Robert Murray McCheyne
He was born on May 21st, 1813 at 14 Dublin Street in Edinburgh. His father was a reputable lawyer, and he was the youngest of two brothers and two sisters. It was clear from early on that he was a bright lad, as he studied the Greek alphabet when he was just four years old. He was also known for having a very melodious voice when he did recitations as a boy.
In October 1821 he went to High School, where he continued his literary studies during the usual period of six years. He maintained a high place in his classes; and in the Rector’s Class, distinguished himself in geography and recitation. It was during the last year of his attendance at the High School that he began to compose poems. As a boy McCheyne exhibited characteristics of a Christian. He himself regarded these as days of ungodliness, days when he cherished a pure morality, but lived in heart a Pharisee. He loved the Scottish scenery, with many holidays being spent in Dumfriesshire where his father was from, and he would sometimes go to explore the mountains and lochs of Scotland with his brother during the summer break. The beautiful scenery must have inspired his poetic temperament.
McCheyne entered Edinburgh University in November 1827. He won a prize in virtually everything he did. He studied modern languages in private; and loved gymnastics, drawing, music, singing and poetry. In 1831 he began his theological studies under Thomas Chalmers. Earlier that year McCheyne’s older brother, who was a true Christian, died. His brother was a godly man who spent a lot of time looking after his younger siblings. He was much loved by his little brother, so it was a significant blow to Robert when his brother died. The death of his brother was used by the Holy Spirit to produce a deep impression on Robert. He poured out his heart in two poems about his brother. It was a time when he changed; people noticed that he became more serious about everything. His poems became more serious; he began working in the Sabbath School and started thinking about the condition of his soul.
A year later he writes in his diary, “On this morning last year came the first overwhelming blow to my worldliness; how blessed to me, thou, O God, only knowest, who hast made it so.” On the same day years later he writes, “This day eleven years ago, I lost my loved and loving brother, and began to seek a Brother who cannot die.” McCheyne was not brought to Christ in a sudden, blinding revelation; his revelation was gradual. The Holy Spirit carried on his work by continuing to deepen in him the conviction of his ungodliness and the pollution of his whole nature.
On entering Divinity Hall, McCheyne was considering religious matters more intently, but he would still go out and do things he regretted; at least for two years he did. Excerpts from his diary show his state of mind. “Dec. 9. A thorn in my side, much torment.” As the unholiness of his pleasures became more apparent, he writes: “March 10th, 1832 I hope never to play cards again.” “March 25th Never visit on a Sunday evening again.” “April 10th Absented myself from the dance; upbraidings ill to bear. But I must try to bear the cross.” Some years later he wrote, “March 11th, 1834 read the ‘Sum of Saving Knowledge’ the work which I think first of all wrought a saving change in me. How gladly would I renew the reading of it, if that change might be carried on to perfection!”
He went into the ministry because his dear brother had hoped, before he died, that his younger brother would become a minister of Christ. However, by the time he finished his studies, he had a passion for Christ and a passion to win souls, both of which he did not have when he went to Divinity Hall. In the spring and autumn of 1835 he went for examination by the Presbytery of Edinburgh. He had many ministers asking him to come and join them in their area, and he was particularly interested in the invitation of John Bonar, the minister of Larbert and Dunipace, near Stirling. He transferred to the Presbytery of Annan, Dumfries, because they were less busy, so he was able to complete his public trials more quickly. He became licensed to preach on July 1st 1835; he records in his diary, “Preached three probationary discourses in Annan Church, and, after an examination in Hebrew, was solemnly licensed to preach the Gospel by Mr. Monylaws, the Moderator. ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul; and all that is within me be stirred up to praise and magnify his holy name!’ What I have so long desired as the highest honor of man, thou at length givest me–me who dare scarcely use the words of Paul, ‘Unto me who am less than the least of all saints is this grace given, that I should preach the unsearchable riches of Christ.’ Felt somewhat solemnised, though unable to feel my unworthiness as I ought. Be clothed with humility.”
McCheyne preached for the first time at Ruthwell Church, Dumfries, the following Sunday. He wrote, “Found it a more awfully solemn thing than I had imagined to announce Christ authoritatively; yet a glorious privilege!” The next Saturday he wrote, “Lord, put me into thy service when and where thou pleasest. In thy hand all my qualities will be put to their appropriate end. Let me, then, have no anxieties.” (It is rather strange that people in those days thought that they should speak to God in a form of King James Bible English, even though people did not even speak like that at the beginning of the seventeenth century.)
He began work at Larbert in November 1835, trusting in the Lord that he was in the right place. “It has always been my aim, and it is my prayer, to have no plans with regard to myself well assured as I am, that the place where the Saviour sees meet to place me, must ever be the best place for me.” As Bonar’s assistant it was his job to preach alternated Sundays in Larbert and Dunipace, and to visit as many of the population (there were 6,000 in the parish) as he felt necessary. Larbert was the parish of the great minister, Robert Bruce, back in the seventeenth century.
McCheyne would spend each morning at his private devotions, as preparation worth the work ahead that day. He particularly loved reading the Bible and also the works of Jonathan Edwards. He preached what he had experienced from God that day or week. There was more work for him to do there than he could handle. The several collieries and the iron works were full of those who were not Christians. He would later support the scheme to build more churches, and it was probably in the parish of Larbert where he got his understanding of the shortage of ministers in the nation. At the end of the year he developed a bad cough, so that he had to rest for several weeks. He wanted to spend the time in intercession, however, “I feel distinctly that the whole of my labor during this season of sickness and pain, should be in the way of prayer and intercession. And yet, so strongly does Satan work in our deceitful hearts, I scarcely remember a season wherein I have been more averse to these duties.” There were fears that he had damaged lungs, but he recovered and resumed his work. On returning, he went to live in Carronvale, but he felt guilty that, because he was still weak, he was unable to do the work of a fit man. He particularly regretted that he was not more diligent in his work among the nearby collier workers.
McCheyne did not like the custom of reading sermons as it dulled the natural passion of the deliverer. He also disliked memorising a sermon, so he used to memorise the substance of the talk, but then speak as the Holy Spirit led him. One day he lost his written sermons as he rode quickly to Dunipace, so he had to speak without notes. He was amazed at how well he was able to speak, so he continued speaking in that way from then on, realising that it was better to rely on God, than the diligence of preparing the sermon. He began to speak from the heart rather than the head, so the fruit from his sermons increased substantially. He used to grieve if he had spoken with anything less than solemn compassion. On one occasion, he asked a friend what his last Sabbath’s subject had been. It had been, “The wicked shall be turned into hell.” On hearing this awful text, he asked, “Were you able to preach it with tenderness?”
In April 1836 he went to hear Alexander Duff in Stirling. Hearing Duff speak of his work in India opened up in McCheyne again a desire for missionary work, so he told the Lord that he was ready to go to India if that was what He wanted. But the Lord wanted him to do something else. In August he went to St Peter’s, Dundee as a candidate for pastor. He gave three sermons; his mind was not really on it in the first, he felt things went better in the second, but in the evening he gave his heart. Two people were converted in that service, the first known salvation fruits of his ministry. It is not surprising that he was unanimously voted in as Pastor. He would have preferred a country parish, but recognised the call, although wondering why the Lord did not choose a stronger man for the position. After returning from his interview at St Peter’s, he records that there was more than usual anxiety in his girls class at Dunipace, and one girl was converted. It is interesting that this happened just as he was leaving for Dundee.
On preaching his last sermons at Dunipace and Larbert he wrote, “Lord, I feel bowed down because of the little I have done for them which thou mightest have blessed! My bowels yearn over them, and all the more that I have done so little. Indeed I might have done ten times as much as I have done. I might have been in every house; I might have spoken always as a minister. Lord, canst thou bless partial, unequal efforts?”
McCheyne was ordained as pastor of St Peter’s on November 24th, 1836. He was not married, so he was joined by his unmarried sister who looked after the manse for him. His first sermon was from Isaiah 56, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.’ He writes, “May it be prophetic of the object of my coming here!” It was. He learnt afterwards that people were converted in that very first sermon. He would always preach from this passage on the anniversary of his first sermon there. All his friends noticed that he changed from this point. His spiritual growth came, and continued to come from spending time with God. The more he did this, the deeper the river flowed. His friends could observe how much his soul was engrossed during times of study and devotion. If interrupted on such occasions, though he never seemed ruffled, yet there was a kind of gravity and silence that implied “I wish to be alone.” Referring on one occasion to those hours during which the soul is dry and barren he observed, “They are proofs of how little we are filled with the presence of God.” He would often ride out to the ruined church of Invergowrie to spend an hour or two in meditation. He was always working towards personal holiness, through prayer, reading the Word and fasting.
St Peter’s was a brand new church, built as part of the Church Extension Scheme, like Dunipace. It was a very destitute parish with 4,000 people to the west of the town, including some countryside areas. On his arrival there were 1,100 in the congregation, a third of whom had to travel a long way. His first impressions of Dundee were severe. “A city given to idolatry and hardness of heart. I fear there is much of what Isaiah speaks of, ‘The prophets prophesy lies, and the people love to have it so.’ “
McCheyne’s first few months were difficult. He was feeling quite weak himself, but he had to visit many sick and dying as there was an influenza outbreak that winter. One man was converted on his death bed, just a few days before he died. This encouraged McCheyne to speak earnestly to the dying about salvation. He never did get to visit his whole parish, partly because of the precarious condition of his health, partly to do with the demands on his time to evangelise elsewhere and partly due to there being so many people. Though he felt that he had let the parish down, by setting up Sabbath Schools and by having an active eldership, the needs of the parishioners were fairly well served. On visiting a rural parish he remarked, “Well, how I envy a country minister; for he can get acquainted with all his people, and have some insight into their real character.” He did receive some criticism for being away from his flock so much as he went on his evangelising trips. However, due to the extended time he spent with the Lord, one has to assume that he only went where he was told to go.
He had an evening class every week for the youth, but his favourite class was that for young communicants. He made notes on each one, for example, “Knows she was once Christless; now she reads and prays, and is anxious. I doubt not there is some anxiety, yet I fear it may be only a self-reformation to recommend herself to God and to man. I told her plainly.” He encouraged the Sabbath Schools, partly by writing little booklets for the children. Clearly the young were his favourite occupation. He wrote these lines in a book that he sent to a boy in his congregation:
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.
McCheyne had a high standard for those who taught the children. He wrote to one who had applied to teach an evening class for the mill girls, “The qualifications she should possess for sewing and knitting, you will understand far better than I. She should be able to keep up in her scholars the fluency of reading, and the knowledge of the Bible and Catechism, which they may have already acquired. She should be able to teach them to sing the praises of God, with feeling and melody. But far above all, she should be a Christian woman, not in name only, but in deed and in truth one whose heart has been touched by the spirit of God, and who can love the souls of little children…”
He had heard about some churches having successful mid-week prayer meetings, so he immediately began them on a Thursday evening. Believers were sometimes refreshed at these prayer meetings even more than they were in the Sunday service. He would open with prayers, give a Bible verse, normally to do with the Holy Spirit, and then preach on the verse for twenty minutes. There would then be more prayers, followed by his reading and commenting on some report on a revival. People came from all over the town to these meetings. One person who came to these meetings wrote that, ‘They will be doubtless remembered in eternity with songs of praise,’ and ‘… you seemed to breathe the atmosphere of heaven.’
McCheyne was most effective from the pulpit. His biographer writes, “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.” In the vestry there was never any idle conversation, it was all about preparing the heart before he spoke. One person remarked on McCheyne’s approach to the pulpit, “Before he opened his lips, as he came along the passage, there was something about him that sorely affected me.” His friend and biographer wrote, “It is difficult to convey to those who never knew him a correct idea of the sweetness and holy unction of his preaching.”
The quarterly Communion services were particularly powerful. Bonar writes, “Many will remember for ever the blessed Communion Sabbaths that were enjoyed in St. Peter’s. From the very first, these Communion seasons were remarkably owned of God. The awe of his presence used to be upon his people, and the house filled with the odour of the ointment, when his name was poured forth, (Song i. 3.) But on common Sabbaths also many soon began to journey long distances to attend St. Peter’s many from country parishes, who would return home with their hearts burning, as they talked of what they had heard that day.” Sometimes, however, McCheyne would notice that the Holy Spirit was not with him, so he would just cry out to God for help.
Soon after coming to Dundee, McCheyne started to receive offers from other churches. One of the first was a very comfortable position as minister in a country parish of 300 at a very good salary, but he knew that his work was in Dundee. “But God has not so ordered it. He has set me down among the noisy mechanics and political weavers of this godless town. He will make the money sufficient. He that paid his taxes from a fish’s mouth, will supply all my need.” Later that same year he was encouraged, for the sake of his health, to apply for a position in a parish near Perth, but he declined again: “My Master has placed me here with his own hand; and I never will, directly or indirectly seek to be removed.”
His reason for refusing to apply for another position is interesting. In a letter to his biographer McCheyne writes, “I prayed that in order to settle my own mind completely about staying, he would awaken some of my people. I agreed that it should be a sign that he would wish me to stay. The next morning, I think, or at least the second morning, there came to me two young persons I had never seen before, in great distress. What brought this to my mind was that they came to me again yesterday, and their distress is greatly increased. Indeed I never saw any people in such anguish about their soul. I cannot but regard this as a real answer to prayer. I have also several other persons in deep distress, and I feel that I am quite helpless in comforting them.”
At the close of 1837 McCheyne became Secretary of the Association for Church Extension for Forfar. His reason for doing this was his belief that more churches meant more people saved. “Every day I live I feel more and more persuaded that it is the cause of God and of his kingdom in Scotland in our day. Many a time when I thought myself a dying man, the souls of the perishing thousands in my own parish, who never enter any house of God, have lain heavy on my heart. Many a time have I prayed that the eyes of our enemies might be opened, and that God would open the hearts of our rulers, to feel that their highest duty and greatest glory is to support the ministers of Christ, and to send these to every perishing soul in Scotland.”
McCheyne took seriously his role as a minister in the Presbytery. Despite his young age, his opinion was much respected, and it was always given quickly and decisively. It was a time of major debate. Moderatism had been a cancer in the church in Scotland for over fifty years. Moderate ministers were more interested in the form of Christianity than its substance. McCheyne wrote, “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 up.” Other great questions debated were over the Church’s independence of the Civil Power and the rights of congregations to appoint ministers of their own choosing, rather than unsaved patrons.
McCheyne had a hunger and an urgency to see people saved, because right from the beginning of his ministry he thought that he would not live long. He once said to a friend, “It is well for you, who enjoy constant health to be so firmly persuaded that Christ is thus to come; but my sickly frame makes me feel every day that my time may be very short.” At the close of 1838 some symptoms appeared that alarmed his friends. Considering his weak constitution, he worked too hard. After any great exertion, he now experienced violent palpitations of the heart. It soon appeared in times of study, and then became almost constant. At this point the doctors were worried that his lungs might be affected. He was told he had to have complete rest, so he went to his father’s to rest. He knew that congregations tended to glorify the man rather than God and the minister would then feel pride in his accomplishments, so he felt that an absence could do them both good.
Whilst still sick, he was speaking to a friend about a Mission to Israel when it suddenly occurred to his friend that perhaps he could go to Israel during his recuperation. His doctors approved of the idea. This proposed trip caused a lot of excitement in Scotland. Several ministers understood the importance of Israel and Jerusalem; that Israel was still ‘beloved for the Fathers’ sake.’ McCheyne himself was very sure of the importance of Israel in the eyes of God, and therefore of its importance as a place of missionary labour. He believed that when the Church stretched out its hand to the Jew, God would pour out His Spirit. He received several letters from his congregation, questioning the wisdom of leaving them to go to Israel. He wrote to one of them, “…But God has very plainly shown me that I may perform a deeply important work for his ancient people, and at the same time be in the best way of seeking a return of health.”
McCheyne looked for someone who could oversee his parish while he was away. His choice was Spirit-inspired, as he chose William C Burns, the son of the minister at Kilsyth that was soon to be in revival. On March 12th 1839 he 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. Perhaps there are many souls that would never have been saved under my ministry, who may be touched under yours; and God has taken this method of bringing you into my place. His name is Wonderful.” – prophetic words. Having arranged this he went to London to join the other three ministers he was to go with; including Andrew Bonar, his friend and biographer.
They arrived in Alexandria, travelling then through the desert on camels to Palestine. They slept in tents on the way, so they must have felt much like the Israelites escaping from Egypt to Palestine. He wrote, “I had no idea that travelling in the wilderness was so dreadful a thing as it is. The loneliness I often felt quite solemnised me. The burning sun overhead, round and round a circle of barren sand, chequered only by a few prickly shrubs, no rain, not a cloud, the wells often like that of Marah, and far between. I now understand well the murmurings of Israel. I feel that our journey proved and tried my own heart very much.” They spent ten days in Jerusalem, hardly letting a rock remain unvisited. (The biography gives quite a full account of their travels, but it is not relevant for this essay.) At one point McCheyne caught a fever which made him very ill.
It was about this time, while he was fearing death from his sickness, that revival began in Kilsyth (see this website). William Burns was preaching at his father’s church, and while pressing upon them immediate acceptance of Christ, the congregation was overpowered. The Holy Spirit seemed to come down as a rushing mighty wind. Very many were struck to the heart; and the sanctuary was filled with distressed and enquiring souls. Burns returned to Dundee on August 8th, while McCheyne was on his sickbed. People were really affected by the news of what was happening in Kilsyth. Burns had noticed that the Holy Spirit was at work before he went to Kilsyth, but it was two days after he had returned that the Holy Spirit began to pour out at St Peters. Burns spoke a few words of what had happened in Kilsyth and then asked anyone who was in need of an outpouring of the Holy Spirit to be converted to stay behind. About a hundred remained. The power of God came down. Next evening, after the service, people were invited to the vestry if they wanted to talk to someone about conversion. “A vast number pressed in with awful eagerness. It was like a pent-up flood breaking forth; tears were streaming from the eyes of many, and some fell on the ground groaning, and weeping, and crying for mercy.” Meetings went on every day for some weeks. McCheyne must have really wondered why the Lord started to do what he had been longing for when he was hundreds of miles away.
Whilst in Palestine, McCheyne would often go up to a Jew, Bible in hand, and point out to him some verse in the Bible. He would converse with them sometimes in Italian, sometimes he using a word or two of Hebrew and sometimes in Latin to the more educated Jew he came across. Travelling through Poland on the way home he was very struck by the Catholic idols at the side if the roads. He was appalled by the Catholicism he saw, thinking that it would be good for the Scotsmen who favoured Catholicism to go to Poland to experience it for themselves. He preached in Berlin; and it was here that he heard something of what was going on in Dundee and Kilsyth. He eventually arrived home on November 6th after being away for eight months.
(The biography mentions several times the many dangers that they experienced on their trip, but mentions no specifics. Also there is no mention of the results of the reason for their visit. This was deliberate as a full report had been published separately.)
McCheyne was strong again, so the evening after his return to Dundee he spoke for an hour in the church. He did not speak of his travels, but showed the way of life to sinners. His people were thrilled that he was with them again, with many wanting to welcome him back personally. There was concern that McCheyne might be envious of what happened through another’s ministry in his church, but the Holy Spirit preserved him from any such thoughts. He was only interested in seeing people saved, by whomever God chose. He wrote to his friend Andrew Bonar to report on what he found on his return. He said that things were better than he had hoped and commented on William Burns. “Mr. Burns preached twice, morning and evening. His views of Divine truth are clear and commanding. There is a great deal of substance in what he preaches, and his manner is very powerful, so much so, that he sometimes made me tremble. In private, he is deeply prayerful, and seems to feel his danger of falling into pride.”
Sadly for McCheyne the heavy showers had fallen, so he was left with the Spirit flowing gently in his church. Burns went to St Leonard’s, Perth to minister and stayed there some time, because of signs that the Spirit was doing something. He was going to return to Dundee, but on the last day of 1839, revival began in Perth. In his remaining time in Dundee, McCheyne records that 400 people came to him to talk about salvation, so clearly the Holy Spirit was still working powerfully, if less intensely than before.
Soon after his return, several ministers from Dundee began to meet together every Monday morning to pray for their flocks and each other.
McCheyne was a prolific writer and some of his letters can be found in Bonar’s biography. He had a calm, holy, tender, affectionate style in his letter writing. He had a striking way of writing truth in his letters, however short they were. (Of course many were great letter writers in those days, as there was no other way of communicating. John Wesley and George Whitefield wrote many letters. One wonders how busy ministers found the time, especially when they were in revival.)
On July 25th, 1840 he came to the service unprepared, but he need not have worried because the Holy Spirit was prepared. He found great freedom in speaking, and many were deeply moved by the Spirit. He spoke to several in the vestry. The work of God was continuing. McCheyne wrote to the minister at Jedburgh (where there was also a revival going on) that for some months around this period, no minister who preached in a lively manner would fail to have at least one soul converted in the meeting. He recognised that the Holy Spirit was moving in several places in Scotland. Throughout Ross-shire whole congregations were moved as one man. There were revivals in Kelso, Jedburgh, Ancrum, Breadalbane and districts of Strathbogie. Bonar, in his biography, suggests that the Lord was preparing Scotland for a crisis in the near future. He is clearly referring to the Disruption in 1843, but it is difficult to know if he is writing in hindsight or if people did think this at the time. It is likely to be in hindsight, because the revival does not seem to have been particularly widespread and much smaller than that of 1859. Ministers were expectant and looking out for signs of outbreaks of the Holy Spirit.
The following is an analysis by McCheyne of the revival:
God, in the conversion of sinners and edifying of saints, has taken place in this parish and neighborhood. This work I have observed going on from the very beginning of my ministry in this place in November, 1836, and it has continued to the present time; but was much more remarkable in the autumn of 1839, when I was abroad on a mission of inquiry to the Jews, and when my place was occupied by the Rev. W. C. Burns. Previous to my going abroad, and for several months afterwards, the means used were of the ordinary kind. In addition to the services of the Sabbath in the summer of 1837 a meeting was opened in the church on Thursday evenings for prayer, exposition of Scripture, reading accounts of Missions, Revivals of Religion, &c. Sabbath schools were formed, private prayer meetings were encouraged, and two weekly classes for young men and young women were instituted with a very large attendance. These means were accompanied with an evident blessing from on high in many instances. But there was no visible or general movement among the people until August, 1839, immediately after the beginning of the Lord’s work at Kilsyth. The Word of God came with such power to the hearts and consciences of the people here, and their thirst for hearing it became so intense, that evening classes in the school-room were changed into densely crowded congregations in the church, and 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. At present, although many changes have taken place, I believe the number of these meetings is not much diminished. Now, however, they are nearly all of the more private kind the deep and general anxiety; which led to many of them being open having in a great degree subsided. Among the many ministers who have assisted here from time to time, and especially in the autumn of 1839, I may mention Mr. Macdonald of Urquhart, Mr. Gumming of Dumbarney, Mr. Bonar of Larbert, Mr. Bonar of Kelso, and Mr. Somerville of Anderston, Some of these were present here for a considerable time, and I have good reason for believing that they were eminently countenanced by God in their labors.
As to the extent of this work of God, I believe it is impossible to speak with certainty. The parish is situated in the suburb of a city with 60,000 inhabitants. The work extended to individuals residing in all quarters of the town, and belonging to all ranks and denominations of the people. Many hundreds, under deep concern for their souls, have come, from first to last, to converse with the ministers; so that I am deeply persuaded the number of those who have received saving benefit is greater than anyone will know till Judgment-day.
The previous character of those who seem to have been converted was very various. I could name not a few in the higher ranks of life that seem evidently to have become new creatures, which previously lived a worldly life, though unmarked by open wickedness. Many, again, who were before nominal Christians, are now living ones. I could name, however, far more, who have been turned from the paths of open sin and profligacy, and have found pardon and purity in the blood of the Lamb, and by the spirit of our God; so that we can say to them, as Paul said to the Corinthians, ” Such were some of you, but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified,” &c. I often think, when conversing with some of these, that the change they have undergone might be enough to convince an Atheist that there is a God, or an Infidel that there is a Saviour.
It is not easy for a minister in a field like this to keep an exact account of all the cases of awakening and conversion that occur, and there are many of which he may never hear. I have always tried to mark down the circumstances of each awakened soul that applied to me, and the number of these, from first to last has been very great. 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. I know many who appear to have been converted, and yet have never come to me in private; and I am, every now and then, meeting with cases of which I never before heard. Indeed, eternity alone can reveal the true number of the Lord’s hidden ones among us.
With regard to the consistency of those who are believed to have been converted, I may first of all remark that it must be acknowledged, and should be clearly understood, that many who came under concern about their souls, and seemed for a time to be deeply convinced of sin, have gone back again to the world. I believe that, at that remarkable season in 1839, there were very few persons who attended the meetings without being more or less affected. It pleased God, at that time, to bring an awfully solemn sense of divine things over the minds of men. It was, indeed, the day of our merciful visitation. But many allowed it to slip past them without being saved; and these have sunk back, as was to be expected, into their former deadness and impenitence. Alas! there are some among us, whose very looks remind you of that awful warning, ‘Quench not the spirit.’
Confining our view, however, to those who, as far as ministers could judge by the rules of God’s Word, seemed to be savingly converted, I may with safety say that I do not know of more than two who have openly given the lie to their profession. Other cases of this kind may have occurred, but they are unknown to me. More, I have little doubt, will eventually occur; for the voice of God teaches us to expect such things. Some of those converted have now walked consistently for four years; the greater part from one to two years. Some have had their falls into sin, and have thus opened the mouths of their adversaries, but the very noise that this has made shows that such instances are very rare. Some have fallen into spiritual darkness; many, I fear, have left their first love; yet I see nothing in all this but what is existing in every Christian Church. Many there are among us who are filled with light and peace, and are examples to the believers in all things. We had an additional communion season at my return from the continent, which was the happiest and holiest that I was ever present at. The Monday was entirely devoted to thanksgiving, and a thank-offering was made among us to God for his signal mercies. The times were hard, and my people are far from wealthy, yet the sum contributed was £71. This was devoted to Missionary purposes. It is true that those whom I esteem as Christians do often grieve me by their inconsistencies; but still I cannot help thinking that, if the world were full of such, the time would come when ‘they shall neither hurt nor destroy in all God’s holy mountain.’
During the progress of this work of God, not only have many individuals been savingly converted, but important effects have also been produced upon the people generally. It is indeed amazing, and truly affecting to see, that thousands living in the immediate vicinity of the spot, where God has been dealing so graciously still continue sunk in deep apathy in regard to spiritual things, or are running on greedily in open sin. While many from a distance have become heirs of glory, multitudes, I fear, of those who live within the sound of the Sabbath bell continue to live on in sin and misery. Still, however, the effects that have been produced upon the community are very marked. It seems now to be allowed, even by the most ungodly, that there is such a thing as conversion. Men cannot any longer deny it. The Sabbath is now observed with greater reverence than it used to be and there seems to be far more of a solemn awe upon the minds of men than formerly. I feel that I can now stop sinners in the midst of their open sin and wickedness, and command their reverent attention in a way that I could not have done before. The private meetings for prayer have spread a sweet influence over the place. There is far more solemnity in the house of God; and it is a different thing to preach to the people now from what it once was. Any minister of spiritual feeling can discern that there are many praying people in the congregation. When I came first here, I found it impossible to establish Sabbath-schools on the local system; while, very lately, there were instituted with ease nineteen such schools that are well taught and well attended.
As I have already stated, by far the most remarkable season of the working of the Spirit of God in this place was in 1839, when I was abroad. At that time, there were many seasons of remarkable solemnity, when the house of God literally became “a Bochim, a place of weepers.” 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. I have observed at such times an awful and breathless stillness pervading the assembly, each hearer bent forward in the posture of rapt attention; serious men covered their faces to pray that the arrows of the King of Zion might be sent home with power to the hearts of sinners. Again, at such a time, I have heard a half-suppressed sigh rising from many a heart, and have seen many bathed in tears. At other times, I have heard loud sobbing in many parts of the church, while a deep solemnity pervaded the whole audience. I have also, in some instances, heard individuals cry aloud, as if they had been pierced through with a dart. These solemn scenes were witnessed under the preaching of different ministers, and sometimes occurred under the most tender of Gospel invitations. On one occasion, for instance, when the minister was speaking tenderly on the words, “He is altogether lovely,” almost every sentence was responded to by cries of the bitterest agony. At such times I have seen persons so overcome that they could not walk or stand alone. I have known cases in which believers have been similarly affected through the fulness of their joy. I have often known such awakenings to issue in what I believe to be real conversion. I could name many of the humblest, meekest believers, who at one time cried out in the church under deep agony. I have also met with cases where the sight of souls thus pierced has been blessed by God to awaken careless sinners who had come to mock.
I am far from believing that these signs of deep alarm always issue in conversion, or that the Spirit of God does not often work more quietly. Sometimes, I believe, he comes like the pouring rain; sometimes like the gentle dew. Still I would humbly state my conviction, that it is the duty of all who seek the salvation of souls, and especially the duty of ministers, to long and pray for such solemn times when the arrows shall be sharp in the heart of the King’s enemies, and our slumbering congregations shall be made to cry out, ” Men and brethren, what shall we do?”
Robert Murray M’Cheyne
26th March, 1841.
It is worth noting that, from this revival, no fewer than sixteen men from St Peter’s became ministers of the Gospel.
The Presbytery of Strathbogie at this time had tried to force a minister onto a congregation that had already vetoed him. All the people walked out of the church in protest and did not return. The civil courts granted the Presbytery an interdict forbidding any minister to preach in any of the parishes on pain of a fine or imprisonment. Some ministers refused to accept this ruling as it prevented the Gospel being preached and it opposed their constitutional liberties. In August McCheyne and a colleague were sent to minister the Lords Supper at Huntly. McCheyne preached to a large congregation in the evening at the well, and about a hundred waited afterwards for prayer.
He then went to Edinburgh to put his signature to the Solemn Engagement, in defence of the liberties of the Church, against interference from the State. He was very concerned about Moderatism as many of the ministers did not know the Gospel and so could not preach it. He was terribly concerned for all the people who were in the parishes of church ministers. He believed that Evangelists should be appointed who had the power to preach in any pulpit. He even considered giving up his parish, if he were to be given the authority to preach anywhere. He also believed in unity, inviting two dissenters to preach in his pulpit as soon as the 1799 Act, which prohibited such a thing, was cancelled.
In May 1842 there were more good signs of the Holy Spirit’s work in his church, but in the summer months he had several attacks of illness. Later in the summer he went with some others to minister in the north of England. Having some success he returned in September to Dundee feeling stronger. At this time he believed that the Lord was directing him more towards evangelistic work than pastoral, so he accepted an invitation to go to London, even though there were murmurings of discontent in his parish. Again there was fruit from his visit. One aspect of his character that people noticed was his holiness. People noticed the presence of God in him, which clearly brought about the peace and humility that were part of him.
On November 17th he was in Edinburgh with 500 other ministers for the Convocation. The matter under urgent discussion was the encroachment of the civil courts into ecclesiastical matters. Most of these ministers believed in an independent Church of Scotland, free from any interference by the State. McCheyne attended all the sessions over eight days, applying his signature to all the decisions. The proceedings were interrupted from time to time by the ministers praying together to seek God’s guidance. The result was that in May the following year, 474 ministers and 190 preachers left the Church of Scotland, forming the Free Church of Scotland. This was known as the Disruption.
On the way home McCheyne was talking to a fellow minister about what they would do if they left the Church of Scotland. His companion said he could go to Canada to minister to Highlanders there in Gaelic; while McCheyne said he might go to Australia to minister to the convicts.
On January 6th, 1843 he writes that the Holy Spirit is still working at St Peters, “Heard of an awakened soul finding rest, true rest I trust. Two new cases of awakening, both very deep and touching. At the very time when I was beginning to give up in despair, God gives me tokens of his presence returning.” This is the last such incident that he records.
McCheyne was never satisfied with his condition, he was always trying to better himself. At this time he wrote a little paper called ‘Reformation’ for his own use. It was like an instruction book for himself, so that he could walk a holier life and be a better minister. His biography gives this document in full. It is divided into two sections, Personal Reformation and Reformation in Secret Prayer. We should all be trying to live the life he lays out in this paper.
His health did not allow him to make many visits around the parish, so he was offered an assistant who could do this work. This was a great help to him. At this time he published ‘Daily Bread’, an arrangement of Scripture that would enable someone to read the Bible in a year. It is still sold today. His letters were full of his desire to be with God and his expectations of not living long. At the beginning of February he went on his last evangelistic tour, to the districts of Deer and Ellon in Aberdeenshire, where Moderatism had held sway for generations. He spoke 27 times in 24 places in three weeks. Someone who visited the area a few months later said that ‘a thirst was excited for the pure Word of Life.’ In one place a crowd had come to throw stones at him as soon as he began to speak, but no sooner had he begun, than his manner, his look and his words riveted them and they all listened with intense earnestness. At the end they begged him to stay. One man who had thrown mud at him, later cried at the news of his death.
Andrew Bonar wrote, “Never was it more felt that God was with him than in this journey. The Lord seemed to show in him the meaning of the text, 1Out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.1 Even when silent, the near intercourse he held with God left its impression on those around. His constant holiness touched the conscience of many.” Interestingly, it was the area around Aberdeen that was so impacted 17 years later during the 1859/60 revival, through the ministry of Reginald Radcliffe, Richard Weaver and others. After so many years when the Gospel had not been preached, it is more than likely that McCheyne did the preparatory work by digging the well.
He returned on March 1st, feeling very tired, but healthy. He continued his ministry in the usual way, including visiting some who had caught Typhus. On the 12th he preached on the Sovereignty of God in his Church and in the evening he preached at Broughty Ferry. These were the last times he was to preach. Just as his first sermon resulted in salvations, so did his last. After his death, an unopened note was found from someone who was at Broughty Ferry. “I hope you will pardon a stranger for addressing to you a few lines. I heard you preach last Sabbath evening, and it pleased God to bless that sermon to my soul. It was not so much what you said, as your manner of speaking that struck me. I saw in you a beauty in holiness that I never saw before. You also said something in your prayer that struck me very much. It was, ‘Thou knowest that we love thee.’ O Sir, what would I give that I could say to my blessed Saviour, ‘Thou knowest that I love thee.’”
On the Monday he had a collection for the new Free Church that was inevitable. The Church was going to need a lot of money to build new churches and manses and to pay ministers salaries. After the meeting he felt unwell. On the Tuesday he married two of his people, but then went to bed. He had contracted Typhus. Due to the weakness of his constitution he was always more susceptible to getting sick. He was in and out of delirium for a time, and died on Saturday the 25th.
The following is an account by Roxburgh of St David’s, Dundee of the aftermath of McCheyne’s death and funeral.
“It is impossible to describe the grief which pervades his flock. The lane in which his residence was situated was constantly crowded with anxious inquirers, and numerous prayer-meetings were held during the progress of his illness. On Thursday there was the usual meeting in the church and it was then agreed by many present to meet for prayer the next evening in the school-house. This they accordingly did, but the schoolhouse proved all too small to contain the crowds who flocked to it, and an adjournment to the church was necessary. Towards the close, it became known that increasing fears for their pastor’s life were entertained, and the mourning people were with difficulty persuaded against remaining in the church throughout the night. When the news spread amongst them, the next morning, the voice of weeping might have been heard in almost every household. On Sabbath, Mr. Bonar of Collace, the dear friend of the deceased and his companion in Palestine, preached in the forenoon and afternoon, and Mr. Miller of Wallacetown in the evening. On each occasion, the church (including the passages) was crowded in every part; and it was remarked by those who were present that they never before saw so many men in tears. It was truly a weeping congregation.”
The funeral took place on the Thursday following. “Business was almost totally suspended throughout the bounds of his parish, and hours before the time appointed for the funeral arrived, crowds began to draw towards the scene of the mournful obsequies from all parts of the town, anxious to pay the last sad token of respect to the remains of one whom they had esteemed so highly. Long before the hour arrived, the whole line of road intervening between the dwelling-house and the churchyard was crowded with men, women and children, principally of the working classes. Every window overlooking the procession, and the church itself, were likewise densely filled with females, almost all attired in deep mourning; the very walls and housetops were surmounted with anxious on-lookers. Altogether, not fewer than six or seven thousand people must have assembled. The funeral procession itself was followed by nearly every man in the parish and congregation who could command becoming attire; by the brethren of the Presbytery and many ministers from the surrounding districts, as well as from a distance; by the great body of the elders; most of the Dissenting ministers in town; in addition to multitudes of all ranks and persuasions who thus united in testifying their sense of the loss which their common Christianity had sustained in the untimely death of him in whom all recognised one of its brightest ornaments. The grave was dug in the pathway near the south-west corner of the church, and within a few yards of the pulpit from which he has so often and so faithfully proclaimed the Word of Life. In this his lowly resting place, all that is mortal of him was deposited amid the tears and sobs of the crowd. There his flesh rests in that assured hope of a blessed resurrection, of the elevating and purifying influences of which his life and his ministry were so beauteous an example. His memory will never perish.
The same minister writes of him, ‘Whether viewed as a son, a brother, a friend, or a pastor, often has the remark been made, by those who knew him most intimately, that he was the most faultless and attractive exhibition of the true Christian which they had ever seen embodied in a living form.’
One biographer called him the Whitefield of Scotland to describe his apostolic role and the reverence in which he is held by the people of Scotland.
This essay is taken from,‘The Life and Remains, Letters, Lectures and Poems of the Rev. Robert Murray M’Cheyne, Minister of St Peter’s Church Dundee’ by Andrew A Bonar, published in 1860.
The work can be found on http://www.archive.org/details/liferemainslette00mcherich.
This book was incredibly popular in its day, going through over twenty editions.