Robert Murray M‘Cheyne - The beauty of holiness
[For the background to this series of articles see the post for May 2022, Forty years ago]
Robert Murray M‘Cheyne
The beauty of holiness
When Robert Murray M‘Cheyne died on March 25th 1843, at the early age of twenty-nine, the grief was deep and wide-spread. ‘Perhaps never’, writes his friend and biographer, Andrew Bonar, ‘was the death of one, whose whole occupation had been preaching the everlasting gospel, more felt by all the saints of God in Scotland’. Bonar himself, in a diary entry for that day, says, ‘My heart is sore…Life has lost half its joys, were it not for the hope of saving souls. There was no friend whom I loved like him’. And he was dearly loved by his congregation too. When they gathered in the church that evening, ‘none among them seemed able to contain their sorrow. Every heart seemed bursting with grief, so that the weeping and the cries could be heard afar off’.
The primary source for this article is Bonar’s memoir of M‘Cheyne which was published the year after M‘Cheyne’s death. It has become a spiritual classic. Read it and you discover why in his own day M‘Cheyne had such a place in people’s hearts. So too why in our day still his life and ministry are bearing fruit around the world. It lies in what he was as a Christian; in the depth of his devotion to Christ; in his passion for holiness.
Robert Murray M‘Cheyne was born in Edinburgh on May 21st 1813. Writing many years later to a boy for whose salvation he was anxious, he looks back to his own boyhood. ‘Perhaps you will tell me that you are very happy as you are. I quite believe you. I know that I was very happy when I was unforgiven. I know that I had great pleasure in many sins…I fancy few boys were ever happier in an unconverted state than I was. No sorrow clouded my brow.’ He makes a similar point in his hymn Jehovah Tsidkenu:
‘I once was a stranger to grace and to God;
I knew not my danger, I felt not my load’
Everything changed, however, with the death of his eldest brother David, a godly young man, in July 1831. David died in joy and in peace after a long illness and it made a deep impression on Robert. The two had been very close and David had prayed earnestly for him. ‘This day eleven years ago’, M‘Cheyne would later write, ‘I lost my loved and loving brother, and began to seek a Brother who cannot die.’ Another major factor in his conversion was a short work entitled The Sum of Saving Knowledge. He calls it ‘the work which I think first of all wrought a saving change in me.’
The next four years were spent in preparation for gospel ministry, Dr. Thomas Chalmers and Dr. David Welsh being his principal teachers. He was licensed to preach by the Presbytery of Annan in July 1835 and in November of the same year he became an assistant to the Rev. John Bonar, minister of Larbert and Dunipace in Stirlingshire. It was a demanding sphere of labour, too great even for the two men together, and it was not long before M‘Cheyne’s health began to give way. Several weeks of rest were needed before he was sufficiently recovered to resume. There would be further bouts of serious illness in the years to follow.
His time in Larbert and Dunipace was short, a mere ten months. Excerpts from his diary in Bonar’s memoir give us glimpses both of the inward and the outward history of those months. We find him preaching to small audiences and large, spending whole days in visiting with evening meetings to follow, teaching the young, mentioning particular individuals on whom he has called, and recording visits to other places. It is the inward history, however, in which the chief value of these excerpts lies. We get to listen-in as he engages in self-examination, confesses sin, prays for help, gives thanks for the Lord’s great mercies, testifies to his delight in preaching the gospel, and sorrows over his shortcomings in doing so.
Ministry in Dundee
On November 24th 1836 M‘Cheyne became the minister of St Peter’s Church of Scotland in the east coast city of Dundee. It was a new congregation. Had he had his choice he would have preferred a rural charge rather than a demanding city one. Bonar tells us that later on, more than once, he would say, ‘We might have thought that God would have a sent a strong man to such a parish as mine, and not a feeble reed’. It is with Dundee, however, that M‘Cheyne’s name has come to be inseparably associated. His ministry there would last for little more than six years. But they were remarkable years.
To what kind of situation had he come? Bonar describes the parish of St Peter’s as ‘large and very destitute’. It had some four thousand inhabitants; and though many of them had no church connection the congregation itself, at the outset, was about eleven-hundred strong, a third coming from other parts of Dundee. The blessing began immediately. People were awakened by his very first sermon as pastor. And ‘ever onward’, says Bonar, ‘the impressions left by his words seemed to spread and deepen among his people.’
Two busy years followed. Then came a further breakdown in health. At the close of 1838 he returned to his parents’ home in Edinburgh for what he hoped would be a break of only a week or two’s duration. In the event, however, he was to be gone from Dundee for almost the whole of 1839. But not merely because of illness. Plans were afoot to send a deputation from the Church of Scotland to Israel to investigate the possibilities for a future mission to the Jews. M‘Cheyne was asked if he would be a member of this deputation. He was an ideal choice. On the one hand, he had a burden for the conversion of the Jews. On the other, his doctors thought it would be great for his health. The other members were Alexander Black of Aberdeen, Alexander Keith of St Cyrus, and his close friend Andrew Bonar.
A lengthy report of the trip was later published – Narrative of a Mission of Inquiry to the Jews from the Church of Scotland in 1839 – written by Bonar and M‘Cheyne. But in the interests of space we must pass over it and return instead to Dundee and to the revival that began in M‘Cheyne’s absence. Prior to leaving for Israel William Chalmers Burns, future missionary to China, had been appointed to supply M‘Cheyne’s place. In a letter to him M‘Cheyne writes as follows: ‘You are given in answer to prayer…I hope you may be a thousand times more blessed among them than I ever 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.’
A revival began in the August of that year in Kilsyth whilst William Burns was preaching to the church pastored by his father. That was swiftly followed by a similar awakening in Dundee. When M‘Cheyne arrived back in early December it was still continuing. Bonar writes that ‘after a faithful and prayerful examination, he did most unhesitatingly say that the Lord had wrought great things, whereof he was glad; and in the case of many of those whose souls were saved in that revival he discovered remarkable answers to the prayers of himself…before he left them.’ And nor did the awakening cease. On the contrary the Lord continued to work in saving power for the few remaining years of M‘Cheyne’s ministry.
Those final years saw him often preaching elsewhere. He had a deepening burden for the conversion of sinners and the Lord blessed his preaching to that end. In the summer of 1842, for example, he was part of an evangelistic mission to the north of England. There is a moving description of an open-air service by St Nicholas’ church in Newcastle, a thousand people listening till ten in the evening, no one moving, as he preached on ‘The Great White Throne’. Back in Dundee he could write, ‘I have returned much stronger, indeed quite well. I think I have got some precious souls for my hire on my way home. I earnestly long for more grace and personal holiness, and more usefulness.’
The passion for holiness had been strong from the beginning of his ministry. And as he neared the end his growth in holiness became increasingly visible. ‘I often pray’, he would say in his letters, ‘Lord, make me as holy as a pardoned sinner can be.’ Bonar writes that during his last preaching tour, which took him to the Aberdeenshire districts of Deer and Ellon, ‘his eminently holy walk and conversation, combined with the deep solemnity of his preaching, was specially felt.’ And after his death the following so moving note was found unopened: ‘I heard you preach last Sabbath evening, and it pleased God to bless that sermon to my soul. It was not so much what you said, as your manner of speaking that struck me. I saw in you a beauty of holiness that I never saw before.’
When this note arrived M‘Cheyne was dying of typhus fever. He had contracted it when visiting in his parish and in his weakened state of health was unable to withstand it. It was the Lord’s time. ‘Nothing’, says Bonar, ‘was more fitted to leave his character and example impressed on our remembrance for ever than his early death.’ And that impression continues to be made on those who read his life story, his letters, and his sermons.