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Robert Annan: A Trophy of Grace

Category Articles
Date June 20, 2008


Robert Annan never founded a church, wrote a book or entered a Christian pulpit. His sphere of influence was not among the learned or cultured, but among the down-and-outs of 19th century Dundee. His mission was to seek out the lost of his native town – living in squalid closes, often drunk and asleep in their dark hovels, their raggedly-clad children playing in the gutters outside – and bring to them the glorious truths of a Saviour able to save the most degraded prodigals and bring them back to God. In God’s kind providence, Dundee had already produced Robert Murray M’Cheyne, the pastor who wept over the city, and Mary Slessor, the young Christian woman who took the love of Christ to Africa. Now it was to produce Robert Annan, a prodigal snatched from the depths of sin largely for the sake of others.

Birth and Early Life

Robert Annan was born in Dundee on 5th October 1834. His minister, John Macpherson, or ‘hell-fire Jock’, was feared for his fiery preaching and strict discipline. As a boy, Robert’s chief pleasure was swimming. He would regularly wake early, run down to the River Tay and plunge into its swirling waters. Sometimes he was known to break the ice before taking his customary dip. Soon he became known as ‘The Water Dog.’

The Prodigal Son

Being without God, and impatient of all restraint, Robert grew up to be very unruly. Refusing a good education and a respectable office job, he became a stone mason under his father (who incidentally built Annan Terrace, now remembered for its link with his son), but wasted his wages on liquor. The taverns of Dundee soon came to know him as the ringleader of a drunken, fighting, swearing mob. Inevitably he landed up in prison, where he resolved in vain to change his ways. On his release he sailed for America, which he reached only after surviving shipwreck. There he plunged into a whirl of sinful pleasure. Once he fell asleep on a railway line, and escaped death by only a few minutes.

Eventually he wandered into Canada, where he found work tending pigs; but seeking a more adventurous life, he joined the army, and was posted to Aldershot in England. The strict discipline there was used by God to restrain his wild nature, but it proved too much for his self-will, and he deserted. Disguised as a peasant, wearing a tattered jacket, a boot on one foot and a shoe on the other, he made his way to London. There he joined the marines for the sake of the bounty money, and was posted to Gibraltar, where to his alarm he found his old regiment. Every time he saw a redcoat, he imagined he would be arrested and flogged for desertion. To banish his dread, he gave himself up, and was punished.

Having learned by experience that ‘the way of transgressors is hard’, he returned home, and decided to turn over a new leaf. In the ‘strength’ of this self-reformation he visited an inn to try and persuade a former drinking companion to give up the habit, but finished up drunk himself. He woke next morning with his resolution shattered and the question haunting him: ‘Am I past redemption? Surely I’ve sold myself to Satan.’

The Prodigal Returns

Dejected and confused, he was led by the invisible hand of God to attend ‘revival meetings’ being held in the Kinnaird Hall (1860-61). Dundee was being awakened, and many souls had already been effectually called by grace to the Saviour. During these meetings, Robert knew that God was speaking to him, but he refused to be drawn. His ‘time of love’ had not yet arrived. One evening, however, a young man bade him ‘Good Night’ and added: ‘We shall meet at the Judgment Seat.’ In turmoil, Robert sought guidance from others, but found God’s door closed. ‘Am I shut out of salvation for ever?’ he cried. At midnight, in great distress of mind, he visited his minister’s manse, but again received no liberty. Then he went straight to Dundee Law, a great hill in the city, in a dreadful state of mind. There he heard the voice of Satan telling him to go to Camperdown Woods and put an end to his life; but he dared not, for fear of falling into hell. Then he felt the urge to go to Reres Hill and seek pardon, but he never went. Utterly disconsolate, he returned to a hayloft near his home, and for thirteen hours lay wrestling with God for the salvation of his soul. This intense and protracted struggle was interrupted only by his anxious parents, who were seeking him. For three days he neither ate nor slept. A pastoral visit from his minister, however, pointed him to Christ our Mercy Seat, and at last he found peace with God. This was the great turning point of his life. Through bitter experience he had tasted the shame and degrading power of sin. Now he was to discover the invincible power of grace.

New Life

After the storm came the calm of joy and peace in believing; but Robert Annan knew that he had been saved to serve God and others. With the same thoroughness that had marked his unregenerate life, he gave himself whole-heartedly to the work of evangelism. He began by distributing gospel tracts in Hilltown. Many never read them, but everyone noticed his changed character and habits. Only two nights after his conversion he spoke at an informal meeting. His voice was harsh, his manner was rough, but no-one doubted his sincerity. Soon his zeal aroused opposition, yet nothing now mattered to him but the salvation of souls. Along with a few other young men he formed an Evangelistic Association, which met weekly for prayer and Bible study. In the day he worked as a stone mason; at night he went street preaching. All his savings were now poured into evangelistic tours. Once, in Fifeshire, where he had been widely known as a drunkard and brawler, folk marvelled when they heard him preach. In 1862 Robert married, and joined the North East Coast Mission, stationed at Stonehaven. Here he was often physically assaulted while preaching, but nothing could deter him.

Two years later he returned to Dundee. Though the whole town felt the effects of his preaching, he was drawn mainly to the down-and-outs, to whom he could relate best. He neither sought nor pastored a settled congregation, but was always busy in the Wynds of Old Dundee, jeered, mocked, and driven from one alley to another. Every Lord’s Day morning he would preach in Fish Street, or Couttie’s Wynd, or Tyndal’s Wynd. In the bitterest weather he never missed an opportunity to preach Jesus Christ and him crucified. On several occasions, through his gentleness, those who intended to harm him became his friends. Once he was called on to stop a drunkard beating his wife. He rescued her, but instead of condemning the husband, he told him of the love of God for sinners.

For the next few years that God gave him, every spare moment was spent in this labour of love; for it he received great strength and remarkable powers of endurance. Rising at four in the morning, he would pray, first alone, then with his wife, before eating breakfast and setting out for work. Instead of resting in the evening, he would take his tea, go on his knees for half an hour, then wind his way through the Wynds with his precious Bible in his hand. Many were the occasions when, exhausted by the day’s work, he would run to Lochee, a few miles away, and conduct a service. Moved with compassion for the lost, he would then spend half the night pleading for them with God. How like his Saviour . . .

Robert also wrote many letters commending Christ to others. One such letter, sent to a man who was trying to plant one foot in the world and the other in Christ, tells the man frankly that ‘men who set their affections on the earth have lean souls. Their Christianity is doubtful. If they are Christians, they will be punished by God for serving other gods. They will be saved so as by fire. They will, like Lot, get a taste of Hell before they enter Heaven. I hear, for example, of “Christians” who have spent six or seven hours dancing, and never spent an hour with God in prayer. I would not give a straw for their chances of Heaven.’

Last Days and Death

On Wednesday 24th July 1867, Robert was standing on a raft floating on the River Tay. Suddenly he felt the presence of God so near that he bowed his head in awe. He understood this experience as an intimation that his own death was near; so he told Christian friends: ‘Don’t wonder if you hear some strange thing about me one of these days!’

Over the years, Robert had saved eleven people from drowning in the Tay, including his brother Ebenezer and a poor prostitute who was contemplating suicide. In recognition of these heroic exploits, Dundee Humane Society had presented him with a silver medal and a parchment.

Lord’s Day morning, 28th July, found him at his usual preaching stance in Couttie’s Wynd. He began the unofficial service by singing: Forever with the Lord! Amen, so let it be! During the sermon he referred to his experience on the raft. He told his hearers what a great salvation they missed by living without Christ, and reminded them of the uncertainty of life. ‘In fact,’ he added, ‘I may never have another opportunity of preaching to you. Before next Sunday I may be in heaven.’

After this he went to the church service, then to a Gypsy camp in the afternoon. Early in the evening he preached again at Lilybank and Couttie’s Wynd, before returning to the Gypsies to sing and preach again. On Wednesday 31st July, he rose early for prayer, ate breakfast, and then did something very unusual. He hung two boards outside his house, reminding passers-by of two roads through this life – one a broad road leading to hell, the other a narrow road leading to heaven. He concluded with the solemn question: ‘Where will you spend Eternity?’ He then took a piece of chalk and wrote on his gate the word DEATH, and on the pavement ETERNITY

About mid-day a boy of eleven fell into the Tay. Hearing his cries for help, Robert dived in to save him. He reached the boy, told him to hold onto his neck, then set out for the shore. But the current proved too strong for him, strong swimmer though he was. Two boats pulled out to help, but as they grabbed the boy, Robert disappeared under water.

His death was seen as a public calamity. Thousands wept as if they had lost a brother. Groups stood at street corners bemoaning the event, and even strong men turned away their faces to hide their tears. Said one of them: ‘I question if ever there was so much weeping for one man in this town.’ The mood was as if someone had died in each household.

On Saturday 3rd August 1867, Robert’s body was laid to rest in the East Necropolis. The great bell of the Old Steeple tolled solemnly, an honour never before accorded to a labouring man. A short service was held in the ‘but and ben’ in Arran Place, off Wellington Street, where the 90th Psalm was read, along with a hymn Robert had already chosen for his funeral:

Come sing to me of Heaven,
When I’m about to die.
Sing songs of holy ecstasy
To waft my soul on high.

The minister then prayed, standing on the ETERNITY stone. Thousands lined the route to the grave, and six hundred men marched behind the hearse. At the graveside, a thousand voices broke into the hymn:

My Jesus, I love Thee, I know Thou art mine;
For Thee all the pleasures of sin I resign.
My gracious Redeemer, my Saviour art Thou.
If ever I loved Thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.

The following Lord’s Day a Memorial Service was to have been held in Hilltown Chapel, but as nearly three thousand people attended, the congregation moved to a nearby field. During the sermon, the minister said of Robert: ‘He died as he had lived – helping others.’

Peace and Truth is the magazine of the Sovereign Grace Union and is edited by John Brentnall. This article is reproduced from the 2008:1 edition by kind permission.

Robert Annan’s story can also be found in the young people’s book God Made Them Great by John Tallach, published by the Trust.1

    • God Made Them Great
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      Introduction Robert Annan never founded a church, wrote a book or entered a Christian pulpit. His sphere of influence was not among the learned or cultured, but among the down-and-outs of 19th century Dundee. His mission was to seek out the lost of his native town – living in squalid closes, often drunk and asleep […]

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