John Mackinnon Robertson was born on the Scottish island of Arran on 14 November 1856 and died in London on 5 January 1933. Robertson’s education ended at the age of thirteen, at which point he became a railroad telegraph clerk, and later a clerk at an insurance office. Thanks to his writing talents, he joined the staff of the Edinburgh Evening News, rising to the position of assistant editor. In 1878, after hearing a lecture by the freethinker Charles Bradlaugh, he joined the Edinburgh Secular Society, eventually moving to London to work with Bradlaugh on his journal, the National Reformer. Upon Bradlaugh’s death in 1891, Robertson became the editor, and when the journal ceased publication soon after, he became editor of the Reformer (1893-1904). In 1906 Robertson was elected to Parliament as a Liberal, becoming a member of the Privy Council in 1915 (after which time he was formally known as ‘The Right Honourable’). After losing his seat in 1918, Robertson devoted the rest of his long life to his publications on freethought. His definition of the term was a generous one, encompassing all manner of liberal opinions regarding religion. In 1899 he had published A Short History of Freethought, which he was to expand into the two-volume History of Freethought in the Nineteenth Century and the History of Freethought, Ancient and Modern (also two volumes), the two monumental works for which he is best known. He was the author of over one hundred books, although the exact number is impossible to calculate, as he frequently used pseudonyms, especially for his more controversial works.
One of the controversies for which Robertson became best known was his advocacy of the view that there had never been an historical Jesus, and that the Christ story was entirely mythological. But his assertion that the Christ legend was based upon a lost morality play dealing with human sacrifice was not supported by convincing evidence.
Although initially referring to himself as an atheist, Robertson eventually accepted T. H. Huxley’s appellation of ‘agnostic’. He was an Honorary Associate of the Rationalist Press Association from 1899 until his death in 1933. In addition to his work in freethought, Robertson was noted for his literary criticism, especially his work on Walt Whitman.
Biography from The Thoemmes Continuum Encyclopedia.
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