For over a century, Robert’s Rules of Order have prevented countless petty arguments because an-out-of-control church meeting embarrassed a 25-year-old Army lieutenant.
It happened in 1863, when Henry Martyn Robert got elected chairman pro tem of a meeting at the First Baptist Church in New Bedford, Mass. The public meeting was held to discuss harbor defense, but it collapsed into chaos. Robert was so embarrassed he vowed he’d never attend another meeting until he knew something of parliamentary procedures.
Today, Robert’s Rules of Order are used by county commissions, state legislatures, home ownership groups, school groups and yacht clubs. It’s the most widely used manual of parliamentary procedure in the United States. When Saddam Hussein’s government fell in 2003, the Iraqi parliament got a translation of Robert’s Rules of Order as a guide to democratic procedure.
Henry Martyn Robert
Born in Robertville, S.C., on May 2, 1837, Henry Martyn Robert graduated fourth in his class at West Point in 1857. He showed promise as a soldier and excellence as an engineer. After teaching for a bit at West Point he supervised construction of fortifications around Washington, D.C. as the Civil War loomed.
In 1862, the Army assigned him to New Bedford, then thriving as a center of the whaling industry. Robert, a deeply religious Baptist, then joined the First Baptist Church as an active member.
The parish had a history of liberal activism, having baptized an African American parishioner in 1814. When Robert joined, the church’s pastor frequently preached against slavery.
On that day in 1863, Robert didn’t expect to have to run the meeting. But the members elected him chairman on the spot, and he realized he had no idea what to do.
Later, he wrote,
One can scarcely have had much experience in deliberative meetings of Christians without realizing that the best of men, having wills of their own, are liable to attempt to carry out their own views without paying sufficient respect to the rights of their opponents.
He looked through books of parliamentary procedure and found them useless at best, ridiculous at worst.
Then, after a promotion to major, the Army transferred him to San Francisco. He served on the board of trustees of the Baptist church and on the board of the YMCA. In both organizations, pointless squabbling dominated the meetings. He grew more and more convinced of the need for a manual of standard parliamentary procedures.
Robert’s Rules of Order
Robert self-published Robert’s Rules of Order in 1876. He then adapted it for ordinary groups from the procedures of the U.S. House of Representatives. He intended his rules to guide orderly meetings with fairness to all members.
He laid out procedures for keeping minutes, interrupting a speaker, considering a motion and limiting debate. A speaker, for example, may be interrupted if a member feels affronted, or if the room is too noisy or if proper procedure is violated.
But members may not interrupt a speaker to move to adjourn or recess, to amend a motion, to end debate or to introduce new business.
Over the years, the Army transferred Henry Robert around the country. Along the way he received hundreds of letters that suggested refinements to Robert’s Rules of Order. He paid attention, and subsequently revised the manual four times during his lifetime.
In his final assignment before retiring, he chaired the committee that designed the Galveston seawall after the devastating hurricane of 1900.
Henry Robert ended his career as chief engineer of the Army Corps of Engineers with the rank of brigadier general. He died on May 11, 1923.
But he lives on whenever a school board member raises a point of order or a country club trustee moves to adjourn.
You can download a copy of Robert’s Rules of Order here.
The First Baptist Church
First Baptist Church, built in 1829, anchors City Hall Square in downtown New Bedford at 149 William St. The National Trust for Historic Preservation designated it a National Treasure.
In 1847, the City of New Bedford had its seal designed with three towers. The First Baptist Church stands in the center. Whaling ships returning home used the church steeple as a beacon.
Today, the Waterfront Historic Area League is working to restore the old church.
Robert’s Rules of Orders
The Robert’s Rules Association has continued to publish updated editions of Robert’s Rules of Order. It offers a handy cheat sheet for frequent questions. For example,
Can the president vote only to break a tie? (No);
What goes in a complete set of minutes? (They record a meeting’s decisions, not what people say.); and
Can ex-officio members vote? (Yes)
This story was update in 2023.