27 September 1735–9 June 1790
ROBERT ROBINSON was born September 27, 1735, at Swaffham, in Norfolk, England. His father, Michael Robinson, was an exciseman, and a native of Scotland. His mother, Mary, was the only daughter of Robert Wilkin, of Mildenhall, Suffolk. His parents were both of the Church of England, and he was their youngest child. At the age of six, he was sent to a Latin school, and soon exhibited remarkable capacity. In 1743, the family removed to Scarning. Not long subsequently, his father absconded on account of debt, and shortly after died at Winchester. His mother was, in consequence, subjected to great straits, and was compelled to keep boarders, and to ply her needle for support. At the grammar-school of the town, taught by the Rev. Joseph Brett, the boy made marked proficiency, especially in the languages.
At the age of fourteen, he was apprenticed to Joseph Anderson, a hair-dresser in London. He soon proved himself qualified for a higher calling. He gained time by early rising and devoted it to study. His first serious impressions were the result of hearing Rev. George Whitefield preach (May 24, 1752) a sermon from the text, “Who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” He went to the Tabernacle out of curiosity, “pitying the poor deluded Methodists, but came away envying their happiness.” For the next two years and a half, he constantly resorted to the Tabernacle; but it was not until the end of 1755 that he found “full and free forgiveness through the precious blood of Jesus Christ.”
After five years’ service, his master returned him his indentures, and he made a visit to his relatives at Mildenhall, intending to engage in farming. Associating with the pious people of the neighborhood, he was urged to preach to them, and complied. His youth and marked ability drew many to hear him from the adjoining towns and brought him invitations to other places. He was sent for, soon after, to preach in the Tabernacle at Norwich. This was early in 1758. After a while he left the Methodists and formed an independent church, of which he became the pastor. Having adopted Baptist principles, he was immersed by Mr. Dunkhorn of Ellingham in Norfolk. In July 1759, he accepted an invitation to preach to the Baptist congregation at Cambridge; and about the same time married Miss Ellen Payne of Norwich. Having bound the church to open communion, he was ordained in 1761.
The congregation was poor, and his annual income small, at first scarcely amounting to £15, and at no time exceeding £90. His popularity enabled him to procure the erection, at the end of three years, of a good house of worship. His labors were abundant. He preached twice or thrice on the Sabbath, and several times through the week in the adjacent villages. In 1773, to supplement his small salary, he entered into the business of farming and trading, his family then consisting of his wife and nine children with his aged mother. He died, on a journey, at Birmingham, June 9, 1790. He was found dead in his bed. He continued in charge of the Baptist Church at Cambridge until his death.
With all his other occupations, he found time for much literary work. His Arcana, issued in 1774, attracted much attention. Besides several sermons and pamphlets of various dates, he edited a translation of Saurin’s Sermons, in 5 vols., with a “Memoir of Saurin and the French Reformation” (1775–1782); and in 1776 he published A Plea for the Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, said to have been derived from the French of Dr. Abbadie, in his Vindication of the Truth of the Christian Religion. The work attracted great attention and was well received both by Churchmen and Dissenters. An Essay on the Composition of a Sermon, followed in 1777; A Plan of Lectures on the Principles of Non conformity, in 1778; The General Doctrine of Toleration applied to the Particular Case of Free Communion, in 1780; his Political Catechism, in 1782; and a volume of Village Sermons, in 1786. His History of Baptism and his Ecclesiastical Researches were published after his death. His Miscellaneous Works, with a Memoir of his Life, were published in 1807 by Benjamin Flower, the father of Mrs. Sarah Flower Adams.
Mr. Robinson was an admirable preacher. He commanded the attention of the most scholarly minds, even of the University, and was regarded with great favor by the undergraduates. The celebrated Robert Hall remarked (1787) on one occasion: “Mr. Robinson had a musical voice, and was master of all its intonations; he had wonderful self-possession, and could say what he pleased, when he pleased, and how he pleased.” The Rev. William Jay, of Bath, says of him: “For disentangling a subject from confusion, for the power of development, for genuine simplification, for invention—what writer ever surpassed Robinson of Cambridge?” He was a great favorite in London and other large towns, always drawing crowds to hear him.
His attached people, “the Congregation of Stone-Yard,” erected in the Old Meeting House at Birmingham, where he was buried, a tablet to his memory, with this inscription (written by his successor, the Rev. Robert Hall):
Sacred to the Memory of the Rev. Robert Robinson of Cambridge, the intrepid Champion of Liberty Civil and Religious; endowed with a Genius brilliant and penetrating, united with an indefatigable Industry, his Mind was richly furnished with an inexhaustible Variety of Knowledge. His Eloquence was the Delight of every public Assembly, and his Conversation the Charm of every private Circle. In him the Erudition of the Scholar, the Discrimination of the Historian, and the Boldness of the Reformer, were united, in an eminent Degree, with the Virtues which adorn the Man and the Christian.
by Edwin Hatfield
The Poets of the Church (1884)
Publications of Hymns:
Hymns for the Fast Day (1757): WorldCat
A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the Church of Christ: Meeting in Angel-Alley (London, 1759): WorldCat
Caleb Evans & John Ash, A Collection of Hymns, 3rd ed. (1778): PDF
Life & Works:
George Dyer, Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Robert Robinson (London, 1796): PDF
Benjamin Flower, Miscellaneous Works of Robert Robinson
William Robinson, Select Works of the Rev. Robert Robinson of Cambridge (London: J. Heaton & Son, 1861): WorldCat
Josiah Miller, “Robert Robinson,” Singers and Songs of the Church (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1869), pp. 263-269: Archive.org
Edwin Hatfield, “Robert Robinson,” Poets of the Church (NY, 1884), pp. 515-518: HathiTrust
A.B. Grosart, “Robert Robinson,” ed. John Julian, A Dictionary of Hymnology (London, 1892), pp. 969-970: Google Books
G.W. Hughes, With Freedom Fired: The Story of Robert Robinson, Cambridge Nonconformist (London, Carey Kingsgate Press, 1955): WorldCat
Kenneth Parsons, St. Andrew’s Street Baptist Church, Cambridge: Three Historical Lectures Given on the Occasion of the 250th Anniversary of the Foundation of the Church (Cambridge, 1971): WorldCat
L.G. Champion, “Robert Robinson, a pastor in Cambridge,” Baptist Quarterly, vol. 31 (1986), pp. 241-246.
Church Book: St Andrew’s Street Baptist Church, Cambridge 1720-1832 (Baptist Historical Society, 1991): WorldCat
John Stephens, “Robert Robinson,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:
Christopher Smith, “Robert Robinson,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology:
Robert Robinson, Hymnary.org: