St Peter's Church - Dundee (1839)



God, in the conversion of sinners and edifying of saints, has taken place in this parish and neighbourhood. 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 labours.

As to the extent of this work of God, I believe it is impossible to speak decidedly. The parish is situated in the suburb of a city containing 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 ..'nil know till the 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, who 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 you are washed, but you are sanctified, but you 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 incident in the case of 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 wrapt 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 tenderest 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 in a quieter manner. 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.

The movement thus begun at Kilsyth soon broke bounds and spread over the greater part of Scotland. Young Burns had intended to return to Dundee for Sunday, July 28, but events at Kilsyth compelled him to remain and he did not reach Dundee until Tuesday, August 8. The news of what had taken place in the west had preceded him and he found the soil prepared for sowing. "On Thursday, the second day after his return," says Dr. Andrew Bonar, "at the close of the usual evening prayer- meeting in St. Peter's, and when the minds of many were deeply solemnized by the tidings which had reached them, he spoke a few words about what had for some days detained him from them, and invited those to remain who felt the need of an outpouring of the Spirit to convert them. About a hundred remained, and at the conclusion of a solemn address to these anxious souls, suddenly the power of God seemed to descend and all were bathed in tears." On the following evening similar scenes were enacted, the impression being even greater. "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." During the next three months, Dundee saw many an unaccustomed sight. Crowded meetings were held night after night and numerous inquirers remained after the ordinary meetings were over. Many sought private interviews with the ministers engaged in the work. "During the autumn of 1839," wrote M'Cheyne, "not fewer than from six to seven hundred come to converse with the ministers about their souls; and there were many more, equally concerned, who never came forward in this way." Meetings were often held in the open-air. Many flocked into the town from the surrounding country, and ministers came from all directions, either to see or to help in the movement. Among those who gave their services were Macdonald of Ferintosh and Flyster of Alness from the far north; the Bonars of Larbert and Kelso; Somerville of Glasgow; and Cumming of Dunbarney. The venerable Caesar Malan of Geneva and Robert Haldane also visited the town. M' Cheyne returned to Dundee on Thursday, November 23. The fervent season of the revival had by this time somewhat passed, but there was still enough glory to indicate something of the greatness of what had been taking place. "At the time of my return from the Mission of the Jews." he says, "I found thirty-nine such meetings [prayer and fellowship] held weekly in connection with the congregation, and five of these were conducted and attended entirely by little children." As was to be expected, M'Cheyne threw himself with characteristic energy into the work. Many anxious souls sought conversation with him. Altogether he records four hundred such interviews in the months following his return. The high tide of the revival, however, had passed and things religious continued to tend towards their normal condition. By October 5, 1841, M'Cheyne could write, "The glory is greatly departed but the number of saved souls is far beyond my knowledge."

Released from his Dundee engagement, Burns began an apostolic ministry, preaching wherever an opportunity offered. The fame of the service he had rendered spread over the English-speaking world, and he had invitations which he accepted from England, Ireland, and Canada. He continued in these labours until he sailed to take up his life's task in China at the beginning of 1847. The best part of his evangelical work, however, was done in his native Scotland. After he left Dundee, he spent some time in St. Andrews as well as in Kilsyth and the districts surrounding his father's parish. Everywhere, he had marked success accompanying his preaching.

From 'Scotland Saw His Glory,' edited by Richard Owen Roberts