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The Life of Robert Murray McCheyne (1813 – 1843) by George McGuinness

By April 3, 2011April 12th, 2016Biographies

The memory of certain of God’s people lingers long after their passing like the fragrance of a bouquet of flowers. Such is the case with the subject of our biographical sketch today. McCheyne was born on the 21 of May 1813 and in typical Scottish fashion was named for a family member who remains unknown. He was the youngest child of the family and as one would expect received much attention. They were a loving family as can be seen by the very close relationship he had with his brothers and with his father. His mother is not mentioned in the biography and as to her influence we know nothing. He was born in the city of Edinburgh; in the providence of God that is not to be ignored. Since the rise and reign of John Knox it has been a city where the Reformed Faith was defined and declared with certainty. His family was, as one would expect, devoted to the Presbyterian cause and to the evangelical wing of that denomination. This again is not to be overlooked in any consideration of his precious life. At the time of his birth the National Church was in the clutches and control of Moderatism. A biographer of Thomas Chalmers makes this statement, ‘By the end of the eighteenth century, from various operating causessuch as the reimposition of patronage, the secularism of the clergy, the secessions of the stricter men, the skepticism of Hume, the leaven of high Tory politicsthe Church of Scotland was stranded, high and dry, on that sand-bank called Moderatism. Now Moderatism had not one particle of anything vital; was neither true Christian nor good Pagan; had neither the unction of Knox, nor the yearning desire for truth and goodness of an Epictetus or a Cicero. It was the wish-wash of a contemptible clergy drawn chiefly from poor relations, family tutors, and the stupidest sons of the corruptest Scottish voters.’ It is to be remembered that even in times of declension God has never left Himself without a witness and it was so in the developing years of our illustrious subject. The home was his spiritual nursery where he appears to have been a very precocious child. When he was four years old, as a form of family entertainment, during the one of his many bouts with sickness, he was taught the Greek alphabet, to name all the letters and to write them, all in one week. At school he made rapid progress and appears as being eminent among his class mates. He attended catechetical classes at the Tron Church and thrilled the folks by his ability to recite the Psalms and other passages of scripture. As yet he knew not the Lord. On attending High School he continued his literary studies for a further six years and maintained such a degree that he shone in the Headmasters class especially in the field of geography and speech. It was at this early age he made his first excursion into poetic composition and with approval. In spite of, or because of, these attainments he always considered that these were days of ungodliness and not of spiritual advancement. He reckoned that these were the days and works of a blind Pharisee. He delighted in the countryside and especially the region around Dunkeld where he back-packed with a companion into the mountains. On one occasion he was overtaken by a dense fog that caused a cold night on the mountain. These excursions were a preparation for his most famous hike around the region then known as Palestine. He entered Edinburgh University in November 1827 and was successful to the degree that he gained a number of coveted prizes. In addition to his course work he took private lessons in modern languages and gymnastics and these gave him a great deal of pleasure. He also had a hobby that was again to be greatly used at a future date. It was the ability to sketch his surroundings or companions very quickly by pencil on paper. Music was an obvious pleasure so he took voice lessons, and at this he excelled. Elocution was another splendid elective. Once again this was a natural gift that would be sanctified and made fit for the Master’s service but as yet he did not know the Lord. He was awarded the prize for writing poetry entitled ‘On The Covenanters.’ The winter of 1831 saw the beginning of his theological education under the dominance and direction of the famous Dr. Chalmers and Dr. Welsh. The classes he attended did stir some thought of things holy and heavenly, but as yet he knew not the Lord. It was the witness and worth of his elder brother David that caused him to seriously look at the necessity of conversion. This brother, eight years his senior, was an attorney at law and recognized for his integrity and sanctity. It was he who felt in his soul the need to share his faith and his feelings with his younger brother. As there is no reference to their mother, it is assumed that this was one reason why he devoted so much time and effort to the care of his younger siblings. Another brother joined the Medical Corp. and left for distant, deadly India; thus the family home was being broken up. David, the elder, after a life of piety and prayer, passed away to a very early grave. This left young Robert with a great void in his developing mind. The loss of this brother was taken very hard by Robert and had a profound affect on his future life, earthly and eternal. Robert was now in his eighteenth year, a stranger to grace and to God, not knowing his danger nor feeling his load. This eighteenth year was the year when he first recognized his need for light and life and it may have been the year of his new birth. His diary reflects the impact his brothers life and passing had on his soul. He could not unburden himself to his Pastor because such a thing was considered too personal and an intrusion into the souls relationship with God. In later years he would pioneer the work of spiritual counseling born out of his own intense struggle, yet without attempting to do a work that God alone can do. His conversion was not sudden but was a slow painful development and even afterwards was not free from spiritual doubt and anxiety. His experience underscores the wisdom of Francis Thomson, who wrote the poem ‘The Hound of Heaven,’ when he states ‘There is no expeditious road to pack and label men for God, and save them by the barrel-load.’ This is surely a statement that lays emphases on Divine sovereignty. Regeneration gave way to justification with its precious fruits of peace with God and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit to guard and guide. There were occasions when he fell for the temptations of a college student, but these were few and caused him to see his weakness and to develop a hatred for any form or thought of sin. His bosom companion at this time was Alexander Somerville who later became a Pastor in his own right. They devoted themselves to the study of the Bible by using the Septuagint and Hebrew original. They sweetened these times of personal and private study by spending time in prayer. His knowledge and appreciation of the doctrine of election and the free grace of God was developed by reading the Confession in the National Church Covenant, contributed by Dr David Dickson His leanings toward the ministry were first encouraged by his deceased brother David who had spoken of it as ‘The most blessed work on earth.’ To facilitate this end, he pursued books that enlarged his soul as well as his mind. The individuals who contributed to his development as a Christian and a preacher are very impressive. Time would fail to mention in detail of the influence Henry Martyn, Legh Richmond, Jonathan Edwards, Richard Baxter, Thomas Boston, John Knox, David Brainerd, John Newton, Rowland Hill, Charles Bridges, Moody Stewart, John Bruce, Dr. Candlish and, of course, the Bonar brothers had on his short life. Dr. John Bruce seems to be the one preacher, at this juncture in his experience, who expanded his mind on the Lord’s Day.

Presently his desire to seek the lost was illustrated in a poem he wrote regarding a family member who chose the world over the Lord Jesus Christ. He entitled it ‘That She Was Determined to Keep by the World.’ The state of his own soul and that of others was a predominant theme in his writing and conversation. ‘What a mass of corruption I have been! How great a portion of my life have I spent wholly without God in the world, given up to sense and perishing things around me!’

Missions captured his heart very early in his spiritual odessy. Throughout his brief career his mind was never far from the lost in lands beyond his shores. Burma, India, and the Indies, with their teeming populations and ignorance, were a constant concern. It runs like a chorus through the musings of his diary. He writes in his diary, ‘Oh for activity, activity, activity!’ It is not surprising that his passion for souls did not go unheeded when he records with astonishment and thankfulness for the first individual who was awakened under his witness. He was, at the urging of Andrew Bonar, introduced to the work of visiting the sunless rookeries that contained the poor wretched citizens of Edinburgh. What he saw and heard grieved his very sensitive soul. He never dreamed that humans could possibly live in such miserable surroundings marred by sin and superstition. ‘Am I,’ he records, ‘such a stranger to the poor of my native town? I have passed their door thousands of times; I have admired the huge black piles of buildings, with their lofty chimneys breaking the suns rayswhy have I never ventured in?’

This experience gave him an insight into the sinners depravity in all its forms. It is recorded that he was prepared for the work of the ministry by much study of the Word, afflictions in his own person, inward trials and sore temptations. He was learning the depth of corruption in his own heart, and by the discovery of the free grace of God in the Savior. He was such a scholar that he could have been deflected from his life’s course by the love he had for learning but he once remarked, ‘Beware of the atmosphere of the classics. It is pernicious indeed; and you need much of the south wind breathing over the scriptures to counteract it. True, we ought to know them; but only as chemists handle poisonsto discover their qualities, not to infect their blood with them.’

After graduation, he was ordained to the ministry and called to assist the Reverent John Bonar in Larbert. He was assigned to a developing cause in nearby Dunipace, sponsored by the Larbert Church and Pastor. Under the Presbyterian system the parish boasted six thousand souls, most of whom had neither light nor liberty in Christ. In this capacity he preached in Larbert and Dunipace on alternate Sundays, but the bulk of his time was taken up by visiting the sick and absentees from the services. It was a time of much sowing in faith that the seed might, under God, come to life.

This new phase in his life brought with it further disciplines. It is recorded that the walls of his chamber witnessed in the early morning his tear filled devotions. The sound of his voice was overhead as he worshipped in song followed by the reading of the Word to his own sanctification. It was at this time that he began to seriously study the writings of Jonathan Edwards. He considered this a mine to be worked for the greatest of profit as well as pleasure. To this work was added the letters of ‘the starry saint’ Samuel Rutherford. He also cultivated for his own benefit works that enlarged his mind and heart He liked insect architecture and made this shrewd observation, ‘God reigns in a community of ants and ichneumons, as visible as among living men or mighty seraphim!’ This study was to enlarge and strengthen his ability to illustrate and apply the Word of God in his sermons. He fed himself in order that he might be able to feed others, and so his soul was constantly growing.

He never seemed to have enough work in spite of the extent of his labors. He visited the coal pits and the iron works to attempt to do the workers good. These men were totally sunk in indifference and infidelity toward the things of God. On another occasion he was told that a band of gypsies were camped in a field so he redirected his horse, found their location and preached to them the Gospel. These extracurricular activities are admirable, but they took a terrific strain on his mental and physical powers. An irregular heart beat and an irritating cough brought him to his bed and excused him from the ministry.

This rest was short lived because he wrote at this time to his senior minister John Bonar, ‘I fear I shall not be able to bear upon my conscience the responsibility of leaving you any longer to labor alone, bearing unaided the burden of six thousands souls’ He soon returned to face the challenge again and records the plaintive words, ‘Preached with some tenderness of heart. Oh, why should I not weep, as Jesus did over Jerusalem?’ It was the custom in those days, that after a days visitation in the parish, a cottage meeting was held, and the missionary would preach the Word to those assembled. It was after visiting thirteen families on one day that he preached in a home that was frequently deficient in light, having damp surroundings and little sanitation. He then had to ride home through the rain or cold and darkness of night.

Children were very much on his heart, and he never neglected any opportunity to present to them the Gospel in word or in the form of a Gospel tract. It was in this capacity in a future day he visited Kirriemuir the home town of J.M.Barrie, the author of ‘Peter Pan.’ He handed a gospel tract to a child of seven years whose name was Alexander Whyte. Who would not have liked to have been a heavenly visitor with a camera to record that dramatic occasion?

Preaching was not just one of his duties but his burden. On one occasion when he met Andrew Bonar he asked what had been the subject of Bonar’s preaching the previous Sunday. He was informed that it has been the verse, ‘The wicked shall be turned into hell.’ McCheyne, on hearing the awful text asked ‘Were you able to do it with tenderness?’ Bonar learned from McCheyne that it is not the hard sayings of the Word that pierces the conscience but it is the voice of divine love heard among the thunder. In his own writings he says, ‘Oh, when shall I plead with tears and inward yearnings, over sinners. Oh, compassionate Lord, give me to know what manner of spirit I am of! Give me Thy gentle Spirit, that neither strives nor cries. Much weariness, want of prayerfulness, and want of cleaving to Christ.’ A family member, who was also a preacher, died at this time. His loudest lament was not the loss of a kinsman but of the fact that they had spent their last occasion together disputing over controversy in the established Church. ‘Oh, how I repent of our vain controversies on Establishments when we last met, and that we spoke so little of Jesus. Oh that we had spoken more to one another! Lord, teach me to be always speaking as dying to dying.’

A man of his capacity and character was not to be an assistant for ever and so it was that he was called to the parish of St. John’s in Dundee. This situation was unique in that through the efforts of the Reverent Roxbury, the parish boundaries were enlarged and a new Church begun. The lot fell on Robert Murray McCheyne of Larbert. It was an honor for his former superior to preach at his induction to this new charge. The first message preached by McCheyne would become an anniversary event and never without evidence of God’s blessing.

His schedule had been personally set at Larbert, and he resumed it with greater fervency. The morning hours belonged to God. He is reputed to have said, ‘I will not see the face of man till I have seen the face of God.’ Again that melodic voice could be heard sending praise and prayer to heaven. Breakfast time was his one definite period of relaxation when he appeared at the table with a cheerful face. He was observed by his close friends to be totally absorbed during his study time but he could be such a faithful confidant and traveling companion. He was always willing to listen to their problems and sorrows. In the early days at Dundee he would escape from the clamor of the throng by riding out to a ruined country church where he found solitude and communion with God. It was prayer and praise that held his life and ministry together.

The Church he came to was typically Presbyterian. They had many who were christened at one end but empty at the other. Every parish member was, after catechism classes and confirmation accepted into membership. As one eminent Presbyterian preacher said, ‘I count them all as children of the covenant till they prove otherwise by their conduct.’ The neighborhood around St Peter’s was dead and as dark as any town in India, Burma, or the West Indies. This was the field of labor he entered and one that would make his reputation for holiness and evangelical fervor. The story is told of a young preacher who stood on a bridge and sorrowfully surveyed the neighborhood to which he had been assigned. An older and much more experienced preacher came by and sensed the despair in the young preacher’s face and said with a smile, ‘O what a field, O what a field God has given you!’ It was such stony field to which Murray McCheyne came, but he, by the grace of God, conquered. He wrote, ‘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.’

He energetically renewed his efforts to the sick and dying. He refused no opportunity to do the people good. He preached repentance and faith at the bed-side of young and old. He was kept very busy going to the graveside, but he never missed an occasion to be faithful to God and the Word. Funerals were also the occasion for much heart searching in that he beat his breast and asked ‘Have I been faithful with this soul? Did I clearly and convincingly preach to them the good news of salvation?’ This kept him busy and humble in the service of the Master. The burden of the work was such that he would on occasion envy the country preacher but also saw that he would be exchanging one set of problems for another. He had some success among the young people, and that gave him much encouragement. He preached, not just from the pulpit, but also with his pen as he wrote to young people who were forced by Providence to leave the neighborhood. He set about to establish a mid-week prayer meeting, something that was very uncommon in that part of the world. To this he brought information as it was available from overseas missionaries. He spoke at length on the necessity for God to pour out his Spirit for any work to be successful. On Sunday he preached all the doctrines in scripture but showed the difference between preaching doctrine and preaching Christ. The human heart and the Divine mind were the burden of his message. He reported that some of the worst sinners came to hear him preach because they could discern that he had known his heart exhibited such a likeness to theirs. He preached Christ and Him crucified and not just about the subjects, however worthy, of their attention. His constant cry was that uttered by Rowland Hill, ‘Master, help!’ His Sundays were filled in the pulpit in St Peter’s, but he was in great demand to preach in other towns and villages. Crowds flocked to his ministry as doves to the chimney-pots. Other invitations came from parishes looking for such a preacher but to each he gave little or no consideration. To one such siren call he wrote, ‘My Master has placed me here with His own hand; and I never will, directly or indirectly, seek to be removed.’

His health, always fragile, eventually broke and he was forced to take a period of rest and recreation from his busy and blessed occupation. It was during one of these periods that we are grateful for his song ‘I Am a Debtor.’ His absence from the pulpit because of ill health was simply the exchange of one occupation for another. Prayer and praise filled his hours. Sickness, he saw, was a means of sanctification. It taught him to feel the weakness and sorrows of others similarly afflicted and to learn to hold on to God, and God alone. Evangelism did not give him any question of conscience as a man who was committed to the Doctrines of Grace. ‘He saw no inconsistency in preaching an electing God, who, ‘calleth whom He will,’ and a salvation free to whosoever will; nor in declaring the absolute sovereignty of God, and yet the unimpaired responsibility of man. He preached Christ as ‘a gift laid down by the Father for every sinner to take.’ In this he stands with such men as Suttclife, Carey, Fuller, and the inimitable Mr. Spurgeon.

Too many in the Presbyterian Church had taken it for granted that they were Christians because of the work of the Kirk and not the work of the Lord. As previously mentioned it was not the practise for inquirers to come to the Pastor for spiritual advice. He, knowing his own experience, and without any pressure, made it known he was always willing to talk to them about their soul. Two young people wrote him a letter stating ‘We are anxious about our souls.’ The trickle soon became a flood yet he did not ‘heal the daughter of Sion lightly,’ but spoke the truth soberly and righteously. To one, on parting, he said, ‘You are a poor worm; it is a wonder that the earth does not open and swallow you up.’ She came a second time with the burning arrows of conviction in her soul, and it was, by the aid of the Spirit, his words that made the difference. It is without a doubt that he used plain speaking in dealing with those who sought his help.

The multiplicity of events in his life never softened his interest in serving overseas but rather solidified it. ‘This place hardens me for a foreign land,’ was a remark he constantly made. The world was on his heart and this was exposed by his prayers at the mid-week prayer meeting. He seemed to be constantly saying ‘Here am I; send me.’ His motto text was ‘The night cometh when no one can work.’

At the end of 1838 fresh symptoms of illness appeared and greatly alarmed his friends. He was never strong and the unremitting efforts he made for Dundee and all the Kingdom caused his doctors to tell him that he must, if he would live, cease his labors. It was with a sad heart that he left for his father’s home in Edinburgh to attempt to recover some strength. He was only home a few days when he attempted to visit the haunts of his student days and was privileged again to listen to Dr. Chalmers give two lectures. He was also allowed to visit a school companion and to smooth his pillow before he crossed the narrow sea of death. The providence of God is clearly demonstrated when in the company of the famous Dr. Candlish it was suggested he could be included in the party going to reconnoiter Israel on behalf of the National Church. The vision was to anticipate the sending of missionaries to that region of the world.

The companions on this never to be forgotten voyage of discovery would be Dr Candlish, Dr.Keith, Dr.Black, and Dr Andrew Bonar. It was a voyage where they would discover as much about themselves as they did the land. They packed their treasured books with their belongs and set sail for the land of Egypt. It must be added that the announcement brought out a cry of alarm from his Church members but on being assured of an able replacement they acquiesced in the enterprise. Murray McCheyne was favored in Mr. Burns, a man of God, who was sought and secured to fill the pulpit during his extended leave of absence. The route they took was via Italy, Greece, Malta and then Alexandria in Egypt. On disembarking from the ship they exchanged the high seas for the high back of a camel.

They soon came to realize that it took a different skill to stay on a camel than on the more familiar horse but they soon learned to hold tightly. Their trek began in the Nile Delta and surrounded only by Arab attendants they set out across the arid desert. On the way Dr Black suffered a fall from his camel and the result was that a change had to be made in their schedule. The providence of God was already at work and the end result was glory to God and the salvation of some of the natural sons of Abraham. They visited all the sites of Biblical importance and recorded their emotions as they journeyed. The hazardous journey told on his limited strength and it was some time before he was able to lift himself from the ground after alighting from his camel. They visited Samson’s Hill, where Samson had thrown down the gates of Gaza. The Sea of Galilee and Sychar’s well were visited and where one of the party accidentally dropped his Bible into the well. The valley of Elah where David stunned and decapitated Goliath of Gath were discovered and discussed. Jerusalem and its environs and Bethany were zealously explored. They went as far as modern Beirut in Lebanon stopping as they proceeded to examine and marvel at the accuracy of the Book and the mercy of God.

The party divided because of the injury to Dr Black and the sickness of Dr Keith. The over-ruling providence of God meant that they went home via Vienna, Austria where, at the encouragement of the Queen of Austria, they established a mission among the Jews of that region. Some of the converts became notable men including Alfred Edershiem and Adolph Saphir who maintained the truth and wrote some excellent books that now adorn our book shelves. McCheyne and company continued their travels and spent more time around the region of Galilee and Jerusalem.

Letters from home were few and far between but in one letter he was happy to read of the miraculous work going on his Church in far away Dundee, Scotland. On the return journey, off the island of Cyprus, he had another severe bout with fever that almost took his life. On the day of McCheyne’s severe illness, unknown to the party, God was pouring out His Spirit from on high on the people of Scotland. During that precise period of sickness such a matter had been the constant burden of his prayers. On arrival in London he immediately looked for news of the events in Dundee and was not disappointed. The floodgates were opened and the Lord was carrying the day.

On returning to Dundee he went to the mid-week prayer meeting to recall and recount the many, many mercies of the Lord. It was felt that since McCheyne had returned he might summarily dismiss Burns from his task of preaching but such was not the spirit of the man. He spoke to Burns and told him of his utter confidence in him as a preacher of the Word and that the pulpit was his till God was through with him or the revival.

The services were crowded and blessed beyond words. Many found peace through believing and the membership increased greatly. Young and old were blessed. The loyal member and the drunkard knew the power of saving grace. Children and their grand-parents enjoyed the goodness of the Lord. Some of their statements are worth remembering. An eleven year old when asked if she desired to be made holy said, ‘Indeed I often wish I was away, that I might not sin again.’ The power and presence of the Lord were such that the services became more like Bochim of old. Tears were common as sin was confessed and the joy of the Lord discovered. As time went by McCheyne became more discerning because the chaff was also among the wheat. He records that he preached six times in two days and continued his program of visitation as before. He also traveled to distant parts to preach and always with the divine approval. No town or village that could be reached was denied his gifts.

Letters were another form of evangelism and counsel but they cost him no expenditure of time because he saw them as a good work for God to assist precious souls. The Jewish mission was, quite naturally, close to his heart and for that reason he was willing to travel and toil if it advanced its cause. He sailed over to Ireland and saw the hand of God moving throughout the Emerald Isle. The showers were falling and it was his duty so he thought to ‘sow beside all waters.’

In 1842 he was very sick again and also suffered some personal attacks that brought on a time of strong temptation. Denominational life has its hazards and some are quite unavoidable. He traveled to the North of England in company with a group ministers where they preached the glad tidings in the open air. Places of worship belonging to Presbyterians and Methodists were also used for this purpose. At one place ten thousand stood to hear the good news of salvation through Christ. The murmurs arose in his own Church and soon reached his ears but he must work while it is day.

Returning home, exhausted but happy in the Divine service he records, ‘I preached three times on the 5 of March.’ It is said that he preached very strongly on the sovereignty of God in these his last messages to his own people. Illness came and he seemed to anticipate its strength. After attending a wedding he went straight to his Doctor’s house to request the he come and visit him. On occasion it was thought that he would never see the morning light but he held on and all the while giving instruction and engaging in prayer. At times delirious he eventually sank in body and mind.

When the news that the departure had come every Christian was in a state of sadness and shock. The death of one, and a minister of the Gospel, affected all of Scotland, and beyond its shores. All businesses were closed and every window was draped in black in respect for Robert Murray McCheyneman of God.

When this passing world is done,
When has sunk yon glaring sun,
When we stand with Christ in glory,
Looking ore life’s finished story,
Then, Lord, shall I fully know
Not till then how much I owe.

Oft the nights of sorrow reign
Weeping, sickness, sighing pain,
But a night Thine anger burns
Morning comes, and joy returns:
God of comforts! Bid me show
To Thy poor, how much I owe.