The Strange Case of Robert Robinson
By Doug Kutilek,
Baptist Bible Tribune
We all have sung –“Come thou fount of every blessing,This centuries-old hymn was written by English Baptist pastor Robert Robinson (1735-1790). Having been educated in a grammar school (which in those days meant Latin grammar and usually Greek as well), upon his father’s death, Robinson was apprenticed at age 14 to a London hairdresser for seven years. During this time, in 1752 (age 16), he came under the preaching of George Whitefield, whose sermon on Matthew 3:7 brought deep conviction upon him. This issued in Robinson’s religious conversion in December 1755. For the next two years, Robinson was regularly in attendance in the congregation at Whitefield’s London tabernacle.
tune my heart to sing thy praise!
Streams of mercy, never ceasing,
call for songs of loudest praise!
Teach me some melodious sonnet,
sung by flaming tongues above.
Praise that mount, I’m fixed upon it,
mount of thy redeeming love!”
In 1758, Robinson left London, returning to his home region, where he began to preach. His hearers were soon numbered in the hundreds and his converts by the score. When challenged on the matter of infant baptism, which he had accepted as a matter of course (being raised an Anglican and later associated with the Methodists), personal study led him to the view that believer’s baptism alone was biblical, and he was subsequently immersed.
Robinson began preaching in a declining Baptist church in Cambridge in 1759, where, after a two-year probationary period, he was called as pastor. He remained in this pastorate until his death in 1790. Under his ministry, the congregation soon outgrew its run-down premises and a new building was erected. His hearers regularly numbered 600 to 700, including not a few of the students from nearby Cambridge University. Some came only to mock, but they remained to be instructed.
It was no small accomplishment for an unschooled Baptist pastor to draw the hypercritical college crowd to hear him, but Robinson was ever the diligent student (he learned four or five languages) and a zealous reader, even from his youth, and he was a public speaker of no small ability. Besides his Cambridge congregation, Robinson had some 15 preaching stations in the villages around Cambridge. Weekdays found him evangelizing the residents in these locations.
For a time, Robinson had been engaged by the Baptist pastors of London to undertake research at the British Museum with a view to writing a history of the Baptists. When the theological drift of Robinson away from orthodoxy toward the end of his life was discovered, this sponsorship was quickly withdrawn. Robinson continued these labors on his own behalf after he obtained permission to make use of the university library in Cambridge. The fruit of this research was two immense volumes, both published posthumously, namely, The History of Baptism (1790), and Ecclesiastical Researches (1792), the latter of which is highly prized by some Baptists, though it is throughout a defense of the orthodoxy of Unitarianism.
Though Robinson had published a vigorous defense of the Deity of Christ in 1776, he soon became enamored with Socinian and Arian errors (denials of the Deity of Christ and of the Deity and personality of the Holy Spirit), influenced in part by Joseph Priestly. Once having abandoned Trinitarianism, Robinson became increasingly brazen in his attacks on this orthodox doctrine. The last sermon he ever preached was in Priestly’s meetinghouse in Birmingham, in which sermon Robinson ridiculed and mocked the doctrine of the Trinity with sarcasm and invective far stronger than anything Priestly, by his own admission, had ever said or written. The following Tuesday, Robinson was found dead in bed in the home of William Russell, a prominent member of Priestly’s church, where he had been staying. God thereby said, “Enough!”
What shall we say of Mr. Robinson? Was he a saved man who fell into grievous error, or a wolf in sheep’s clothing whose true nature was at last exposed? I am inclined to believe that his conviction and conversion under Whitefield’s influence were genuine, but the pride of life and the allurement and siren song of “intellectual” speculations loosed him from his theological moorings until he drifted far from shore, and became shipwrecked in heresy. Perhaps the last verse of the hymn is Robinson’s own testimony:
“O to grace how great a debtor
daily I’m constrained to be
Let thy goodness like a fetter
bind my wandering heart to thee.
Prone to wander, God I feel it,
prone to leave the God I love.
Here’s my heart, o take and seal it,
seal it for thy courts above.”
[From Doug Kutilek, Baptist Bible Tribune Magazine, September 26, 2014; via the Internet. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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