send him forth to work out his own salvation.
No preacher was ever more successful in applying essential Christian principles to every vital issue than Robertson. It was to the deeper level of eternal principle that his sermons never failed to delve when they dealt with the actual questions, however controversial, which agitated the minds of his time. His sermons are marked by a directness, vividness and force, combined with a noble distinction of phrase and a moral passion.
Robertson’s message is as much alive today as it was for the people of his time. He is still supreme in the analysis of character and motive, in the appeal to the best in man, in his flashes of spiritual insight.
He cultivated human contacts. A young man said of him: “Whoever were his listeners, he had his hand upon their pulse the whole time that he was speaking.”
His illustrations were drawn from life, from nature, from the lives of the men and women before him, and from national events. He was the most virile of thinkers and his preaching appealed greatly to men. His integrity made him despise cant and sham. He once said: “There are three things in the world which deserve no quarter: hypocrisy, Pharisaism and tyranny.”
Robertson’s studies of Bible characters drew out his natural gifts to their full advantage and are among his most successful achievements. His sermon on Isaac blessing his sons has flashes of spiritual insight and psychological appeal. His sermon on Zacchaeus, entitled Triumph over Hindrances, may be recommended to the study of any preacher.
His sermon on the temptation of Abraham is a problem approach. He must have made every hearer feel at once, “All of this concerns me today.” In the body of the sermon he showed the difficulty of what God asked Abraham to do in offering up his son, the inner meaning of his trial, and the way he met it triumphantly through faith. This sermon reveals rare insight into the workings of the human heart. It shows how to touch the broken heart with a healing hand like that of the Divine Physician.
The young preachers of today may have written off Robertson as a back number. They should revise their estimate. Perhaps the judgment of that patron saint of youth, Robert Louis Stevenson may have weight with them: “When he discovered the broadminded and manly sermons of Robertson,” Dr. Kelman tells us, “he could not find words to express his appreciation.”
Robertson has been called “the preacher’s preacher.” Our young ministers would do well to discover for themselves that he still deserves that distinction.

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