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Who was Robert and why do his rules rule?

Attorney and professional parliamentarian Jim Slaughter shares a brief history of Robert's Rules of Order.

Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash

As an attorney and professional parliamentarian, I’m sometimes asked, “Who was Robert and why do his rules rule?” It’s a timely question. Henry Martyn Robert, the original author of Robert’ Rule of Order, died 100 years ago on May 11, 1923. Since that time, versions of his parliamentary manual have come to dominate meetings.

While other parliamentary manuals are available, Robert’s Rules of Order is the 800-pound gorilla of the parliamentary world. It is the most popular and easiest-to-locate book on meeting procedure. Most organizations with a parliamentary authority use Robert’s. For instance, the PC(USA) Constitution states that “Meetings (of church councils) shall be conducted in accordance with the most recent edition of Robert’s Rules of Order.” To the public, Robert’s Rules and parliamentary procedure are viewed as one and the same. Given that properly run meetings are more important than ever in these contentious times, let’s take a look at the person who brought us these rules.

Henry Martyn Robert was born in Robertville, South Carolina, to a long line of pastors. His father was an abolitionist Baptist minister and the first president of what is now Morehouse College. Robert graduated from West Point with high honors. He excelled at mathematics and became an assistant professor of practical military engineering. Robert served in the Union Army and eventually rose to Brigadier General in the Army Corps of Engineers. He built the Galveston Seawall and the Robert’s Redoubt fortification on San Juan Island in Washington State.

Robert was active in church and civic organizations wherever he was stationed. In 1863 as a lieutenant in the Union Army, Robert was asked to preside at a meeting in New Bedford, Massachusetts, related to the defense of the city during the Civil War. He did not know how to run a meeting but agreed. Robert “plunged in, trusting in Providence that the assembly would behave itself,” but it did not. Robert later said, “My embarrassment was supreme.” He decided never to attend another meeting until he knew something of parliamentary procedure. When he discovered that existing books did not suit a typical church or civic meeting, he decided to write his own book.

Robert’s Rules of Order was published on February 19, 1876. The book cost 75 cents and was 176 pages. Robert’s stated intent was to create a “very brief pocket manual, so cheap that every member of a church or society could own a copy, and so arranged as to enable one quickly to find when any particular motion could be made.” As the publisher was skeptical about interest in the book, Robert agreed to pay for binding the initial 4,000 copies and the cost of giving 1,000 copies to religious and civic leaders around the country. The book quickly sold out and went through multiple editions.

By the time Robert died in 1923, there were many other competing books on parliamentary procedure. So how did Robert’s rules come to rule? By background, Robert was an engineer. There is an orderliness to his thinking, especially as to his ranking of motions. (If you hear that a motion is “out of order,” it likely means the motion was made at the wrong time.) In addition, the book survived its author. After Robert’s death, family members and later the Robert’s Rules Association updated and published new editions. Since 1970 a new version has been released about every ten years.

The latest edition, Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised (12th Edition), was released in 2020. At 714 pages, the book would hardly be recognizable to Robert. The most recent edition includes procedural aspects such as decisions by telephone, e-mail, fax, audioconference, teleconference, videoconference, and electronic voting and includes a 15-page appendix of “Sample Rules for Electronic Meetings.” As to the types of changes made in each edition, the preface to the 12th Edition notes there are about nine “notable,” 13 “important,” and about 67 “minor” revisions. If you wish to know more, many of the changes are listed at www.jimslaughter.com or covered in my recent books.

Two statements I often hear about parliamentary procedure simply aren’t true. The first is that parliamentary procedure doesn’t matter. From a legal perspective, if an organization is required to follow certain procedures because of language in its bylaws, those procedures should be followed — or changed. Ignoring or incorrectly applying parliamentary procedure can lead to embarrassment, hard feelings, and even lawsuits. But the benefits of a well-run meeting go far beyond legal concerns. Proper procedure can turn long, confrontational meetings into short, painless ones.

A second incorrect statement is that Robert’s is a set of rules for all meetings. Rules aren’t one-size-fits-all. Problems tend to occur when large meetings behave too informally or when small meetings behave too formally. As a result, parliamentary books tend to provide that small board meetings and large membership meetings are conducted differently. Large church meetings must be fairly formal to be fair, but that same formality can hinder business in a smaller body. As a result, Robert’s recommends less formal rules for boards of fewer than 12 or committees, such as not requiring seconds to motions, no limits on debate, and the chair usually can debate and vote on all issues. In addition, an organization can change the rules in Robert’s to fit its own needs by adopting special rules.

One century after the author’s death, Robert’s small rule book has gone far beyond what he could have envisioned. Robert’s Rules of Order and subsequent editions have helped people everywhere meet fairly and to make decisions in an organized manner. Knowing the basics of such rules is essential for church leaders and participants alike. After all, only by following proper procedures can meetings, as all things, be “done decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:40). 


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