Robert Murray M’Cheyne — a bright light and an enduring influence
From time to time, the Lord has raised up preachers with remarkable gifts, to exercise an uncommon impact in their own generation and afterwards. One such was Robert Murray M’Cheyne.
His case is all the more remarkable given the very short period of his ministry and the fact that the Lord was pleased to take him to himself before he was 30 years of age.
His forbears hailed from Dumfries and Galloway in south west Scotland, although Robert’s father, Adam, who was in the legal profession, became resident in Edinburgh.
Robert, the youngest of Adam’s five children, was born nearly 200 years ago in May 1813. He grew up and was educated in Edinburgh.
The family was church-going and would have engaged in the formalities of religion, including family worship. There were evangelical influences too, but in Robert’s early years nominal Christianity prevailed in the family circle.
It was the early death of Robert’s devout brother David, aged 26, that first impressed upon Robert the need of salvation. It appears that afterwards his parents and other siblings were converted, something not unrelated to his own witness.
Raised in the New Town area of Edinburgh, Robert enjoyed an excellent education in the city. He clearly had a receptive and lively mind. In 1827, at the age of 14, he went up to Edinburgh University for a four year course.
This was a classical education, which involved two years of study in Latin, Greek, mathematics, logic, rhetoric (basically English literature), and moral and natural philosophy; and then followed by a further two years of philosophy.
Robert was a diligent student and, although not a wild soul in the whirl of university life, engaged in the pleasures of society without deep thoughts of the claims of Christ and the gospel.
But this changed after his brother’s passing in 1831, when the old things like dancing and card playing were abandoned, as his life became driven by a new earnestness and concern for spiritual things.
This spiritual change was profound and enduring. Before long, his thoughts turned to the Christian ministry. As Andrew Bonar put it: ‘Now, with altered views — with an eye that could gaze on heaven and hell, and a heart that felt the love of a reconciled God — he sought to become a herald of salvation’.
M’Cheyne’s theological views and spiritual experience were to be moulded particularly by four things — good literature, including Samuel Rutherford’s Letters, David Dickson’s Sum of saving knowledge and Jonathan Edwards’ works; teaching from the university divinity faculty, especially David Welsh (1793-1845) and Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847); the powerful ministry of Alexander Moody Stuart (1809-1898) at St Luke’s; and the encouragement of like-minded students in prayer, fellowship and experiential Christianity.
In his university days, a group of godly young men was raised up by the Lord that was later to adorn the church in Scotland. Besides Robert M’Cheyne, there were the Bonar brothers Horatius and Andrew, Alexander Somerville, George Smeaton and many others.
These were gifted young men of prayer, serious students of the Word, filled with the Holy Spirit and power. To them divinity studies were not just academic exercises. Chalmers got them to work in practical outreach in deprived areas of the Old Town. They also joined societies for the study of Scripture, fellowship and home and foreign missions.
Finishing his divinity course in 1835, Robert was licensed to preach by his presbytery (Annan, in Dumfriesshire). He preached his first sermons the following Lord’s Day at Ruthwell and observed, ‘Found it a more awfully solemn thing than I had imagined to announce Christ authoritatively; yet a glorious privilege’.
Robert became an assistant minister in the Church of Scotland parish of Larbert and Dunipace, near Falkirk. The minister of the congregation was the godly John Bonar, a relative of his friends Andrew and Horatius.
The parish was located in an area of growing industrialisation, with about 6000 inhabitants. It was in the more rural area of this parish at Dunipace that Robert was to minister.
He preached three times each Lord’s Day, held Bible classes and special meetings throughout the week, and undertook considerable pastoral visitation. His sermons were well prepared, direct and meaty, simple and well organised. Robert was not in the ministry to impress his hearers with oratory or luxuriate in the plaudits of sermon tasters.
He was concerned, from the outset, for men’s souls; to put before them clearly the issues of life and death, heaven and hell. What a different place Scotland would be today if such a concern still pervaded its preachers!
After a little over a year as assistant to John Bonar, Robert was called to the congregation of St Peter’s Church of Scotland, in Dundee.
This was a parish of about 4000 people, with varied trades and professions as well as the extremes of poverty and wealth. Here he was ordained and inducted, in November 1836.
Robert generally arose around 6.30am and engaged in private prayer and meditation for two hours. Between 8.30 and 10.00am he had breakfast and family prayers. He was unmarried, but had the help of his unmarried sister, Elizabeth.
His mornings early in the week were spent in sermon preparation and he wrote out the sermons at the end of the week. He preached largely without notes. His concern in preparation was to make appropriate sermon divisions with pointed applications.
Robert was a Christ-centred preacher, whether preaching from the Old Testament or New. He was also diligent in visiting, not only his own flock but all round his parish. He would sometimes visit as many as 20 homes in one day.
The congregation at St Peter’s numbered around 1100. The worship was simple and Bible-centred, and included unaccompanied psalmody. Among young, old and the sick, he laboured tirelessly, not only in his own congregation, but also to many other congregations and areas, through special services and communion seasons.
His preaching was signally blessed, though there was not at that point evidence of revival, as there was to be in 1839.
In March 1839, with Andrew Bonar and two senior ministers of great wisdom and spirituality — Prof. Alexander Black (1789-1864) and Dr Alexander Keith (1791-1880) — Robert went on a mission of enquiry concerning a possible location for Jewish mission work in Europe, North Africa or the Middle East.
The party were away for nearly 8 months. The story of their travels is told in a fascinating volume, still available under the title Mission of discovery (Christian Focus Publications).
From this mission arose the first Jewish mission of a Scottish Presbyterian Church. It was located in Budapest and became closely associated with John ‘Rabbi’ Duncan (1796-1870).
Meantime in Dundee, M’Cheyne’s pulpit was supplied by William Chalmers Burns (1815-1868). Burns’ father was minister at Kilsyth, a place roughly halfway between Glasgow and Stirling.
Revival broke out in Kilsyth in connection with Burns’ father’s communion season, during July 1839, at which his son was assisting. Attendances were estimated at 12,000-15,000.
In early August, William Chalmers Burns then returned to Dundee, where revival powerfully affected St Peter’s as well: ‘Suddenly the power of God seemed to descend, and all were bathed in tears’.
In the ensuing weeks, many came under conviction of sin and were converted. Almost every night of the week, great crowds gathered at St Peter’s. The revival continued after Robert’s return from Palestine, in November 1839.
It was clearly a work of the Spirit, based on clear, evangelistic preaching and diligent follow-up and counselling of the hundreds of enquirers. Many found peace with Christ and believers were strengthened in their faith.
Though his health had hitherto seemed none too secure, probably through a troublesome arrhythmia, Robert’s final and sudden passing was from typhus. He caught this as a result of pastoral visiting during an epidemic in Dundee.
Robert was called to his reward on Saturday 25 March 1843, only weeks before the Church of Scotland ‘Disruption’, from which the Free Church of Scotland was formed. He would undoubtedly have been among those who ‘came out’ of the established church at that time.
His passing was an occasion of widespread sorrow in his family and congregation, and among his colleagues and the Church generally. He was buried in the St Peter’s graveyard, his funeral service being attended by around 6000 people.
What lessons can we learn from M’Cheyne’s life and witness?
First, his desire was for the saving of souls and building up of believers. All his energy was directed to these ends. His work was message- and Christ-centred, and unconcerned about pleasing men or mere oratory.
Second, we are reminded that the work of the ministry involves careful and prayerful preparation for preaching and diligent, regular visitation. One way or another, the light of eternity and the claims of Christ must be brought to bear upon men, women and the young.
Third, preachers like M’Cheyne had a realistic, biblical view of sin and salvation. Since his day, the Church in Scotland and elsewhere has become increasingly detached from a biblical perspective on the depravity of man and necessity for the new birth to enter the kingdom of God. There was a solemnity about M’Cheyne’s work, mixed with a real joy based on his experiential knowledge of Christ and holy living.
Fourth, like so many of his godly contemporaries, he preached as a dying man to dying men, with directness and passion, not fearing the face of man and having been much in the secret place of prayer with the Lord.
He preached Christ crucified, raised, ascended and exalted, and in the knowledge that he and all people must give account before the judgement seat of Christ.
Fifth, there was no compromising the freeness of his gospel offers and invitations. Theologically he was a staunch Calvinist. In one place Prof. John Duncan was to say, ‘Hyper-Calvinism is all house and no door; Arminianism is all door and no house’! M’Cheyne, steering the biblical course, ‘saw no inconsistency in preaching and an electing God … and a salvation free to “whosoever will”’.
Robert Murray M’Cheyne states beautifully the true believer’s prospect and hope in the Lord Jesus Christ, in his composition ‘I am a debtor’:
When this passing world is done,
When has sunk yon glaring sun,
When we stand with Christ in glory,
Looking o’er life’s finished story,
Then, Lord, shall I fully know —
Not till then — how much I owe
When I stand before the throne,
Dressed in beauty not my own,
When I see thee as thou art,
Love thee with unsinning heart,
Then, Lord, shall I fully know —
Not till then — how much I owe.
In his 30th year, Robert passed into the presence of his Lord and Saviour to experience unsinning fellowship with him and all the redeemed of the Lord, awaiting the resurrection of the body on the Last Day.
John W. Keddie
Memoir and remains of R.M. M’Cheyne, Andrew Bonar (various publishers, including Banner of Truth).
Travel with Robert Murray M’Cheyne, Derek Prime (Day One).
Awakening: the life and ministry of Robert Murray M’Cheyne, David Robertson (Christian Focus Publications).