It was 1993 and I was in my final year of studies at York. A friend and I were perusing the Christian biographies in a bookshop when he took down a small paperback simply entitled Robert Murray M’Cheyne. He told me I should read it, as this man’s life was special. I stored the information in my mind but passed the book by.
One year later I was back in my home town of Halifax and looking for work. I was struggling in my spiritual life and doubts were creeping in about the Christian faith. Apart from one Christian friend, I had no one to steer me towards Christian literature that could nourish and strengthen me. As a young Christian I found many books shallow or sensational.
I found myself in a second-hand bookshop in Halifax. It was a secular bookshop but with a small section containing Christian books. And there I came across a (then) twenty-year-old copy of the biography of Robert Murray M’Cheyne by Andrew Bonar (Banner of Truth, 1972). It was fifty pence and I bought it.
A life full of Christ
I soon realised it was just what I needed. It was a book about a real person who knew God and lived out that belief in his life – who clung close to Christ and showed me that the Christian life was something very real.
In the world’s eyes such a book would seem dry. But this was what I had longed for ever since I became a Christian – a role model to encourage and guide me, a life full of Christ.
Robert Murray M’Cheyne may or may not be familiar to you. I say this because few Christian young people seem to know much of the Christian heroes of the past – though some may know M’Cheyne’s hymn, When this passing world is done.
The biographer, Andrew Bonar, was probably M’Cheyne’s closest friend and wrote this book within nine months of his death. As a result the publishers are surely right to say, ‘it conveys the fragrance of his life in a way that no later writer could ever recapture’ (p.5).
A love returned
Robert Murray M’Cheyne was born on 21 May 1813 and brought up in a Christian home. But he was eighteen years old before the death of his older brother David was the means of awaking M’Cheyne into a new life in Christ: ‘By that providence the Lord was calling one soul to enjoy the treasures of grace, while he took the other into the possession of glory’ (p.10).
M’Cheyne became active in the church and would go out with the gospel, encountering drunks, the sick and, above all, lost sinners. He had a great heart for the lost and as Bonar relates, ‘All who find Christ for themselves are impelled, by the holy necessity of constraining love, to seek the salvation of others … [M’Cheyne] no sooner knew Christ’s righteousness as his own covering, than he longed to see others clothed in the same spotless robe’ (p.30).
At the age of twenty-three, M’Cheyne became the pastor of St Peter’s (Church of Scotland) in Dundee, where he ministered until his death. During that time many would come to know the Lord.
M’Cheyne also travelled to Palestine, having a missionary yearning for Jews to be won to Christ – and returned to find that revival had come to his own church. On his return, on the Lord’s Day, ‘he found the road to his house crowded with old and young … waiting to welcome him back’ (p.136).
The people’s love for him was clearly a returned love, for he cared deeply for his flock. In those times it was not common for people to approach their pastor with spiritual concerns. M’Cheyne bucked the trend, encouraging anxious souls to come to him freely.
What is special about Bonar’s biography is that it contains many quotes from M’Cheyne’s personal diary and from letters, hymns and poetry based on his spiritual experience. Bonar mined these sources diligently, so that page after page is embedded with precious quotes.
It is these quotations that give us such deep insight into his life – and in turn enrich our own. As the introduction says, ‘Being dead, M’Cheyne yet speaks … So close was M’Cheyne’s life and ministry to eternal realities that even with the passing of years and generations the importance of the lessons he taught abides the same’ (p.5).
Consider a few of M’Cheyne’s words cited in the biography, and particularly how they relate to the Christian life. Regarding the nature of salvation, he said, ‘Clear conviction of sin is the only true origin of dependence on another’s righteousness, and, therefore … of the Christian’s peace of mind and cheerfulness’ (p.29).
He understood that the bad news of man’s condition had first to be understood in the heart before the Good News of Christ could shine its healing rays. In his diary (30 June 1832) he wrote (pp. 24-25),
I will arise and seek my God,
And, bowed down beneath my load,
Lay all my sins before him;
Then he will wash my soul from sin,
And put a new heart me within,
And teach me to adore him.
Walking with God
Concerning his walk with God, he wrote, ‘Pray for me, that I may be made holier and wiser – less like myself and more like my heavenly Master’ (p.16). He was not too high above others to share his difficulties and seek their prayers. He knew he needed to grow in Christ and wrote in his diary, ‘O that heart and understanding may grow together, like brother and sister, leaning on one another’ (p.24).
M’Cheyne was ever aware that life is fleeting. When his cousin died on 18 June 1836, his diary entry reads, ‘Lord, teach me to be always speaking as dying to dying’ (p.56). In another entry he asked himself, ‘Awfully important question – am I redeeming the time?’ (p.25).
He made use of every opportunity. On the blank leaf of a book he sent to a boy in his congregation, he wrote (p.75),
Peace be to thee, gentle boy!
Many years of health and joy!
Love your Bible more than play,
Grow in wisdom every day.
Like the lark on hovering wing,
Early rise, and mount and sing.
Like the dove that found no rest
Till it flew to Noah’s breast,
Rest not in this world of sin,
Till the Saviour take thee in.
His letters offer encouragement as we go about God’s work: ‘Often God does not bless us when we are in the midst of our labours, lest we shall say, “My hand and my eloquence have done it”. He removes us into silence, and then “pours down a blessing so that there is no room to receive it”; so that all that see it cry out, “It is the Lord!”’ (pp. 101-102).
M’Cheyne did not have a strong constitution. He knew what it was to be brought low with illness and trials. Following a short bout of fever he wrote (p.34),
He tenderly binds up the broken in heart,
The soul bowed down he will raise;
For mourning the ointment of joy will impart,
For heaviness, garments of praise.
The Saviour was his first love. He wrote, ‘This day eleven years ago, I lost my loved and loving brother [David] and began to seek a Brother who cannot die’ (p.16). On another occasion he said, ‘This is the faith of assurance – a complete, unhesitating embracing of Christ as my righteousness and my strength and my all’ (p.93).
Regarding the importance of his Saviour, M’Cheyne wrote, ‘One thing I know, that I am in the hands of my Father in heaven, who is all love to me – not for what I am in myself but for the beauty he sees in Immanuel’ (p.107).
A prince in Israel
M’Cheyne eventually succumbed to illness, passing into the presence of his Master on 25 March 1843 when only twenty-nine years old. Bonar tells us, ‘every Christian countenance was darkened with sadness’ and on the day of burial, ‘The streets, and every window, from the house to the grave, were crowded with those who felt that a Prince in Israel had fallen’ (pp. 190-191).
There is so much more that could be said, for page after page of Bonar’s book is filled with choice words of M’Cheyne. But I hope that what has been related will encourage you to read this biography.
Let me conclude with one of the best-known quotes from M’Cheyne – advice he gives to a fellow Christian minister. ‘It is not great talents God blesses so much as great likeness to Jesus. A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God. A word spoken by you when your conscience is clear, and your heart full of God’s Spirit, is worth ten thousand words spoken in unbelief and sin’.
What encouragement! We may not be naturally confident, talented or ‘dynamic’, but if we love our Saviour and seek to be like him, God will use us and bless us.