A Life of Robert Murray M’Cheyne

In a letter to a parishioner who was grieving the loss of a loved one, Robert Murray M’Cheyne wrote, “You will never find Jesus so precious as when the world is one vast howling wilderness. Then he is like a rose blooming in the midst of desolation – a rock rising above the storm.” (Letter, 9 March 1843). Only sixteen days after he wrote these words to one of the Lord’s people, M’Cheyne, the undershepherd who cared for his soul, would himself be dead. Often, when we think of lives to be remembered, we seek out the biographies of men and women who have done great feats – the powerful and the magnificent. M’Cheyne was not powerful according to earthly standards; in fact, he was sickly and frail seemingly his whole life. He did not, like Knox or Athanasius, defy the world; nor did he, like Calvin or Owen, produce a slew of erudite theological books. In fact, we might never have known of him in our own time had it not been for the work of his loving friend, Andrew Bonar, who wrote a memoir of M’Cheyne’s life: the Memoir and Remains of Robert Murray M’Cheyne, a volume that contains Bonar’s memoir and a few letters, sermons, and tracts by M’Cheyne. Through this work, generations of Christians have been blessed by the life of this ordinary Scottish pastor who suffered much throughout his life, and who, in the howling wilderness of this broken world, saw Jesus as precious, “like a rose blooming in the midst of the desolation – a rock rising above the storm.”

Robert Murray M’Cheyne was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, 21 May 1813. Bonar doesn’t relate to us much of his family history, nor much of the history of his childhood. What is made clear, however, was the young Robert was very fond of his eldest brother, David, whom he looked up to throughout his younger years. M’Cheyne entered the University of Edinburgh in November of 1827; he was fourteen years old – which would not have been at all out of the ordinary during that time. His studies drew him primarily to the classics – the ancient Greek and Roman writers and philosophers. Much of his teenage life was spent in frivolity and pleasure-seeking. His brother, David, likewise was careless during these years. All of this was to change, however, in 1831. David had taken ill; on 8 July of 1831, he died. Thankfully, by God’s grace, he had become a Christian shortly before his death. But, his passing was to leave a lasting impression on his younger brother, Robert. Bonar writes: “There can be no doubt that [Robert] himself looked upon the death of his eldest brother, David, as the even that woke him from the sleep of nature, and brought in the first beam of divine light into his soul.” (Memoir, 6). M’Cheyne would often remark about his brother in his journal at practically every anniversary of his death. Reflecting on this period in his life in his letter to a young man concerning the welfare of the latter’s soul, M’Cheyne writes: “I had a kind brother as you have who taught me many things. He gave me a Bible, and persuaded me to read it; he tried to train me as a gardener trains the apple-tree upon the wall; but all in vain. I thought myself far wiser than he, and would always take my own way; and many a time, I well remember, I have seen him reading his Bible, or shutting his closet door to pray, when I have been dressing to go to some frolic, or some dance or folly. Well, this dear friend and brother died; and though his death made a greater impression upon me than ever his life had done, still I found the misery of being friendless. I do not mean that I had no relations and worldly friends, for I had many; but I had no friend who cared for my soul.” (Letter, 8 August 1836, 48). The death of his brother was the thorn that the Lord used to stab Robert awake. Also, by God’s providence, he began reading a short book by the Westminster Divine, David Dickson, called The Sum of Saving Knowledge, which was a kind of summation of the biblical doctrine put forth in the Westminster Standards; M’Cheyne credited The Sum of Saving Knowledge as “the work which I thought first of all wrought a saving change in me.” (Journal, 11 March 1834).

In the winter of 1831, the year David died, Robert commended his studies at the Divinity Hall of the University of Edinburgh, with the hopes of becoming a pastor. It was here that he came under the influence of Dr. Thomas Chalmers, and the healthy tradition of Puritan and Reformed Theology. Much of the old man still resided in Robert’s heart during this period, and for the first couple of years at the Divinity Hall, he continued to engage in worldly activities. A noted change had come upon him, however, as more and more he became alarmed at his own sinfulness. He writes: “I come to Christ, not although I am a sinner, but just because I am a sinner, even the chief.” (Journal, 6 May 1832, 16-17). It was also during this time that the flower of Christian friendship began to bloom in his life. He would often meet with his childhood friend, Alexander Somerville, to study, pray, and seek to hold one another accountable and press each other to holy lives that pleased the Lord. It was also during his time at the Divinity Hall that M’Cheyne would meet with a group of other students for prayer in the vestry of Dr. Chalmers. Among these other students – many of whom became Robert’s lifelong friends – were Andrew Bonar and his brother, Horatius; Somerville; and George Smeaton, who would go on to write important works on the Atonement and on the Person and work of the Holy Spirit. This group formed a “Visiting Society” devoted to setting aside an hour or two every week for visiting the poor and spiritually “careless” in Edinburgh, to help where they could and to bring the gospel to those who otherwise would have never come under its influence.

M’Cheyne was examined before Presbytery on 16 February 1835, and was licensed to preach by the Presbytery of Annan on July 1st of the same year. Bonar writes: “His soul was prepared for the awful work of the ministry by much prayer, and much study of the Word of God; by affliction in his person; by inward trials and sore temptations; by experience of the depth of corruption in his own heart, and by discoveries of the Savior’s fullness of grace.” (Memoir, 28). On 7 November 1835, M’Cheyne became assistant to the Rev. John Bonar[1] in the parish of Larbert & Dunipace, a parish of 6,000 people. Of course, it must be noted that, though all 6,000 people were not present in the congregation on any given Sunday, the whole of the parish was the responsibility of Rev. Bonar and his new assistant. Robert would serve in this position for ten months. In many ways, it was in Larbert & Dunipace that M’Cheyne would establish the characteristics of pastoral ministry that would follow him throughout his life. He saw that to fruitfully minister to others, he must begin by feeding his own soul. It was during this time at Larbert & Dunipace that he became a student of the works of the American Puritan theologian, Jonathan Edwards; another favorite work was The Letters of Samuel Rutherford, whose words of deep passion for Jesus Christ were often reflected in the writings of his young disciple. M’Cheyne was also a constant student of the Bible, ranging over the whole canon of the Old and New Testaments. He writes: “He would be a sorry student of this world who should forever confine his gaze to the fruitful fields and well-watered gardens of this cultivated earth. He could have no true idea of what the world was unless he had stood upon the rocks of our [Scottish] mountains, and seen the bleak muirs and mosses of our barren land; unless he had paced the quarter-deck when the vessel was out of sight of land, and seen the waste of waters without any shore upon the horizon. Just so, he would be a sorry student of the Bible who would not know all that God has inspired; who would not examine into the most barren of chapters to collect the good for which they were intended; who would not strive to understand all the bloody battles which are chronicled, that he might find ‘bread out of the eater and honey out of the lion.'” (June 1836). Indeed, it was often the case that M’Cheyne fed his people with the very Scriptures his own soul had been feeding on the week before. His journals also reveal his faithfulness in visiting and praying for the people under his care.

Only a few weeks into his ministry at Larbert & Dunipace, M’Cheyne grew very ill. Bonar writes: “In the end of December, strong oppression of the heart and an irritating cough caused some of his friends to fear that his lungs were affected; and for some weeks he was laid aside from public duty.” (Memoir, 37). Though one lung was dulled, the tissue of the lung itself was not affected. He would soon recover and return to his labors. However, sickness and bodily suffering would burden him for the rest of his life. In fact, he would be laid up again only a few months after this initial attack. But, physical struggle was not the only wrestling M’Cheyne had to deal with; though he was by all accounts a faithful minister to his people at Larbert & Dunipace, he often struggled with the temptation to draw people to himself instead of Christ. On the anniversary of his licensing to preach he writes: “Eventful week; one year I have preached Jesus, have I? or myself? I have often preached myself also, but Jesus I have preached.” (Journal, 5 July 1836). While he was laid up with sickness, he recorded in his journal: “I see a man cannot be a faithful minister, until he preaches Christ for Christ’s sake – until he gives up striving to attract people to himself, and seeks only to attract them to Christ. Lord, give me this!” (8 July 1836).

On 14 August 1836, M’Cheyne preached as a pastoral candidate at St. Peter’s Church in Dundee. By the end of August, he had been chosen to be their pastor. His friend, Somerville, would succeed him as the assistant to Rev. Bonar in the parish church of Larbert & Dunipace. Bonar writes: “During these ten months (at Larbert & Dunipace) the Lord had done much for him, but it was chiefly in the way of discipline for a future ministry. He had been taught a minister’s heart; he had been tried in the furnace; he had tasted deep, personal sorrow, little of which had been recorded; he had felt the fiery darts of temptation; he had been exercised in self-examination and in much prayer; he had proved how flinty is the rock, and had learnt that in lifting the rod by which it was to be smitten, success lay in Him alone who enabled him to lift it up.” (Memoir, 52-53). M’Cheyne was ordained as Pastor of St. Peter’s Church in Dundee on 14 November 1836. Though his diary does not reflect much of his personal feelings during his early days in Dundee, much can be said of his ministry simply by recognizing his persevering labors in the church. However, it is clear from his journals that he continued the practice he had learned in Larbert & Dunipace of seeking to feed his own soul before he fed his people. He records in his journal entry of 9 April 1837: “Evening – a very pleasant quietness. Study of the Epistle to the Hebrews. Came to a more intelligent view of the first six chapters than ever before. Much refreshed by John Newton; instructed by Edwards. Help and freedom in prayer. Lord, what a happy season is a Sabbath evening! What will heaven be!” It was also often his practice to ride out of an afternoon to an abandoned ruined church in order to pray in solitude.

The parish of St. Peter’s in the west of the city of Dundee “was large and very destitute.” (Memoir, 57). Its population was 4,000, 1,100 of whom actually made up M’Cheyne’s congregation. It was also a very dead region when it came to the gospel, and was apparently given to false teaching. M’Cheyne observed of Dundee that is was “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.'” (56-57). During his first months in Dundee there was an outbreak of Influenza; much of his early work in the parish was visiting the sick and dying. He writes in a letter: “Did I tell you of the boy I was asked to see on Sabbath evening, just when I got myself comfortably seated at home? I went, and was speaking to him of the freeness and fullness of Jesus, when he gasped a little and died.” (57). Bonar records several other visits not unlike this one in the Memoir. Still, M’Cheyne delighted in visiting his parishioners; but, due to his ill health, other labors, and his accepting calls from other churches to occasionally do the work of an evangelist in preaching to their congregations, he was not able to visit every family in the district assigned him. He took a great interest in the young, teaching an evening class for them once a week on the Westminster Shorter Catechism and the Bible. Bonar writes: “He could accommodate himself to their capacities; and he did not reckon it vain to use his talents in order to attract their attention, for he regarded the soul of a child as infinitely precious.” (Memoir, 61). He was a proponent of establishing Sabbath Schools throughout his parish and was demanding that those who would be teachers of children be Christians of the highest character.

His greatest impact on his people and community, though, came from God’s working through M’Cheyne’s preaching of the Word on the Sabbath. Often, M’Cheyne was so busy in other labors of the ministry that his only time to prepare for Sabbath sermons was the few hours of a Saturday; but, as he continued his earlier practice of continually studying the Scriptures throughout the week, he was never unprepared; in fact, many of his sermons, like those in Larbert & Dunipace, were a drawing out of what he had studied during the week. Many who heard his sermons were deeply affected by them, the Lord giving success to his preaching ministry. Indeed, many were drawn to his ministry through his preaching. A few months into his ministry at Dundee, he was offered a nicer and more lucrative pastorate in another part of Scotland. He refused, trusting that God had put him in the pastorate of St. Peter’s and that He would provide for all his needs. His hope was expressed that even though Dundee was not ideal by worldly standards, “Perhaps the Lord will make this wilderness of chimney tops to be green and beautiful as the garden of the Lord, a field which the Lord hath blessed!” (67). This would not be the last offer from another congregation; he would receive others, but would turn them all down to remain at St. Peter’s. M’Cheyne was also noted for his holy life which gave a kind of personal authenticity to his preaching; in other words, he truly sought to practice what he preached and was not one man in the pulpit and another out of it. Writes Bonar: “In addition to the other blessings which the Lord sent by his means to the place where he labored, it was obvious to all that the tone of Christians was raised as much by his holy walk as by his heavenly ministry.” (82). A mark of M’Cheyne’s life and ministry that also marked the life and ministry of our Lord, was the contempt and hatred borne against him, not only by unbelievers, but also by envious ministers who should have rejoiced at the faithful preaching of God’s Word!

M’Cheyne’s labors in the ministry were incessant; he was “engaged night and day with his flock in St. Peter’s.” (83). Bonar writes: “Another motive to incessant activity was the decided impression on his mind that his career would be short. From the very first days of his ministry he had a strong feeling of this nature; and his friends remember how his letters used to be sealed with this seal, ‘The night cometh.'” (83-84; referencing John 9:4). His unceasing labors, however, began to take a toll on his already weak health. Toward the end of 1838 he began having violent palpitations of the heart and was advised by his doctors to cease his public work. Reluctantly, he left Dundee in order to recover hoping to be gone for only a couple of weeks. He repaired to his father’s home in Edinburgh. M’Cheyne viewed this period away from his flock as God’s providence; still, he yearned to return. But, his sickness did not improve in just a couple of weeks as he had hoped. He writes: “We might have thought that God would have sent a strong man to such a parish as mine, and not a feeble reed.” (51). During this time of sickness, he began writing his “Pastoral Letters to the Flock of St. Peter’s”; his first letter speaks of his reluctance to be away and his continuing care for his people: “…the wall of my chamber can bear witness how often the silent watches of the night have been filled up with entreaties to the Lord for you all.” (First Pastoral Letter, 217).

Though it was regrettable that M’Cheyne had to be absent from his congregation for a time, it was also a work of God’s providence in bringing him to Edinburgh. While he was recovering in Edinburgh, he was approached by a Dr. Candlish concerning the Church of Scotland’s mission to the Jews. It was proposed to send a Mission of Inquiry to the Holy Land to assess the state of Israel for further missionary endeavors. Robert agreed to be part of the mission, encouraged by his medical friends who suggested that the journey might work to improve his health. The members of the mission team would include himself, his friend and fellow pastor Andrew Bonar, Dr. Alexander Keith, and Dr. Alexander Black; both Keith and Black would leave the mission early due to health reasons. To supply his pulpit in Dundee while he was away was the son of the pastor of Kilsyth, W.C. Burns. M’Cheyne wrote to him: “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.” (89). The journey of the missionaries was to take them through continental Europe to the coast of Italy where they were to sail across the Mediterranean to Alexandria, Egypt. They left Alexandria 16 May 1839 and proceeded through the Sinai wilderness by camel. The details of their adventure and findings were later recorded in a book, Narrative of a Mission of Inquiry to the Jews from the Church of Scotland in 1839. This, of course, gave the friends, M’Cheyne and Bonar, a great deal of time to spend together. Bonar comments on daily recognizing M’Cheyne’s longing to be again with his people – his often earnestly asking, “Shall I ever preach to my people again?” Bonar was also impressed and convicted by the pursuit of personal holiness that he saw in M’Cheyne; he writes: “I was often reproved by his unabated attention to personal holiness; for this care was never absent from his mind, whether he was at home in quiet chamber, or on the sea, or in the desert. Holiness in him was manifested, not by efforts to perform duty, but in a way so natural, that you recognized therein the easy outflowing of the indwelling Spirit… Prayer and meditation on the word were never forgotten; and a peace that the world could not give kept his heart and mind.” (94).

The mission was certainly a harrowing one; the missionaries were often in danger, and 19th century travel left much to be desired to say the least. Though many examples of this danger may be noted, one must suffice. When they came to Jerusalem, they had to remain ever vigilant in the city due to an outbreak of the plague. “The plague only communicates by contact,” wrote M’Cheyne, “so that we were not allowed to touch any one, or let any one touch us. Every night we heard the mourners going about the streets with their dismal wailings for the dead.” (Letter to his parents, 103). After leaving Jerusalem, the team was quarantined for a week in Carmel, and then continued north to Galilee, and eventually to Lebanon. While in Beirut, M’Cheyne visited a young man who was originally from Glasgow and had contracted a fever. As a result of his visit, he likewise contracted the fever. He was encouraged by a physician to continue his journey to Smyrna (which is today in Western Turkey) in hopes that the sea air would work to cure him, but on the voyage, M’Cheyne grew increasingly worse. Eventually, near-death and fading, he did reach Smyrna and the village of Bouja, where he was nursed back to health by a Mr. and Mrs. Lewis, who cared for him in their home. He wrote of his trial: “I left the foot of Lebanon when I could hardly see, or hear, or speak, or remember; I felt my faculties going, one by one, and I had every reason to expect that I would soon be with my God. It is a sore trial to be alone and dying in a foreign land, and it had made me feel, in a way that I never knew before, the necessity of having an unfeigned faith in Jesus and in God.” He wrote to a friend in Dundee: “I really believed that my Master had called me home, and that I would sleep beneath the dark-green cypresses of Bouja till the Lord shall come, and they that sleep in Jesus come with Him; and my most earnest prayer was for my dear flock, that God would give them a pastor after His own heart.” (107-108). As a result of their Mission of Inquiry, the Church of Scotland sent their first missionary to the Jews in Hungary.

During this period of sickness and recovery in Smyrna, the Lord moved mightily in Scotland. On 23 July 1839, revival began at Kilsyth. While W.C. Burns was preaching to his father’s congregation, “pressing upon them immediate acceptance of Christ with deep solemnity, the whole of the vast assembly were overpowered… the Spirit in mighty power began to work from that day forward in many places of the land.” (109). On 8 August, Burns returned to M’Cheyne’s flock where he was acting supply; two days later, revival broke out in Dundee also, and that when, over 4,000 miles away M’Cheyne was recovering from fever, all the while praying for his people. Indeed, he would know nothing about the revival until he was almost home. Upon his return, the Pastor of St. Peter’s found his parish much changed. Scores had professed faith in Christ. Many were mourning for their sins. There was everywhere a deeper desire for the Word and communion with God. He wrote to Andrew, “Everything here I have found in a state better than I expected. The night I arrived I preached to such a congregation as I never saw before. I do not think another person could have got into the church, and there was every sign of the deepest and tenderest emotion.” (117). When he left the church to walk home, the road was crowded with people waiting to welcome him back; before they would disperse, he had to preach to them yet again and pray with them. Though the flood-gates of revival were opened while M’Cheyne was away, and under his assistant, Burns, there was no semblance of envy in him; rather, as he said, “I have no desire but the salvation of my people, by whatever instrument.” (116). During the months of revival about 800 people conversed with ministers concerning professions of faith and the state of their souls. M’Cheyne continued his pastoral work faithfully over the next few years. He also did much work as an evangelist, preaching not only to his own congregation, but to others as well, even traveling to Ireland to preach to Presbyterian congregations in Belfast, and also Northern England. All the while, the Lord was rewarding his labors by bringing many souls to Himself.

Bonar writes that “During the summer of 1842, [M’Cheyne] was exposed to several attacks of illness, experienced some severe personal trials, and felt the assaults of sore temptation.” (143). It’s clear that he not only struggled with his own poor health, but also the often invisible battle of the inner man, so that he was often suffering not only physically, but inwardly as well. He wrote in August of 1842: “Often, often, would I have been glad to depart, and be with Christ. I am now much better in body and mind, having a little of the presence of my Beloved, whose absence is death to me.” (Journal, 4 August 1842). He relied upon his Lord to carry him in these times of severe trial. God had also blessed him with wise and godly friends. M’Cheyne shared his trial of 1842 with John Purves of Jedburgh, a friend and fellow minister; Purves replied, “In all our afflictions, He is afflicted… It is blessed to be like Him in everything, even in suffering. There is a great want about all Christians who have not suffered. Some flowers must be broken or bruised before they emit any fragrance. All the wounds of Christ send out sweetness; all the sorrows of Christians do the same.” (Memoir, 143). M’Cheyne wrote back: “Remember me, especially, who am heavy laden oftentimes. My heart is all of sin; but Jesus lives.” (144). How often the Lord tries His greatest saints in the fires of affliction! But, as M’Cheyne noted, “Jesus lives!” and in Him, we are saved from utter destruction, assured that the fires of adversity that so frighten us are meant only to burn away the dross of our old nature.

M’Cheyne’s great concern was for the glory of God and the salvation of souls. Toward the end of 1842, he developed his “Calendar for reading through the Word of God in a year” for the use of his own flock; many, including myself and some in this church, still use this incredibly helpful tool in our daily discipline of studying God’s Word. By the beginning of 1843 it seemed that much of the revival and awakening that had come in 1839 as a flood had now become but a trickle. M’Cheyne writes: “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.” (Journal, 6 January 1843). Also around this time he wrote: “As I was walking in the fields, the thought came over me with almost overwhelming power, that every one of my flock must soon be in heaven or hell. Oh, how I wish that I had a tongue like thunder, that I might make all hear; or that I had a frame like iron, that I might visit every one, and say, ‘Escape for thy life!’ Ah, sinners! you little know how I fear that you will lay the blame of your damnation at my door.” (Memoir, 148). Bonar writes: “Two things he seems never to have ceased from – the cultivation of personal holiness, and the most anxious effort to save souls.” (149).

Early in 1843 he did an evangelistic tour of twenty-four churches in the north; he returned to Dundee on 1 March, his health greatly weakened from his exertions. He entered back into his work, preaching and visiting his parishioners. At this time, however, Typhus fever had broken out in the parish, and many of the homes M’Cheyne visited were homes that had been affected by the sickness. Much weakened by his recent exertions, M’Cheyne contracted Typhus. His last sermon to his congregation was preached on 12 March 1843. The fever set in the next week, and he fell into a delirium, often preaching to his congregation from his sickbed, though they were not present. Bonar records: “Thus he continued most generally engaged, while the delirium lasted, either in prayer or in preaching to his people, and always apparent in happy frame, till the morning of Saturday the 25th. On that morning, while his kind medical attendant, Dr. Gibson, stood by, he lifted up his hands as if in the attitude of pronouncing the blessing, and then sank down. Not a groan or a sigh, but only a quiver of the lip, and his soul was at rest.” (164). M’Cheyne was only 29 years old.

His loss would be felt deeply by his friends, his church, and the Church of Scotland, which was soon to enter a time of great turbulence only a few months later in what was called “The Great Disruption of 1843”. None felt the earthly loss of this child of God more, perhaps, than did his friend, Andrew Bonar. In his own journal on March 25th, Bonar records: “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… Life has lost half its joys, were it not for the hope of saving souls. There was no friend whom I loved like him.” It was this great love for his brother in Christ that led Bonar to write and publish the Memoir and Remains of Robert Murray M’Cheyne; through this record of M’Cheyne’s life and work, many are still being encouraged that even a brief life, if lived for the glory of Christ can be used for His purposes for the good of His people. Through M’Cheyne’s devotion to Christ even in the midst of his sufferings we are shown that even when life seems a howling wilderness and a desolation, Christ is the cherished blooming flower, and the rock rising above the storm. May our lives so glorify Christ!

[1] I have found no recorded family relationship between John Bonar and Andrew/Horatius Bonar.

1 thought on “A Life of Robert Murray M’Cheyne

  1. Esther Kearns

    Thank you for yet another Christian academic resource. Again, SO thankful that the Lord has placed you with the church family at Stanton EPC!!

    Liked by 1 person


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