Robert Murray McCheyne â€“ a short biography
Robert Murray McCheyne was the youngest child of Adam (1781-1854) and Lockhart (1772-1854). He was born on 21st May 1813 at 14 Dublin Street Edinburgh. Educated at the High School in Edinburgh McCheyne showed an early aptitude for the arts, especially music and poetry. He was keen on sports â€“ particularly gymnastics. The latter hobby was one that he was to retain into his adult ministry and which resulted in at least one accident which may have been a contributing factor to his early death.
The religion of the family was fairly typical of the Edinburgh middle class at the time â€“ respectable and moral with little evidence of evangelical â€˜enthusiasmâ€™. When McCheyne entered Edinburgh University in 1827 it was his brother David who was the most earnest evangelical in the family. Davidâ€™s death on the 8th of July 1831 was to have a profound effect on his younger brother, who regarded his own conversion as stemming from that day.
On 28th September 1831 McCheyne presented himself to the Presbytery of Edinburgh and was accepted to study Divinity at the University of Edinburgh. It was here that he met his mentor, Thomas Chalmers, Professor of Divinity. Chalmers was to become his pattern for thought, life, and ministry. Under Chalmerâ€™s influence McCheyne joined the Missionary Association and engaged in visitation of the poor in the needier Edinburgh districts. He developed an interest in overseas missions, meeting several times with Alexander Duff, the first Church of Scotland missionary.
After a short assistantship in Larbert near Falkirk, McCheyne was inducted to the new charge of St Peterâ€™s, Dundee in November 1836. St Peterâ€™s was built as part of the Church of Scotland extension programme initiated by Chalmers, and was situated in a rapidly expanding industrial area of Dundee. At one level McCheyne did not appear to be suited for such work. He was from a prosperous middle class background with little experience of the industrial working class, his health was not great, and in many ways he seemed more suited to a rural parish. And yet his training under Chalmers and his experience in Edinburgh and in Larbert had prepared him for his new charge.
McCheyneâ€™s ministry in St Peterâ€™s was innovative and radical. Starting with a clean slate he was able to build around himself a group of leaders and initiate new work which was largely unhindered by a more traditional perspective. He saw the prime need of the area as evangelism and he acted accordingly. He was concerned that the services should be as attractive as possible and did his utmost to ensure that the singing was melodious and enthusiastic. He started psalmody classes and sometimes even led the singing himself.
His preaching was simple. He sought deliberately to keep his speech plain and to use plenty of word pictures. Sermons varied in length from 20 minutes to one and half-hours. He preached with authority and had a great deal of application and winsomeness. McCheyne was keen on preaching from the Old Testament, especially the Song of Solomon, although the majority of his extant sermons are from the New Testament.
He also engaged in an assiduous programme of pastoral and evangelistic visitation. Notes were kept of all his pastoral visits â€“ with dates, descriptions and a record of the passage of Scripture read. As well as making full use of his elders and deacons he instituted a group of tract distributors and established a system of deaconesses whose job was to help with the visitation.
Under McCheyne, St Peterâ€™s became an active Church with a large programme. As well as the usual Sunday services there was a Bible study on Thursday evening. This was a less formal meeting which was held in an often full Church (St Peterâ€™s was able to seat 1,100 people). Smaller classes were taught by both the elders and McCheyne throughout the week. A Church library was started to encourage reading and learning.
McCheyneâ€™s success is often attributed to his devotional life. He made prayer, meditation and self-discipline key aspects of his work throughout his life. His usual daily pattern was to rise at 6:30 am and spend two hours in private prayer and meditation (including an hour devoted to the Jews). From 8:30-10 am he had breakfast and family prayers. On Sundays his practice was to spend six hours in prayer and devotional reading. McCheyne felt so strongly about private and family worship that he devised a yearly calendar for his people to enable them to read the Old Testament once and the New Testament and Psalms twice. This calendar is still available and widely used today.
McCheyne had a particular missionary interest in the Jews. Consequently after the 1838 General Assembly decided to appoint a committee to examine the state of the Jews and what could be done, McCheyne was appointed as one of its members. It was decided to send a deputation to Israel to investigate the condition of the Jews there and throughout Europe. Dr Alexander Black (Professor of Divinity in Aberdeen), Dr Alexander Keith (minister of St Cyrus) and Andrew Bonar were McCheyneâ€™s companions. On March 27th 1839 they sailed for London. During the course of their six month journey their letters home were published in the national and foreign press. The account of their journey, written by Bonar and McCheyne, was a best seller. Whilst he was in Israel, revival broke out in St Peterâ€™s under the ministry of William Chalmers Burns. This revival was to continue through the remaining years of McCheyne’s life.
McCheyne was not a writer. His devotion was expressed in his fifty plus poems and hymns of which Jehovah Tsidkenu and I am a Debtor became the most famous. His only published book was a joint effort with Andrew Bonar â€“ The Narrative of a Mission of Inquiry to the Jews.
In 1843 McCheyne was appointed to be a commissioner to the General Assembly which was to result in the Disruption and the establishment of the Free Church of Scotland. However in March he contracted typhus whilst visiting in the Hawkhill area of his parish. After two weeks illness and despite the Church being full every night of people praying, he died on 25 March. Over six thousand people attended the funeral. Immediately after McCheyneâ€™s death, Andrew Bonar, a close friend and colleague, wrote â€˜ The Memoir and Remains of Robert Murray McCheyneâ€™. This book, widely regarded as a devotional and spiritual classic, has sold hundreds of thousands of copies, is still in print and has resulted in McCheyne remaining a household name in evangelical circles throughout the Western and English speaking world.
McCheyne was the right man in the right place. His spirituality, training, poetic and musical gifts, his youth and his experience in the poorer areas of Edinburgh and Larbert made him an ideal minister for St Peterâ€™s. There he was able to put into practice the principles and methods of his mentor, Thomas Chalmers. Whilst the full extent of his ministry upon Dundee has yet to be assessed it is already clear that the combination of McCheyne and St Peterâ€™s was a powerful and potent one, the effect of which was felt far beyond the boundaries of the parish.
Bonar, A, Memoir and Remains of Robert Murray McCheyne, (Edinburgh, 1844)
Bonar, A. and McCheyne, Mission of Discovery: The Beginnings of Modern Jewish Evangelism edited by Alan Harman, (Fearn, 1996)
L.J Van Valen, Gedreven Door Zijn Liefde, (Houten, 1993)
McCheyne , From the Preachers Heart, (Christian Focus,Fearn,1993)
Smellie, A., Biography of R.M.McCheyne, (Fearn, 1995)
Web site: visit McCheyne.info (opens window in new tab)
A Talk on McCheyne was given by David Robertson as part of Dundee Westfest 2010. Audio link and details below.
David Robertson takes a look at the influence of Christianity in general and St Peter’s in particular on the West End of Dundee, examining the impact of two famous west enders, the preacher, pastor and poet Robert Murray McCheyne, a former minister of St Peter’s Church and William Topaz McGonagall. McGonagall is one of Dundeeâ€™s most famous citizens â€“ the â€˜worldâ€™s worst poetâ€™ was actually a member of St Peterâ€™s and his tragic/comic life gives surprising insight into 19th Century Dundee life.
AWAKENING The Life and Ministry of Robert Murray McCheyne
“Was Mccheyne for real?”
“Was he just famous because he died so young?”;
“Does he have anything to teach us today?”
In this book, David Robertson seeks to answer these and other questions. Through the use of published sermons, private papers and historical material, this contemporary devotional biography traces McCheyne’s life and influence from his upbringing, conversion and training for the ministry to the revival that occurred in St Peter’s in 1839 and his early death. The contemporary relevance of McCheyne for today’s church is demonstrated and the glory of God is seen in this wonderful story of what He can do with one ‘consecrated sinner’.
The Church in Scotland
Scotland was once the most ‘Reformed’ nation of the Reformation. The Scottish Reformation of Knox and his colleagues was thorough and revolutionary. Much of modern Scotland, the law, education and the church owe their origins to this time. Sadly the Scottish nation and people have to a large extent neglected and abandoned the heritage of our fathers. The Church in Scotland declined in the 20th Century – in particular from the 1960′s on. It would not be right to oversimplify the reasons why but surely one of the major causes was the abandonment by many within the Church of the historic Calvinism of the Westminster Confession and above all the abandonment of much of the Bible. Today the Church in Scotland is in a weak state. 90% of Scotland’s population seldom if ever darken any kind of church door. The following is a brief summary of my perception of where we are: I would be grateful if anyone who wishes to correct any of this information would contact me at email@example.com so that I can do so.
The Catholic Church – now claims to be the largest church in Scotland with some 650,000 baptised. Attendance is certainly high in some areas (notably the West lowlands) but in reality the Catholic Church faces many problems. There are a large number of nominal Catholics and there is a severe shortage of priests. Until the celibacy issue this dealt with this is not likely to be resolved. Cardinal Winning is one of the best known church leaders in Scotland. To his credit he has made a strong public stand for Christian moral ethics.
The Church of Scotland – is our national church. Presbyterian in government and with a fine history it now faces an unprecedented crisis. Membership has fallen from a peak of 1.2 million in the 1950′s to some 600,000 in 2001.
Last year it lost over 23,000 members. In our city of Dundee it was recently reported that the Church of Scotland was losing the equivalent of two congregations every year. The number of evangelical ministries has increased over the past number of years so that there are now over 400 evangelicals out of some 1200 ministers. However although there are many fine ministries within the Church of Scotland there are not so many
evangelical congregations and the decline continues. It is estimated that a further 500 churches will close and that there will be over 200 vacancies within the next few years. Furthermore there are potential theological and practical problems arising out of issues such as the ordination of women (it is now compulsory that all ministers have to accept the ordination of women), homosexuality and the uniqueness of Christ.
The Scottish Episcopal Church – Anglican with a membership of some 20,000. Has had some excellent evangelical ministries and yet is known in Scotland for its most famous member , Bishop Holloway whose extreme liberal stance has done a great deal of harm.
The Scottish Baptist Church – has experienced slight growth. Most cities and large towns would have a reasonable Baptist Church. The question of women’s ordination also threatens to cause further division.
Independent and Charismatic – There are charismatic groups in most areas of Scotland. Some do a fine social and evangelistic work. Others are authoritarian and divisive. They tend to draw from the declining pool of Christian adherents although some charismatic churches have been quite
successful in bringing the gospel to the unchurched.
The Free Presbyterians – A tiny denomination founded in 1893. Probably has less than 100 male members. Known for its extreme position on social matters. Largely based in the Highlands.
The Associated Presbyterians – Broke away from the Free Presbyterians in 1989. At the time it was hoped that this new denomination might be the focus for uniting evangelical Presbyterians. Sadly this has not been the case and indeed the few APC churches have declined further during that period with several ministers joining the Church of Scotland.
The Free Church Continuing – Separated from the Free Church in January 2000 over an internal disciplinary matter. About 22 active ministries and 800 people – mainly in the Highlands.
The Free Church of Scotland- With about 10,000 members and adherents the Free Church is the largest evangelical Presbyterian denomination in Scotland (actually in Europe!). A period of growth in the 1980′s was followed by a period of decline in the 1990′s. The split in 2000 rather than harming the Church seems to have done it some good. Although there are areas where the church is in decline there are also signs of blessing in other areas. The number of students applying for the ministry is increasing, some congregations are growing, there is a renewed interest in church planting and growth in areas where the church has traditionally been weak. St Peter’s belongs to the Free Church of Scotland and we are grateful for the support offered to us through our lean years. It is our prayer that we will be able to repay that by supporting church revitalization and church planting work elsewhere in Scotland.
I realise that the above is a weak and inadequate summary but it does give a general picture. Although there are some encouraging signs we are conscious of our desperate spiritual need. We long for reformation and revival. May the Lord bless and pity us and may Scotland once again become a nation where the people can be described as ‘the people of the book’.