Robert Murray M‘Cheyne (1813-43) was widely regarded as one of the most saintly and able young ministers of his day. Entering Edinburgh University in 1827, he gained prizes in all the classes he attended. In 1831 he commenced his divinity studies under Thomas Chalmers at the Edinburgh Divinity Hall. M‘Cheyne’s early interests were modern languages, poetry, and gymnastics. The death of his older brother David in July 1831 made a deep impression on him spiritually. His reading soon after of Dickson’s Sum of Saving Knowledge brought him into a new relationship of peace and acceptance with God.
In July 1835 M‘Cheyne was licensed by the Presbytery of Annan, and in November became assistant to John Bonar at Larbert and Dunipace. In November 1836 he was ordained to the new charge of St Peter’s, Dundee, a largely industrial parish which did not help his delicate health.
M‘Cheyne’s gifts as a preacher and as a godly man brought him increasing popularity. The Communion seasons at St Peter’s were especially noted for the sense of God’s presence and power.
M‘Cheyne took an active interest in the wider concerns of the Church. In 1837 he became Secretary to the Association for Church Extension in the county of Forfar. This work was dear to M‘Cheyne’s heart. First and foremost he saw himself as an evangelist. He was grieved by the spiritual deadness in many of the parishes in Scotland and considered giving up his charge if the Church would set him apart as an evangelist. Writing to a friend in Ireland he revealed where his loyalties lay in the controversy that was then overtaking the Church: ‘You don’t know what Moderatism is. It is a plant that our Heavenly Father never planted, and I trust it is now to be rooted out.’
Towards the close of 1838 M‘Cheyne was advised to take a lengthy break from his parish work in Dundee because of ill-health. During this time it was suggested to him by Robert S. Candlish that he consider going to Israel to make a personal enquiry on behalf of the Church’s Mission to Israel. Along with Alexander Keith and Andrew Bonar, M‘Cheyne set out for Israel (Palestine). The details of their visit were recorded and subsequently published in the Narrative of a Mission of Enquiry to the Jews from the Church of Scotland, in 1819. This did much to stimulate interest in Jewish Mission, and led to pioneer work among Jews in parts of Europe, most notably Hungary.
M‘Cheyne returned to St Peter’s to find that the work had flourished in his absence under the ministry of William Chalmers Burns. M‘Cheyne exercised a remarkably fruitful ministry in Dundee while in constant demand to minister in other places. Just prior to his death (in a typhus epidemic) he had been preparing his congregation for the coming disruption in the Church of Scotland, which he thought inevitable after the Claim of Right had been refused.[Ian Hamilton in Dictionary of Scottish Church History and Theology. See also Andrew Bonar’s Robert Murray M’Cheyne, and the same author’s influential Memoir and Remains of Robert Murray M’Cheyne, both published by the Trust. There is a short biography of M’Cheyne in Marcus L. Loane’s They Were Pilgrims (Banner of Truth, 2006).]