Article by Keith Walker
On 18 May 1843 the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland met in Edinburgh for the first time. The evangelical Presbyterians who had felt compelled to secede from the established Church included peers of the Realm, knights, the Lord Provosts of Edinburgh and Glasgow, and sheriffs; with them were ordained leaders of the church, eight ex-Moderators, two Principals of Universities and four Theology Professors. But many of those who assembled forming the Free Church were ordinary parish ministers, not a few being the youngest and ablest of the Established Church.
One such young man was not there. On 12 March 1843, he had preached his last sermon, two days later he had fallen ill and 13 days later he had died. The impending division amongst the Scottish Presbyterians had been a matter of great concern to the 29-year old Robert Murray M‘Cheyne. The background to the Disruption, as it became known, is complex. Suffice it to say that lay patronage, and the crumbling of the gentleman’s agreement between Church and State were crucial issues. Alongside of this was the Moderate party’s prejudice against the revivals that had been occurring under the ministries of some of the young evangelicals.
Prominent amongst these young ministers was M‘Cheyne who had declared himself ready, if necessary, to leave the Church of Scotland together with the rest of the evangelicals and was active in organising towards that end. But it is typical of the man that whilst some others were busied about externals, M‘Cheyne circularised a letter to the decisive Convocation of evangelicals calling for united prayer. In Keeping with this it was said at this Convocation that M‘Cheyne’s prayer ‘conveyed a profounder sense of the Divine presence than we ever felt before or since in the most hallowed of our Christian assemblies.’
Lest we think that these men were the fore-runners of those whose over-rigid insistence on evangelical purity leads them up the by-path of isolationism, we should be clear that M‘Cheyne held the broadest of evangelical sympathies and was totally lacking in party spirit. Indeed he caused something of a stir in Dundee by his insistence on allowing evangelical men of all denominations into his pulpit. Defending himself in the Dundee Warder M‘Cheyne stated:
Such were the principles of the Reformers. Calvin says of Luther, when he was loading him with abuse, ‘Let him call me a dog or a devil, I will acknowledge him as a servant of Christ’. The devoted Ussher preached in the pulpit of Samuel Rutherford; and at a later date … a minister of the Synod of Glasgow defended himself for admitting Whitefield into his pulpit in these memorable words: ‘There is no law of Christ, no Act or Assembly, prohibiting me to give my pulpit to an Episcopalian, Independent or Baptist minister, if of sound principles in the fundamentals of religion, and of sober life.’
We see that the days of M‘Cheyne’s ministry and in particular his last days were a time of struggle in the Church of Scotland.
BORN A SINNER
Robert Murray M‘Cheyne was born on 21 Mat 1813 in Edinburgh. Though perhaps not ‘brilliant’ as some biographers would have him, it soon became clear that he was exceptionally gifted. At the age of four he amused himself by learning the Greek alphabet and later won school prizes for the recitation of poetry. He progressed through High School, where he appears to have been well-liked, to Edinburgh University. He sketched, wrote poetry and sang well. Perhaps somewhat anomalously he also delighted in gymnastics. In later years this enthusiasm remained and occasionally got the better of him. On one occasion he noticed some gymnastic poles in the garden of the manse at Errol. He made a rush for them and began a series of gyrations. Just as he was challenging Dr Guthrie, a leading evangelical, to join him, the pole from which he was hanging by his feet snapped and he fell. Guthrie tells that it took some days before he could get out of bed.
Robert Murray M‘Cheyne’s family had been in the habit of attending church and Robert had practised a formal and dead religion. His elder brother David, however, was quite different. David M‘Cheyne had felt the touch of the Saviour and longed for the younger members of the family to do so too. It is unlikely that he anticipated his own death being used to answer his many prayers for Robert’s conversion, but this was to be the case.
MADE A SAINT
From 1831 onwards, 8 July was for Robert a day of regret on the one hand and thankfulness on the other as he recalled his brother David’s home-call. Three extracts from M‘Cheyne’s diary will serve as illustrations:
1832 July 7 – Saturday – After finishing my usual studies, tried to fast a little, with much prayer and earnest seeking of God’s face, remembering what occurred this night last year.
July 8 – On this morning last year came the first overwhelming blow to my worldliness: how blessed to me, thou God, only knowest, who hast made it so.
1836 July 8 – This day my brother has been five years absent from the body and present with the Lord, and knows more and loves more than all earthly saints together. Till the Day break and the shadows flee away, turn, my Beloved!
On 8 July 1842, the last anniversary of his brother’s death which M‘Cheyne would recall with any twinge of sorrow, he wrote to a parishioner, ‘This day eleven years ago, I lost my loved and loving brother, and began to seek a Brother who cannot die.’ Some time after his bereavement Robert M‘Cheyne turned his pen to a poem in an attempt to capture and preserve his brother’s features. Entitled ‘On painting the miniature likeness of one departed’ the poem finishes with these lines:
And oh! recall the look of faith sincere
With which that eye would scrutinize the page
That tells us of offended God appeased
By awful sacrifice upon the cross
Of Calvary – that bids us leave a world
Immersed in darkness and in death, and seek
A better country. Ah! how oft the eye
Would turn on me, with pity’s tenderest look,
And, only half-upbraiding, bid me flee
From the vain idols of my boyish heart.
M‘Cheyne later spoke of his conversion, not as that which happened suddenly, rather that he was led to Christ through deep and ever-abiding, but not awful or distracting convictions. This process continue even after his entry into Edinburgh’s Divinity Hall in the winter of 1831 to study for the ministry. The circumstances of his call to the ministry of the Word are a mystery. Indeed the possibility arises that his sense of vocation may have been antecedent to his conversion. But this is just speculation. In any event Robert M‘Cheyne’s conversion to Christ was deep and transforming both inwardly and outwardly. As the months passed by the Holy Spirit touched first one area of his life and then another. His consciousness of sin was acute. From time to time his diary records grief over some worldly pleasure into which he had relapsed: ‘Sept 14 – May there be few such records as this in my biography’. In the spring of 1832 holiness of life which was to be the mark of the new-born Robert Murray M‘Cheyne began to shine in greater strength: ‘March 10 – I hope never to play cards again. March 25 – Never visit on a Sunday evening again. April 10 – Absented myself from the dance; upbraidings ill to bear. But I must try to bear the cross.’
Never in the years to come was M‘Cheyne to claim any kind of Christian perfection. Indeed he often spoke of his own failings, and it was frequently his prayer that he might be made as sinless as a saved sinner can be. But while he remained humble, others saw in him great Christ-likeness. It was Dr Candlish who said of him, ‘I can’t understand M‘Cheyne; grace seems to be natural to him’. God wrought in M‘Cheyne a remarkable change. But what of the human agencies involved?
I have already mentioned his brother David whose words must have lingered in Robert’s mind. It is also significant that his life-long friend, Alexander Somerville, was converted at roughly the same time and we know that Somerville and M‘Cheyne had a great mutual concern to help each other pass through the ‘narrow gate’. Doubtless, too, their Theology Professor, Dr Thomas Chalmers, was a great help – we shall see evidence later of his influence in M‘Cheyne’s theology. But M‘Cheyne’s own words tell us where he found his guide to saving faith:
11 March 1834: Read in the ‘Sum of Saving Knowledge’, (an appendix to his edition of the Westminster Confession) the work which I think first of all wrought a saving change in me.
This was not the only means, however, and perhaps M‘Cheyne’s experience of God’s use of all sorts of tools in the making of ‘a man of God’ is and extraordinary example of the ordinary operation of God’s spirit. Thus we read:
Nov 12 – Read H. Martyn’s Memoirs. Would I could imitate him, giving up all for Christ. Lord, purify me, and give me strength to dedicate myself, my all, to thee! December 9 – Heard a street-preacher: foreign voice. Seems really in earnest. He quoted the striking passage, ‘The Spirit and the bride say, Come, and let him that heareth say, Come.’ From this he seems to derive his authority. Let me learn from this man to be in earnest for the truth, and to despise the scoffing of the world.
We could go on to mention M‘Cheyne’s listening to various preachers and his regular attendance with Somerville at the New North Church, Edinburgh, but we must pass on. However it is worth noting one all-important point. For M‘Cheyne, conversion was but the start of a godly life. His baptism in the Spirit was the beginning of his plunge deeper and deeper into God and godliness; not some quick dip of a superficial nature. His quest for holiness was unending until his death on 25 March 1843. Andrew Bonar wrote in his diary in 1838, ‘ .. keeping up our first love. This seems to me what Robert M‘Cheyne is eminent for’. Undoubtedly more than anything else M‘Cheyne’s conversion is foundational to an understanding of his ministry.
PREPARATION FOR THE MINISTRY
Days at Divinity Hall were full. They included study, fellowship with others of like mind, prayer, reading, and evangelistic enterprise in some of Edinburgh’s poorer districts. All these were important, but our comments must be brief.
M‘Cheyne’s reading was wide, encompassing Systematic Theology, Biblical Criticism (of the constructive evangelical type), Hebrew literature and Greek literature. But his diary draws especial attention to his reading of Henry Martyn, David Brainerd, Jonathan Edwards and Richard Baxter. Even as a student, M‘Cheyne stood in the tradition of balanced evangelical scholarship and its necessary companions, a vision for holiness and a vision for revival.
During his years in Edinburgh he developed life-long friendships, and by their means learned the benefits which resulted from studying and haring the gospel in company with others. It is certainly heart-warming to read in Bonar’s diary: ’30 May 1835: In a walk round Duddingston Loch with Robert M‘Cheyne and Alexander Somerville – we sang together, sitting upon a fallen oak-tree, one of the Psalms’. But we must remember that this kind of fellowship had grown out of their labours together, not through chatter over cups of coffee in college rooms. On a Saturday, after a prayer-meeting in Dr Chalmers’ rooms, students would go to knock on doors in the Castle Hill district of the city. The first such occasion was for M‘Cheyne an eye opener.
March 3, 1834: Accompanied A. B. (Andrew Bonar doubtless) in one of his rounds through some of the most miserable habitations I ever beheld. Such scenes I never before dreamed of …’No man careth for our souls’, is written over every forehead. Awake my soul!
M‘Cheyne became a faithful servant in this work, visiting regularly one small area, teaching Sunday School, and with Somerville delivering an evangelistic tract. Only three weeks after his first trip out he saw the first of many, born again under his ministry.
The value of the ever-increasing circle of like-minded men which M‘Cheyne seems to have gathered together during these early years was probably not felt until the end of the decade when revival burst in upon the scene, and perhaps more especially when the Disruption came and these friends almost to a man seceded from the Established Church. But we find testimony to the effect of M‘Cheyne’s warmth of friendship in a comment by Alexander Moody-Stuart, already a minister when he met M‘Cheyne in 1836:
It was a golden day when I first became acquainted with a young man (that’s M‘Cheyne) so full of Christ. He introduced Andrew Bonar and then Horace (Horatius, Andrew’s brother, the hymn-writer) and Somerville, and I invited them to meet in my house once a week for prayer. It was a singularly pleasant and fruitful meeting, for we were of one heart and one mind, and the Lord Jesus, according to his promise, was in the midst of us with the joy of His salvation.
A more contemporary appraisal of the effect of this prayer-meeting appears in Andrew Bonar’s diary: ‘Dec 8 1836: Last night had a very encouraging letter from Horace, who among other things tells me that since their Wednesday evening prayer-meeting began Mr Moody (Moody-Stuart) has had more persons under conviction every week’.
JOHN BONAR’S ASSISTANT
On leaving Divinity Hall, M‘Cheyne became assistant to John Bonar, minister of the parishes of Larbert and Dunipace, near Stirling, the Presbytery of Annan having licensed him to preach on 1 July 1835. His own record of the day includes the following:
Preached three probationary discourses in Annan Church and, after an examination in Hebrew, was solemnly licensed to preach the Gospel … What I have so long desired as the highest honour of man, Thou at length gavest me … Be clothed with humility.
His great, almost premonitory, sense of the brevity of life which he had often expressed in college days, now drove him to work long and hard in the cause of the Gospel. At the parish church of Larbert and the daughter church planted under John Bonar at Dunipace, M‘Cheyne found himself preaching in alternate weeks. With 6,000 residents in the parish, visiting time was at a premium. Like others who have followed in his footsteps he soon saw that the work was more than any one man could possibly cope with. It was perhaps this which led him to work hard in later years for the Church Extension Scheme, and kind of home mission. Andrew Bonar’s testimony to this period in Larbert must suffice.
30 December 1835: A letter from Robert M‘Cheyne has made me resolve to pray for a revival at Larbert and Dunipace.
15 January 1836: M‘Cheyne seems far more devoted to the work than I.
3 February: Was humbled by finding that Robert M‘Cheyne had already been honoured more than I have to the eternal salvation of some souls.
EARLY DAYS IN DUNDEE
In August 1836 a vacancy occurred at St Peter’s Church, Dundee. M‘Cheyne and Andrew Bonar were both short-listed for the post. It is relevant at this point to mention that Bonar had not found a settled ministry since leaving college, and as we might imagine, the disappointment of this was great, especially as he saw his friends gainfully employed in the ministry. It is therefore a testimony to his humility, his high regard for M‘Cheyne’s abilities and the depth of his friendship that he records:
27 August: Some days since Dundee Chapel was settled: Robert M‘Cheyne chosen. I am now rejoiced at this, and think that perhaps it is a mark of God’s kindness to this parish as well as to myself.
M‘Cheyne was ordained at St Peter’s, Dundee on 24 November 1836, and John Bonar, his co-worker and father in the work, introduced him to his flock. His first sermon was preached from Isaiah 61:1-3, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me …’ and his second from Acts 3:19, ‘The times of refreshing’. The verses from Isaiah 61 were to be his text on every subsequent anniversary of his arrival at St Peter’s, and in a real sense the two sermons together summarise his ministry in Dundee better perhaps than we could ever hope to do.
Before we examine his ministry and preaching we must first briefly relate the history of his last years. His time at Dundee was interrupted by recurrent ill-health. In March 1838, he had to call upon his friends to fill his pulpit. Andrew Bonar records:
At Dundee, for Robert M‘Cheyne, who has not been very well. Most unexpectedly. Greatly helped, three times in the day. Before each service Robert came into the study, and we prayed together and then went forth. I learned much from him, especially and chiefly from his recollectedness of soul and nearness of communion with God.
Even at this stage the Holy Spirit seems to have been moving amongst the congregation, usually about 1,100 strong! Bonar goes on, ‘The attention of his people is remarkable, standing up, sometimes, in their eagerness’. M‘Cheyne’s parish had some 4,000 residents, but despite the large congregation, many being from outside his parish, he felt that their religion was dead. Of Dundee he said, ‘It is a city given to idolatry and hardness of heart. I fear there is much of what Isaiah speaks of, “The prophets prophesy lies, and the people love to have it so”.’ It grieved him to see many, young and old, dying in this condition. He buried many with a heavy heart.
He gave himself whole-heartedly to all the work of his calling, both within the parish and at a denominational level, in the Presbytery and other assemblies. Without neglecting his ministry at St Peter’s he would often travel – on horse-back, a favourite means of relaxation – to preach elsewhere. Even before 1839 his labours saw fruit, in proportions that we might consider to be evidence of a ‘successful’ ministry, but the bumper crop was yet to come. Alongside the encouragements, M‘Cheyne’s faithfulness to the Gospel resulted in criticism and derision from the professing but dead church, and outright hatred from many who openly rejected Christ. Later in his ministry when he and Andrew Bonar had exchanged parishes for a few weeks, the old minister to whom Bonar was Assistant, when asked about ‘that wild man from Dundee’ said, ‘Mr Bonar is bad enough, but that man is ten times worse’ (this quote is transliterated from dialect as will be a number from now on).
Late in 1838 M‘Cheyne fell seriously ill and had to go home to Edinburgh to recover. He felt this removal from the work keenly but it is at this time that his talent for letter writing comes to the fore. Though he wrote to a ministerial friend. ‘I am not very good at the use of the pen’, we must disagree with him here. His ministry to his flock continued in prayer and letter writing. His Pastoral Epistles, ten in all, are excellent. The first eight in particular have an almost Apostolic touch.
M‘Cheyne’s absence from St Peter’s was prolonged an not merely by illness. The Church of Scotland needed four men to undertake a Mission to the Jews throughout Europe and in Palestine. The two older men chosen were Drs Keith and Black and the younger two were Andrew Bonar and M‘Cheyne. There seems to have been little hesitation on M‘Cheyne’s part. He had an avid concern for missionary endeavour. He wrote to his people, ‘You know how my heart is engaged in the cause of Israel, and how the very sight of Immanuel’s land will revive my fainting spirit.’ Being aware of their concern that they might never see him again, he told them, ‘My medical men are agree that it is the likeliest method of restoring my broken health’. Another letter, however, suggests that he may have seen it as a kill or cure remedy.
‘I am often revisited by my warning friend, to tell me that I may see the New Jerusalem before I see the Jerusalem beneath.’
So the four set out travelling through France, Italy, Palestine, Turkey, up the Danube, the Slav countries, Prussia and the Low countries. Lest we get the wrong idea, this was no holiday. Indeed I have found no record of M‘Cheyne ever taking a holiday. A few incidents recorded by M‘Cheyne will make clear the purpose.
The whole way through France we distributed French tracts. In every village they came crowding round us to receive them.
A priest travelled one whole night with us in the coach. We argued with him first in French and then in Latin, trying to convince him of his errors, showing him his need of peace with God, and a new heart.
We dared not distribute a single tract in Genoa – we would have been imprisoned immediately.
I had an interesting meeting with one Jew (in Jerusalem) at the large stones, the only remains of God’s temple.
On the way home, in Hamburg, M‘Cheyne heard news which excited him, news of revival. He had left St Peter’s in the hands of William Burns, a young man, the son of a minister in Kilsyth. Burns was to M‘Cheyne ‘everything I could wish for’; he told his flock he ‘will make you almost forget that you want your won pastor’. In August 1839 Burns was used by God as instrument of revival, first at Kilsyth and then in Dundee. On his return to Edinburgh M‘Cheyne wrote directly to Burns for news. ‘You remember it was the prayer of my heart when we parted that you might be a thousandfold more blessed to the people than ever my ministry had been. How it will gladden my heart, if you can tell really that it has been so’. It was so, but far from being forgotten M‘Cheyne received a rapturous welcome home. The following months saw continued blessing; meetings were held every night; hundreds came for counsel to the manse. The revival work spread to other parts of Scotland, Perth, Dumbarney, Kelso (Horatius Bonar’s parish), Collace (Andrew’s), Jedburgh, Breadalbane, Tain.
Apart from nightly worship, there were some 39 other meetings held weekly in connection with St Peter’s; some of these were private prayer groups, other of a more evangelistic nature; five were conducted and attended entirely by children. In recording these facts M‘Cheyne was careful to point to evidence that this was not mere excitement. Seven months later he was able to say, ‘I do not know more than two (of the many hundreds professing) who have openly given the lie to their profession’. He pointed to increased giving, to Sabbath observance. When he first arrived in Dundee he had not been able to staff a Sunday School; now there were nineteen, not teachers, but Sunday Schools.
Unhesitatingly he compared the events at St Peter’s with the Holy Spirit’s outpouring at the Kirk of Shotts, at Cambuslang, and during the New England revival under Jonathan Edwards. All the marks of authentic revival were there; all the marks of authentic humility in the man who had so long cultivated the ground and missed the beginning of the harvest, yet without any hint of jealousy or suspicion or Burns. Throughout 1841-42 M‘Cheyne’s ministry flourished.
Finally his body fell prey for the last time to fever, caught from sick parishioners whom he had visited. He was absent from the pulpit on 19 March 1843 telling one of his Elders ‘I am preaching the sermon God would have me do’.
Andrew Bonar’s diary for 25 March records:
‘This afternoon about 5 o’clock a message has just come to tell me of Robert M‘Cheyne’s death. Never, never in all my life have I felt anything like this. It is a blow to myself, to his people, to the Church of Christ in Scotland … Life has lost half its joys, were it not for the hope of saving souls. There was no friend whom I loved like him’.
Bonar went straight to St Peter’s and prayed and spoke to an assembly bathed in tears, many sobbing aloud for grief. William Lamb, one of the Elders often found his eyes resting on the pulpit thinking, ‘It is empty tonight’.
So ends the story of M‘Cheyne’s brief life.
A MAN OF GOD
We move on from history to analysis. What was it made M‘Cheyne so useful? Was it his preaching style? Was it his pastoral ministry? Was it his theology? Well, doubtless, all played their part, but chiefly it was his character, his personal God-given qualities.
The first quality, I would mention is holiness. I need say no more than I have done already to prove that he was eminent for this, but I would add a few illustrations.
He was scrupulous about Sabbath observance:
I am almost tempted to send this (a letter) tonight (Saturday) to the Post Office; but it is not right to encourage Sabbath mail.
He was sensitive concerning sin:
Nobody ever made less use of affliction than I do. I feel the assaults of Satan most when I am removed into a corner; every evil thought and purpose rushes over my soul. None but God knows what an abyss of corruption is in my heart.
Speaking on revival at a prayer-meeting M‘Cheyne once lamented his own deadness. One listener commented afterwards ‘the whole church would be better for more of such deadness.’
Advising a missionary candidate M‘Cheyne wrote, ‘It is not great talents God blesses so much as great likeness to Jesus. A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God’. He saw holiness as vital to the preacher. When ill he wrote to his church, ‘Oh that you can pray, pray that I may come back a holy minister – a shepherd not to lead the flock by the voice only, but to walk before them in the way of life’. Before leaving Palestine he wrote to William Burns, ‘Take heed to thyself. Your own soul is your first and greatest care. You know a sound body can work with power; much more a healthy soul. Keep a clear conscience through the blood of the Lamb. Keep up close communion with God. Study likeness to Him in all things. Read the Bible for your own growth first, then for your people.’
A cynical critic in Alexandria was holding forth against the hypocrisy of Christians, but when asked if she had met no Christian whom she could regard as a genuine ‘man of God’ she replied: ‘Yes, I saw one, a man, a minister in this hotel, a tall spare man from Scotland. He was a man of God. I watched him, and felt that he was a genuine Christian. His very look did me good’. M‘Cheyne lived Christ in a way that those who denied Christ could not fault. In all the contemporary (as opposed to posthumous) records of M‘Cheyne’s life, there is only one who fairly criticises the godly minister of St Peter’s and that is the humble man of God himself.
The second secret of M‘Cheyne’s ministry was prayer. From the beginning of his work he set prayer alongside preaching as the two key elements of his calling. During illness he wrote: ‘To me that grace is not now given to preach to you … (Oh how great a grace it is! …) still he allows me to give myself unto prayer … my soul does not rest in silence. I am permitted to go in secret to God …; and … I can make mention of you all in my prayers and give thanks for the little flock’. The man-servant in the manse at Collace said of M‘Cheyne’s prayer life, ‘Oh to hear Mr M‘Cheyne at prayers in the morning. It was as if he would never give over, he had so much to ask’.
We could add to these qualities warmth, humour, hard work. But holiness of living and communion with God are primary.
Next to these in importance M‘Cheyne place expository preaching. ‘Expound much’ he wrote to Burns, ‘it is through the truth that souls are sanctified, not through essays on the truth. Be easy of access, apt to teach, and the Lord teach you and bless you’. His preaching style we shall come to later. The question for the moment is, ‘What was the truth for M‘Cheyne?’ What was his theology?
Firstly he was, of course, soundly evangelical. He was a Bible-man. Secondly, though he had a clear biblical theology, his preaching does not exhibit a rigid system of theology. But he was certainly a Calvinist, and a firm five-pointer at that. Indeed, if we can trust the notes of one listener, a sermon on election from John 15.16 might appear hyper-Calvinistic. Quoting the Rich Young Ruler as his example he is reported to have said, ‘Christ chooses some that seek him, and not others’. But he rushes on to say, ‘Some here perhaps say, If I am elected, I will be saved, live as I like. No; if you live an unholy life, you will not be saved’. Holiness of life was for M‘Cheyne the chief ground of assurance; ‘Do you bear fruit? Without holy fruit all evidences are vain.’ ‘Some may say’ he went on, ‘If I am not elected, I will not be saved, do as I like. Whether you are elected or not, I do not know, but this I know – if you believe on Christ you will be saved.’ Without any shadow of doubt M‘Cheyne believed in particular redemption, ‘Adore Jesus, that He passed by millions, and died for you’ he wrote in sermon notes. In his day the doctrine caused dispute in the Church of Scotland. And the stance of M‘Cheyne and the Bonars is interesting in the light of it. Three men in particular – Thomas Erskine, John MacLeod Campbell and Edward Irving – caused a stir by rejecting the doctrine. (All three incidentally were involved in the early Pentecostal and Brethren Movements. Irving was the founder of the pentecostal Catholic and Apostolic Church, and an eccentric theologian to say the least!) For a time, wise Dr Chalmers, unlike many other evangelicals, held fire from castigating these three. He felt that their stress on the freeness of the Gospel was a healthy counter-balance to much contemporary preaching. But a comment he made in private is especially interesting, ‘One thing I fear, I do fear that the train of his thoughts might eventually lead Mr Erskine to doubt the eternity of future punishments’. Whether or not Chalmers’ prediction was correct, these three men did indeed slip away from biblical doctrine; Campbell became a Universalist; Erskine taught a universal view of God’s Fatherhood; and Irving ended up inter alia preaching baptismal regeneration. In each case it is not hard to see the link with universal redemption. It is highly important for us to note that M‘Cheyne, like Chalmers and the Bonars, held firmly to all the doctrines of grace and saw no inconsistency between them and the free offer of salvation and man’s responsibility. M‘Cheyne preaching on, ‘Unto you, O men, I call’, said.
Nobody ever came to Christ because they knew themselves to be of the elect. It is quite true that God has of His mere good pleasure elected some to everlasting life, but they never knew it till they came to Christ. Christ nowhere invites the elect to come to Him.
One could speculate whether it was also the influence of men like Erskine which caused M‘Cheyne to attack the separation of faith and repentance.
Another man hopes to be saved by faith as a work. He reads ‘Abraham was justified by faith’. Now, he says, if I could get this faith I would be saved. You think that God would save you of you had faith? No such thing, God will not save you for your faith. I believe this is one of the commonest ways by which many deceive themselves. (and later) It is not some new view, some new opinion – it is not such things; conversion is something real. Ah, that is no true conversion that does not come from God! There are many that get new views; but if you would be saved, you must come to God.
So whilst always holding to the sovereignty of God in election and redemption, M‘Cheyne always made plain the freeness of the offer of the gospel and man’s responsibility. ‘Be sure of this’, he wrote to unconverted parishioners, ‘that you will only have yourselves to blame if ye awake in hell. You will not be able to plead God’s secret decrees …’
Another aspect of M‘Cheyne’s theology is worthy of comment. He, like the Bonars, was a premillenialist. The Bonars were overtly so and were considered something of a peculiarity by older evangelicals in this respect. Andrew doubted whether Horatius would be called to Kelso because of his outspoken opinions on unfulfilled prophecy. M‘Cheyne on the other hand made little or no reference, that I can find, to this matter. Perhaps it says something for his maturity that he appears to have been able to resist mounting what for the Bonars became something of a hobby-horse.
PASTOR AND TEACHER
Finally let us look at M‘Cheyne’s ministry as a whole. Whilst he had the highest possible view of preaching he came to see that a pastoral charge extends to much else, if it is to prosper. At a service for the ordination of elders he said, ‘I remember well when I first entered upon the ministry among you, I had a very inadequate view of the duty of ruling well the house of God. I thought my great and almost only work was to pray and preach’. He went on to tell of his persuasion that he should give himself also to church discipline. Indeed we find him giving himself to everything in the life of the church, and of this his elders were not left long in doubt.
M‘Cheyne had the ability to gather a large band of co-workers around him, but it was his responsibility to lead them and feed them. In addition to the elders, the Dundee church maintained a large staff of tract distributors. M‘Cheyne carried on a Bible class for adults; he lectured specially to the Sunday School teachers; he preached in Sunday School – yes, preached, I say, and he preached for immediate conversion. ‘Flee now from the wrath to come. Fly to the Lord Jesus without delay. Escape for thy life: look not behind thee. Some of you may think that you shall not die because you are young. You forget that one half of the human race die before they reach manhood. The half of the inhabitants of this town die before they are 20. Oh, if you had to stand as often as I have beside the dying bed of little children, to see their wild looks and outstretched hands and to hear their dying cries, you would see how needful it is to fly to Christ now. It may be your turn next’. In addition to all this there was a singing class midweek to prepare for Sunday; and then the Thursday prayer meeting. This meeting included a twenty-minute address, prayer and often a talk on some historic Revival or some aspect of missionary work. M‘Cheyne had a particular interest in mission to the Jews, as has been said, doubtless deriving from his eschatology, but his missionary interest was not exclusive to this field.
So much for organised congregational activity, but furthermore, M‘Cheyne also gave himself to visitation of the sick, baptismal visits, visits to the bereaved, to the seeking; and the manse door was never closed to the needy.
The constant danger which M‘Cheyne feared amidst all his labours was that men might follow him rather than the Saviour. It was said of him that he brought into the pulpit ‘all the reverence for Scripture of the Reformation period; all the honour for the headship of Christ of the Covenanter struggle; all the freeness of the Gospel offer of the Marrow theology; all the bright imagery of Samuel Rutherford; all the delight of the Erskines in the fulness of Christ.’ Possibly he would not have welcomed this last allusion. When preaching at an ordination service he told the people, ‘Love and reverence (your pastor) much. But do not make an idol of him; that will destroy his usefulness. It was said of the Erskines that men could not see Christ over their heads’. He foresaw the possibility of becoming a cult figure himself, and once wrote during an absence from his pulpit, ‘I feel that to many this trial has been absolutely needful. Many liked their minister naturally, but had little relish for the message he carried.’
How did he preach? Perhaps the diary of his co-Elder, William Lamb, best reflects his style. He was sensitive and practical, ‘beautifully affectionate – he draws you to Christ’. ‘I felt composed and comforted, though downcast because of my walking too much away from Christ’. He was earnest and serious, sometimes solemn, always searching. His style was simple. Though well read, he made no parade of learning and rarely quoted other than from Scripture.
Did he preach long sermons? Some lasted only twenty minutes; but on one occasion the congregation left Collace kirk at eleven o’clock at night, ‘the folk couldn’t give over listening, and Mr M‘Cheyne couldn’t give over speaking.’
It was M‘Cheyne’s rule always to make gospel application. On one occasion he reproved Andrew Bonar, ‘Brother, I enjoyed your sermon; (always a bad omen!) to me it was sweet. You and I and many, I trust, in our congregations shall see the King in his beauty. But, my brother, you forget there might be many listening to you tonight who unless they are changed by the grace of God, shall never see Him in His beauty.’
How did he choose his text? Sometimes with great difficulty; ‘This is Friday evening, and I do not know what to preach on Sabbath next’. We know that on occasions he would preach a series; on a topic, prayer, for instance; or would supply consecutive exposition. But he was not bound to any method.
What of his structure? It changed as the years passed. Early in his ministry he wrote out a fairly full introduction. This was followed by a brief, one-sentence, statement of doctrine which his text conveyed. In this he seems to follow Simeon’s advice to young preachers to isolate the dominant thought. He then went on to unwrap the doctrine and apply it, sometimes in considerable detail, always retaining a clear structure and logical flow. Later in his ministry the introduction, at least in his notes, shortened dramatically and the one-sentence doctrinal statement vanished.
One last thing needs to be said about his preaching. His exposition of the Old Testament was typically and delightfully Scots. He was quite unrepentant in using Old Testament texts as illustrations of truths. This becomes particularly apparent in his printed sermons on the Song of Solomon. He could never be accused of being prosaic or unadventurous in his use of the Old Testament.
In sum, the most remarkable thing about his preaching was its power and effectiveness. Ultimately the manifestation of such power rests in the sovereignty of God, but inasmuch as M‘Cheyne had any part in God’s working I would suggest two primary reasons: his close communion with God, and his faithful stewardship of the Word of truth. Preaching on the Transfiguration he spoke of himself albeit unconsciously,
‘There have always been men in the church greatly honoured by God. Some are not only of the twelve, but of the three. There are many men in the church who have been eminent believers. Ah! brethren, covet earnestly the best gifts. It is good to be among the twelve, but it is far better to be among the three.’
This paper was first given to the Preachers’ Class at the Independent Chapel, Spicer Street, St Albans, 14 March 1983. At that time Mr Walker was the assistant pastor at the chapel.
This was originally published in two parts in The Banner of Truth magazine (Issue 246, March 1984, pages 18-26; Issue 247, April 1984, pages 1-6), and is reproduced with permission from the publishers.
This article was transcribed by David F. Haslam. HTML file copyright D.F. Haslam © 1997-1998.
Some minor spelling variations have been amended in the transcript.