A. T. Robertson
by Rick Shrader
This article appeared in the Baptist Bible Tribune, January, 1999
A.T. Robertson was born on November 6, 1863, at Cherbury, the family home near Chatham, Pittsylvania County, Virginia, where he spent the first twelve years of his life. Though spending a few short years in North Carolina, and the rest of his life in Louisville, Kentucky, Robertson never forgot he was a Virginian. From the son of a gentleman farmer to world-renowned scholar and grammarian, this giant among Baptists always retained his humble and warm enthusiasm for the gospel that came to him in his earliest days. Of his own work he wrote, “Perhaps those who pity the grammarian do not know that he finds joy in his task and is sustained by the conviction that his work is necessary.”1
The Ante-bellum Years
“Archie” (as his mother called him) Robertson could trace the Scottish family name (“Son of Robert”) back a thousand years to Robert of Athol. He was born, however, to John and Ella (Martin) Robertson during the turbulent Civil War years in the American South. The Robertsons managed the fifteen hundred acre farm inherited from Thompson Robertson, A.T.’s grandfather. Part of the inheritance had gone to a surviving sister who, as well, married a grandson of Patrick Henry.
A.T. was born the year the slaves were set free and Appomattax was looming on the horizon. The first twelve years of his life saw rising debts, Reconstruction Days and Hard Times. He wrote, “As I came to notice life about me I found myself in a home of beauty and sadness.”2 He would never forget nor forgo, however, the Southernly manners and deportment of his early upbringing.
Salvation and Baptism
The Robertsons moved to the solidly Presbyterian territory of Statesville, North Carolina in 1875 and bought a small farm that had to be cleared and plowed before it could produce a living. At the same time, a Baptist missionary of the Baptist State Mission Board, Rev. J.B. Boone, held services in the Court House once a month. The Robertsons attended the Presbyterian services for three Sundays and the Baptist services on the fourth Sunday. A Baptist church was soon started with the assistance of A.C. Dixon, pastor at Asheville (who later pastored Spurgeon’s Tabernacle in London). In March of 1876 revival meetings were held by Rev. F.M. Jordan and young Archie received Christ as his Savior. Archie, his brother Eugene and his two sisters were all baptized by Rev. Boone as many of Archie’s playmates mocked the strange sight of total immersion. Boone was to become a Paul to the young Timothy, greatly influencing Archie to consider entering training for the ministry. Under Boone’s tutelage, Archie was already learning Latin and Greek grammar. He was licensed to preach at age sixteen in the Southern Baptist Convention.3
The Student Years
Robertson entered the Southern Baptist college of Wake Forest in 1879, a sixteen year old southern boy with a rare but blessed gift of understanding languages. He excelled in the literary societies as well as in debating. As a freshman he was reading the classics in Latin and Greek. Interestingly, Robertson missed winning the coveted Greek Medal by a single vote in his senior year, a crushing disappointment to him at the time. He later wrote, “It was hard for me to be reconciled to the decision. It’s all right now. I do not need the medal. . . . I have never regretted the work I did for the Greek Medal. Without knowing it I was laying the foundation for my future life work.”4
The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary had reopened in 1865 at the close of the war and moved to Louisville in 1877. Eight years later A.T. entered the seminary and was immediately noticed by its Greek professor, Dr. John Albert Broadus. Robertson soon became his prized pupil as well as his teaching aide and, and by the time he was twenty five, his fellow professor. Later, Robertson would marry Broadus’ daughter, Ella.
The Teaching Years
In 1888, before Dr. Broadus died (1895), he appointed Robertson assistant professor in Greek and homiletics. One fellow classmate recalls the immediate affect A.T. had on the seminary:
I can never forget the day Dr. Broadus discovered young Robertson. This Wake Forest student showed such a grasp of Greek that the great teacher’s thrill and satisfaction were manifest to all. Thereafter, in questioning the class, he would close the discussion with, ‘and now what does Brother Robertson think about it?’ Really, his discovery of Robertson was like one discovering a diamond mind.5
This illustrious career lasted for 46 years and affected the lives of nearly six thousand students. It was not without its difficulties, however. Due to his meticulous study habits, and nine exhaustive years of study as a college and seminary student, Robertson suffered a nervous breakdown during his first year of teaching. He had to resign the small church which he had been pastoring as a student and which had ordained him. With a summer of rest, Robertson resumed his work in the fall and continued for the rest of his life.
Being a professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary also had many benefits, not the least of which was the acquaintance of great preachers of his day. He heard Moody and Torrey from Chicago; Maclaren, G. Campbell Morgan, F.B. Meyer and Spurgeon from across the seas; and would later develop a working relationship with Maclaren and Morgan. When Dr. Broadus died, Robertson wrote his biography, the first in a long list of books which he authored.
Robertson conducted his classroom in an old seminary style, much like our beloved Noel Smith at Baptist Bible College. Gill, throughout his pages gives glimpses of the daily routine:
Students all remember how abruptly he would enter class, comment on the ventilation, castigate janitors in general, pass right on to ‘Let us pray’ . . . . The prayer over, he turned at once to the calling of the roll and to the reading of any excuses that might have been placed on his desk by men who had not prepared their lesson and feared they might be called on. . . . Then calling for books to be closed, he scanned his class roll, while the students waited in suspense to see who the first victim would be. Running his eye down one, two, three pages of his roll book, he at length fixed upon a man who had either not been called on that quarter or had done quite poorly on his recitation.
Having fixed upon his man, he would say with the solemnity of a judge summoning a prisoner to his feet to be sentenced, ‘Mr. Blank, will you recite?’ Brother Blank stood, bracing himself for the worst.
‘Brother Blank, what is the title of the lesson?’
Brother Blank, clearing his throat for time, replies weakly, ‘The lesson is about the healing of the man who was let down through the roof.’
‘Yes, but what is the title of the lesson?’
‘I don’t remember.’
‘Well, did you ever know? That will do.’
Mr. Blank sits down in mortification and with not a little resentment, as Dr. Bob records a mark against the name of Mr. Blank as all the class can see. There is no question in any one’s mind that it is an F—a failure. . . .
Nothing would arouse his indignation more than for an unprepared student to rise, when called upon to recite, and pretend that he had studied the lesson, probably with the hope that by a lucky guess he might ‘get by’ . . . There were few, if any, cases of a student committing this error twice.6
The Whitsitt Controversy
William Heth Whitsitt (1841-1911) was elected professor of church history at the seminary in 1872. In 1895 he succeeded Broadus as its third president.7 He was a product of the seminary and also had studied abroad in Germany. The “Whitsitt Controversy” arose in 1886 when Whitsitt published an article in Johnson’s Universal Cyclopedia affirming that the Baptists as a denomination had emerged from English Separatism in the early 1600s. At this time, many Southern Baptists were divided between this view and that of J.R. Graves who, in an effort to refute a growing Campbell movement, espoused a view that Baptists found their origin in an unbroken succession of churches back to the apostles. The controversy was such that Whitsitt was forced to resign as president of the seminary in 1899.
Robertson took a leading role in defending Whitsitt, along with other young professors such as John R. Sampey.8 Robertson wrote an article in the Western Recorder of Louisville, KY as well as in the Courier-Journal of the same city. This article was widely distributed throughout the South and aligned Robertson, as well as the seminary, with the Whitsitt view. Though Whitsitt had to resign, neither the faculty nor the seminary were obliged to change their view and the Louisville school became one of the major opponents of Landmarkism in the Convention.
Throughout his illustrious teaching career, A.T. Robertson never lost his love of evangelism. Though hindered by a speech impediment from birth,9 he was a commanding speaker who was constantly in demand on both sides of the Atlantic. On one occasion he served as a counselor in a revival meeting held by D.L. Moody. In 1905 Robertson helped organize the Baptist World Alliance, a Bible conference that “would pass no legislation, [but] would allow opportunity for Baptists to grow in fellowship and learn much from each other.”10 The first meeting was held in Philadelphia with such noteable speakers as Alexander Maclaren, J.H. Shakespeare, F.B. Meyer and John Clifford.
Robertson’s part in the Baptist World Alliance made him a sought-after speaker, not unnoticed by Mr. W.R. Moody, director of the Northfield Conferences. From that time on Robertson became a regular speaker at the conferences which were also graced by such eminent speakers as D.L. Moody, G. Campbell Morgan, J. Stuart Holden and R.A. Torrey.
In addition to his regular classroom schedule and his growing popularity as a speaker, Robertson found time to author forty-five books, almost all in the field of New Testament Greek. In addition, he wrote numerous articles for publications such as Hastings Dictionaries and the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Perhaps the most used books are his Word Pictures in the New Testament and Harmony of the Gospels.
His magnum opus and his major life’s work, however, is his Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research, commonly called his “Big Grammar.” When Robertson was twenty-five, John Broadus had proposed that they revise Winer, a standard grammar that, by then, lacked the more recent comparative philology for which Robertson was becoming widely known. Due to Broadus’ failing health, the project became Robertson’s to which he gave himself for the next twenty-six years. The work was finally published in 1914, followed by four editions in the next nine years. The first editions contained 1360 pages which were expanded in later editions to 1500. Dr. James H. Moulton of Cambridge called the Big Grammar “The final on the New Testament.”11
The Last Day of Class
On Monday, September 24, 1934, A.T. Robertson met with his Greek class in the morning and expounded on the hapax legomena of “daily bread” in Matthew 6:11. Uncharacteristically, he dismissed the class early that day to go home and lie down. That afternoon he went home to be with the Lord. George Truett is quoted as saying that if he had a billion dollars he would gladly exchange it for Dr. Robertson’s knowledge of New Testament Greek.12 As much as any man in recent history, A.T. Robertson blessed students, readers and the world with richer knowledge of the New Testament and its language.
Footnotes: 1. A.T. Robertson, A Grammar of the New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (Nashville: Broadman, 1934), x. 2. Everett Gill, A.T. Robertson: A Biography (New York: The MacMillan Co., 1943), 6. 3. J.D. Douglas, Gen. Ed. Twentieth Century Dictionary of Christian Biography (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), 323. 4. Gill, 49. 5. Gill, 62. 6. Gill, 109, 118, 134. 7. H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1987) 446. 8. Gill, 85. 9. Bill J. Leonard, Ed., Dictionary of Baptists in America (Downer’s Grove: IVP, 1994) 238. 10. McBeth, 523. 11. Gill, 176. 12. Gill, 176.