Tribute: Robert McIlwaine

It seemed imminent. The time of his departure was at hand (2Ti 4:6). We had time to prepare ourselves for the news. But yet, on August 1, 2021, the news created a certain void in so many hearts. Robert McIlwaine (95) was unloosed from the “dock of life in earth’s harbour and sailed off into God’s vast ocean of eternal grace” and infinite blessings, to be with Christ forever.

Saved early in life, the threads of eternal values were woven into the fabric of Robert’s life as he witnessed his parents give all and endure all for the sake of the gospel, serving the Lord in Nova Scotia.

In February 1944, a seventeen-year-old announced to his parents, after praying for days in a hayloft, that he was going to Clementsvale to preach the gospel – a community 100kms away that neither he nor his parents had ever visited. With trepidation and feelings of inadequacy, Robert turned around on the road twice and headed back home, but his mother’s parting words through her tears, “All heaven is at your back,” kept him going. He arrived. He visited. He preached. Souls were saved, and later that year, the Clementsvale assembly was planted.

Robert was 18 when he received a letter from the Government of Canada requiring him to report for service in World War II. He wrote back requesting an exemption because he preached the gospel. He never heard from them again.

Robert and his wife Joan and their young family moved to Prince Edward Island 65 years ago. They laboured together in the work of the Lord. He was 29 when he went to the western part of PEI with the gospel. The severe winter, with storm after storm, did not deter him. Robert travelled by horse and sleigh through the storms to tell the people about Christ, and God worked and saved. Older Christians would often say, “Robert had real grip in his gospel preaching.” In 1959, he and Albert Ramsay saw many more souls saved in the same part of the island, and the blessing continued well into the ‘60s. They had the joy of seeing a testimony established in Rosebank.

Over the decades, Robert would return to western PEI for many more fruitful gospel series, partnering with other servants of the Lord. Multiple gospel series in Canada and the USA, many souls won to Christ, assemblies planted and others strengthened, Christians encouraged and restored – these are all a part of the legacy Robert leaves behind. But there is more.

Robert was one of those multi-talented individuals who could turn his hand to anything – autobody repair and car sales, contractor/builder, etc. But perhaps his best-known side endeavour over the years was that of a seasoned pilot. He flew millionaires, politicians and executives to their destinations. He introduced planes to the sealing industry on the ice floes of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. On behalf of the Canadian Government, he travelled to Bangladesh to provide training in aerial spraying for their rice crops.

The witness of many who interacted with Robert in these diverse venues and occupations was that he faithfully shared the gospel with them wherever he went. He also had the joy of seeing blessing among his contacts, and some added to a local assembly.

In 1977, Christians around the world joined together in praying for Robert’s recovery from a fiery plane crash. His eldest son, David, also a pilot, was saved shortly after the crash. Later, Robert often spoke of the unspeakable pain and the intense thirst he suffered from such burns over his body, and then with tears, he would ask the audience, “What ever will hell be like?”

His personal magnetism and humble, self-effacing ways made him very easy to like. His approach with individuals was not abrasive nor aggressive. Most often, he seemed somewhat shy, quiet and gentle. He never tired of putting himself down. He was unpretentious and was always wary of wannabees and leery of those who sought recognition. He reacted to what he perceived to be highmindedness.

The goosebumps we experienced when we heard his rich tenor voice raise the roof or when his powerful preaching reached a zenith are just memories now. The honour we felt as young people when he and his faithful wife, Joan, would stop and talk to us are now just memories too. He is at home with the Lord.

Many who knew Robert and those of us who had the privilege of working with him would echo the sentiments of another fellow-labourer who wrote, “A hearty preacher who touched and reached our hearts, a man of deep spiritual convictions, a faithful and devoted disciple of Christ, an encourager, an energetic master of many trades, and a ‘many-splendoured’ legend – Robert was all of that, but it’s a special privilege to have known him as a loving friend. To chat, laugh, share tears, hear his stories, talk about the work of the Lord, and discuss God’s Word with him has been a highlight of our lives.”

Robert had many Christian friends, but he also maintained friendships for decades with those he preached to and longed to see saved. His work spanned eight decades – from a burdened teenager with gospel zeal to an elderly gospel statesman sharing Christ with newcomers to Canada, personal care workers in the seniors’ home and hospital nurses the very week he went home to heaven.

As his frailty increased with advanced age, his family made every effort to get him to as many meetings as possible – gospel, ministry, Bible readings and the Lord’s Supper. For many years he and his late wife were in happy fellowship in the Charlottetown assembly. He will be greatly missed.

We borrow the words of the Apostle Paul in Acts 20:24-25 by saying Robert John McIlwaine finished his course with joy, testifying of the gospel of the grace of God.

In non-pandemic days, his funeral service would have filled a large auditorium. Although he took the gospel beyond Atlantic Canada, he was a towering figure at home – deeply loved and highly regarded. John Meekin, Peter Ramsay and Jon Procopio shared in the funeral service, along with David McIlwaine.

Robert was predeceased by his wife Joan in 2008. He leaves behind Anne (Ross), David (Brenda), Marilyn, and Jim (Wendy), and extended family.