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Robert Murray M’Cheyne

Category Articles
Date November 12, 2001



Two men were working beside a fire in a quarry, one day in winter, when a stranger approached them on horseback. Alighting from his horse he began to enter into conversation on the state of their souls and drew some alarming truths from the blazing fire. The men were surprised, and exclaimed ‘Ye’re nae common man.’ ‘Oh yes,’ he replied, ‘just a common man.’ One cannot meet Robert Murray M’Cheyne either in his biography (so powerfully written by Andrew Bonar) or in his sermons, without receiving the impression which these men received in their personal encounter with him so long ago. His brief ministry of seven-and-a-half years ‘stamped an indelible impress on Scotland,’ and though he died in his twenty-ninth year, more was wrought by him that will last for eternity than most accomplish in a lifetime. If we could summon but one life from the past, the lessons of which would apply most directly to this slothful and careless generation, perhaps it would be the life of Robert M’Cheyne. After his death, a fellow minister wrote, “Indolence and levity and unfaithfulness are sins that beset me ; and his living presence was a rebuke to all these, for I never knew one so instant in season and out of season, so impressed with the invisible realities, and so faithful in reproving sin and witnessing for Christ.”

Robert M’Cheyne was born in Edinburgh in May, 1813, the youngest child in a family of five. His father was a prosperous lawyer and a man of social importance. Their spacious home, with its gardens, commanded a glorious view across to the shores of Fife. Here in Edinburgh M’Cheyne spent his childhood and youth. After passing successfully though the High School, he entered the Arts Faculty of the University in autumn 1827. “He was of a lively turn” – his father later recorded – “and, during the first two or three years of his attendance at the University, he turned his attention to elocution and poetry and the pleasures of society …” M’Cheyne became at this time an eager participant in the city’s fashionable entertainments, and scenes of gaiety – card plating, dancing, music – occupied his leisure hours. But he was the subject of his elder brother’s fervent prayers, and the early death of this brother in 1831 was a stroke which was used to awaken Robert from the sleep of nature. It was “the first overwhelming blow to my worldliness.” He began to be serious, and to sit under an evangelical ministry. Soon we read entries like this in his diary:, “March 10, 1832. I hope never to play cards again.” “March 25. Never visit on a Sunday evening again.” “April 10. Absented myself from the dance …” Having himself once followed such fading pleasures, M’Cheyne was often in later years to declare in his preaching – “O Christless man, you have pleasure, but it is only for a season. Laugh on if you will – your candle will soon be out. Your games, your dance, your social parties, will soon be over. There are no games in hell.”

In the winter of 1831, following his desire to enter the ministry, he entered the Divinity Hall of the University. Under the leadership of men like Chalmers and Welsh there was a new stir of spiritual life in the College at this time, indeed it proved to be a new stir in the life of the Church of Scotland. We can trace from his diary in the following years a growing grasp of Scriptural truth, a growing desire to live in communion with God and under the power of the world to come. Entries like this speak for themselves:, “June 22. Bought Edwards’ works. Truly there was nothing in me that should have induced Him to choose me. I was but as the other brands upon whom the fire is already kindled, which shall burn for evermore!” “August 15. Awfully important question, Am I redeeming the time ?” “February 23. Sabbath. Rose early to seek God, and found Him whom my soul loveth. Who would not rise early to meet such company ?”

Reading the biographies of past ministers had a profound influence on M’Cheyne at this time, especially such lives as Jonathan Edwards, Brainerd, Martyn, Payson, and Halyburton. In fact he became so familiar with the works of the first named, that Edwards’ ‘Resolutions’ became exemplified in M’Cheyne – “Resolved never to lose one moment of time, but to improve it in the most profitable way I possibly can. Resolved, That I will live so, as I shall wish I had done when I had come to die. Resolved, To live with all my might, while I do live ..” From a letter M’Cheyne later wrote to a student, we can see what rules he applied to himself – “Do get on with your studies. Remember you are now forming the character of your future ministry, if God spare you. If you acquire slovenly or sleepy habits of study now, you will never get the better of it. Do everything in earnest. Above all, keep much in the presence of God. Never see the face of man till you have seen His face who is our life, our all.” The last entry of his student days is “March 29, 1835. College finished on Friday last. My last appearance there. Life is vanishing fast, make haste for eternity.” So ended his preparatory discipline, both of heart and mind. “His soul,” writes Bonar, “was prepared for the awful work of ministry by much prayer, and much study of the word of God ; by inward trials ; by experience of the depth of corruption in his own heart, and by discoveries of the Saviour’s fulness of grace.”

M’Cheyne was licensed by the presbytery of Annan on July 1st, 1835 and became “a preacher of the Gospel an honour to which I cannot name an equal.” After a further period, largely of preparation for the future, as assistant to Mr. John Bonar the minister of Larbert and Dunipace, he was ordained minister of St. Peter’s, Dundee, I November, 1836. It was a new church built in a sadly neglected district containing some 4,000 souls. “A city given to idolatry and hardness of heart,” was his first impression. “A very dead region,” is Bonar’s description, “the surrounding mass of impenetrable heathenism cast its influence even on those few who were living Christians.” “He has set me down among the noisy mechanics and political wavers of this godless town,” M’Cheyne wrote. There was nothing in his message to please such a people ; “If the Gospel pleased carnal men it would not be the Gospel,” he declared.

He was deeply persuaded that the Spirit’s first work in salvation is to convict of sin, and to bring men to despair of their condition by nature, it was therefore on this note that his ministry commenced and continued – “Men must be brought down by law work to see their guilt and misery, or all our preaching is beating the air. A broken heart alone can receive a crucified Christ. The most, I fear, in all congregations, are sailing easily down the stream into an undone eternity, unconverted and unawakened.” Urgency and alarm characterised his message. “God help me to speak to you plainly! The longest lifetime is short enough. It is all that is given you to be converted in. In a very little, it will be all over ; and all that is here is changing – the very hills are crumbling down – the loveliest face is withering away – the finest garments rot and decay. Every day that passes is bringing you nearer to the judgment-seat. Not one of you is standing still. You may sleep ; but the tide is going on bringing you nearer death, judgment, and eternity.

M’Cheyne was enabled to walk in a continual awareness of these truths – “I think I can say, I have never risen a morning without thinking how I could bring more souls to Christ.” In his diary we find records like this:, “As I was walking in the fields, the thought came over me with almost overwhelming power, that every one of my flock must soon be in heaven or hell.”

But there is another feature of M’Cheyne’s life which is perhaps even more prominent than his constant longings for the salvation of souls. “Above all things, cultivate your own spirit,” he wrote to a fellow-minister. “Your own soul is your first and greatest care. Seek advance of personal holiness. 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.” “Get your texts from God – your thoughts, your words, from God.” From his diary we gather his own private observations:, “I ought to spend the best hours of the day in communion with God. It is my noblest and most fruitful employment … The morning hours, from six to eight, are the most uninterrupted … After tea is my best hour, and that should be solemnly dedicated to God, if possible.” Bonar writes, “the real secret of his soul’s prosperity lay in daily enlargement of his heart in fellowship with his God. Meditation and prayer were the very sinews of his work.” Even when pressed by duties, “he kept by his rule, ‘that he must first see the face of God before he could undertake any duty.'” It was M’Cheyne’s constant aim to avoid any hurry which prevents “the calm working of the Spirit on the heart. The dew comes down when all nature is at rest – when every leaf is still. A calm hour with God is worth a whole lifetime with man …”

M’Cheyne was ever concerned to deepen his ministry by continual study. “Few”, says Bonar ; have maintained such an “undecaying esteem for the advantages of study.” Though always conscious that souls were perishing every day, he never fell into the error of thinking that a minister’s main work consists of outward activity. “The great fault I find with this generation is, they cry that ministers should be more in public ; they think that it is an easy thing to interpret the word of God, and to preach. But a minister’s duty is not so much public as private.” Two thick notebooks show that he was constantly storing his mind by reading the Puritans, and Reformers. This emphasis on personal growth he never lost. “Oh,” he declared to a friend, “we preachers need to know God in another way than heretofore, in order to speak aright of sin and of salvation. The work of God would flourish by us, if it flourished more richly in us.”

“The want of ministerial success,” says Robinson, “is a tremendous circumstance, never to be contemplated without horror.” Never to rest without success was M’Cheyne’s unvarying aim ; though from his earliest days at St. Peter’s his preaching was attended with saving power, and produced deep convictions and distress in the hearts of many, he an his people ever prayed for further manifestations of God’s glory. But towards the end of 1838 the course of his ministry was interrupted by symptoms which alarmed his friends. He was attacked by violent palpitation of heart
– the effect of unremitting labour. It soon increased, so that his medical advisers insisted on a total cessation of work. Accordingly M’Cheyne with deep regret returned to his parents home in Edinburgh, to rest until he could resume his ministry. This separation from his people occasioned some of his richest letters. “Ah!” he writes, “there is nothing like a calm look into the eternal world to teach us the emptiness of human praise, the sinfulness of self-seeking, the preciousness of Christ.” From the ten lengthy Pastoral Letters which he sent to his flock, we can quote but a paragraph of one :-

“Consider what fruit there is of believing in you. Have you really and fully uptaken Christ as the Gospel lays Him down ? – John 5:12. Do you cleave to Him as a sinner ? – 1 Timothy 1:15. Do you feel the glory of His person ? – Revelation 1:17 ; His finished work ? – Hebrews 9:26 ; His offices ? – 1 Corinthians 1:30. Does He shine like the sun into your soul ?
– Malachi 4:2. Is your heart ravished with His beauty ? – Song of Solomon 5:16. Again, what fruit is there in you of crying after holiness ? Is this the one thing that you do ? – Philippians 3:13. Do you spend your life in cries for deliverance from this body of sin and death ? – Romans 7:24. Ah! I fear there is little of this. I fear you do not know “the exceeding greatness of His power” to usward who believe. I fear many of you are strangers to the visits of the Comforter.”

Prolonged illness prevented M’Cheyne’s speedy restoration to his people, and in the spring of 1839 it was proposed in Edinburgh that he should accompany a party of ministers who were to visit Palestine to make personal enquiries into the state of Israel. The voyage and climate it was thought would prove beneficial to him. His acceptance, and their subsequent travels to Jerusalem and Galilee we cannot pause to describe. Even when far from them, the spiritual prosperity of his people in Dundee was uppermost in his heart. After surveying the barren spot in Galilee where Capernaum once stood, he wrote to them, “If you tread the glorious Gospel of the grace of God under your feet, your souls will perish ; and I fear Dundee will one day be a howling wilderness like Capernaum.” “Ah! would my flock from thee might learn, How days of grace will flee ; How all an offered Christ who spurn, shall mourn at last, like thee.”

Not long after the party had begun to return homewards through Asia Minor, M’Cheyne was taken dangerously ill. Towards the end of July, 1839 as he lay apparently dying near Smyrna, he believed it was not to his native Scotland but to his eternal home that he was going. “My most earnest prayer was for my dear flock.” “The cry of his servant in Asia was not forgotten,” writes Bonar ; “the eye of the Lord turned toward his people. Their pastor was at the gate of death, in utter helplessness. But the Lord had done this on very purpose ; for He meant to show that He needed not the help of any.” W. C. Burns – a young man of twenty-four – was supplying M’Cheyne’s place at Dundee in his absence. It was under his preaching on 23rd of July that the great Revival at Kilsyth took place. “All Scotland heard the glad news that the sky was no longer brass. The Spirit in mighty power began to work from that day forward in many places of the land.” As soon as Burns resumed his ministry in Dundee early in August, the same effects occurred. The truth pierced hearts in an overwhelming manner – “tears were streaming from the eyes of many, and some fell on the ground groaning, and weeping, and crying for mercy.” Services were held every night for many weeks – often lasting till late hours. The whole town was moved. The fear of God fell upon the ungodly. Anxious multitudes filled the churches.

When M’Cheyne, restored to health, returned to St. Peter’s in November of that year, he viewed an unforgettable scene. A deep concern and impression of eternal realities possessed the vast congregation. In worship ” the people felt that they were praising a present God.” Such a sight as this was not uncommon throughout the remainder of his ministry. The grief at sin which filled the hearts of many could only be expressed by tears ; the distress expressed by one awakened sinner to M’Cheyne represented the feeling of scores – “I think,” he said, “hell would be some relief from an angry God.” Such was the anxiety which now prevailed to hear the Gospel that even when M’Cheyne was preaching in the open air in the meadows at Dundee, and heavy rain began to fall, the dense crowd stood till the last. The Word was listened to on these occasions with “an awful and breathless stillness.”

It was M’Cheyne’s custom never to accept mere professions of faith as signs of conversion. “It is holy-making Gospel,” he declared. “Without holy fruit all evidences are vain. Dear friends, you have awakenings, enlightenings, experiences, a full heart in prayer, and many due signs ; but if you want holiness, you will never see the Lord. A real desire after complete holiness is the truest mark of being born again. Jesus is a holy Saviour. He first covers the soul with His white raiment, then makes the soul glorious within – restores the lost image of God, and fills the soul with pure, heavenly holiness. Unregenerate men among you cannot bear this.”

As his ministry drew towards its solemn close, he became increasingly conscious of the brevity of time. “I do not expect to live long … Changes are coming ; every eye before me shall soon be dim in death. Another pastor shall feed this flock ; another singer lead the psalm ; another flock shall fill this fold … There is no believing, no repenting, no conversion in the grave – no minister will speak to you there. This is the time of conversion. Oh! My friends, you will have no ordinances in hell – there will be no preaching in hell … Oh that you would use this little time! Every moment of it is worth a world.”

In his last year at St. Peter’s we find him preaching with terrible clearness on the eternal punishment of the unconverted – four sermons were devoted to this subject. He never dreaded the reproach a dying woman addressed to John Newton – “you often spoke to me of Christ ; but oh you did not tell me enough about my danger.” “Brethren,” M’Cheyne warned his fellow ministers, our people will not thank us in eternity for speaking smooth things, and crying Peace, peace, when there is no peace. No, they may praise us now, but they will curse our flattery in eternity.” At his last communion service in January 1843 he preached on “Paul a Pattern” (! Timothy 1:16). In February he was away in the north west of Scotland, and preached twenty-seven times, in twenty-four different places often travelling through heavy snow. On his return to Dundee he confessed he felt “very tired.” March 12th proved to be his last Sabbath in the pulpit of St. Peter’s, his final sermon was from Romans 9:22 and 23. “What if God, willing to show his wrath …” “It was observed,” writes Bonar, “both then and on other occasions, he spoke with peculiar strength upon the sovereignty of God.”

The following Tuesday he felt ill but took a wedding service, and afterwards spoke to a group of children, who informally gathered round him, on “The Good Shepherd.” It was his last public appearance ; that evening he succumbed to a fever which was prevalent in the parish at the time. After lying helplessly for a week with burning fever, a delirium overtook him on Tuesday 21st. His utterances now showed the thoughts which were uppermost in his mind. As if addressing his people he cried “You must be awakened in time, or you will be awakened in everlasting torment, to your eternal confusion.” Then he prayed, “This parish, Lord, this people, this whole place!” Robert Murray M’Cheyne died on Saturday, march 25th, 1843. “Live for eternity. A few days more and our journey is done.” The truth, he had so often preached was accomplished. His desire was fulfilled – “Oh to be like Jesus, and with Him to all eternity!”

We have finished our outlines of the life of one who declared he was “just a common man.” But our impression must surely be that such a ministry is very uncommon in our times. It is then no small question for ministers to ask – “Where lies the difference between his ministry and ours ?”

No other questions are so vital as this, the answer is far from the minds of many. First, M’Cheyne was different in doctrine. His preaching was clearly and definitely in line with the faith of the Reformers and Puritans. That glorious Puritan document, in which every doctrine is given its true Scriptural proportion – The Westminster Confession of Faith – was his constant text book. “Oh for the grace of the Westminster divines,” he writes, “to be poured out upon this generation of lesser men.” Ruin by the fall, Righteousness by Christ, and Regeneration by the Spirit was the substance of his preaching. Sin has so ruined man’s mind and heart that he has no will to be saved. “You will only have yourselves to blame if ye awake in hell. If you die, it is because you will die ; and if you will die, then you must die.” Like all who apprehend this to be the true condition of men by nature, M’Cheyne clearly saw that without God’s electing love and without the Divine power He exercises in conversion no soul would ever be saved. Unless He makes them willing in the day of His power they will never come. After declaring the text ‘As many as were ordained to eternal life believed,’ he says “Every thinking man must know and feel that none will ever come to Christ but those who were given Him by the Father from all eternity.” “The only power that can bring a child of Satan and make him a child of God, is God Himself. Ah! dear friends, the power is not in creatures. It is not in the power of man – it is not in the power given to ministers ; God alone can do it … Ah! my friends, this is a humbling doctrine. There is no difference between us and the children of wrath ; some of us were more wicked than they, yet God set his love on us. If there are any here that think that they have been chosen because they were better than others, you are grossly mistaken.” In conversion therefore the Divine work of regeneration must precede faith. The Spirit convicts the sinner that Christ alone is able to save him.

The constant aim of M’Cheyne’s preaching to the awakened and converted was to bring them to see the vastness, completeness and freeness of the salvation brought by Christ. “Remember Jesus for us is all our righteousness before a holy God, and Jesus in us is all our strength in an ungodly world … He justifies sinners who have no righteousness, sanctifies souls that have no holiness. Let Jesus bear your whole weight. Remember, He loves to be the only support of your soul. There is nothing that you can possibly need but you will find it in Him.” The most prominent cause of the absence of such ministries as M’Cheyne’s to-day lies in the absence of his doctrine, for it is only the truth of God which the Spirit will honour and bless.

Secondly, M’Cheyne was different in his life. I do not mean he was exempt from the conflict with indwelling sin known by the Apostle Paul (Romans 7) and by every Christian. On the contrary it was (as we see in his diary) the constant awareness of the “abyss of corruption” in his heart, that brought him into such continual dependence on Christ. “Our wicked heart taints all we say and do ; hence the need of continual atonement in the blood of Jesus. We must have daily, hourly pardons.” But he was different in that he ever lived as one on the brink of eternity, as one who longed for a “full conformity to God,” and prized communion with Him as his chief joy. He was ever reminding himself – “If I could follow the Lord more fully myself, my ministry would be used to make a deeper impression than it has yet done.” Are we not rebuked by this minister who was given hundreds of souls as his reward ? Have we not failed to estimate aright the value of near access to God ? Is such a ministry needed in our times ? The same Jesus reigns ; the same Spirit is able ; and the same source of grace is open to us. “Oh! brethren, be wise. ‘Why stand ye all the day idle ?’ In a little moment it will be all over. A little while and the day of grace will be over – preaching, praying will be done. A little while, and we shall stand before the great white throne – a little while, and the wicked shall not be ; we shall see them going away into everlasting punishment. A little while, and the work of eternity shall be begun. We shall be like Him – we shall see Him day and night in His temple – we shall sing the new song, without sin and without weariness, for ever and ever.”

This article was originally published in The Banner of Truth magazine (Issue 4, December 1955, pages 14-23)

Iain H. Murray.

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