Was He Too Prone to Wander? Robert Robinson (1735–1790)

Robinson was animated by an evangelical faith and piety that was later compared to Jonathan Edwards.

On Sunday, May 24, 1752, he was one of a gang of young people who went and got a fortune-teller drunk on cheap gin, and then visited Whitefield’s Tabernacle at Moorfields “to mock the preacher and pity his hearers,” but instead Robinson was haunted by Whitefield’s sermon on the wrath to come. Day and night he was troubled as he recalled the message. This unrest culminated three years later in his wholehearted conversion. We know this from a cryptic notation he made in Latin on a blank leaf in one of his books. It said that on Tuesday, December 10, 1755, he “found full and free forgiveness through the precious blood of Jesus Christ.”

 

Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it.

Prone to leave the God I love.

Robert Robinson wrote these words as a young man in his twenties, a few years after his conversion. They appeared in 1758 in one of the stanzas of his now classic hymn, “Come, thou fount of ev’ry blessing.” The hymn as a whole is a great testimony to the grace of God that had saved him, notwithstanding a heart that was “prone to wander.”

By the time of his death at 54 years of age, however, some wondered if Robinson had indeed wandered, at least theologically. He died just after spending time with Joseph Priestley, one of the most infamous political and theological radicals of the late eighteenth century. Priestley and his fellow Unitarians (who denied the deity of Christ) were quick to claim Robinson as one of their own. Priestley even claimed that Robinson “attacked Orthodoxy more pointedly and sarcastically than I had ever done in my life.”

So how far had Robert Robinson wandered?

Poor, Uneducated, Fatherless

Robinson was born in a small market town near Norwich in southeast England in 1735. He was born the same year that the great evangelist George Whitefield was converted in his college rooms at Oxford, and while a local revival was stirring Jonathan Edwards’s parish in New England and spreading up and down the Connecticut River Valley. But it would be another seventeen years before Robinson would hear Whitefield preach and be himself drawn into the orbit of the revival movement.

In fact, his home was “devoid of piety,” and his parents’ marriage was described as a disaster. By the time young Robert was entering his teens, his dissolute father was being sued for debts. His father abandoned the family and died soon afterward. Although his mother’s family had wealth, lands, and houses, Robert’s grandfather resented the marriage and as a cruel gesture left his daughter only half a guinea (about $100 in today’s terms). Robert’s mother could see that her son had some intellectual capacity, so to keep him in school she took in boarders and “plied the needle” as a seamstress. Soon it was all too much, though, and by the time Robert was thirteen, his formal education had to be given up.

A friend of the family had a brother in London who was a barber, and the decision was made to send Robert to the city to be bound as an apprentice in that trade. This meant he would become the charge and responsibility of his master for seven years, until his apprenticeship was complete. He would spend his teen years away from home in the big city.

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