Presbyterians of the Past

Stuart Robinson, 1814-1881

Stuart Robinson, Web Picture, 3-11-2016Is it a scowl of anger or grimace of pain that is on the face of Stuart Robinson? His appearance may very well be due to pain. When he was an infant, his nurse was tossing him in the air, as adults often do, and watching him giggle, as babies will do, but then she accidentally missed him and he fell to the floor. One can only imagine the horror of the nurse as she saw the child she cared for screaming in pain. The injuries were fearful. His right shoulder was dislocated, his hand and thumb were seriously injured, and his head was injured such that the doctor believed, using the terminology of the day, “idiocy,” might be the result. Robinson recovered from his head injury but his arm and hand were disabled for the remainder of his life manifesting a stiffness and awkwardness that could be seen in his gestures in the pulpit. Matters were made worse when he broke the same arm in an accident while riding a train from Baltimore to Kentucky. Yes, his facial appearance may very well be due to pain, but then there is the possibility of the scowl of anger, an appearance of antagonism because his character, integrity, and honor as a man and a minister had been assailed and slandered such that he sued the source of the defaming words.

Stuart Robinson was of Scotch-Irish stock, born November 14, 1814, to James and Martha Porter Robinson in Strabane, County Tyrone, Ireland. Martha was the daughter of an elder in the Irish Presbyterian Church and her grandfather had been a Presbyterian minister. Stuart’s father was a successful purveyor of linen until he lost his wealth through guaranteeing some loans that did not work out. Thus, as so many residents of Ireland were doing in the era, James took the family first to New York and then to Virginia where they settled. When Stuart was but six or seven years old his mother died. The household had no relatives in the country, so Stuart lived with another family, the Troutmans, through arrangement by his father.

The Troutmans raised Stuart as their own and realilzed his intelligence. They saw that he attended school. As with several of the biographical subjects presented on Presbyterians of the Past, he had an incredible memory. The Troutmans sought the advice of their pastor, Rev. James M. Brown, who recognized the thirteen year old’s abilities, took him into his home, and directed him in his studies until he continued his work in the academy in Romney, Virginia, mastered by Rev. William H. Foote. At about the age of sixteen during his preparatory studies he professed his faith in Christ. When it was time to enter college, young Stuart entered with the freshman class at Amherst in Massachusetts, completing his program in 1836. For theological studies in preparation for the ministry he completed one year in Union Seminary, Virginia, then he taught for two years to earn tuition for more study, and then studied two years in Princeton Seminary but did not receive his certificate of completion. The reason why he completed three years but was not certified is not known to this site’s author.

Stuart Robinson, Date Unknown, Nevin, 3-8-2016Stuart Robinson was licensed by Greenbrier Presbyery, 1841, then ordained, October 8, 1842, at Lewisburg, Virginia (currently in West Virginia) to serve the Kanawha Salines Church. He continued in the ministry serving churches in Kentucky, then Baltimore, and then moved back to Kentucky where he taught in Danville Seminary. Stuart Robinson was known for his preaching gifts, the precision of his sermons, his pointed and no holds barred writing, and a short-fused temper. His memorialist, J. N. Saunders, commented that, “his temper sometimes got the better of him; that his great will was sometimes too imperious, and that he often said things that were unnecessarily severe and wounding” (p. 34). At the time of the lawsuits that will be discussed in the following paragraphs, Robinson had been the minister of the Second Presbyterian Church, Louisville, since 1858.

The story of Dr. Robinson’s litigation begins with The Hickman Courier of Hickman, Kentucky, which reported in March 1872 that an important libel suit had been filed by Rev. Stuart Robinson against the proprietors of the Chicago Evening Post seeking damages of 100,000.00. The compensation sought was described as, possibly tongue in cheek, “a moderate sum.” Robinson was responding to a thirty-one word article published that January in the Post’s “Personal and Impersonal” column.

Rev. Stuart Robinson of Louisville, who advocated from the pulpit during the war, the shipping of yellow fever infected clothing to Northern cities, narrowly escaped death from small pox last week.

The purpose of the sentence was likely to inform the Post’s readers of Dr. Robinson’s illness. Despite the availability of an early type of vaccination, the “pox” was a common disease of the day that sometimes horribly scarred the victim’s face. It is believed that the ghostly appearance of Queen Elizabeth, I, of England in her portraits is due to heavy makeup covering her small pox scars. The libelous portion of the piece was the comment that, expressed in a matter of fact manner as though it was common knowledge, Robinson had recommended from the pulpit that the Confederacy engage in what would be called today germ warfare by distributing yellow fever in the North. Could it be the between-the-lines purpose of the snippet was to interpret Robinson’s small pox as a divine judgment for his alleged yellow fever plan? One can only imagine the response of Stuart Robinson when he read the slanderous words given the struggles he had controlling his Scots-Irish ire as he grew in grace and sanctification.

Title Page, David Swing, Great Chicago Fire, 1872The Chicago Evening Post had pursued an investigation into the facts and was “able to speak intelligently in reference to both” the yellow fever plan and Stuart Robinson’s character. The Post had determined that one Mr. Conover was the source of the accusation and that it was “utterly without foundation in fact.” Another slice of humble pie was eaten by the Post as it went on to praise the character and integrity of Robinson saying he was “a Presbyterian clergyman of national reputation….For integrity, ability, and all those qualities of head and heart which adorn the profession, he stands second to few clergymen in the country.” Further, Stuart Robinson had shown his generosity and compassion for the people of Chicago the previous year by giving 1,000.00 to the relief fund for victims of its cataclysmic Great Fire. The Post continued noting that the comment had been added to its “Personal and Impersonal” column from another paper, the name of which is not mentioned. No Post editor had reviewed the piece before its publication. The Post’s confession ends with sorrow, penitence, and a touch of justification for its mistake.

It is the duty of a newspaper to expose and denounce wrong in whatever station or profession it may be found, but no editor can supervise all the items which will creep into his columns. Injustice is thus sometimes done, but the Chicago Evening Post has made it an invariable rule, voluntarily and without condition, as far as possible, to repair the wrong.

In this case, we are sincerely sorry for the publication of this item. We take pleasure in retracting it, and, that no injustice may be done to the party, we hope other papers which copied the items will give the retraction a circulation as extensive as the charge.

What a nightmare for Dr. Robinson. In the nineteenth-century a newspaper often copied the reports of other papers and used them for their own articles. Sometimes the source was cited, but in many cases the source was not mentioned. It was not seen as plagiarism but rather an informal wire service among publishers. If a New York newspaper copied an article from an Atlanta newspaper reporting a theater fire in Decatur that killed twenty people, then it was the accepted practice to reprint it as its own and no one thought anything about it. When an article was borrowed from another newspaper it was hoped the source from which the account was copied had provided accurate information, but obviously, this was not always the case. Thus, not only did the Chicago Evening Post publish a lie about Robinson, but each newspaper that used the article spread the defaming information. One might think of newspapers sharing articles as similar to the Internet when posts are copied and pasted, or linked from one site to another. Just as with the newspapers, the Internet information may or may not be accurate.

As commented above, the Chicago Evening Post did not name the newspaper from which it had obtained the Robinson article. It could be that the unnamed paper was published in St. Louis. The Hartford Herald of Kentucky, five years after the defamatory piece was published in the Post, reported that a judgment for slander had been made against “the old St. Louis Democrat.” The amount awarded Robinson was 30,000.00, which circa 2014 would amount to over a half million dollars according to computation using the history of the index of inflation. This substantial judgment against the Democrat was just one of a number of suits, including the Chicago one, that was filed by Robinson and in each suit he was “vindicated by the courts.” If the judgments for Robinson were all at the level of the Democrat award, then the already wealthy Robinson would have seen his bank account enhanced tremendously.

Stuart Robinson, Title Page, Discourses of Redemption, 1866What is to be learned from the disconcerting experience of Stuart Robinson? Obviously, one living in his day would have recognized that defaming Dr. Robinson could be a financially costly mistake. The Epistle of James reminds Christians that the tongue is a fire that can burn out of control (3:6), it is like the tiller of a ship in that its movement directs the whole person (3:4). A more modern but uninspired analogy is that words are like bullets fired from a gun in that once they go forth, they cannot be taken back, but even though words cannot maim and kill like bullets they can certainly anger, dishearten, or crush the one at the receiving end. It is doubtful that the one who began the lie, Mr. Conover, would have been concerned about his tongue because at the time the Chicago Evening Post investigated his accusation against Stuart Robinson, he was reported to be in prison for perjury. The reason for his perjury conviction is not given and it may or may not have been associated with the Robinson suits.

Stuart Robinson continued his ministry at Second Church, Louisville, until he was released from his call in June due to declining health. He died from stomach cancer, October 5, 1881. Dr. B. M. Palmer led his funeral service two days later. Dr. Robinson had served as moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) in 1877, and spoke in the sessions of the Pan Presbyterian Council in Edinburgh, Scotland. He was honored with the Doctor of Divinity by Centre College, Danville, Kentucky, 1853. He was survived by his wife, Mary Eliza, daughter of William Brigham, M.D., and their two daughters; two sons had died before Dr. Robinson’s death. He was buried in Cave Hill Cemetery in Lousiville.

If interested in reading more about Stuart Robinson see, A Kingdom Not of this World: Stuart Robinson’s Struggle to Distinguish the Sacred from the Secular during the Civil War, Mercer, 2002, by Preston D. Graham, Jr., which provides a fine intellectual biography with particular emphasis on the doctrine of the spirituality of the church. Also, Robinson’s book, The Church of God as an Essential Element of the Gospel, 1858, has been reprinted by the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 2009, and it includes a twenty-five page biography by T. E. Peck who was a friend of Robinson and his successor at Central Presbyterian Church, Baltimore. Robinson also published Discourses on Redemption: As Revealed at Sundry Times and in Divers Manners, Richmond: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1866.

Barry Waugh

Notes–Revision, August 17, 2018, the information about his seminary education was updated because Robinson did not receive his certificate of completion at Princeton, see the seminary biographical catalog of 1909, its index listing for him regarding note “b,” and the preface explanation of “b”. Thank you to Wayne Sparkman of the PCA Historical Center for use of the photograph of Robinson; the other portrait of Robinson as a younger man is from Nevin’s Presbyterian Encyclopedia, but it is not a very good image when compared to the other nice ones in Nevin. The other sources, other than the Princeton Seminary Necrological Report for Robinson, are given in the article. The memorial by J. N. Saunders full information is Memorial Upon the Life of Rev. Stuart Robinson, D.D., Richmond: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1883. The title page is of David Swing’s book on the Chicago Fire of 1871; some information about David Swing can be read in the biography of Francis L. Patton on Presbyterians of the Past.


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