Robert Philip (1791-1858) was born in the village of Huntly, Aberdeenshire. His father was an elder in the church of the Rev. G. Cowie, who was the founder and first promoter of Independency in the north of Scotland. The principles of this form of church government were, as a natural consequence, early instilled into the mind of Robert, and to these he firmly adhered throughout the whole of his life. He was, by the grace of God, led to an early decision for Christ; so that, although he was deprived of his father’s care at the age of eleven years, the truths that had been impressed on his youthful heart continued to exert the strongest influence over him.
Very shortly after the death of his father, the gifts and powers which characterised his later life began rapidly to develop themselves. In the course of a few years he left his native place for Aberdeen, where he had obtained a situation as clerk in the Grandholm works [a flax mill]. While there, he was admitted into the church of the Rev. Dr Philip, under whose guidance and counsel he was induced to devote himself to the work of the ministry of the gospel, and at the age of nineteen he was admitted a student of the Congregational denomination’s Hoxton Academy in London, in the year 1811.
After four years’ laborious and successful study in that institution, he commenced his ministerial life at Newington Chapel, Liverpool, where he was for eleven years pastor of the church over which the youthful but fervent Thomas Spencer (1791-1811) had previously presided. During his pastorate, much of his time and energies were devoted, and with much success, to the spiritual improvement of the sailors frequenting the port. A small volume of sermons to seamen, which he published at this time, under the title of The Bethel Flag, evinces to a striking degree the remarkable power which he possessed of adapting his style, language and illustration to the capacities, occupations and habits of his audience.
On 1st January 1826, he came to London to take the pastorate of a church which had been formed under his superintendence at Maberly Chapel, Kingsland, and here the remainder of his life was spent. During thirty-one years he carried on his labours here with unremitting vigour and constancy. He was seldom away from his own pulpit, rarely leaving it for any other purpose than to advocate the claims of the London Missionary Society. To this Society he was always strongly attached, and energetically endeavoured to extend its operations, especially in China. The fearful results of the East Indian trade in opium with that country were a source of deep and bitter lamentation to him. He made himself master of all the arguments that could be brought to bear against this pernicious traffic, and published a pamphlet on the subject.
Although while at Maberly he was indefatigable in the discharge of his pastoral duties, his pen was never idle. Among the numerous works which he then produced, a series of small volumes, separately issued under the name of Guides, obtained a very large circulation; another series, similar in plan, but addressed to a different class of readers, and published under the collective title of the Young Man’s Closet Library, was received with equal favour both in this country and in America, where both series were ably edited and prefaced with essays by the Rev. Albert Barnes of Philadelphia. His statements of truth were clear, terse, and vigorous; the arguments and appeals by which they were enforced were conclusive, convincing, and solemn; a spirit of deep earnestness and high-toned piety pervades them all. Many traces may be found in his writings of those peculiar features of his character which all who knew him were well acquainted with; viewed, however, apart from these occasional peculiarities, none can better stand the test of the severest criticism. His biographical works were The Life of Bunyan, The Life and Times of Whitefield, and The Life of Dr Milne of China. He published also a series of lectures, forming a sequel to the Guides, in one volume, under the title of The Eternal; or; the Attributes of Jehovah.
For nearly thirty years he continued sole pastor of Maberly church; but after this period his health, which had for some time been slowly giving way, began rapidly to decline. The relief afforded by a co-pastorate was insufficient to rally him. His strength and natural spirits yielded before the encroachments of premature old age, induced by the severe studies of his life, and the acute sufferings of its last years. About the middle of April, 1858, it became apparent to his beloved family and friends that the termination of his sufferings was near at hand. He was, however, able to get up, and, with some assistance, to reach his study, in which he most delighted to sit, till within fourteen days of his decease.
After taking to his bed, his sufferings became so acute, and the difficulty of breathing under which he laboured so great, that it was almost impossible for him to communicate his thoughts and feelings to those who were around him. Oftentimes his all but inarticulate utterances were intelligible only to her who had been the faithful, devoted, and loving partner of his life for nearly forty years. As his end approached, he gradually sank into a state of unconsciousness; but ere the messenger of death – to him the messenger of life – summoned his spirit to the presence of his Lord and Master, there were given him a few moments of rest from pain, and of perfect consciousness; so that he departed hence in undisturbed peace both of body and of mind, no sigh nor struggle marking the moment when his spirit took its flight to the mansions of his Father’s house. He died early in the morning of the first of May, 1858, in the 67th year of his age.[From the brief ‘Life’ which appears in the Trust’s reprint of The Life and Times of George Whitefield (2007).]