Many Christians have heard of Robert Murray McCheyne (1813-43). His reputation endures as a holy and prayerful man who was greatly used by God before his early death.
McCheyne’s Dundee examines the final years of his life when he ministered at St Peter’s Church, Dundee. It addresses the question, ‘How could such a short period of service have such a powerful impact?’
McLennan paints a vivid picture of 19th century Dundee: a poverty-stricken mill town, suffering from poor public health and inadequate housing for its fast-growing population. In this environment McCheyne spent many hours visiting his parishioners — especially the sick and dying — to speak to them about their souls. Such visitation precipitated his own death from typhus.
An examination of his preaching highlights the urgency in his pleading with the many ignorant and unbelieving members of his congregation. After revival came to the town, he gave increasingly blunt warnings to those who remained unsaved. He also used communion seasons as an opportunity to speak to would-be communicants about their spiritual state. He was ready to turn them down if he was not satisfied that they were truly converted, but a number went on to profess faith as a result of his gentle dealings with them.
The section on McCheyne’s love for children is particularly touching. It describes how he wrote tracts specifically for the young, visited them at home and often preached directly to them within his sermons. Evidence is presented to show the affection with which many children responded; McCheyne always rejoiced when he saw evidence of their simple faith.
McLennan relates the events of the revival from McCheyne’s point of view. Abroad when it began, he returned to a dramatically different situation, with large church buildings packed out daily, unmanageable demands for spiritual counselling and numerous prayer meetings springing up across the town. But rather than feeling jealous that another man’s labours were blessed during his absence, he praised God for showing saving grace to so many people. Quotations from some of the converts’ private letters — written decades later — show that their new-found faith was lasting.
Underlying all of the above was McCheyne’s serious devotional life. His personal notebooks reveal how he prioritised prayer for his own holiness and for God’s blessing on his ministry.
This publication’s greatest strength is that, as well as making use of previous biographies, it draws on many primary sources like journals, letters, testimonies, sermons and minutes from presbytery meetings. That said, its approach is thematic rather than chronological, which can make for slightly jerky reading when it jumps from topic to topic.
The reader will benefit from having first read one of the classic McCheyne biographies by Andrew Bonar or Alexander Smellie. But McCheyne’s Dundee is recommended reading for those who want a more in-depth study of the distinctive methods and emphases of his remarkable ministry.