(1) Bearing the Yoke in his Youth

Brother Roberts wrote an autobiography covering  his years up to 1871, My Days and My Ways, and  later it was completed by Brother CC Walker. There  is also the biography by Brother Islip Collyer,  written from 1943 to 1945 in The Testimony  magazine. Brother Roberts’ brother-in-law, William  Norrie, published The Early History of the Gospel of  the Kingdom of God in Britain from 1904 to 1906.

Both Brother Thomas and Brother Roberts were  passionate about the Truth. However Brother Roberts’  role was different as he had to deal with a rapidly  growing community with few precedents, procedures  or, in some cases, defined doctrines in place.

Birth – 1839

“I was born in the city of Aberdeen, in Aberdeenshire,  Scotland, on the 8th of April, 1839; so the evidence  goes to prove. I believe the house is still standing in  Link (sic) Street where the (for me as yet) unhappy  event occurred.”

My Days and My Ways, page 9

Parents – John (1806–1871) and Eliza (1807–1900)

Both Brother Roberts’ parents were baptised on  May 7th 1869.

“These, the father and mother of the Editor, have  yielded to the claims of the truth, after a struggle of  nearly twenty years – so far as the latter is concerned.  The great obstacle was a former immersion, but this,  with other nearly equally formidable difficulties,  finally gave way before the  battering rams brought to  bear of late.”

Siblings

The children of John and Eliza Roberts were:

  1. Barbara – 1827 to 1873 (baptised at 36, died aged 46)
  2. John – 1832 to 1874 (baptised at 25, died aged 42)
  3. Arthur – 1837 to 1890 (baptised, died aged 53)
  4. Robert – 1839 to 1898 (baptised at 14 and 23, died aged 59)
  5. David – 1841 to 1908 (baptised at 29, died aged 66)
  6. William – 184? to 18?? (drowned at sea)
  7. Ebenezer – 1847 to 1870 (baptised at 23, died aged 23) Four others died in infancy, a not unusual event in those days.

Early Years

In 1925 Brother Thomas Sturgess (1846–1932,  baptised 1877) wrote of his reminiscences of  Brothers Thomas and Roberts. He referred to  conversations with Brother Roberts’ mother, who  lived until 1900.

“She told me in quite a matter-of-fact way of the  usual Saturday night incident under rather meagre  conditions. ‘Where we lived in Scotland it was very  cold, and I never approved of bathing the children  in cold water.’ She would fill the bath tub half full  of water, then put the poker in the fire, and when  it was red hot would plunge it into the tub of cold  water. The cold shock being somewhat mitigated,  the children would then take their warm (?) bath.  Their staple diet was oatmeal and fish.”

Brother Thomas’ visit to Britain – 1848 to 1850

The impact of his visit was significant. It established  a community of believers in Britain, and particularly  in Scotland. It has been estimated that by 1864 two  thirds of all believers in Britain lived in Scotland.  This community was the one that Robert Roberts  contacted three years later.

Employment

Brother Roberts left school at eleven and held the following jobs. During the early years he studied at night school, his subjects being Latin and Pitman’s  shorthand.

1850 – Work in a rope cellar, then in a grocer’s shop.

1851 – Lithographic department of a printer (3 months);  letterpress department (12 months); assistant to  photographer.

1852 – Unemployed; then apprentice to a druggist for  4 years.

1856 – Reporter for The Aberdeen Daily Telegraph for a  few months (he left because he would not illegally  copy telegrams).

1857 – Unemployed, except for assisting reporters of  other newspapers.

1858 – Reporter for The Caledonian Mercury in  Edinburgh (dismissed for a copying error); reporter  for The Examiner in Huddersfield.

1861 – Worked for phrenologist (6 months); return to  The Examiner.

1864 – Occasional reporting work and shorthand lessons  in Birmingham; reporting commission for The  Birmingham Daily Post, then appointed to the staff.

1865 – Worked for the Bankruptcy Court.

1870 – Full time editor of The Christadelphian.

There are some salutary lessons for us from the  various events associated with Brother Roberts’  early employment. To some he may appear  foolhardy but what is clear is that he was motivated  by several sterling characteristics:

  • His early expertise in writing fitted him for reporting and editorial work.
  • He had a strong belief in the hand of Providence in his life.
  • He had a strong desire to preach the gospel in whatever way he could and looked for employment to enable this to occur as widely  as possible.
  • His conscience motivated him to establish and maintain young ecclesias.

I wonder if similar positive motives govern our lives!

Baptism – 1853

Returning to his youth we will now follow his  spiritual development. At the age of twelve he  happened to read some works of Brother Thomas  – a copy of the Herald of the Kingdom and Age to  Come, and later Elpis Israel. This led him to cease  attending the Baptist chapel on Sunday afternoons,  and seek out the brethren in the town.

“I had discovered that there was a small meeting  of believers in the things taught by Dr. Thomas. It  was in a curious corner, and in a curious building.  The meeting place was an upper room in this castle,  up a spiral staircase, entered by a door not far from the dark deserted end of the road. It was a room about  10 or 12 feet square, and about the same height.  There was a table in the centre, and benches round  the sides. About twenty people were assembled – all  plain, unpretending people of the working class.”

My Days and My Ways, page 18

“My immersion into Christ had taken place in  1853, when I was 14 years old. I was examined by brethren A. Black and J. Mowatt, and immersed by  the former in the River Dee, about a mile outside  the town. A fisherman’s hut afforded undressing  convenience. It was a beautiful summer’s Sunday  morning. There was a crowd of Sunday strollers on  the bank, who gave a loud laugh when the act of  baptism was performed.”

My Days and My Ways, page 22

The Bible Companion

Without doubt one of the most unifying and  edifying features of the Christadelphian community  worldwide and for over 150 years is the daily  reading chart called The Bible Companion.

“It was about this time [of his baptism]  I commenced the systematic reading of the  Scriptures, which is now so general a practice,  with the aid of The Bible Companion. I found I must read, first for information, and then for daily  sustenance in the things of the Spirit. Reading led  to marking special passages with ink – arising from  the need for ready quotation in conversation with  those who opposed the truth.

My Bible reading was at first discursive. Then I  began to see the need for system. I adopted a system of  my own. I divided the Old Testament into four parts,  and the New Testament into three parts … I continued  this for eight months, gradually finding it too much  for continuance. I then reduced the whole to four  parts, taking two and two, breakfast and dinner. This  I persevered with for some years, and finally came  down to three at one sitting – which I have continued  ever since.”

My Days and My Ways, page 23

Early speaking

As a youth Brother Roberts was not a natural speaker.  (At thirteen) “I took lessons in Latin, and learnt  Pitman’s shorthand … The class met once a week,  and was a great help to me in the matter of learning  to speak and write.

I remember my first attempt at the former. I had  never previously uttered two consecutive sentences,  otherwise than in conversation. I was called on, in  rotation with the other members, to make some  criticism on an essay that had been read. I got up  in imitation of the others; I leant forward, with my  hands helplessly outspread on the table before me.  My brain got into a whirl. I managed to gasp out a  few words and then sat down. In itself, the effort  was a frightful failure: but it was of great importance  as the breaking of the ice. Next time I was called  on, the ordeal was not so severe, and gradually the  embarrassment diminished with every occasion, until  I found facility of utterance taking its place.”

My Days and My Ways, pages 21–22

Experience, as it so often does for us, improved Brother Roberts’ speaking ability.

Marriage – 1859

Brother Robert Roberts married Sister Jane Norrie  of Edinburgh on his twentieth birthday, 8 April  1859. Mourning the fact that not all the brethren in  Edinburgh saw the truth as he did, Robert Roberts  found Jane to be a great support.

Health

There is some evidence that Brother Roberts was  not of a particularly robust nature, even as a boy.  Added to this, his dietary habits led to severe illness.  His health suffered severely when dealing with  difficult ecclesial  issues, especially  those that led to a  division. In 1873  ‘Renunciationism’  arose resulting in  Brother Roberts  being affected for  six months. Brother  Evans wrote of this  time (1873).

“I remember  being told that bro.  Roberts’ nervous  condition after  these meetings was  so disturbed that he was confined to bed, and at the  Sunday morning meeting on Sept. 14 a letter written  by sis. Roberts at the dictation of bro. Roberts was  read explaining that his doctor kept him in bed  through illness. He implored the brethren to refuse  to follow those who were inclined to follow the  ‘new theory’. It was about two weeks later before  bro. Roberts could resume activities.”

The Christadelphian, 1959, pages 292–293  The ‘unbreakable glass’ disaster and the  ‘Resurrectional Responsibility’ dispute in 1894–5  also had a severe effect on Brother Roberts’ health,  resulting in him deciding to travel to Australia and  New Zealand. His death in September 1898 at the  age of only 59 suggests not simply some physical  weakness but this compounded with stress from  ecclesial work.

Family

Brother and Sister Roberts had seven children, four  of whom died young.

  1. Agnes (born ~4/1860, died late 1860 – a few months old)
  2. Lydia Jane (born ~10/1861, died ~2/1862 – 4 months old)
  3. Edward Augustus (born 1863, baptised ~1/1878, married Mary Matthews)
  4. Eusebia (born 1866, baptised ~4/1884, married Thomas H. Firth in Melbourne on 8/2/1898, died 7/2/1951 – 84 years old)
  5. John Thomas (born 1868, died 22/11/1872 of scarlet fever – 4 years old)
  6. Ellen (born 1870, died ~12/1872 of scarlet fever – 2 years old)
  7. Sarah Jane (born 9/7/1872, baptised 11/7/1889, married Charles Ladson in 3/10/1904, died 16/4/1965 – 92 years old)

In the final year of his life Brother Roberts heard  that his son Edward had left the Truth:(

“As Edward Roberts became a prominent and  wealthy doctor in London, he lost interest in the  truth, and left it, desiring the riches offered by the  world, and taking with him his sister wife. Edward  informed brother Roberts of these plans shortly  before his death. Sister Sarah Jane Ladson felt this  news was partly responsible for the heart attack of  her grieving father in San Francisco in 1898, and  called it his ‘crowning sorrow’…

‘The crowning sorrow of his life, (what I have  always thought hastened his end) – was the totally  unexpected defection from The Faith of my brother.’  She continues: ‘My father never met Edward after  the said ‘revelation’ of his true state of mind, which  came after he left for Australia. [Though he wrote  him. I should like to have seen that letter!] It stunned  us all …’” – May 1959.

http://www.tlcecclesia.org/id38.htm

Grandchildren

Of the children of Robert Roberts who lived to maturity  and married the following grandchildren are known:

Children of Edward Augustus

  1. Douglas Roberts (perhaps about 4 in 1897)
  2. Eric Roberts
  3. Enid Roberts

Children of Sarah Jane Ladson

  1. Edith Ladson (born 1908, baptised 1928)
  2. Una Ladson (died at 4 years old)

Ecclesias where Brother Roberts was a Member

Brother Roberts was a member of five ecclesias in Britain:

  1. Aberdeen, Scotland – 1853 to October 1857
  2. Edinburgh, Scotland – October 1857 to August 1858
  3. Halifax, England – August 1858 to May 1861
  4. Huddersfield, England – May 1861 to the end of 1863
  5. Birmingham, England – start of 1864 to 1898.

Brother Thomas spoke in Birmingham in 1849  and 1850. Early in 1861 Brother Roberts visited  Birmingham on his employment with Fowler and  Wells, Phrenologists. In July 1862 Brother Thomas,  on his second visit to Britain, spoke in Birmingham.  He subsequently urged Brother Roberts to move  there, believing the prospects for ecclesial growth  were much better than in Huddersfield. He has been  proved right to a marvellous extent.

The Investigator – 1859

The proposal for a manuscript magazine being  produced in England was approved at the Fraternal  Gathering in Nottingham in 1859. Brother Roberts  commenced it in September 1859, entitling it  The Investigator. It was hand written and the two  copies were circulated to ecclesias in England and  Scotland.

Twelve Lectures – (1862), later expanded into  Christendom Astray

In October 1860, in Huddersfield, Brother  Roberts gave his first series of public addresses.  By December a second series of lectures was  commenced.

“As the year drew towards its close, it was  resolved that we should make a more systematic  effort and that I should give a complete course of  lectures in exhibition of the whole system of the  truth. I accordingly drew out a programme of twelve  lectures, to be delivered on twelve successive  Sunday afternoons. Of this, I had a thousand copied  printed as handbills and a hundred posters, and  arranged for their distribution. It then occurred  to me that it would be better to write and read the  lectures than to attempt the extempore delivery  from skeleton notes, as I was in  the habit of doing

The first lecture was delivered  December 1st, 1861 and the last,  which was delivered on February  16th, 1862. There was close  attention throughout, and some  afternoons, questions were put  at the close. There was not the  same life in a read lecture as in  one extemporised fresh from the  heart. At the same time, there  was this advantage: when the  lectures were over, I had them  in my possession in a written form.”

My Days and My Ways, page 109

At the request of some the first lecture was  printed. The venture was sufficiently successful  to print all twelve lectures, one every two weeks.  Subsequently, they were printed as one volume.

In 1884 Brother Roberts supplemented the  original twelve with additional material and  republished it as Christendom Astray, which is  still in print. It may well be that that this book has  done more to convert people to the Truth than any  other publication.