The Rev Edwin Robertson: Baptist minister and writer


Edwin Hanton Robertson, minister, writer, chemist and broadcaster: born London 1 February 1912; ordained a Baptist minister 1938; Head of Religious Affairs, British Control Commission in Germany 1947-49; Assistant Head of Religious Broadcasting, BBC 1949-56; Study Secretary, United Bible Societies 1956-62; Executive Director, World Association for Christian Broadcasting 1964-75; minister, Heath Street Baptist Church, Hampstead, London 1983-2001; married 1939 Ida Bates (two sons, three daughters); died London 3 November 2007.

Edwin Robertson was a leading figure in international ecumenical movements, in Anglo-German relations, and in religious broadcasting. A serving Baptist minister over a 70-year period, he also wrote more than 60 books.

Much of his work was devoted to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian hanged by the Nazis just before the end of the Second World War: he published his own volume on Bonhoeffer in 1966, and in 1970 oversaw, as editor, the translation into English of Eberhard Bethge's biography (Dietrich Bonhoeffer: theologian, Christian, contemporary). He also translated and edited three volumes of letters, lectures and notes from Bonhoeffer's collected works, No Rusty Swords (1965), The Way to Freedom (1966) and True Patriotism (1973).

Born in 1912, Edwin Robertson grew up in unprivileged circumstances in east London. His parents were London Scots and his father would "take the boy back to Scotland" every year, as Edwin recalled, lest he get soft. Influenced by his Presbyterian mother's strong religious commitment, Edwin became a Baptist, attending the West Ham Central Mission. He went to school locally and then studied Chemistry and Physics at West Ham Municipal College, then affiliated to London University but now a part of the University of East London (of which he was proud to be made an Honorary Fellow in 2002).

Graduating with a first-class degree, he worked in industry as a chemist in the early 1930s, before going to Oxford to study Theology. There he met Ida Bates, his future wife, then at St Hilda's. He was ordained in 1938, and became minister of Stopsley Baptist Church in Bedfordshire, moving to Dagnall Street Baptist Church, St Albans in 1942.

During the Second World War, Robertson combined part-time ministry with industrial work. In the middle of the Blitz he worked in Silvertown on a way to mass-produce aviation spirit from light Texan crude oil for the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, which powered both the Spitfire fighter and later the Lancaster bomber.

Subsequently involved in advising on economic warfare, he disapproved strongly of the selection of German civilian targets, later producing an important book, Unshakeable Friend: George Bell and the German churches (1995), on the Bishop of Chichester, an outspoken critic of British bombing policy and one of several Christian opponents of Nazism about whom Robertson wrote.

Robertson's strong personal involvement with Germany had its origins in his wartime acquaintance with POWs, especially Lutheran pastors opposed to Nazism, when he was a Baptist minister in St Albans. His contacts and sympathies were extended after the war when he served as a brigadier with the Allied Control Commission in Germany from 1947 to 1949, responsible for religious affairs. He liked to recount how much easier he found it to deal with the Soviets than with our French and American allies.

He came to know many of the leading religious and political personalities in Germany, both East and West, and could often add insight and sometimes spice to published accounts. His description of a frosty encounter with Konrad Adenauer, who had vainly expected a red carpet reception on a visit to London and whom Robertson discovered he had been left with the task of entertaining for the evening, would merit an entr y in a book of Great Sticky Moments in Anglo-German Relations.

Robertson returned to the UK from Germany in 1949 and was appointed Assistant Head of Religious Broadcasting at the BBC, where he had special responsibility for religion on the Third Programme. In 1956 he became Study Secretary of the United Bible Societies, based in Geneva, and then in 1964 was appointed Executive Director of the World Association of Christian Broadcasters, organising the media training of mature students from Africa and Asia for religious broadcasting. He also set up, with representatives of the Evangelical Alliance and the Catholic Church, the Churches' Advisory Council for Local Broadcasting now the Churches' Media Council to build bridges between the Christian community and the media.

He remained spry and mentally agile into his nineties, still caring for his disabled wife Ida, reading voraciously and preaching part-time at Heath Street Baptist Church in Hampstead. A lively, generous and amusing companion, who much enjoyed food and wine, he conversed with knowledge and zest on topics momentous and trivial. He placed cricket in the first category.

On one occasion he claimed provocatively that he had gained more by reading Chemistry and Physics than from his later studies of Theology at Oxford. "A dreary subject," he said. This throwaway remark revealed something of his outlook on life and religion.

What stays in the memory about Edwin Robertson are his rich, distinctive voice, his sharpness of mind, his wide sympathies and the disarming manner that often left one with the feeling that he was being humorous and serious at once, as when we fell into what I later viewed as a bizarre discussion on whether Wycliffe on whom he also wrote a book, John Wycliffe: morning star of the Reformation (1984) had viewed "grace" as a discrete or a continuous variable.

Along with all these qualities was a seemingly impervious courage and optimism. It only worried Edwin that he might arrive in Heaven to find Bach the only composer in residence, and his beloved Mozart marginalised. When I raised this unhappy prospect with him, he replied with a characteristic combination of resignation and mischief, "Yes, you are probably right, but surely there will be some professional musicians there, and they'll want to play Mozart in their breaks."

Colin Berry

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