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Robert Murray M’Cheyne (1813-43): a Short Life, Long Lessons

Category Articles
Date April 5, 2013

A lecture given at Bethlehem Evangelical Church, Port Talbot, Wales on Thursday 28 March, 2013.

The centenary of a birth, a death or some great event does not need much justification in order for it to be celebrated. If I were giving this lecture a year from now I would certainly choose as my subject George Whitefield, who was born in 1714. I flirted briefly with choosing Daniel Rowland, a preacher just as gifted as Whitefield, who was born a year earlier, but thought that there might be risks for an Englishman choosing to speak about a Welshman while visiting Wales! So as to avoid any possible accusation of national bias I have settled for a Scot, Robert Murray M’Cheyne, who was born in 1813 and died in 1843, just a few weeks short of his thirtieth birthday.

However I did not choose M’Cheyne because of a lack of alternative available material, but because like so many other men and women of history, M’Cheyne, ‘being dead yet speaketh’.1 From his short life I want to draw long lessons, lessons which will be of value until the Lord Jesus himself returns, lessons to be heeded especially by pastors but, I think, treasured by everyone in the church who is concerned about the salvation of sinners, the sanctification of saints, and the glory of God.


His family background

Robert Murray M’Cheyne was born on Friday 21 May 1813, at 14 Dublin Street in Edinburgh, about five minutes’ walk north of the present site of Waverley Station in the ‘New Town’, an area which retains its Georgian and Regency character to this day. That year Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was published, the Napoleonic Wars were still raging; George III had been King of Great Britain since 1760 but he had lapsed into his final stages of insanity and his son the Prince of Wales was acting as Prince Regent.

Robert was the youngest of five children and, unusually, both his parents were also the youngest children in their families. Robert’s father Adam, originally from a relatively humble background, rose to a very prominent position in the legal profession, becoming a member of the Society of Writers to His Majesty’s Signet.2
Robert’s elder brother David was also to pursue a legal career, albeit briefly. Robert’s mother Lockhart Murray Dickson was from wealthy stock in rural Dumfriesshire. Family life was, by the standards of the day, very comfortable for the M’Cheyne family. With such a background, it is not surprising to learn that education featured very high on the agenda of the M’Cheyne family. Robert’s brother William studied medicine and later practised as a surgeon in the East India Company.

His childhood and youth

Robert’s privileged background meant that there was precious opportunity both for study and for profitable leisure, and he revelled in both. He would often spend holidays in his mother’s ancestral home near Ruthwell, on the Solway Firth, or sometimes venture north into the Perthshire Highlands. He became an adept horse-rider and also a keen gymnast. But it was his intellectual and artistic gifts which were especially outstanding, particularly as a musician, poet and linguist. He was also rather better than average at drawing, a skill he later put to use during his journey to Palestine in 1839.

Yet it seems as though the M’Cheyne home, though outwardly religious, was devoid of true evangelical piety during these years. Perhaps if we found a home today where there was regular family worship, with the reading of the Bible and the singing of Psalms, we would immediately conclude that this must be a household that was flourishing spiritually; no questions would need to be asked! But Robert himself knew that this was not the case, either in himself or in his family, at this early stage. His great contemporary and friend Andrew Bonar said of these days:

He himself regarded these as days of ungodliness — days wherein he cherished a pure morality, but lived in heart a Pharisee. I have heard him say that there was a correctness and propriety in his demeanour at times of devotion, and in public worship, which some, who knew not his heart, were ready to put to the account of real feeling. And this experience of his own heart made him look with jealousy on the mere outward signs of devotion in dealing with souls. He had learnt in his own case how much a soul, unawakened to a sense of guilt, may have satisfaction in performing from the proud consciousness of integrity towards man, and a sentimental devotedness of mind that chastens the feelings without changing the heart.3

With his natural gifts, M’Cheyne achieved a good deal of success at high school, especially in the classics, and he went to University in Edinburgh in 1827 at the age of fourteen, not so unusual at the time. Edinburgh at the time was a centre of the greatest academic brilliance: Walter Scott in literature, David Hume in philosophy and Adam Smith in economics had all been there, and Robert was given the richest education as we might well imagine. But he seems, like many students, to have enjoyed the social side of university life as much as the studying, especially his cards, dancing, parties and the like, activities which he soon came to regard as worldly.

His conversion and calling

The great event that shaped Robert’s early life was the death of his eldest brother David, who died from a fever which had followed a period of deep depression, at the age of twenty-seven in July 1831. Robert had just turned eighteen. What is significant is that David seems to have become a Christian some time before, and to have been much burdened about the spiritual condition of the rest of the family, and his youngest brother Robert in particular. Those prayers were answered as Robert was awakened from his spiritual carelessness, and became concerned about the state of his soul.

Robert began reading serious Christian literature: the Westminster Standards, the Life of Henry Martyn,4 who had died the year before M’Cheyne’s birth at the age of just thirty-one. This anticipated his own later missionary travels and even his own early death. He also read Jonathan Edwards5 and David Brainerd,6another missionary who died young. His lifestyle began to change. He encouraged his family to start sitting under an evangelical ministry in Edinburgh – Alexander Moody Stuart at St Luke’s – and a change seems to have come across his father at this time as well. It was only a short time before Robert sensed a clear call to tell others about the Saviour who had shown him such mercy.

So from November 1831 M’Cheyne was studying in the Divinity Faculty in Edinburgh and as we might expect, he had some of the best teachers of his day. These included David Welsh in Church History and Alexander Brunton who taught Old Testament and Hebrew. M’Cheyne had outstanding linguistic ability and quickly became proficient in Hebrew, just as he was in Greek. But the greatest and most famous teacher, and the most powerful influence on M’Cheyne as on so many others, was Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847), who was one of the greatest leaders in the Church in Scotland, a visionary with the widest imaginable variety of interests and involvements. It was during this era that the Church in Scotland was heading towards the famous Disruption of 18 May 1843. The main ecclesiastical issue at stake was ‘non-intrusionism’, the principle that no minister should be foisted upon a congregation by a patron who may have no evangelical sympathies, without their will. But this was no mere political wrangling: the church in Scotland was undergoing a season of great spiritual blessing after generations of drought. Chalmers was a key individual in this whole process which led, via the Disruption, to the formation of the Free Church of Scotland and an era in which God used many gifted men in the service of both church and nation.

However, all this was some years off. We can see that M’Cheyne thrived in this pious and scholarly environment and was a most dedicated student. Later he wrote on this subject:

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.7

This latter exhortation, to ‘keep in the presence of God’ and not to see the face of a man before he had seen the face of God, became a defining mark of M’Cheyne’s life and ministry.

It was at this time that M’Cheyne became so closely acquainted with Andrew Bonar (1810-92) and his elder brother Horatius (1808-89), or ‘Horace’ as he called him; and with these friends who also included Alexander Somerville he would often meet to study the Scriptures in their original languages. But in case we imagine that M’Cheyne was only occupied with matters of an academic nature we should also note that during these years he, at Chalmers’ instigation, would set out visiting the poorer parts of Edinburgh on a Saturday, especially Canongate, which was an area of great material and social need until well into the twentieth century. With his favoured economic background, these visits had a profound effect on M’Cheyne and paved the way for his later work in the depressed areas of Dundee.

His early work

M’Cheyne finished his studies in 1835 and his sense of calling to preach and to pastor was as strong as ever, so it was no wonder that he received offers from ministers asking him to be their assistant. He accepted a call to Larbert and Dunipace, near Falkirk in the Central Lowlands, though the Edinburgh Presbytery was unable to license him as a preacher quickly enough. So he was licensed by the Presbytery in Annan, near the English Border, the region from which his mother hailed. M’Cheyne was assisting John Bonar, a more distant relation of Andrew and Horatius, who themselves had a brother by the name of John. M’Cheyne laboured in Larbert and Dunipace for the space of less than a year, from November 1835 to September 1836, and for much of that time he was suffering from ill-health, accompanied by what they used to call ‘melancholy’. If we appreciate just how hard M’Cheyne, with Bonar, laboured in Larbert and Dunipace, we will perhaps understand why it took its toll. It was a poor area with many needy families, for some 700 of which Bonar and M’Cheyne undertook pastoral responsibility, sometimes visiting as many as 20 or 30 homes a day. This is a very different kind of set-up to what most ministers today are used to!

M’Cheyne was what we might call today a ‘people person’. He loved his Saviour, of course, with a pre-eminent love, but married to this was a love for the souls he ministered to, and during this time he not only made many diary notes about his parishioners and their spiritual condition, but he wrote long letters to them. He seems to have had a particular affinity for young people, still being only twenty-two years of age himself. One of his most touching letters was to a youth who had left his father’s home and was no longer attending the church:

I do not know in what light you look upon me, whether as a grave and morose minister, or as one who might be a companion and friend; but really, it is so short a while since I was just like you, when I enjoyed the games which you now enjoy, and read the books which you now read, that I never can think of myself as anything more than a boy. This is one great reason why I write to you. The same youthful blood flows in my veins that flows in yours, the same fancies and buoyant passions dance in my bosom as in yours; so that when I would persuade you to come with me to the same Saviour, and to walk the rest of your life ‘led by the Spirit of God,’ I am not persuading you to anything beyond your years. I am not like a grey-headed grandfather – then you might answer all I say by telling me that you are a boy. No; I am almost as much a boy as you are; as fond of happiness and of life as you are; as fond of scampering over the hills, and seeing all that is to be seen, as you are.8

The call to Dundee

M’Cheyne longed to be able to exercise the full power and freedom belonging to a minister, and he did not have long to wait. St Peter’s Church of Scotland in Dundee was a new church – Chalmers in particular was at the forefront of the move to ensure that there were adequate churches in Scottish towns and cities for the growing population – and Dundee was a fast-growing town, now in the full swing of the Industrial Revolution. Dundee became famous for its textile industries, especially jute, which was mixed with whale oil; and it also claims jam and the postage stamp among its inventions!

He was ordained to the pastorate of St Peter’s on 24 November 1836, still only twenty-three years of age, and he was to remain in that pastoral charge for the rest of his life, despite suggestions that he move elsewhere. In fact M’Cheyne was always very willing to travel in order to minister in places outside his parish – what was said by John Wesley, that the world was his parish, was true of M’Cheyne to a certain extent. But unquestionably M’Cheyne was utterly devoted to his flock. The parish of St Peter’s, in the west of Dundee, had a population of about four thousand, and from the beginning there were well over a thousand in the regular congregation.

We have this record of M’Cheyne’s preaching from Andrew Bonar:

He was ever so ready to assist his brethren so much engaged in every good work, and latterly so often interrupted by inquiries, that it might be thought he had no time for careful preparation, and might be excused for the absence of it. But, in truth, he never preached without careful attention bestowed on his subject. He might, indeed, have little time—often the hours of a Saturday was all the time he could obtain,—but his daily study of the Scriptures stored his mind, and formed a continual preparation. Much of his Sabbath services was a drawing out of what he had carried in during busy days of the week.

His voice was remarkably clear — his manner attractive by its mild dignity. His form itself drew the eye. He spoke from the pulpit as one earnestly occupied with the souls before him. He made them feel sympathy with what he spoke, for his own eye and heart were on them. He was, at the same time, able to bring out illustrations at once simple and felicitous, often with poetic skill and elegance. He wished to use Saxon words, for the sake of being understood by the most illiterate in his audience. And while his style was singularly clear, this clearness itself was so much the consequence of his being able thoroughly to analyse and explain his subject, that all his hearers alike reaped the benefit.

He went about his public work with awful reverence. So evident was this, that I remember a countryman in my parish observed to me: “Before he opened his lips, as he came along the passage, there was something about him that sorely affected me.” In the vestry there was never any idle conversation; all was preparation of heart in approaching God; and a short prayer preceded his entering the pulpit. Surely in going forth to speak for God, a man may well be overawed! Surely in putting forth his hand to sow the seed of the kingdom, a man may even tremble! And surely we should aim at nothing less than to pour forth the truth upon our people through the channel of our own living and deeply affected souls.9

It is astonishing how M’Cheyne found time to prepare his sermons as he did, given the vast amount of pastoral visitation and letter-writing that he engaged in, and his frequent bouts of ill-health. But earlier experience in Larbert had taught him the value of thorough preparation of his material and of his own soul, as well as full reliance on the Holy Spirit in the course of his preaching. He never prepared illustrations beforehand but preferred to be moved by the Spirit in the course of the sermon. For these reasons, it is perhaps difficult to recapture the atmosphere and the power of his preaching from records of his printed sermons. But this is as it should be: God pours out his blessing, his unction, upon the preached word at a certain time and place, upon a certain man and a certain congregation. No record of a sermon, whether printed, audio or audio-visual, can ever recapture that anointing. That is why it is such a danger to rely on any ‘second-hand’ ministry when we should be directly sitting under the preached word.

His visit to Palestine

M’Cheyne was motivated by a deep missionary spirit, which should not surprise us. We have seen his earlier interest in Henry Martyn and David Brainerd. He was also especially moved by the condition of the Jews, believing that the Jews would return to Israel and that this would ultimately lead to the return of Christ to the land. After the 1838 General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, a decision was taken to appoint a Mission of Inquiry to the Jews. The feeling continued to persist – as it does to a measure even to this day – that Scotland was a nation that had been covenanted to the Lord, and this heightened interest in the original covenanted nation, Israel. M’Cheyne once had a converted Jew, a Mr Frey, in his congregation, and this stimulated him all the more.

M’Cheyne had only been in Dundee two years when he began to experience troubling symptoms, especially violent palpitations of the heart. He went back to his parents’ home in Edinburgh for a complete break, and while he was there he spoke with Robert Candlish, Minister of St George’s in Edinburgh, himself a great preacher and churchman, perhaps second only to Chalmers in terms of his influence at the time. Candlish asked M’Cheyne to travel to the Holy Land as part of the Mission of Inquiry. In those days it was thought that there was no better cure for bodily sickness than travel, sea air, a change of scenery. Would that this were the case today! M’Cheyne was very excited and accepted, as did his congregation with a little less enthusiasm!

M’Cheyne was accompanied on this trip by Andrew Bonar, Dr Alexander Black (Professor of Divinity at Aberdeen) and Dr Alexander Keith (minister of St Cyrus in Aberdeenshire). For M’Cheyne and his companions it was mainly a fact-finding tour, examining the spiritual condition of the Jews not only in Palestine but in the other countries they visited. It lasted for eight months, from March to November 1839. They travelled through France, then by sea, via Malta, to Alexandria. Then they were guided by Bedouins through the desert, arriving in Palestine in early June. They were in the Holy Land for several weeks before departing from Beirut at the end of July. During the next phase of the journey, to Cyprus and then to Smyrna (modern-day Izmir in Turkey), M’Cheyne became very ill with a fever; he almost lost his life. After his recovery they travelled back through Eastern Europe, notably in Poland where there were, at the time, very many Jews. M’Cheyne was distressed by the antagonism towards the Jews which he found in these countries, and the terrible ignorance of the Scriptures.10

The overall impression we receive is that M’Cheyne and Bonar, especially, were profoundly affected by spending time in the land of the Bible. They were still young men. Passages M’Cheyne had known and loved from his childhood came alive to him. Long letters and indeed sketches by him remain from the journey. But if it was great spiritual recuperation for M’Cheyne, it certainly did not lessen the extent of his physical labours at home. For much of 1840 M’Cheyne and Bonar were travelling all over Scotland and also parts of north-east England and Northern Ireland, speaking about their journey. The findings of the Mission of Inquiry take us beyond the scope of this lecture; wheels were set in motion which would keep moving for a number of years, raising in many minds the spiritual plight of the Jews and the need to pray for their conversion.

Awakening in Dundee

While M’Cheyne had been on his journey, his place in the St Peter’s pulpit had been taken by William Chalmers Burns (1815-68). Burns later became famous because of his missionary work in China;11 he even became Hudson Taylor’s ‘spiritual father’, as Hudson Taylor himself noted. M’Cheyne wrote to Burns, ‘You are given in answer to prayer; and these gifts are, I believe, always without exception blessed. I hope you may be a thousand times more blessed among them than ever I was.’12 It was to prove a prophetic message. From April to July 1839, Burns did not see many ‘results’ from his preaching in Dundee. But in mid-July he went to Kilsyth, between Glasgow and Stirling, his own home town where his father was ministering. It was the communion season, and on Tuesday 23 July Burns was preaching on Psalm 110:3: ‘Thy people shall be willing in the day of thy power’, and on that occasion there were striking manifestations of God’s power in Kilsyth which lasted three more weeks. When Burns returned to Dundee, that power went with him, and remained there for the months which followed.

So when M’Cheyne came back to St Peter’s he found the church undergoing a powerful revival, or ‘awakening’ as it would have been called at the time. The very day he returned to Dundee, a Thursday in November, he went to the regular Thursday meeting and found it crowded with 1200 people. Bonar records:

The appearance of the church that evening, and the aspect of the people, he never could forget. Many of his brethren were present to welcome him, and to hear the first words of his opened lips. There was not a seat in the church unoccupied, the passages were completely filled, and the stairs up to the pulpit were crowded, on the one side with the aged, on the other with eagerly-listening children. Many a face was seen anxiously gazing on their restored pastor; many were weeping under the unhealed wounds of conviction; all were still and calm, intensely earnest to hear. He gave out Psalm 66; and the manner of singing, which had been remarked since the Revival began, appeared to him peculiarly sweet – ‘so tender and affecting, as if the people felt that they were praising a present God.’ After solemn prayer with them, he was able to preach for above an hour. Not knowing how long he might be permitted to proclaim the glad tidings, he seized that opportunity, not to tell of his journeyings, but to show the way of life to sinners. His subject was 1 Corinthians 2. 1-4 – the matter, the manner, and the accompaniments of Paul’s preaching. It was a night to be remembered.13

We should notice two things in particular about this awakening. The first is that there is no record of the slightest degree of envy on the part of M’Cheyne towards Burns, who had been the instrument God had first used. Ministers of the gospel today need to learn this lesson. More importantly, M’Cheyne believed that what was taking place was an entirely genuine pouring out of the Spirit, despite some negative coverage in the popular press. Here are some samples of his own observations, submitted to a Committee of the Presbytery of Aberdeen in 1841:

It is my decided and solemn conviction, in the sight of God, that a very remarkable and glorious work of God, in the conversion of sinners and edifying of saints, has taken place in this parish and in neighbourhood.

. . . for nearly four months it was found desirable to have public worship almost every night. At this time, also, many prayer meetings were formed, some of which were strictly private or fellowship meetings, and others, conducted by persons of some Christian experience, were open to persons under concern about their souls. At the time of my return from the Mission to the Jews, I found thirty-nine such meetings held weekly in connection with the congregation, and five of these were conducted and attended entirely by little children.

During the autumn of 1839, not fewer than from 600 to 700 came to converse with the ministers about their souls; and there were many more, equally concerned, who never came forward in this way.

At that time there were many seasons of remarkable solemnity, when the house of God literally became ‘a Bochim, a place of weepers.’14 Those who were privileged to be present at these times will, I believe, never forget them. Even since my return, however, I have myself frequently seen the preaching of the word attended with so much power, and eternal things brought so near, that the feelings of the people could not be restrained.15

His last labours, sickness and death

Robert Murray M’Cheyne did not fade away gradually – he burned out in the service of his Saviour. He often seems to have been aware that his life might be cut short; the early death of his brother David always remained with him. He had been appointed a commissioner to the 1843 General Assembly, the one which would lead to the Disruption. But in early March he contracted typhus while visiting the Hawkhill area of Dundee. He preached for the last time to his congregation on 12 March, morning and afternoon. As the following week began he became increasingly ill, feverish and in great pain. Delirium soon set in. His people were longing to hear him once more, but he could only reply ‘My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways . . . I am preaching the sermon that God would have me to do.’16 At 9.30 am on Saturday 25 March, 1843, he raised his hands in prayer before ‘falling asleep in Jesus’. Andrew Bonar recorded in his diary:

This afternoon about five o’clock, a message has just come to tell me of Robert M’Cheyne’s death. Never, never yet in all my life have I felt anything like this. It is a blow to myself, to his people, to the church of Christ in Scotland. O Lord, work for Thine own glory’s sake. Arise, O Lord, the godly ceaseth and the faithful fail. My heart is sore. It makes me feel death is near myself now. Life has lost half its joys, were it not the hope of saving souls. There was no friend whom I loved like him.17

It was Bonar who preached the following Sunday, on Romans 8:38-39, then Romans 8:28-30. The elder in St Peter’s, appropriately named William Lamb, who was connected with the Sunday School, read M’Cheyne’s leaflet ‘To The Lambs of the Flock’. M’Cheyne had begun his leaflet with these words:

BELOVED CHILDREN – Jesus is the Good Shepherd. His arm was stretched out on the cross, and his bosom was pierced with the spear. That arm is able to gather you, and that bosom is open to receive you. I pray for you every day that you may be saved by Christ. He said to me, ‘Feed my lambs,’ and I daily return the words to Him, ‘Lord, feed my lambs.’ In the bowels of Jesus Christ, I long after you all. I believe Christ has gathered some of you. But are no more to be gathered? Are no more green brands to be plucked from the burning? Will no more of you hide beneath the white robe of Jesus? Oh, come! for ‘yet there is room.’ Lift up your hearts to God while I tell you something more of the Good Shepherd.18

William Lamb wrote, ‘Many of these children wept, and I could not help mingling tears with my first prayers for these “lambs” of the flock of our dear, departed pastor, who so carefully tended them and loved them.’19 About 6000 people attended the funeral the following Thursday. The inscription on his grave concludes:

Walking closely with God as an example to the believers
In word, in conversation, in charity
In spirit, in faith, in purity.
He ceased not day and night to labour and watch for souls
And was honoured by his Lord
To draw many wanderers out of darkness
Into the path of life
‘Them also that sleep with Jesus will God bring with him’20


One: The Lord brings seasons of blessings at different times and in different places

There is great variety in the Lord’s dealings with this world, across history and geography. Paul, Silas and Timothy were drawn by the Spirit to Macedonia, not to Bithynia. The Reformation happened in the sixteenth century, not the fifteenth; it was more pronounced and successful in some European countries such as Scotland and the Netherlands than in others such as Spain and Italy. The Great Awakening of the 1700s affected different English-speaking (and Welsh-speaking!) countries in different ways. Scotland in the 1830s and 1840s was a land reaping the richest of spiritual blessings, and that can especially be seen in the calibre of men whom God raised up at the time. Aside from M’Cheyne, we could mention the Bonar brothers and in addition Thomas Chalmers, Robert Candlish, William Cunningham, Thomas Guthrie, George Smeaton and John ‘Rabbi’ Duncan. The secret things of God’s will mean that he will cause blessing to spring up wherever he chooses, and that could well be in our times and in our own places. We should pray, hope and seek that God will indeed visit us.

Two: The Lord gifts his servants in very different measures

Similarly, the Lord gifts men and women in very different ways. He does not dole out talents and abilities equally to all. In Robert Murray M’Cheyne we see a man of outstanding gifts, and our part is not to envy nor necessarily to emulate such gifts, but first and foremost to glorify the God who gives such gifts to men. M’Cheyne’s response to the awakening that took place under Burns is a slightly different example of this. He developed and utilised his gifts in the service of his Lord and Saviour, to whom he owed everything, and he knew it. What he was by nature, became enhanced by grace. Grace does not destroy a man’s natural abilities, as Thomas Aquinas taught, but perfects them. The rich remains of Robert Murray M’Cheyne, especially his poetical and lyrical remains, testify to this. It is also fascinating that although M’Cheyne operated in an ecclesiastical system in which only the Psalms were to be sung in worship, he composed his hymns as hymns of worship.

Three: The influence of a life does not depend on its length

What are our lives? Every one of us is a mist which appears for a while and then vanishes.21 Thirty years seems absurdly short to us; what can a man do in that time? But it is not only what a man achieves during his lifetime that counts; it is the work that God may continue to do long after his death. Henry Martyn and David Brainerd died at a similar age and, like M’Cheyne, their works followed them.22 The ripples of Stephen’s violent death remained long afterwards, even the lingering effects of his persecution and martyrdom were transformed into gospel blessings to the Gentile world.23 M’Cheyne never married, and he left no children, but his spiritual brother Andrew Bonar rendered the Christian world a priceless service by leaving to us the Memoirs and Remains of M’Cheyne.

Four: Our churches need to be awakened

Both in the eighteenth and in the early nineteenth century, Christians described the phenomena going on around them as ‘awakening’. God was visiting his church, stirring the slumbering masses by the power of his Holy Spirit. The people who were awakened at this time would all have called themselves Christians; they were regular in church attendance, but their Christian profession was nominal. Thomas Chalmers himself is an excellent example; before 1810 he gave himself more eagerly to mathematics and chemistry than to the Bible. But then a spiritual transformation took place in him, and it began to spread like fire to many others in Scotland. How many of our churches are in a moribund condition; how many people who come regularly could be described as ‘Christians’, but are generally asleep, careless, dry and cold? Men like Chalmers, M’Cheyne, Burns and Bonar were awakened by the Holy Spirit and they became conduits of heavenly blessing towards their people. It could be argued that the word ‘revival’ has much the same meaning as ‘awakening’, but surely what is needed is for churches and souls to be made truly alive first, before the transformation then spreads outward to the whole community? How will unbelievers come to faith unless they see it in action in Christ’s people? ‘Thus says the LORD of hosts: In those days ten men from the nations of every tongue shall take hold of the robe of a Jew, saying, “Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.”‘24

Five: M’Cheyne’s ministry should encourage us with regard to the young

M’Cheyne’s diaries are full of his references to young people and children, both boys and girls, and his keen interest in the state of their souls. We have seen examples of this already. His literary remains include much that is devoted to urging young people to follow Jesus Christ with all their hearts. Perhaps the best-known is the story of the conversion of a boy called James Laing, entitled Another Lily Gathered.25 Maybe to a contemporary generation some of these writings come across as rather sentimental and ‘twee’, but this is a comment about people today as much as anything else. What is certain is that children of all ages were greatly affected by M’Cheyne’s ministry, and we should believe that God is able to do the same today. It is a divisive tendency which implies that children and adults should be kept separated, that we need ‘youth churches’, that we need to pin all our hopes for our children’s conversion on summer camps rather than on the regular ministry of the Word.

Six: M’Cheyne’s ministry was the overflow of his spiritual walk with God

Perhaps M’Cheyne is chiefly remembered today for what we might call his piety, the closeness of his walk with God. His most famous saying might be that ‘it is not great talents God blesses so much as likeness to Jesus. A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God.’26 He had the deepest awareness of the necessity of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, of living, dynamic holiness in his life, if he was to be of real and lasting use to God. His own spiritual life was bound up with the life of the people he ministered to, both publicly and from house to house. In M’Cheyne we see a great example of how spiritual fellowship – koinonia – works. The joy and delight M’Cheyne had in his Saviour was overflowing and abundantly shared with all the souls for whom he cared.

Seven:M’Cheyne’s ministry was passionately focused on Jesus Christ

We might call M’Cheyne a ‘Christ-intoxicated man’, but I’m not sure it’s the most helpful description! M’Cheyne preached Jesus Christ, and he preached him from all the Scriptures. His love of the Hebrew Old Testament meant that he found his Saviour as vividly in the Song of Songs as he did in the Gospels and the Letters of the New Testament. The samples of his sermons which we possess show this in the titles: ‘Christ the Way, the Truth and the Life’, ‘Christ the Apostle and High Priest’, ‘Christ and the Believer’, ‘The Merciful High Priest’, ‘Glorying in the Cross’, ‘Holding Christ fast’, ‘Christ in you’. He was a spiritual successor to Samuel Rutherford, whose Letters he so admired.27 The Holy Spirit’s anointing will always draw the attention of the preacher and the congregation to Jesus Christ, in his Person, his Offices and all his Works. Let me finish with M’Cheyne’s own words which give a classic sample of his Christ-adoring preaching:

The loving and much loved wife is satisfied with the love of her husband; his smile is her joy, she cares little for any other. So, if you have come to Christ, thy Maker is thine husband – His free love to you is all you need, and all you can care for – there is no cloud between you and God – there is no veil between you and the Father; you have access to Him who is the fountain of happiness – what have you to do any more with idols? Oh! if your heart swims in the rays of God’s love, like a little mote swimming in the sunbeam, you will have no room in your heart for idols.28


  1. Hebrews 11:4.
  2. David Robertson, Awakening: The Life and Ministry of Robert Murray McCheyne (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2004), p. 2.
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      A lecture given at Bethlehem Evangelical Church, Port Talbot, Wales on Thursday 28 March, 2013. The centenary of a birth, a death or some great event does not need much justification in order for it to be celebrated. If I were giving this lecture a year from now I would certainly choose as my subject […]

  3. John Sargent’s The Life and Letters of Henry Martyn was first published in 1819. The Banner of Truth reprint (1985, currently out of stock) was a facsimile of the 1862 edition.

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      A lecture given at Bethlehem Evangelical Church, Port Talbot, Wales on Thursday 28 March, 2013. The centenary of a birth, a death or some great event does not need much justification in order for it to be celebrated. If I were giving this lecture a year from now I would certainly choose as my subject […]

  4. Bonar, op. cit., p. 29.
  5. ibid., p. 47.
  6. ibid., pp. 63-64.
  7. Robertson, op. cit., p. 106.
  8. Bonar, op. cit., pp. 88-89.
  9. ibid., pp. 115-116.
  10. Judges 2:4-5.
  11. See Bonar, pp.544-551 for these observations and many others of a similar nature.
  12. Bonar, op. cit., p. 163.
  13. Robertson, op. cit., pp. 144-145.
  14. Bonar, op. cit., p. 612.
  15. Robertson, op. cit., p. 145.
  16. ibid., p. 146.
  17. James 4:14.
  18. Revelation 14:13.
  19. Acts 11:19-24.
  20. Zechariah 8:23.
  21. The title is from Song of Songs 6:2: ‘My beloved is gone down into his garden to gather lilies’. See Bonar, pp.551-568. James Laing died on 11 June 1842, before his fourteenth birthday.
  22. From a letter to Dan Edwards, who was studying German, dated 2 October 1840; Bonar, p. 282.
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      A lecture given at Bethlehem Evangelical Church, Port Talbot, Wales on Thursday 28 March, 2013. The centenary of a birth, a death or some great event does not need much justification in order for it to be celebrated. If I were giving this lecture a year from now I would certainly choose as my subject […]

  23. From a sermon on Hosea 14:8 entitled ‘What have I to do with any more idols?’, Bonar, pp. 503-504.

Paul Yeulett is Pastor of Shrewsbury Evangelical Church.

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