In April 1836Robert McCheynewent 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 he 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 his 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 his 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. It was to the west of the town and included some countryside. 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 deathbed, 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, feeling that he had let the parish down. His failure to do this was partly because of the precarious condition of his health, partly to do with the demands on his time to go to evangelise elsewhere and partly due to there being so many. However, he 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 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 his 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 breath 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 forever 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.
The Church was being refurbished at a cost of £1m in May 2009.