(1813 - 1843)
Part 1 " As one bought with a price"
Chosen not for good in me,
Wakened up from wrath to flee,
Hidden in the Saviour's side,
By' the Spirit sanctified,
Teach me, Lord, on earth to show
By my love how much l owe.
Although few of McCheyne's hymns may be included in modern
collections, there is one which has a place in the hearts of all Christians
who know it, for its words speak with a clarity and truth that they will
recognise in their own experience. It was but one of the gifts graciously
allowed to him by God, that McCheyne could express in simple yet beautiful
ways God's dealings with him, and no finer example of this can be cited
than the hymn, "When this passing world is done," the
last verse of which was an apt testimony of McCheyne's conversion and
Robert Murray McCheyne was born in Edinburgh in May 1813, the youngest
child of a leading solicitor in Scotland's Supreme Court of Justice. His
parents took great care over the spiritual welfare of the family and as
he grew up Robert developed a high standard of virtue in all his conduct,
so much so that his father wrote of him in retrospect, "I never
found him guilty of a lie or of any mean or unworthy action."
At fourteen he entered Edinburgh University, studying literature and poetry,
and graduated four years later in 1831. Robert also had great respect
for his eldest brother David who in return took a keen interest in Robert's
spiritual condition, but a sudden illness in the summer of 1831 resulted
in David's death. Robert felt the tragic loss most bitterly, especially
since his own virtuous behaviour brought him no consolation in his grief.
He turned for comfort to seeking God through diligent study of the Bible,
until in his own words, he was "led to Christ through deep and
ever abiding convictions" that his sins were forgiven and that
he had peace with God.
Entry to the Ministry
Soon after his conversion in 1831, McCheyne began to prepare for the ministry
of the Church of Scotland and commenced his studies of divinity under
Thomas Chalmers, the outstanding theologian and scholar of his day. He
quickly mastered Latin, Greek and Hebrew, but his learning was solely
for the purpose of advancing his understanding of scripture, since he
had no time for intellectual speculation or scholarly controversies. To
him the wisdom of all the ages as revealed by God through His Word far
surpassed the finest philosophies and theories devised by men. His student
days were marked by a rapid growth in grace as the truths of scripture
were applied in his life until he was able to exclaim, "A calm
hour with God is worth a whole lifetime with man."
He also steeped himself in the journals and writings of
Jonathan Edwards, David Brainard and Henry Martyn, and longed that the
power of the Holy Spirit that had been so evident in their lives would
also be granted him. It was in this way that he was led to start evangelistic
work in the poorer districts of Edinburgh with his fellow students early
in 1834. Conscious of the great responsibility of the task before him,
he recorded, "Began in fear and weakness, and in much trembling.
May the power be of God!" The next year he was licensed to preach
by the Annan Presbytery and immediately set out on what he called,
"a glorious privilege" of proclaiming the gospel.
Sowing the Seed
Towards the end of 1835, McCheyne became the assistant minister of a parish
near Stirling which included Larbert, an industrial town of ironworks
and coal mines, and Dunipace, a country village surrounded by farmland.
In preaching and pastoral care, he soon made a deep impression on the
town dwellers and farmers alike. Each Sunday he ex pounded the gospel
"as free as the air we breathe, fresh as the stream from the everlasting
hills" and each weekday he systematically visited house by house,
sharing the scriptures with any needy soul who was ready to listen. It
was a time of patient preparation for the work God had in store for him
and in 1836 he was called to the ministry at St.Peter's church in Dundee.
The text of his first sermon there was that chosen by the Lord Jesus in
the synagogue at Nazareth, "The Spirit of the Lord God is upon
me, because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings" (Isaiah
.61 : 1-3), and as he looked back over that occasion he prayed to
God, "Put Thy blessing upon this day," and noted in his
journal that he "felt given over to God, as one bought with a
McCheyne's ministry at Dundee lasted only six years and was divided into
two almost equal periods by his journey to the Holy Land in 1839. From
the start he laboured without ceasing amongst the population in the overcrowded
streets which his church. had been built to serve and his singleness of
heart and mind can be seen from his statement, "I feel there are
two things it is impossible to desire with sufficient ardour, personal
holiness, and the honour of Christ in the salvation of soul." It
was this inseparable combination of saintliness and zeal for soul-winning
that was the chief characteristic of McCheyne's ministry. Indeed a modern
authority has written of him, "He was convinced that a diligent
minister ought to expect success in God's service, but he saw that he
could not hope for such success unless he were willing to preach Christ
for Christ's sake alone." McCheyne fully realised that one word
uttered in the power of the Holy Spirit could do more than thousands spoken
in a spirit of unbelief, and God's seal upon his ministry was so evident
that a contemporary of his, remarked that the church had been filled with
a Bethel-like sacredness' during the services. In the six short years
he spent at St. Peter's church a congregation of twelve hundred members
was gathered there and towards the end of his life, he was able to state,
without a trace of boastfulness, "I think I can say I have never
risen a morning without thinking how I could bring more souls to Christ."
Gifts and Graces of God.
The years from 1836-39 were spent faithfully laying the foundations for
the blessing which followed later in his ministry. His natural gifts in
poetry, art and music were amply expressed in his sermons and writings
which included a volume of verses entitled "Songs of Zion".
Many of these were set to music and used as hymns of which, 'When this
passing world is done' is a memorable example. McCheyne's achievements
were all the more remarkable when it is remembered that a severe heart
condition often compelled him to lay aside energetic activities. This
was especially so in the matter of missionary outreach which had occupied
his thoughts from his earliest days as a Christian. He had eagerly sought
the few accounts of missionary enterprises that had been published up
to that time and he had been deeply moved by the sacrificial devotion
shown by pioneers such as Brainard and Martyn. By 1836 he felt willing
to go to India and prayed that God would make His will plain, but the
bouts of ill-health he suffered showed him that God had much to teach
him. McCheyne was granted the faith to see beyond the temporary trials
and passing glories of this present world to "a far more exceeding
and eternal weight of glory."
In 1838 as he was recovering from a period of illness, McCheyne
was suddenly invited to be one of a deputation sent to examine the possibility
of missionary work amongst Jews in eastern Europe and the Turkish Empire.
It was in this manner that God through HIS mercy and providence graciously
answered McCheyne's longing to share in the work of opening new fields
to the sound of the gospel.
Part 2 - Dressed in beauty not my own
On 12th April 1839, McCheyne set out from Dover with Andrew
Bonar, Alexander BIack and Alexander Keith on the start of their journey
to the Holy Land. To appreciate the unusual nature of their mission, it
should be remembered that the power of the Turkish Empire which had dominated
the region for centuries made such visits rare for European travellers.
Indeed, they wrote in their account of the journey, "We are not
aware that any clergyman of the Church of Scotland was ever privileged
to visit the Holy City before." In addition the disturbed relations
between Turkey and the European states at that time obliged them to sail
via France and Egypt, and then to make the long overland crossing from
Alexandria to Palestine. Thus It was with a profound sense of venturing
into unknown lands and re-discovering the ancient sites of Biblical days
that the four friends at last reached Jerusalem in June. McCheyne could
not contain his growing delight as he hurried ahead of his companions
to gain his first long awaited sight of the City. The words of Psalm 122
verse 2, "Our feet shall stand within thy gates, 0 Jerusalem,"
were literally true in their experience as they spent the following days
exploring the City. The slopes of the Mount of Olives, the paths through
Gethsemane, the shores of Galilee - each scene was filled with its associations
with the life of the Saviour, and McCheyne's accounts written for his
friends at home show how deeply moved he was by his experiences.
Suffering for the Saviour.
After visiting as many Jewish settlements as time would allow, the four
friends separated at Beirut. Black and Keith set out for Constantinople
to return home through the Austrian Empire, while. Bonar and McCheyne
paid another brief visit to Jerusalem before embarking for Asia Minor.
The weeks of travelling had severely strained McCheyne's health and by
the time they set sail he had developed a fever. Even so he remained on
deck to watch the hills of Lebanon fading out of sight and only as darkness
fell did he sadly turn away from the scene. The fever so weakened McCheyne
that he needed to be carried ashore at Smyrna and for two weeks he was
nursed back to health by an English family who lived nearby. Despite this
illness he spent a further two months travelling through the Balkans and
the Austrian, Polish and German territories visiting Jewish communities
and gathering a vaIuabIe store of information on which to base their report
to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.
Fruit In Due Season.
On their return to Scotland in November 1839, their report created such
an impact that the General Assembly unanimously decided to begin missionary
outreach to the Jews of Eastern Europe and in 1841 Daniel Edward was sent
to Poland and Prussia, and John Duncan to Hungary to commence this work.
In this way the prayers of McCheyne and his friends were graciously answered
and a deep concern was planted in the hearts of Scottish Christians for
evangelism amongst the Jews. In later years this work continued to expand
until missionaries from Scotland were at last established throughout the
Middle East including several of the towns which McCheyne had visited
Wonderful Works of God.
While McCheyne had been abroad he had left William Burns in charge of
St Peter's Church in Dundee and McCheyne had faithfully prayed throughout
his absence that God would honour and bless the ministry of the young
preacher. Unknown to McCheyne a remarkable awakening had swept the town
of Kilsyth where Burns had preached In August and two days later he had
returned to Dundee to give an account at the mid-week prayer meeting of
the revival blessing that he had witnessed. As he spoke of God's wonderful
dealings with the people of Kilsyth, his hearers became conscious of the
Holy Spirit moving amongst them in great power. Many were brought tearfully
to repentance while others rejoiced in the knowledge of sins forgiven,
and meetings for prayer and praise were held every evening in the following
weeks as the awakening continued in the town. Thus it was that McCheyne
came home to find that the revival he had so earnestly longed for, had
already flooded through the people of Dundee and at the first prayer meeting
he attended on the day of his return he claimed, "I do not think
that I can speak a month in this parish without winning some souls."
Before the awakening of 1839 he estimated that around sixty conversions
had taken place during his ministry, but he wisely refrained from exaggerating
the fruits of the revival and only claimed souls had been born again when
there was undeniable evidence of new life. Besides the spiritual discernment
he exercised, McCheyne recognised it was God's prerogative to command
blessing or to withhold it. When objections were made by some to the cries
of contrition and tears of repentance which arose from the congregation
in his church, McCheyne answered with simplicity, "I felt no hesitation
as to our duty to declare the simple truth impressively , and leave God
to work in their hearts in HIS own way. If HE saves in a quiet way, I
shall be happy; if in the midst of cries and tears, still I will bless
A Wider Field.
McCheyne's resolution, to devote himself to the work at Dundee did not
prevent him from playing a part in the wider field of evangelism in his
day. The revival touched many places Scotland and involved many ministers
and preachers, most of whom were close associates of his. His life-long
friend since student days was Alexander Somerville who was used by God
in every spiritual awakening in Scotland for the next fifty years, and
in addition McCheyne found kindred spirits and co-workers in Andrew Bonar
whose ministry at Collace ran parallel to McCheyne's at Dundee, and his
elder brother Horatius, the noted preacher and gifted hymn-writer who
was held in high regard for the depth of his spiritual insight As God
added more labourers to the harvest of souls, McCheyne and his friends
faithfully supported in every way - William Burns at Kilsyth, John Milne
at Perth, James Grierson at Errol, Robert MacDonald at Blairgowrie, James
Hamilton at Abernyte and later Regent Square, London, Patrick Miller at
Wallacetown, Daniel Cormick at Kirriemuir, and many others were empowered
to proclaim the way of salvation. Through the ministries of such men a
new chapter was written in the history of the Church of Scotland. Their
message had one purpose, as Andrew Bonar wrote "... like Ahimaaz,
coming with all important tidings and intent on making these tidings known."
McCheyne expressed the same longing when he wrote,"One thing always
fills the cup of my consolation, that God may work by the meanest and
poorest words as well as by the most polished and ornate - yea, perhaps
more readily, that the glory may be all HIS own."
How Much I Owe.
The revival greatly increased McCheyne's sense of the urgency of the Gospel
and on one occasion he declared while preaching, "Brethren, if
I could promise you that the door will stand open for a hundred years,
yet it would still be your wisdom to enter in now. But I can not answer
for a year; I cannot answer for a month; I can not answer for a day; I
can not answer for an hour. All that I can answer for is, it is open now."
McCheyne's sermons were characterised by his fidelity to scripture,
the unfailing tenderness of his delivery and the deep sense of reverence
for God which shone through all his life, all of which gave his preaching
a most effective quality. He was fond of using short but direct. appeals
to his hearers, "If God spared not HIS own S0N under the sin of
another, how shall He spare thee under the weight and burden of thine
own sin? If they do these things in a green tree, what shall be done In
With CHRIST on high.
The closing years of his life coincided with the Ten Years of Conflict
over the power of lay patrons to make ministerial appointments. McCheyne
never shrank from the struggle to assert the right of congregations to
call their own pastors and he fully supported Thomas Charmers in the events
leading to the establishment of the Free Church of Scotland. He was one
of the 427 ministers who resolved in November 1842 to separate from the
Church if lay control was enforced, and when Parliament took the crucial
decision in favour of state patronage in March 1843, McCheyne stated,
"Once more KING JESUS stands at an earthly tribunal, and they
know HIM not." Yet McCheyne was not to see the "Disruption"
which followed. The next Sunday he preached his evening sermon on the
text, "Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the
Lord is risen upon thee." (Isaiah 60: 1 ) which many were later
to recall as a rich blessing to their souls. Two days afterwards he was
struck down by the typhus epidemic raging In Dundee and as his life drew
to a close he continued to plead for the souls of his congregation in
his prayers. On 25th March 1843, not yet thirty years old, McCheyne went
to be with his Lord and the vision of his best known hymn was realised.
When I stand before the throne,
Dressed in beauty not my own,
When I see Thee as Thou art,
Love Thee With unsinning heart.
Copyright © 1995 Heath Christian Book Shop Charitable
Most recent revision 11 December 1995
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