Harvard Square Library exists solely on the basis of donations. If you have benefitted from any of our materials, and/or if making Unitarian Universalist intellectual heritage materials widely available and free is a value to you, please donate whatever you can–every little bit helps: Donate
Robert Collyer was born December 8, 1823, in Keighley, England. His father, Samuel, was an orphan who had been snatched out of an asylum in the south of England in the days before the Factory Acts, and set to work as a mere lad in a mill in the town of Fewston in Yorkshire; his mother, Harriet, was an orphan child from Norwich, brought north in the same way and set to work in the same mill. Here the two children grew up side by side, and “it came to pass in due time that they fell in love with each other.” On a winter day in January, 1823, when the snow lay so heavy upon the ground that they had to walk a part of the way on the top of the stone walls, the lad and the lassie trudged two miles to the Parish Church and were married. A few days later the newly wedded pair removed to Keighley, where the husband had found work in a machine shop. In the case neither of his father nor of his mother was Robert Collyer able to trace his family line beyond a grandfather, and so, as he put it in his charming autobiography, “we have no family tree to speak of, only this low bush.”
Yet he was “well-born,” as he always insisted. His father was a strong, hard-working, God-fearing man—a blacksmith by trade, of whom it was said throughout the countryside that if there was anything to be done with iron, he was the man to do it. He had little education, but was able to read from the Bible and the Psalm Book. Collyer’s mother could hardly read or write. In the parish church where Collyer was christened, the parish register bears her “mark” in place of her name. But “she was a woman of such faculty,” wrote her son in later years,
That I believe if she had been ordered to take charge of a seventy-gun ship and carry it through a battle, she would have done it. She had in her also wells of poesy, and laughter so shaking that the tears would stream down her face, and a deep abiding tenderness like that of the saints.
Many of Dr. Collyer’s strongest qualities and all of his loveliest ones came from this woman.
The home was a poor one—Samuel Collyer earned only four dollars and a half a week, even when business was at its best. The house was a two-room cottage with a low attic or loft overhead. In front was a stretch of greensward, with a great rosebush in the center. Life was spent pretty much in the open air, where the boy could race and romp over the nearby moors.
During his early years at home Collyer received all the education he ever had—a few months at a dame’s school in the village, a few months more at a master’s school a half-mile away, and a little while with a Master Hardie two miles over the moor, who was remembered as “a good teacher.” This was scanty training but it was enough to open the boy’s heart to that love of books which remained throughout his long life a perpetual source of delight and inspiration. There is a familiar story, which Dr. Collyer always loved to tell, which illustrates perfectly his early predilection for reading. One happy day, “some good soul” had given the little boy “a big George the Third penny,” and he must needs go and spend it forthwith for a stick of candy at the store. There the sticks were, in a beautiful glass jar in the window; but right close to the jar, as he now discovered, was a tiny book, with the fascinating inscription, “The History of Whittington and His Cat, William Walker, Printer. Price, One Penny.” Instantly the choice was made, and it was not the candy for which the big penny was exchanged! “I gave up the candy,” he tells us, “and bought the book…and in that purchase lay the spark of a fire which has not yet gone down to white ashes—the passion which grew with my growth, to read all the books in my early years I could lay my hands on.” The only books in the home were Pilgrim’s Progress, Robinson Crusoe, Goldsmith’s England, and a great Bible illustrated with pictures, and a few others not recorded. Robert’s father was an observing man who appreciated his son’s love of reading, and every now and then he managed to borrow a book or two for the boy; and memorable were the days when in this way the poems of Burns and the plays of Shakespeare first came into his hands. So Collyer read—read by the fading sunlight on the moors; read, as Abraham Lincoln used to read, by the light of the hearth fire on winter nights; read as he walked to his work on winter mornings, and again as he trudged home in the late evenings.
At eight years of age Collyer went to the mills as a child laborer. Here he remained until his fourteenth year. There was nothing else to do, for his father’s small earnings were insufficient to sustain the growing family. The hours of work were from six in the morning until eight in the evening, on Saturday from six to six, with an hour off for dinner. The children were not allowed to sit down at their work, and if they were caught resting themselves for a moment on a stray box or barrel, they were brought to their feet by the whip of the overseer. Collyer tells us:
Each night I was tired beyond all telling and thought the bell would never ring to let us out and home at last and to bed. And it seemed as if I only just got to sleep when it rang again to call me to work.
Collyer was rescued at last from this slavery by the necessity of learning a trade. Both parents were insistent that their eldest son must at least hold the rank of the father as a smith. So on a very memorable day the boy was apprenticed to a blacksmith in the town of Ilkley, six miles across the moors. Here he remained during the next twelve years of his life. He declares that he was never much of an artisan, but he must have been something more than an ordinary worker for when the master died, he became master of the forge, and was soon earning the munificent sum of a pound a week. This was enough to maintain a home, so the day came thus early when he claimed the lassie who had won his loyal heart and, all youthful as he was, made her his wife.
Then came the first great sorrow of Dr. Collyer’s life. In a little over a year, the wife died in childbirth and was laid away in the graveyard upon the hill, with her babe upon her breast. For the first time in Collyer’s experience, beauty vanished from the world and joy from his heart. His hammer rang dull and lifeless on the anvil. Even his beloved books failed to hold his mind. His friends were shut out of his life. “I did not consult with flesh and blood,” he writes in his autobiography. “The secret lay between God and my own soul, and in God I must find help.”
It was this experience which first turned his thoughts seriously to religion. One day, seeking solace in his sorrow, he went to a meeting of his Methodist neighbors and friends in a little chapel on the outskirts of the town, and there was moved to bear testimony “how it was with him.” Before long he became a full-fledged member of the Methodist Church. With this came the epoch-making discovery of his life—that he was one endowed with the gift of speech. Going night after night to the prayer meetings, he became accustomed to standing upon his feet and bearing witness to his spiritual experience. Little by little he found that his neighbors heard him gladly and were moved by his fervent words. Pretty soon nothing would satisfy these people but that he must be a lay preacher, and go out “on the Sunday” to near-by villages and talk to other Methodists as he talked to those at home. Every Sunday, therefore, when the forge was still, the young blacksmith went striding across the moors or over the hills to meet some little group of worshipers and speak to them of the deep things of the spirit. Sometimes he talked in chapels, more often in kitchens or taprooms, once in a while out under the open skies by some crossroads or in the fields. Gradually, under the influence of these experiences, the young man found beauty in the world again, and peace and joy creeping back into his heart.
But he could not settle down. Something had happened which could not be repaired. So in 1849 he made up his mind to emigrate to America. His father and mother had had this idea before him, and no doubt he had heard it discussed in the home; but they had never been able to make the venture, and had given it up before Robert went to Ilkley. On a fair day in mid-April in 1850, he married the noble woman who remained his wife and helpmeet for more than forty years, and on the next day the two sailed from Liverpool in the steerage of the steamer Roscius.
The two voyagers landed in New York and two days later they went to Philadelphia, which had been the original destination in their minds on leaving England. The young blacksmith was so fortunate as to find employment at a forge in Shoemakertown, seven miles out in the country. Here he remained nine years at the work of making claw hammers. This, as he tells us, “was a new craft”; but he was a skilled workman, and before long was able to turn out no less than twelve dozen claw hammers in a single day. Now and then, to be sure, there were hard times. For a few weeks in one summer he tossed hay in the meadows and then he helped to gather the crops. For a full week in this period he worked as a hod carrier for a group of bricklayers. Later, in 1857, at the time of the panic, the anvil was again silent. The husband was now the father of little children and work had to be had at any cost. For a while he dug a well for a neighbor; then he worked upon the turnpike. By hook or crook the little home was kept together and the children fed and clothed.
Soon after his arrival in Pennsylvania, Collyer presented his letter of transfer to the nearest Methodist Church, and was received with open arms. His speech was raw and unfamiliar, the broad Yorkshire dialect was like a foreign language to the Philadelphia brethren, but Collyer soon conquered “the new tongue in some measure.” So he became a preacher here, as he had been in the old country; and every Sunday he was off bright and early to some little hamlet on the circuit in which he lived. He preached his sermon morning and afternoon, and then trudged home again in the evening to his well-earned rest. He was not paid even so much as to make good the wear and tear on his shoe leather, but he had his reward. Everywhere he found friends. Now and then he picked up a book, or discovered a library. Best of all, he had the inestimable joy of pouring out his heart to ears that heard him gladly. These were sunny days but they ended in clouds and storm.
The troubles of the blacksmith-preacher had their origin in the fact that he was unable to preach the doctrines of his church. “I never cared,” he tells us, “for what we call dogma.” He was interested not in theology, but in the moral and spiritual aspects of everyday life. By and by it began to be whispered that the Yorkshireman “did not believe any more in the accepted doctrines.” He had not denied them, but he had not supported them.
These troubles were aggravated by the fact that Collyer was an abolitionist. On one ever-memorable day Collyer had heard Lucretia Mott speak on slavery, “as one who was moved by the Holy Ghost.” Instantly the young man sought her out, and their interview was the beginning of a lifelong friendship. From that time Collyer was an ardent abolitionist, as most of the Methodists of the neighborhood were not. It was because of his association with these reformers that a change came into his life. By Lucretia Mott, Collyer was introduced to Dr. Furness, minister of the First Unitarian Church in Philadelphia, and a leader in the abolitionist group. This man no sooner looked upon Robert Collyer than he loved him, and a friendship was formed which lasted through more than half a century. One Sunday Dr. Furness invited his Methodist comrade to preach for him in his pulpit. Collyer accepted and instantly the storm which had long been brewing broke upon his head. He was summoned to appear for trial before the presiding elder of his district, was asked certain pointed questions which he could not answer, and then voluntarily presented his resignation, which was accepted. He was not deprived of his membership in the church; but his work as a Methodist was over. Where was he to go and what was he to do? It was when the prospect seemed darkest that the way was suddenly open. The Unitarian Church in Chicago, which supported a mission for the poor, wanted a “minister-at-large.” News of this fact came to Dr. Furness in Philadelphia, who recommended the young blacksmith. The call came promptly, was passed on to Collyer, and was instantly accepted. In a few weeks the preacher and his family were in Chicago, a city as strange to them as Peking itself.
This event, in January, 1859, marks the beginning of the great and famous period of Robert Collyer’s career. So notable was his success in his work among the poor, not only as a pastor but also as a preacher, that it was not surprising when the people of the new Unitarian church on the North Side found themselves ready to settle a minister, that they turned instinctively to the eloquent Yorkshireman and invited him to their pulpit. The proposal seemed impossible at first, and it was only by dint of much argument that he could be persuaded to accept. Finally, in fear and trembling of spirit, he gave his consent and his long ministry at Unity Church began. Year after year the fame of the “blacksmith-preacher,” as he now came to be called, spread abroad, and people came from far and near to hear him. In ten years he was the best-known preacher in the Middle West. This made inevitable his entrance upon the Lyceum Platform of that time, and for many years, in conjunction with such men as Henry Ward Beecher, Wendell Phillips, and John B. Gough, he addressed great multitudes in all parts of the country as one of the most popular lecturers of the period.
Two events stand out from among all others in the story of this time. One, of course, is the Civil War. The moment this conflict broke out Collyer was all aflame. Not satisfied with preaching in support of the Union cause, he went to the front in the fall of 1861 in the service of the United States Sanitary Commission, serving first in the Army camps around Washington. He was later sent to Missouri to the army of General Frémont. Winter found him in Chicago at his church, but in February, 1862, he was summoned to the field of Fort Donelson, which brought him his first close-range experience of battle. His work was of a grim character, but he was full of courage and fine vitality. Other experiences, including one at Pittsburg Landing, followed. In the intervals of his service at the front, Collyer was in Chicago, intently engaged at anything to which he could turn his hand. His labor for the care of prisoners at Camp Douglas were constant and untiring for a long period of time. Then during these long months and years there was the preaching which was of such vision and power that many of his sermons were carried in pamphlet form to the remote corners of the Northern States.
The second great event of the Chicago period was the Chicago fire. In 1869, just ten years after his arrival in the city, Collyer completed and dedicated a new church building which was one of the largest and most elaborate in the Middle West. Two years later, on the evening of Sunday, October 8, 1871, as he was leaving this church after the regular service, his eyes caught sight of a glow of light in the dark sky to the Southeast. This was the beginning of the great conflagration which in a few hours devoured the city. Collyer’s glorious new church was laid in ashes the next morning. With this went his home, his library, and everything that he owned in the world. Driven to the outskirts of the city by the racing flames, he found himself at night, homeless, and penniless, with his parishioners scattered to unknown places and the work of a decade, as it seemed, completely wiped out. What wonder that the strong man broke down completely and cried like a child “for the pity of it and the pain.” With the morning light, however, he was himself again. Instantly he placed himself at the service of the city and became one of the leaders in the work of relief. On the Sunday following the fire he summoned his people about him on the ashes of the destroyed church, and there, amid the still-smoking embers, conducted a service and preached a sermon, the news of which went round the world. This scene marked the supreme moment of Collyer’s career. Rising above the ashes of his own life, he lifted with him the city and the nation. The following years were devoted to the work of rehabilitation. A new church, built by the devotion of himself and his people, and the gifts of Unitarians in other parts of the country, was dedicated on December 3, 1873, an occasion marked by the first use of his glorious hymn, “Unto thy temple, Lord, we come.” A series of lecture trips brought money for a new home. The Chicago ministry was again strongly under way.
On September 21, 1874, a call came to him from the Church of the Messiah in New York. This invitation was a complete surprise and was very tempting. On the one hand the burden of the Chicago situation seemed to be weighing him down beyond his strength. On the other hand was the attraction of New York, with its swarming crowds, its wide publicity, and its unparalleled possibilities for influence. The Chicago people, however, would not let him go, and took this occasion to pour out such love and devotion upon their pastor as few men have ever received. Nor could Collyer convince himself that at such a time he should desert his post! So he declined this invitation, but when it was renewed on June 9, 1879, he accepted. He had completed the restoration of the Chicago church and the work there was prospering. But somehow or other the work had never been the same since the great fire—nor had he been the same man! Something had snapped within him, and the old peace and joy were gone. It was not strange that he welcomed new scenes and a fresh opportunity. The call to New York opened the door to the first city in the country, to a beautiful church in an unexcelled location, to a people of tried devotion and fine enthusiasm. On Sunday, September 21, 1879, Robert Collyer preached his last sermon as minister of Unity Church, Chicago. On the following Sunday, September 28, he appeared in the pulpit of the Church of the Messiah. He preached from the text, “I was glad when they said unto me, let us come into the house of the Lord.”
This marked the beginning of another long and prosperous ministry. For years Collyer preached morning and evening to thronging congregations, and was a welcome figure at public dinners, public meetings, colleges and universities. In the early 1890’s, as he approached the Psalmist’s span of years, he began to think of retirement, but his people refused to listen. Not until 1896 could he persuade them to lift the burden of labor and responsibility. Then in that year he was given an associate in the person of Dr. Minot J. Savage, who took over the parish leadership. In 1903, on his own insistence upon retirement, he was made pastor emeritus. Three years later, upon Dr. Savage’s sudden illness, he was summoned back, without warning, to resume the leadership of the church. For a year he carried on with marvelous vigor and courage. At last, in February, 1907, he was relieved, when John Haynes Holmes became minister of the church. The following summer he made his eighth visit to Europe, and was crowned with the degree of Doctor of Literature by Victoria University, Leeds. In 1911 he was given the degree of Doctor of Divinity by the Meadville Theological School. In the eighty-ninth year of his age he died, after a month’s illness, on November 30, 1912. Dr. Collyer was a man of striking appearance. In the full vigor of his manhood he stood tall, with shoulders and arms made of heroic proportions by the long years of labor at the anvil. His literary style both in speaking and writing was unique for its utter Anglo-Saxon purity. To hear or read him was to be carried back to the pages of “Pilgrim’s Progress” or the King James Bible. His understanding of the human heart was as a shining light through all his speech, and his simple love of men was a benediction. As age developed, he became one of the handsomest and most venerable of old men. His great frame, his snow-white hair, his benignant features, his clear voice, tended to make him a person never to be forgotten.
Dr. Collyer’s writings were numerous, and his books enjoyed wide popularity. He published five volumes of sermons: Nature and Life (1867), The Life that Now Is (1871), The Simple Truth (1878), Things New and Old (1893), and Where the Light Dwelleth (1908). He wrote a biography of A. H. Conant, called A Man in Earnest, and in 1906 published a biographical sketch of the famous Father Taylor of Boston. In 1885 he wrote a large volume about his old home in England, called Ilkley, Ancient and Modern. In 1883 appeared his Talks to Young Men, and in 1905 his brief autobiography, Some Memories. In 1911 a volume of selections from his writings was published under the title of Thoughts for Daily Living. Shortly after his death a collection of lectures and poems, called Clear Grit, was published. The Life and Letters of Robert Collyer, by John Haynes Holmes, appeared in 1917, and this biographical sketch has been condensed from that book.