CUMMING, Ga. — He ran away from home in Georgia at age 15, heading to Virginia to join the Confederate army. At the time, he could neither read nor write and had few marketable life skills. Before his return to Georgia, he would sail around the world several times and meet an unlikely teacher who taught him reading, writing and arithmetic. Then, after returning to Georgia, he would become a farmer, marry and start a family, and once again return to sea, before becoming a Baptist preacher and evangelist.
The adventures of John William Hill Robertson read more like a novel than a biography. Yet his life illustrates the vast diversity of men who filled pulpits across the rural South a century ago.
Historical records, including aging newspaper accounts, paint a picture of a daring adventurer who ended up being one of the great preachers of the late 1800s and early 1900s, serving in a number of churches including First Baptist Church in Woodstock, First Baptist Church in Cumming and Flat Creek Baptist Church in Gainesville.
Robertson was one of the younger children born to the large family of Joshua and Mallisa “Roberson” in North Carolina in 1847. The family relocated to Forsyth County, Georgia when he was a small boy. Throughout his life, family and friends called him “Hill.”
His father was a farmer. According to census records, Hill, like his parents before him, never attended school or learned the basics of reading, writing or arithmetic. Also, based on census records, it seems that his father had died by the time Hill was 14, thrusting his family into poverty.
In 1861, at age 15, Hill and two friends ran away to Virginia to join the Confederate Army. It was early in the war, and he was turned down for being too young. Instead of returning to family in Georgia, he took a job as a teamster for the next 10 months.
During those months, records show, he would have spent time around the docks and wharves of Washington and Baltimore. It may be that along the waterfront the influence of the people he met and stories he heard, he decided on his next life’s adventure. He went to sea, and became a whaler, sailing on ships out of New Bedford, Mass. and New York.
After at least one cruise as a deckhand, he became a harpooner in a whaleboat. These were small vessels with a crew of three to five men. Typically, each whaling ship had three to five of the smaller boats used to hunt whales. According to the Whaling Museum in New Bedford, after being harpooned, a whale would often try to flee, dragging the boats through the water at speeds up to 25 miles an hour. It was dangerous work. Some whales dove deep trying to drag the boats under. Sometimes the whales succeeded. One of Robertson’s shipmates was killed on his first voyage and his reference to it indicates it made an impact on his views of life and death. For his work as a harpooner, he was paid 1/200th profit on the sale of the oil the ship processed.
Unlike Forsyth County, the whaling community out of New Bedford was racially diverse and international in composition. This included a large African American population who worked in the whaling industry, one of whom was a future politician named Steven Douglas. It was an African American bookkeeper who became the unlikely one to teach an illiterate Georgia boy reading, writing and arithmetic. Probably below deck in the evenings, by the light of an oil lamp, Hill learned skills he would need as a preacher.
Through the years, he rose through the ranks eventually becoming a ship’s third in command. In this position, he was in command of the ship during certain “watches” of the day. There his pastoral leadership skills were honed and developed. As an officer, he had a private cabin, oversaw one of the whaleboats and earned 1/75th share of the ship’s profits.
He spent 13 years at sea on several ships before returning to Georgia. Historical records show his travels took him around stormy Cape Horn into the South Pacific to New Zealand, Australia and beyond. Information about his spiritual development at this point is lacking. He left home at about the age when most Baptist boys of that era typically surrendered their lives to Christ. Undoubtedly, his spiritual development was shaped by his experiences at sea. It was shaped by the terrors of storms or while pondering the mysteries of the universe while navigating by the light of the stars. Seeing men that he worked with and befriended die at sea many miles from their families and home must have quickened his sense of eternity.
It’s impossible to know if he found all that he was looking for when he ran away from home in 1861. What is known is that somewhere along the way, if he did not find God, God found him.
After many years away, he returned to Forsyth County sometime around 1879. He took up farming, married Martha F. Bottoms, and they began a family which would eventually include eight children. It was during difficult economic times that he explained to his wife that if he went back to sea for one year, he could earn enough to pay off their debts. He returned to the sea and made good on his promise. He earned over $1,000, paying off the debt.
After his return, Robertson was licensed to preach in 1885 and ordained to the ministry in 1887. He pastored small rural Baptist churches in north Georgia, primarily in Forsyth, Dawson, Cherokee, and Hall Counties while continuing to farm. He gave up whaling to follow Jesus and become “a fisher of men."
It must have been something to hear him preach on Jesus calming the storm. The personal insight from seeing many storms at sea, including the storms that men often had raging inside of them. Jonah and the big fish, what a whale of a tale that might have been, or Psalms 107:22-32: “Those who go down to the sea in ships, who do business on great waters; They have seen His wonders in the deep . . . They shall also exalt Him in the congregation of the people and praise Hin at the seat of the elders.”
What sermons he must have preached, and the illustrations he must have told.
In his latter life, he and Martha moved to Dodge County, Ga. to live near several of their children who had purchased farms in the area. There he farmed, worked as an evangelist and pastor, and was active in the local Baptist association. After long a fruitful life, he died in 1922 and she followed a few months later. They are buried in Rentz, Georgia.
Robertson is only one of the thousands who shared a common call to fill the pulpits across the South. Today, God is still calling those to serve Him from many different walks of life. In the 19th and early 20th centuries this included farmers, teachers, veterans, doctors, lawyers and about every profession in between. Each had life experience that God used to prepare them to serve. This included at least one who spent 14 years at sea hunting whales in preparation to become a fisher of men.