The Remnant On Line History Page

   

Robert Murray M’Cheyne

DUNDEE, SCOTLAND -- A cynic was once holding forth against the hypocrisy of Christians, but when asked if she had met any Christian whom she could regard as a genuine ‘man of God’ she replied: “Yes, I saw one, a man, a minister in this hotel, a tall spare man from Scotland. He was a man of God. I watched him, and felt that he was a genuine Christian. His very looks did me good.” The ‘man of God’ was Robert Murray M’Cheyne, who, it is said, “lived Christ in a way that those who denied Christ could not fault.”
One of the most notable characteristics of the man was the holy consistency of his daily walk. He has been called ‘one of the loveliest specimens of the Spirit’s workmanship.’ The secret of this was his habitual dependence upon the Spirit of God, which enabled him to lead a powerful revival in his parish in Dundee before his early death at the age of only 29.
Robert M’Cheyne was born in Edinburgh in May, 1813, the youngest child of a family of five. His father was a prosperous lawyer and a man of social importance. As a boy, the young Robert proved himself exceptionally gifted, at the age of four amusing himself by learning the Greek alphabet. Later at school and at Edinburgh University Robert sketched, wrote poetry and sang well. He also delighted in gymnastics.
The M’Cheyne family were in the habit of attending church, but for them it was generally a formal, dead religion. At the university Robert soon became an eager participant in the city’s fashionable entertainments, spending his leisure hours in card playing, dancing and music.
However, Robert was the subject of much fervent prayer from his elder brother, David, who had found a real experience of Christ and longed for the rest of his family to be saved. The wake up call to Robert was David’s early death in 1831 – as he called it, “the first overwhelming blow to my worldliness.” Very soon he had given up his pleasures and had entered into a real and lasting commitment to Christ.
In later years, M’Cheyne was to declare in his preaching: “O Christless man, you have pleasure, but it is only for a season. Laugh on if you will – your candle will soon be out. Your games, your dance, your social parties, will soon be over. There are no games in hell.” 
      Following a call to the ministry, Robert entered the Divinity Hall of Edinburgh University and his diary entries show his fervent study of the works and lives of divines such as Jonathan Edwards, David Brainerd and Henry Martyn. From a letter he later wrote to a student, we see the rules of study he applied to himself. They contain excellent principles for any young person feeling the call of God on their lives: “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.” 
Even as a young man, M’Cheyne appears to have been gripped with a premonition of the brevity of life. The last entry of his student days is “March 29, 1835. College finished on Friday last. My last appearance there. Life is vanishing fast, make haste for eternity.”
     It was at this time that the sheer holiness which characterised his whole lifestyle began to emerge. This did not just consist of a series of prohibitions, but a very positive and wonderful experience of Christ in his life, which was to make his ministry effective far beyond his years. 
     He once said: “Study universal holiness of life. Your whole usefulness depends on this, for your sermons last but an hour or two: your life preaches all week. If Satan can only make a covetous minister a lover of praise, of pleasure, of good eating, he has ruined your ministry. Give yourself to prayer, and get your texts, your thoughts, your words, from God.”
     M’Cheyne’s biographer, Andrew Bonar, writes: “”the real secret of his soul’s prosperity lay in daily enlargement of his heart in fellowship with his God. Meditation and prayer were the very sinews of his work.” In later years the manservant at the manse said of him: “Oh to hear Mr. M’Cheyne at prayers in the morning. It was as if he would never give over, he had so much to ask.”
From his diary we gather his own private observations: “I ought to spend the best hours of the day in communion with God. It is my noblest and most fruitful employment … The morning hours, from six to eight, are the most uninterrupted … After tea is my best hour, and that should be solemnly dedicated to God, if possible.”
      It must not be thought, however, that M’Cheyne’s was a gloomy, negative sort of holiness. He was warm hearted, humorous and hard working. Even in later years his enthusiasm for gymnastics remained and occasionally got the better of him. On one occasion he noticed some gymnastic poles in the garden of the manse at Errol. He made a rush for them and began a series of gyrations. Just as he was challenging Dr. Guthrie, a leading evangelical, to join him, the pole from which he was hanging by his feet snapped and he fell. Guthrie tells that it took some days before he could get out of bed! 
      M’Cheyne was licensed by the presbyter of Annan in 1835 and, after a short period as assistant to John Bonar at Larbert and Dunipace, he was ordained minister of St. Peter’s, Dundee, in 1836. It was a new church in a parish of around 4,000 people, most of whom, according to the new minister, were “given to idolatry and hardness of heart…….He [God] has set me down among the noisy mechanics and political wavers of this town.”
      In spite of the prevailing atmosphere, M’Cheyne’s congregation soon numbered around 1,500. Urgency and alarm characterised his message: “God help me to speak to you plainly! The longest lifetime is short enough. It is all that is given you to be converted in. In a very little, it will be all over ; and all that is here is changing – the very hills are crumbling down – the loveliest face is withering away – the finest garments rot and decay. Every day that passes is bringing you nearer to the judgement-seat. Not one of you is standing still. You may sleep ; but the tide is going on bringing you nearer death, judgement, and eternity.”
The power of M’Cheyne’s preaching doubtless came through his communion with God and his passion for lost souls – “I think I can say, I have never risen a morning without thinking how I could bring more souls to Christ.” However, although diligent in his calling, he never made the mistake of thinking that a minister’s main work consists of outward activity. “A minister’s duty is not so much public as private,” he observed; and to a friend, “The work of God would flourish by us if it flourished more richly in us.”
“Above all things, cultivate your own spirit,” M’Cheyne wrote to a fellow-minister. “Your own soul is your first and greatest care. Seek advance of personal holiness. It is not great talents God blesses so much as great likeness to Jesus. A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God. A word spoken by you when your conscience is clear, and your heart full of God’s Spirit, is worth ten thousand words spoken in unbelief and sin.” 
      Towards the end of 1838, M’Cheyne’s health began to give way – the probable result of over-work. With reluctance he obeyed his doctors’ orders to rest at his parents’ home in Edinburgh. In 1839 it was proposed, partly for the sake of his health, that he undertake a trip to Palestine to make personal enquiries into the state of Israel. While in Smyrna, he was taken dangerously ill but never ceased to cry out in prayer for his flock at Dundee. 
       The seed M’Cheyne had sown among his people came to fruition in a remarkable way during his absence. Under a young man of twenty-four – W C Burns – a revival began to grip Scotland, first in Kilsyth and then in Dundee. Truth pierced hearts in an amazing manner: “tears were streaming from the eyes of many, and some fell on the ground groaning, and weeping, and crying for mercy.” Services were held every night for many weeks – often lasting till late hours. The whole town was moved. The fear of God fell upon the ungodly. Anxious multitudes filled the churches. 
        When M’Cheyne finally recovered and returned to Dundee, the revival continued under his ministry. A deep concern and impression of eternal realities possessed the vast congregation. In worship “the people felt that they were praising a present God.” Such a sight as this was not uncommon throughout the remainder of his ministry. The grief at sin which filled the hearts of many could only be expressed by tears. The distress expressed by one awakened sinner to M’Cheyne represented the feeling of scores: “I think,” he said, “hell would be some relief from an angry God.” 
       Such was the anxiety which now prevailed to hear the gospel that even when M’Cheyne was preaching in the open air in the meadows at Dundee, and heavy rain began to fall, the dense crowd stood till the last. The Word was listened to on these occasions with “an awful and breathless stillness.”
Characteristically, M’Cheyne refused to accept mere profession of faith as a sign of conversion. To him, a changed life was paramount. “It is holy-making Gospel,” he declared. “Without holy fruit all evidences are vain. Dear friends, you have awakenings, enlightenings, experiences, a full heart in prayer, and many due signs ; but if you want holiness, you will never see the Lord. A real desire after complete holiness is the truest mark of being born again. Jesus is a holy Saviour. He first covers the soul with His white raiment, then makes the soul glorious within - restores the lost image of God, and fills the soul with pure, heavenly holiness. Unregenerate men among you cannot bear this.”
The effect of the revival can be seen in the fact that no less than 39 prayer meetings were held weekly in connection with his church, of which 5 were conducted by children. When M’Cheyne first arrived in Dundee, he had not been able to staff a Sunday school. Now there were nineteen Sunday schools attached to the church.
     Revival stayed with M’Cheyne the rest of his short life. In February 1843 he was away in the north west of Scotland, where he preached 27 times in 24 different places, often travelling through heavy snow. Returning to Dundee “very tired”, he preached his final sermon on March 12th, before succumbing to typhus fever and entering the presence of his Lord on March 25th.
     His monument contains the words, “Who died...in the thirtieth year of his age and the seventh of his ministry. Walking closely with God, an example of 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.” 

He first covers the soul with His white raiment, then makes the soul glorious within - restores the lost image of God, and fills the soul with pure, heavenly holiness. Unregenerate men among you cannot bear this.”
The effect of the revival can be seen in the fact that no less than 39 prayer meetings were held weekly in connection with his church, of which 5 were conducted by children. When M’Cheyne first arrived in Dundee, he had not been able to staff a Sunday school. Now there were nineteen Sunday schools attached to the church.
Revival stayed with M’Cheyne the rest of his short life. In February 1843 he was away in the north west of Scotland, where he preached 27 times in 24 different places, often travelling through heavy snow. Returning to Dundee “very tired”, he preached his final sermon on March 12th, before succumbing to typhus fever and entering the presence of his Lord on March 25th.
His monument contains the words, “Who died...in the thirtieth year of his age and the seventh of his ministry. Walking closely with God, an example of 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.”