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Significant Scots
Rev Robert Murray M'Cheyne


M’CHEYNE, REV. ROBERT MURRAY.—This young divine, whose brief life and labours produced such a wide and lasting impression, was born in Edinburgh, on the 21st of May, 1813. At the age of eight he entered the High School of his native city, where he continued a pupil for six years, during the course of which he was distinguished among his class-fellows not only by his proficiency in the usual studies of the class, but his amiable, enthusiastic disposition and engaging manners. From the High School he passed to the university of Edinburgh, and there, besides gaining prizes in the several classes, he distinguished himself by his proficiency in the study of modern languages, and his taste in drawing, music, and poetry. On finishing the usual course of a university education, it is probable that his direction in life would still have remained to be decided, but for one of those solemnizing events which sometimes, at such a crisis, has confirmed the current and directed the course of those who have become eminent in the church. This was the death of his eldest brother, David, eight or nine years older than himself. In the same year (1831) he entered the divinity hall, which at this time enjoyed Dr. Chalmers for its professor in theology, and Dr. Welsh for the chair of church history. Under such teachers, it would have been difficult for a pupil of even ordinary capacity to remain inert and unaccomplished; in the case of Robert M’Cheyne, there was an ardour that not only carried him onward in the studies over which they presided, but into that life of Christian activity and practical usefulness which they were so desirous to combine with the intellectual acquirements of young students in training for the ministry. Many of our living clergymen can still remember how, both in Glasgow and Edinburgh, Dr. Chalmers converted the divinity halls into evangelistic seminaries of Sabbath-school teachers and religious instructors of the poor; and with what hearty good-will they themselves, while students, enlisted in the good work, and plunged boldly into those recesses of ignorance and crime which, but for his exhortations, they would have never thought of entering; and how they thereby acquired that knowledge and aptitude for their future duties, which the mere lectures of the class-room could never have imparted.

After having finished the usual course appointed for students in divinity, and exhibited an amount of talent and acquirements that might have opened for him an entrance into the fairest fields of literary ambition, Mr. M’Cheyne was licensed as a preacher by the Presbytery of Annan, on the 1st of July, 1835. The sphere of action to which he turned at the outset was both humble and laborious, being an assistantship of the joint parishes of Larbert and Dunipace, having a population of 6000 souls, most of whom were colliers, and workmen of the Carron Iron-works——a population sufficiently repulsive in station and manners, as well as in general moral character. His situation and his feelings are well described in his poem on "Mungo Park finding a Tuft of Green Grass in the African Desert "—a poem, by the way, which John Wilson, our prince of critics, has stamped with his honoured approval:--

"No mighty rock upreared its head
To bless the wanderer with its shade,
In all the weary plain;
No palm-trees with refreshing green
To glad the dazzled eye were seen,
But one wide sandy main.

"Dauntless and daring was the mind,
That left all home-born joys behind
These deserts to explore—
To trace the mighty Niger’s course,
And find it bubbling from its source
In wilds untrod before.

"And ah! shall we less daring show,
Who nobler ends and motives know
Than ever heroes dream—
Who seek to lead the savage mind
The precious fountain-head to find,
Whence flows salvation’s stream?"

This he felt, and in this spirit he laboured during the ten months of his assistantship, not confining himself to the duties of the pulpit, careful and anxious though his preparations in that department were, but visiting in every house, and endeavouring to make himself acquainted with the character, spiritual condition, and wants of every individual. A happy proof of his diligence and discriminating character in this the most important part of clerical duty, is contained in a letter which he afterwards wrote to his successor, recommending to his attention the persons in whom he felt most solicitude. "Take more heed to the saints," he writes, "than ever I did. Speak a word in season to S. M. S. H. will drink in simple truth, but tell him to be humble-minded. Cause L. H. to learn in silence; speak not of religion to her, but speak to her case always. Teach A. M. to look simply at Jesus. J. A. warn and teach. Get worldliness from the B.’s if you can. Mrs. G. awake, or keep awake. Speak faithfully to the B.’s. Tell me of M. C., if she is really a believer, and grows? A. K., has the light visited her? M. T. I have had some doubts of. M. G. lies sore upon my conscience; I did no good to that woman; she always managed to speak of things about the truth. Speak boldly. What matter in eternity the slight awkwardnesses of time?" In these notanda what a beautiful practical illustration we have of that chapter in the work of Herbert on clerical duties, which he has entitled, "The Parson Visiting!"

While Mr. M’Cheyne was thus occupied in the united parishes of Dunipace and Larbert, he was only in training for the full work of the ministry, which he was now about to enter. This event occurred in November, 1836, when, after having been invited by the managers and congregation of the new church, St.. Peter’s, Dundee, to become a candidate for that charge, he preached on trial two several Sundays before them, and was accepted as their minister. The duties into which he now entered were of the most arduous description. His parish of St. Peter’s, detached from that of St. John’s, as a quoad sacra parish, contained a population of 4000 souls; and the church itself, built in connection with the Church Extension Scheme, contained a congregation of 1100 hearers. His health, lately subject to severe trials, was in very indifferent condition, while the religious apathy of the townsfolks of Dundee, was such as to strike him at first with anxiety. Here he commenced the same ministerial labours to which he had been accustomed as a preacher, but with a sense of still deeper responsibility—not only preaching faithfully on the Sabbath, after careful preparation and prayer, but visiting from house to house during the week-days, and often extending these evangelistic visits of examination and instruction, not only over the families of his own parish, but those of Dundee at large. Such superabundant labour was perhaps an error—but an error upon the safe side. In addition to these tasks, he superintended the labours of his elders over the several districts into which his parish was divided, held weekly evening classes for the young of his congregation, and trained the more advanced of their number for becoming Christian communicants. He also held prayer-meetings on the Thursday evenings. These manifestations of earnest, tender, indefatigable solicitude for the spiritual interests of the community among which he was placed, could not but be felt and appreciated, and the multitudes that repaired to his ministrations on the Sabbath, soon became permanent members of his flock, arrested as they were by the unction of his preaching, so correspondent to his whole character and actions; by the distinct arrangement of his ideas, and the clear as well as eloquent language in which they were expressed—even by the tones of his expressive voice, and unstudied yet graceful and appropriate action of his limbs, that had excelled in dancing and gymnastics before he became a student in theology. In the pulpit itself, such natural and personal advantages are no trivialities—and but for them, perhaps, even Whitefield himself, that prince of pulpit orators, would have lived and died an undistinguished Methodist preacher. As the fame of his popularity and usefulness extended over the country at large, other parishes wished to have Mr. M’Cheyne for their minister; but tempting though such offers were, on account of higher emolument and lighter labour, he respectfully declined them. His motives for this were well explained in his remarks on an application of this kind from the parish of Skirling. Writing to his father, he says:—"I am set down among nearly 4000 people; 1100 people have taken seats in my church. I bring my message, such as it is, within the reach of that great company every Sabbath-day. I dare not leave this people. I dare not leave 3000 or 4000 for 300 people. Had this been offered me before, I would have seen it a direct intimation from God, and would heartily have embraced it. How I should have delighted to feed so precious a little flock—to watch over every family—to know every heart—to ‘allure to brighter worlds, and lead the way!’ But God has not so ordered it. He has set me down among the noisy mechanics and political weavers of this godless town. He will make the money sufficient. He that paid his taxes from a fish’s mouth, will supply all my need."

From Scotland to Palestine, from Dundee to Jerusalem, is a strange transition—but this Mr. M’Cheyne was now called to undergo. The incessant action of mind and body during his ministerial course, upon a constitution naturally delicate, had, towards the close of 1838, completely impaired his strength, and occasioned such a violent palpitation of the heart, that he was imperatively ordered by his medical advisers to discontinue his public labours, and seek a cure in change of place and occupation. He reluctantly complied, and passed over to Edinburgh, where he had not been long domiciled, when a proposal was made to him to join a deputation about to be sent by the Church of Scotland into the East, for the purpose of making personal inquiries into the condition of the Jews. Nothing could have been more opportune than such an offer. It gratified the longing for missionary enterprise that had stirred up his heart from an early period, but hitherto without scope; it promised to restore that health of which he was now in quest, without dreary useless inaction as its price; and it would lead him through those hallowed scenes and localities, the memory of which is so dear to every Christian heart, and which it recognizes to the very end as its native birthplace and home. As one of the four ministers who composed the mission, he commenced that interesting journey of which a full account has been given to the public in the "Narrative of a Mission of Inquiry to the Jews, from the Church of Scotland, in 1839." After a six months’ tour, in which every day brought a change of scene and incident, he returned home in November, 1839, renewed in health, and impatient to resume his wonted duties. It was time that he should return, for one of these mysterious religious epochs, called a "revival," had occurred within his own parish, as well as the town of Dundee at large. It was similar to the event which, under the same title, had occurred nearly a century earlier at Cambuslang. On departing upon his mission to the East, the assistant whom Mr. M’Cheyne left in his place had preached in Kilsyth, and there such a revival of religious feeling had occurred as seemed to recall the days of Pentecost. From Kilsyth the impulse reached Dundee, where its original agent was now stationed, and afterwards went with an electric sympathy through other parishes of Scotland. This religious popular movement, so peculiar to Scotland, and yet so alien to the national character—as if that were the fittest place where such a doubtful impulse could be best tried and tested—was in full operation among his people when Mr. M’Cheyne returned, and in its working he recognized the finger of God. On this account he threw himself without hesitation into it, and was now more employed than ever in speaking comfort to the afflicted, and giving instruction to the doubtful and inquiring. The immediate fruits of this revival, also, were such as to fill him with the most triumphant hope, notwithstanding the frequent instances that occurred among the seemingly converted, not only of wavering inconsistency, but even of positive downfall. As is well known, this great national religious stirring among the people preceded the Disruption, for which it served in some measure to prepare the way; and in these events, by which the Church of Scotland was finally rent in twain, Mr. M’Cheyne could not do otherwise than feel a deep vital interest. That principle of spiritual independence for which his brethren were contending, he had cherished and advocated from the beginning, and now that it was in peril, he prepared himself to sacrifice all for its sake. He therefore attended the solemn clerical meeting held in Edinburgh on the 11th of August, 1841, and subscribed the engagement by which the Commission of the General Assembly bound itself to vindicate the liberties of the church, by proceeding against the recusant ministers of the Presbytery of Strathbogie, notwithstanding the state protection, within which they had intrenched themselves. In the following year he was one of a clerical deputation that visited the north of England, for the purpose of preaching in chapels or in the open air, and instructing all who repaired to them in the great common principles of religion, without reference to sect or party.

On returning to his charge at Dundee, Mr. M’Cheyne resumed his duties, and pursued them with a diligence which neither frequent attacks of sickness, nor a gradually decaying constitution, seemed in any way to abate. But his days were numbered, and his anticipations of a short life were about to be realized. In the midst of his preparations for the disruption that soon took place, in the event of which he had expressed his resolution to go forth as a missionary to our convict colonies, he was attacked by fever, the violence of which soon left no doubt of what would be its termination. Delirium followed, and in a few days he breathed his last. So intensely was he beloved, not only by the members of his flock, but the inhabitants of Dundee in general, that his death, coming especially with such suddenness, was lamented as a public calamity. The event occurred on the 25th of March, 1843, in the thirtieth year of his age, and seventh of his short but most useful and honoured ministry.

It is difficult, in so brief a notice, and in a life marked by so few striking incidents and changes, to convey a distinct idea of the worth of Mr. M’Cheyne, or the important character and results of his public labours. As a minister, he might be called the Whitefield of Scotland; and in that one word we endeavour to comprise, as well as to convey an impression of his apostolic life, character, and labours. Many indeed are the thousands still living, not only in his native land, but in England and Ireland, who will recognize the justice of such a title.


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