Robert Robinson, the author of “Come, Thou fount of every blessing,” and “Mighty God, while angels bless Thee,” was born at Swaffham, in Norfolk, on Sept. 27, 1735 (usually misgiven, spite of his own authority, as Jan. 8), of lowly parentage.
Whilst in his eighth year the family migrated to Scarning, in the same county. He lost his father a few years after this removal. His widowed mother was left in sore straits. The universal testimony is that she was a godly woman, and far above her circumstances.
Her ambition was to see her son a clergyman of the Church of England, but poverty forbade, and the boy (in his 15th year) was indentured in 1749 to a barber and hairdresser in London. It was an uncongenial position for a bookish and thoughtful lad. His master found him more given to reading than to his profession. Still he appears to have nearly completed his apprenticeship when he was released from his indentures.
In 1752 came an epoch-marking event. Out on a frolic one Sunday with like-minded companions, he joined with them in sportively rendering a fortune-telling old woman drunk and incapable, that they might hear and laugh at her predictions concerning them. The poor creature told Robinson that he would live to see his children and grandchildren. This set him a-thinking, and he resolved more than ever to “give himself to reading”. Coincidently he went to hear George Whitefield. The text was St. Matthew iii. 7, and the great evangelist’s searching sermon on “the wrath to come” haunted him blessedly. He wrote to the preacher six years later penitently and pathetically. For well nigh three years he walked in darkness and fear, but in his 20th year found “peace by believing.” Hidden away on a blank leaf of one of his books is the following record of his spiritual experience, the Latin doubtless having been used to hold it modestly private:—
“Robertus, Michaelis Mariseque Robinson filius. Natus Swaffhami, comitatu Norfolciae, Saturni die Sept. 27, 1735. Renatus Sabbati die, Maii 24,1752, per predicationem potentem Georgii Whitefield. Et gustatis doloribus renovationis duos annosque septem absolutionem plenam gratuitamque, per sanguinem pretiosum Jesu Christi, inveni (Tuesday, December 10, 1755) cui sit honor et gloria in secula seculorum. Amen.”
Robinson remained in London until 1758, attending assiduously on the ministry of Gill, Wesley, and other evangelical preachers. Early in this year he was invited as a Calvinistic Methodist to the oversight of a chapel at Mildenhall, Norfolk. Thence he removed within the year to Norwich, where he was settled over an Independent congregation. In 1759, having been invited by a Baptist Church at Cambridge (afterwards made historically famous by Robert Hall, John Foster, and others) he accepted the call, and preached his first sermon there on Jan. 8, 1759, having been previously baptized by immersion.
The “call” was simply “to supply the pulpit,” but he soon won such regard and popularity that the congregation again and again requested him to accept the full pastoral charge. This he acceded to in 1761, alter persuading the people to “open communion.”
In 1770 he commenced his abundant authorship by publishing a translation from Saurin’s sermons, afterwards completed.
In 1774 appeared his masculine and unanswerable Arcana, or the Principles of the Late Petitioners to Parliament for Relief in the matter of Subscription. In 1776 was published A Plea for the Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ in a Pastoral Letter to a Congregation of Protestant Dissenters at Cambridge. Dignitaries and divines of the Church of England united with Nonconformists in lauding this exceptionally able, scholarly, and pungently written book.
In 1777 followed his History and Mystery of Good Friday. The former work brought him urgent invitations to enter the ministry of the Church of England, but he never faltered in his Nonconformity. In 1781 he was asked by the Baptists of London to prepare a history of their branch of the Christian Church. This resulted, in 1790, in his History of Baptism and Baptists, and in 1792, in his Ecclesiastical Researches. Other theological works are included in the several collective editions of his writings. He was prematurely worn out. He retired in 1790 to Birmingham, where he was somehow brought into contact with Dr. Priestley, and Unitarians have made much of this, on exceedingly slender grounds. He died June 9, 1790.
His Life has been fully written by Dyer and by William Robinson respectively, both with a bias against orthodoxy. His three changes of ecclesiastical relationship show that he was somewhat unstable and impulsive. His hymns are terse yet melodious, evangelical but not sentimental, and on the whole well wrought. His prose has all…that vehement and enthusiastic glow of passion that belongs to the orator. (Cf. Dyer and Robinson as above, and Gadsby’s Memoirs of Hymn-Writers(3rd ed., 1861); Belcher’s Historical Sketches of Hymns; Millers Singers and Songs of the Church; Flower’s Robinson’s Miscellaneous Works; Annual Review, 1805, p. 464; Eclectic Review, Sept. 1861. [Rev. A. B. Grosart, D.D., LL.D.]
–John Julian, Dictionary of Hymnology (1907)