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Greatest Preachers

Robert Murray McCheyne

Robert Murray McCheyne

1813 - 1843

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 – 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 – respectable and moral with little evidence of evangelical ‘enthusiasm’. When McCheyne entered Edinburgh University in 1827 it was his brother David who was the most earnest evangelical in the family. David’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 Chalmer’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 Peter’s, Dundee in November 1836. St Peter’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.

McCheyne’s ministry in St Peter’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 – 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 Peter’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 Peter’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.
McCheyne’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 McCheyne’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 Peter’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 – 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 McCheyne’s death, Andrew Bonar, a close friend and colleague, wrote ‘ The Memoir and Remains of Robert Murray McCheyne’. 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 Peter’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 Peter’s was a powerful and potent one, the effect of which was felt far beyond the boundaries of the parish.


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