Let the Fire Burn

A STUDY OF R.M. McCheyne

Robert Annan and Mary Slessor
Rev. J. Harrison Hudson, Rev. Thomas W. Jarvie, & Rev. Jock Stein.

This is from an out-of-print booklet that was published in 1978 by Handsel Publications (formerly of Dundee). The company is now called Handsel Press.

It is listed as D.15545, 15546 under Mary Slessor in List of Reference Works at the Local Studies Department of Dundee Central Library, The Wellgate, Dundee, DD1 1DB. The chapter on McCheyne is 25 pages. Photocopies may be obtained at reasonable price from the library.

The chapter about Robert Murray M‘Cheyne was written by Rev. James H. Hudson.

The introduction and chapter about Robert Murray McCheyne were scanned and converted using Optical Character Recognition software by David F. Haslam, the curator of the M’Cheyne web-site.

This paper is reproduced on the web with the kind permission of Rev. Jock Stein, the Warden of the Carberry Conference Centre.


The age of instant potato and instant pleasure does not usually rave over books like this. A book about two men and one woman who lived and died before Dundee homes were lit by electricity. The population of the town had exploded from 30,000 in 1821 to 120,000 in 1872. Jute was now being spun successfully with the use of whale oil. Factories mushroomed and thousands of workers poured in from the surrounding countryside. Tenements were thrown up with the sole purpose of housing workers close to the malls as quickly as possible.

Areas like the Hilltops became a warren of houses crudely built, crammed together with no planning of sanitation and hygiene. For the poor water was scarce, and Water Companies literally held powers of life and death over them. One historian notes that the poor were forced to use water from the mill-cooling ponds. No wonder cholera and other epidemics were frequent and devastating.

During one such epidemic the local authorities blustered: “This overwhelming malady has as yet been confined ….. to the lower classes of society, whose intemperate habits and general neglect of cleanliness afford strong predisposing causes, while the higher classes in Dundee, or in any other well regulated town, have nothing to fear.”

Human beings lived like animals and conditions were appalling. The only relief some families found was in the oblivion of drink. Life was cruel for such people, and any thoughts of decency were easily crushed by the sheer weight of misery and poverty. No Acts of Parliament protected the weak, and the tragic results of human exploitation were evident.

The Rev. John Macpherson: minister of Hilltops Church at this time, wrote in the biography of his sister: “Let us visit a dingy close in another part of the district. A few wretchedly clad children are playing in the gutters, seemingly happy. The court is dark, for the windows are poorly lighted, the inhabitants in many cases being unable to afford gas. They pay so heavily for the blazing lights in the publicans’ that their own homes must be content with a dim lamp or no lamp at all. One block of buildings in the district is called ‘Candle Land’ because there is no gas light there. The tenants are not trusted with gas because they would never pay for it. Now take a step into this cellar: minding your feet and head. The hovel is dark, but your eyes are beginning to get used to the darkness and you begin to see where you are.

“Take a seat! Where ? There is neither chair nor stool. The only seats are holes scooped out of the earthen floor in a semicircle round the hearth. In these dirty holes we have seen father and mother sitting drunk, smoking or sleeping. The children, having no clothes to put on …” etc.

This was the Dundee of Murray McCheyne, Robert Annan and Mary Slessor. McCheyne was the scholar who wept for the city, Annan the prodigal who returned from the depths and then gave his life for the poor, Mary Slessor the weaver who became a pioneer missionary in Africa.

Yes, two men and one woman who lived before homes were lit by electricity. Well before living memory. Names dropped briefly into school curricula and then forgotten. But those three lives were lit by the flame of God’s love. That love comes through Jesus Christ who is the same yesterday, today and for ever. And that is the basic reason why the lives of McCheyne, Annan and Slessor are relevant today.

The three chapters are written by different people. Their style varies. The first majors on the example of McCheyne and the factors in authentic revival. The second illustrates the power of the gospel to deliver a man from the grip of alcohol. The third describes how God prepared and used a Dundee factory girl. But all three writers are Church of Scotland ministers who desire deeply the renewal of the Church and the fuller recovery of its mission.

Some books are written to inspire. Others to raise awkward questions. Some say that what the church needs is the flame of reformation, to burn up the false doctrines and outdated structures. Others say that what the church needs is the flame of revival, to give people a passion for God and for humanity. Those two flames are lit at the one fire, for God is the source of true reformation, true revival, true renewal in the Holy Spirit. So let the fire burn!



Dundee was a boom town in the 1830s. Jute was taking over from flax, the coming of the railway generated business, and Dundee was the centre of new commercial development.

In the West End tenements were erected with single rooms for all girls, widows and single men, which were often occupied by large families. Overcrowding was normal. The annual rent was never more than £7. But Dundee was a low wage town. To meet the growth in population it was decided to build an extension church by the name of St Peter’s.

The man chiefly responsible for the building of St Peter’s was Mr Roxburgh, the minister of St John’s, who by all accounts was a forceful character. All was not sweetness and light in the Presbytery of Dundee, and at a meeting in 1836 “the Moderator, Mr Roxburgh, immediately started to his feet, and with great violence said ‘he could not sit in the chair and hear the members of the Presbytery talked of in such language, language which no individual was entitled to use, and which he would repress by every means in his power'”.

St Peter’s was completed the same year, and Robert Murray McCheyne was called to be the first minister His father was a successful lawyer in Edinburgh, and after a notable school career McCheyne studied divinity at Edinburgh University. His spiritual awakening followed the death of his brother David, which left a profound impression on him. He was ordained on 24th November: 1836, aged 23.

At his ordination dinner, McCheyne spoke to the sixty assembled guests about the nature of a minister’s call, and referred to the call of Gideon; the local press report reads “. . . ‘and he was ever ready, if need were, to lay do. his life for his brethren’ (loud cheers)”. The reporter , whose empathies are clearly otherwise . comments, “If McCheyne means the latter art to be taken up literally, he will not find many of his brethren that will join him in the bond, however heartily they may have joined in the cheering. ‘The see reporter felt it was “really too bad to ‘cheer’ Mr McCheyne on to make such a display of himself”. Already we see the contrast between the ‘moderate’ religion of the day and the zeal of McCheyne, whose words were prophetic.

The general impression is that early nineteenth century Scotland was a God-fearing, church-going, Bible-loving land, but McCheyne himself relates a different story. He was appalled by “the superstitious feeling of the most depraved as to baptism”; his biographer, Andrew Bonar, describes how “a careless parent one evening entered McCheyne’s house, and asked him to come with him to baptise a dying child. He knew that neither this man nor his wife ever entered the door of a church, but he rose and went with him to his miserable dwelling. There an infant lay, apparently dying, and many of the female neighbours, equally depraved with the parents, stood around. He came forward to where the child lay, and spoke to the parents of their ungodly state and fearful guilt before God, and concluded by showing them that, in such circumstances, he would consider it sinful in him to administer baptism to their infant. They said, ‘He might at least do it for the sake of a poor child’. He told them that it was not baptism that saved a soul, and that out of true concern for themselves he must not do as they wished. The friends around the bed then joined the parents in upbraiding him as having no pity on the poor infant’s soul. He stood among them still, and showed them that it was they who had been thus cruel to their child, and then lifted up his voice in solemn warning, and left the house amid their ignorant reproaches.”

While the Church of Scotland has a distinguished history in seeking to assist the least fortunate of society, it has not on the whole succeeded in exercising much influence on the minds of the poor. Certainly through church extension, as St Peter’s originally was, heroic efforts have been made to contact and influence the less privileged sections of society, but the happy hunting ground of the Church, the part from which most response comes is suburbia rather than the inner city or the new housing areas. In McCheyne’s day the West End of Dundee was a suburb—but not modern suburbia!

The parish to which he came consisted of sane 4000 people most of whom worked in the surrounding mills. Rev. James Hamilton in a pamphlet claims that “the new church was built in a district which combines almost everything desirable in a parish—not a few of the more intelligent and influential citizens in the near neighbourhood. Of its industrious citizens: flax spinners are balanced by an almost rural population.” However the weight of evidence suggests that a warren of streets and closes housed a teeming population.


It was in this church of St Peter’s, with some 1100 members, that revival was to break out in 1839. Although the faithful and godly life of McCheyne had prepared the way for revival, its manifestation was to occur under another’s ministry. McCheyne had left for a mission to the Jews in Palestine, and during his absence his place was taken by William Burns of Kilsyth.

The revival under Barns broke out at a Thursday evening meeting. Some 100 inquirers stayed behind when Pentecostal power broke out and all were “bathed in tears”. Friday night was even more spectacular, and much was the number that they were not all able to get into the vestry later on.

Scenes like this occurred again and again. Eventually they gathered in the meadows to accommodate the crowd until forbidden by the magistrates. They went from there to St Peter’s graveyard and as Smellie puts it, “… the field of the dead was transformed into a birth place of the sinning and repenting and sorrowing and rejoicing men.”

When McCheyne returned to Dundee six or seven reports were given to him. They gave an account of private prayer meetings begun on impulse under the revival. For example, on Sabbath evenings when there was no service a meeting was held for “praise, prayer and mutual edification in the house of Louisa Lindsay, Tait’s Lane, Hawkhill.” It appears there were many such meetings in the one congregation.

Is it any wonder St Peter’s would be packed nightly, the aisles crowded: and others outside unable to gain entry. People came in droves to find the liberating Christ and were “savingly converted”.


st 1840 shows the general commitment to prayer: “pray for a time of the pouring out of God’s Spirit that many more may be saved.”

As is the common experience of those who walk most closely with Christ, there is a deep consciousness of sin and sometimes self-loathing. McCheyne refers to himself as a worm and a beast of God, and seeks after holiness with “groanings which cannot be uttered”, he desires to be entirely filled with the Spirit, and to be fully conformed to the image of Christ in all things. He is constantly aware of the subtlety of personal sin against which he claims “the main defence of casting myself into the arms of Christ like a helpless child, and beseeching him to fill me with the Holy Spirit.”

In a letter to Rev. W. C. Burns dated June 10th 1840 he writes: “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 souls.” On October 2nd he writes to Rev. Dan Edwards: “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.” To Burns he exclaims, “There is no joy like that of holiness.”

To McCheyne it was axiomatic that a believer should seek to be delivered from “the body of sin and death”. It is in his view just as essential to be saved from the hell within as the hell without. Like Wesley before him, he must have been impressed by the Moravians, by their holiness and dedicated missionary service to lepers.


A certain James Cameron was responsible for an awakening of religious interest in Kilsyth. In 1835 revival broke out in a Methodist Sunday School, and some historians credit the leaders of the Methodist Church as being among the pioneers of the 1839 revival. This may account for the warm evangelical spirit of McCheyne whose zeal seems to have been of the Kilsyth variety rather than out of the Calvinist mould of the Western Highlands.

This is interesting ‘since John Willison of Dundee had shared with George Whitefield (the Methodist) in the Cambuslang awakening of 1742 which spread to Kilsyth. Although the revival began under the ministry of William McCulloch in the spring of 1742, Whitefield arrived is June and was soon preaching to thousands in the open air. While rejoicing in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Cambuslang and Kilsyth, Willison speaks longingly about the need in Dundee, and gave Whitefield a warm invitation to visit.

One feature of the revival which Willison emphasises, and which was to be so characteristic of the Dundee revival almost a century later, is the inspiration of young people joining together for prayer. Anxious for revival to break out in Dundee, he urges ministers to rouse their churches.

If, as in the case of McCulloch and the Cambuslang revival, the pioneers of the awakening were local leaders, the catalyst was undoubtedly W. C. Burns. He had written a treatise in which he stressed the centrality if prayer and the uplifting of Christ. So at Kilsyth, as later in Dundee, house prayer meetings were frequent.

Another characteristic of the revivals in Kilsyth and Dundee is the spontaneity in gesture and utterance reminiscent of the Pentecostal outpouring in Acts chapter 2. The Dundee and Angus Advertiser on August 16th 1839 gives the following account:

A “Revival at Kilsyth”— for some days past rumours have reached us from the Parish of Kilsyth, varying in the detail of certain circumstances: but all concurring in this: that a sudden and most extraordinary excitement has been felt in the parish on the subject of religion. A most “universal revival” is said to have taken place, bearing a striking resemblance to the occurrences at Shotts and Cambuslang, so much celebrated in history. All worldly business is in great measure at a stand; and public worship is daily, and even oftener performed by the ministers of the place, and others who have been called from a distance to assist in the services. The most extraordinary scenes have been witnessed on these occasions, people calling out for mercy, groaning and praying aloud; others fainting from the intensity of their feelings, and hundreds in tears. The excitement is indeed altogether remarkable, and is deeply attracting the attention of the religious public.

McCheyne was at this time on a mission to Palestine. His locum, Burns, had returned to Kilsyth from St Peter’s, and was to bring back the spirit of revival to Dundee within a week. The Glasgow Argus reports:

A “revival” has taken place in St Peter’s Parish. It succeeded Mr Burns’ return from Kilsyth. Symptoms of a change of some kind or other were visible in the course of last week; but all doubt to its character were removed on Sunday night about 22 minutes to 11 o’clock. It is a matter of delicacy to refer to particulars; but it is not too much to say the demonstrations were striking and startling. Worship has been held in the church every night since, and is expected to continue as long as human nature can sustain the impulse.

During revivals worshippers disregard the time. The experience of spiritual intensity results in priority being given to prayer and praise, while other more secular pursuits are abandoned. By August 23rd the local press had this to say:

St Peter’s — The evening service continues, and the attendance is greater than ever. The officiating minister Mr Burns is occupied during the early part of the day in examining and conversing with catechumens. The excitement which prevailed at first has, we understand, subsided; and we give the following particulars on the authority of one who attended one of the meetings to satisfy himself as to what was going on. In the appearance of the congregation there was nothing remarkable beyond the excessive crowd, for the passages were filled and it was difficult to get within the church. The exercises were such as are usually gone through in divine worship; but they are protracted beyond the ordinary length, and occupied about three hours.


Now at this time events were leading up to what is known as the Disruption, when the party to be known as the Free Church ‘came out’ from the Established Church in 1843. The ‘Non-intrusionist’ party in the Church of Scotland objected to the state, or town councils or lairds having the right to interfere in the government of Christ’s Church on earth. McCheyne, who had been a student of Welsh (Moderator of Assembly in 1842-3) and Chalmers (first Moderator of the Free Church): was certainly in the vanguard of the Non-intrusionist party. Had he not died on the eve of the Disruption, he would have been one of the shining lights of the Free Church. Mr Hamilton of Regent Square, London, in a letter dated April 3rd 1843, pays high tribute to McCheyne: “… whilst the possession of such a bright and shining light was the Church of Scotland’s privilege, the rarity of such is the Church of Scotland’s sin.”

The press were not very sympathetic to the Non-intrusionist cause. They made no attempt to describe in any detail the events which took place during the revival, rather they sought to avoid getting into such an area with the remarks, “lest we might be led into a discussion for which the columns of a newspaper are not a fitting vehicle.” This was not lost on the Church population, who were sympathetic to the cause. Eventually their own newspaper, the Dundee Warder, was established.

Throughout the initial revival in the parish of St Petards, Burns had been assisted by such men as the Rev. Baxter of Hilltops, Stewart of Lochee, Hamilton of Abernyte, Murray of Aberdeen, Horatius Bonar of Kelso (his brother Andrew was in Palestine with McCheyne), Reid of Chapelshade. Other Dundee ministers who helped were George Lewis from St David’s and Charles Macalister of the Gaelic chapel.

The history of revivals indicates that there is always an element of disturbance and suspicion about any kind of expression of supernatural phenomena. Obviously the coming of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2 in such startling (and for some shocking) external displays has caused both inspiration and bewilderment. Observers in the time of Acts said, “These people are drunk!” Even in the Church there are those who feel very uncomfortable with the kind of signs which accompany revival. No doubt there have been exaggerated claims made, but authentic revivals have occurred in Scotland and occur today in other countries.

In McCheyne’s day the Church was also divided into Moderates, who did not share the attitudes and the enthusiasm of McCheyne, and Evangelicals, most of whom were also Non-intrusionists. McCheyne held that the line of Moderating was utterly ruinous of true Christianity. In a tract he described Moderate sentiments as “fitted to blight vital godliness.’.

All the ministers who participated in the Cambuslang revival in the 18th century were outside the Established Church, for which the Moderates must accept responsibility. McCheyne, standing within the Establishment, met opposition in his attempts to reach other people with the message of Christ, in spite of his obvious sincerity. On one occasion he was invited by people from Glenisla to preach to them: but he felt obliged to decline due to his knowledge that the local minister was hostile. In time he did visit Glenisla, and the people made application to the minister for the use of the church on a weekday. Mr. Watt the minister stood at the manse door and said .”I’ll be very candid with you, he shall never preach in my pulpit.” Another elderly minister referred to him as “that wild man from Dundee”.

The Dundee press carried a lively correspondence for and against the revival. The chief causes of offence were the excitement, late hours and what was called “irreverence”. Some called into question the supernatural elements. A certain Thomas Grierson was critical of what happened at Kilsyth; he was in no doubt as to the sincerity of the participants, but in his view they were mistaken. During the Dundee revival Andrew Bonar says, “Many believers doubted, and the ungodly raged”. At least on one occasion Burns found himself in conflict with the local magistrates.


The Dundee revival, whatever scepticism may have existed in some quarters, did not diminish as quickly as at Kilsyth, and this is due to the pastoral care of the awakened by McCheyne, who threw himself into the work on his return from Palestine on November 23rd 1839.

As recently as November 6th McCheyne had written a letter to his parents about a newspaper report of revival in Dundee and Kilsyth. Arriving in Dundee on the Thursday afternoon he made his way to the prayer meeting in St Peter’s that same evening. What a welcome he received! Not an empty seat, so crowded in fact that people had to occupy the steps all the way up to the pulpit.

For nearly four months public worship had been conducted nightly in St Peter’s. The city and surrounding area was compelled to take notice of the movement, and McCheyne, who was of the opinion that the recently awakened could stand or fall, set aside an evening for the purpose of counselling the awakened within a fortnight of his return. Many had not experienced saving grace, but were under conviction; McCheyne urgently sought to convince them of the all-sufficient grace of Christ. Zealous for the conversion of his flock, he was driven by the deep conviction that “every one must soon be in heaven or in hell”. It is recorded that some 400 sought counsel by McCheyne about their spiritual state, even though he only lived for two years following his return; one indication of the reality of the revival, compared for example with the number who seek such counselling today.

During the 18th century public worship in Scotland was barren and often ineffective, but with the rise of the Evangelical party, piety and earnestness had produced a climate in which revival could take place. The results in Dundee were striking. Elders became accustomed to leading in prayer, and all kinds of people, farmers, weavers and miners, would sing psalms between conversing freely on religious subjects.

A report in the Advertiser indicates that two women of the Hawkhill (in St Peter’s parish) were sent for 30 and 10 days respectively to Bridewell for burglary. Yet it was an awakened parish by contrast to the place where McCheyne came at first and declared, “God has set me down among the noisy mechanics and political weavers in this godless town”. Public worship held nightly for four months! The city was compelled to take note.


Something of the spiritual temper of the times is seen in an Advertiser report of June 26th 1840. A certain Mr Howes was summoned to court for causing an obstruction while preaching in the street. The magistrates, unwilling to punish him: tried to extract a promise that he would not repeat the offence. Mr Howes replied that he “was a peaceable subject and would most willingly yield to the magistrates in all civil matters, but that in religious matters he acknowledged no law but the Bible: and no king but the Lord Jesus Christ.” W. C. Burns once encountered the same problem when an open air meeting had to be abandoned, and the participants removed to the grounds of St Peter’s. There was a sense of urgency to proclaim the gospel to the unbelieving and the unconvinced. The general improvement in the spiritual climate is reflected in the growing attendance at prayer meetings and public worship.

Another feature of the times was the growing respect for Sunday. The Lord’s Day was to be set apart, used for rest and spiritual exercise. While passing through Paris, on his way to Palestine, McCheyne is distressed at the lack of Sabbath observance. He compares Dundee and Paris, and refers to Paris in a letter to the minister of Blairgowrie, not without regretting that some in Scotland also neglected the holy day: “You know many in our own parishes trample on the holy day; they do not know how sweet it is to walk with God all that day”. McCheyne deplores the absence particularly of men from Sunday morning worship, and has strong words against “some that despise the Sabbath, some who buy and sell on that holy day, and some who spend its blessed hours in worldly pleasures, folly and sin.”

Something of a typical Dundee Sunday can be seen in this report from the local press:

“The Sabbath was kept holy and decent; old ladies went to church with their Bibles under one arm and a folding stool under the other. Those persons who did not attend church gave at least no public offence, and disturbed not those who did. None but a straggling blackguard or two, who were deemed to be past all grace and reformation, were seen idle and parading the streets during the divine service, or in any part of the day, or even in the evening. Field ambulation was not practised in that day. There were seizers in those days, and boys were not then publicly permitted to infest the streets and lanes, and to play at marbles, pennystane or pal-aals, to the offending of tender and sober consciences, and to the extinction of all decorum in a Christian society.”

This gives a picture of the Scottish Sabbath which is to some extent still observed in the Western Isles and the Highlands. Without the rigidity and legalism, there may well be something here to be learned by the Church today. One of the first evidences of the revival was the fact that so many working people kept the Sabbath. Quite a contrast to McCheyne’s first year in Dundee, when dissipation, irreverence and Sabbath breaking seemed common. It is clear that in the decade before the Disruption there was a change in the whole nature of society, at least in terms of personal piety and practice.


Altogether this improvement in the spiritual climate was an elixir to zealous preachers. Climate and clergy combined to commend Christ to needy people. Preaching was urgent, forthright and confronted the hearer with a decision to be made. McCheyne’s successor, Islay Burns, records W. C. Burns as saying, “With reference to the people there must be spiritual preaching to them: and not merely before them”.

In this respect McCheyne was far from lacking. At the ordination of Miller of Wallacetown in 1840 he said: “Most ministers are accustomed to set Christ before the people. They lay down the gospel clearly and beautifully, but they do not urge men to enter in. Now God says, ‘Exhort, beseech men, persuade men’; not only point to the open door, but compel than to come in.

The preaching of the Evangelicals was noted for intensity and earnestness, like that of Wesley and Whitefield in the previous century. The emphasis was on personal salvation through God’s free forgiving grace and love. This was the only answer to the human dilemma, as man was totally depraved. These men had a keen sense of sin, something lacking in our society today with its stress on phobias, maladjustments, aberrations and a whole host of adjectives to describe what has gone wrong. One witness recalls the reaction of the congregation to one of McCheyne’s sermons; he concluded by indicating that both in preaching and intercession he had pleaded for them and now their blood was on their own heads: “If ye perish, ye perish”; and strong men melted under this fusillade. The preaching of men such as Burns, the Bonars and especially McCheyne were powerful in translating dry dogma into living faith and practice.

Robert Murray McCheyne combined the use of simple language with a flair for rhetoric. His pulpit manner conveyed deep feeling and confidence in the authority of the preaching office. He expected lives to be changed, and of course such preaching issued in the conversion of all sorts of people.


On the wave of revival, McCheyne found himself travelling widely on preaching missions. He was deeply concerned shout Moderate praises: where he felt long incumbencies might mean that people never heard the true gospel for generations.

Deep in the heart of Moderate country, Deer and Ellon, he preached a sermon with the emphasis: ruin by the fall, righteousness by Jesus, and regeneration by the Spirit. While visiting Deer and Ellon, the locals in one place turned up with the intention of throwing stones at him the minute he got up to preach; “… but no sooner had he begun than his manner, his look, his words, riveted then all, and they listened with intense earnestness, and before he left the place the people gathered round him entreating him to stay and preach to them.” Mr Hastings of Wanlockhead points to the changes that had taken place in his congregation since McCheyne had assisted him at the Sacrament, and the story at Buchan is much the same.

McCheyne’s preaching tours were not only credited with spiritual awakenings, it is claimed he used these occasions to solicit support for the Non-intrusionist cause. Thus the revival movement of 1839 is seen as having contributed to the ecclesiastical conflict which issued in the Disruption. But maybe revivals are inherently disruptive!

In contrast to our own situation, when ministers are invariably preaching in their own pulpits, there was a great deal of itinerant preaching, and none was more active in this regard than McCheyne. His travels took him as far afield as London, Newcastle and Aberdeen. They did give rise to a few murmurs within his own congregation. But it appears that St Peter’s learned not to be dependent on one man. after all, revival had broken out in his absence, and prayer meetings went on without him. But they did appoint an assistant.

Such a flexible approach to ministry cannot survive professional jealousy or competition. It demanded a fellowship and trust among ministers which was fed by the practice of ministers meeting for prayer. The doctrine of the Holy Spirit: largely neglected since the time of these revivals, was central to the lives and thoughts of these men. McCheyne exhorted Miller of Wallacetown at his ordination: “O brother, plead with God to fill you with the Spirit …. pray that you may be filled with the fire of the Spirit”. Only today, mainly through the Charismatic Movement, is such a concern becoming more central.


Churchmen today should remember that revival normally requires a heightened spiritual awareness. Certainly social factors combine with a growth of spiritual interest, maybe in our own day a reaction by a materially satiated society reaching out for more enduring things. There is sane evidence that people are wearying of the freedoms of the permissive society. Even Dr Spock has thrown out his previous advice on how to bring up children. It remains to be seen whether the Church is dynamic enough to fill the vacuum. These earlier revivals were a reaction to institutional religion; a hankering after something deeper. It has been said that the real crisis, in the Church of Scotland at least, is spiritual. But there is little indication so far of a new spiritual thrust throughout the country. Could Dundee again become a centre which could point the way for the rest of Scotland ?

The revival of 1839 was a grass roots movement. In that instance it sprang, not from highly organised crusades, but from the parish situation. The groundwork was prepared and the eventual revival led by parish ministers. It is interesting to note that most of the people in the vanguard of the movement were young men, and very many of those who turned to Christ were young people. From prayer meetings for ministers came meetings among lay people and even children. Family worship increased, and the greater part of leisure time was spent involved with the life of the Church. This led to social visiting for praise and prayer, and much of life was given to spiritual concerns. Church life became fuller and friendlier in an atmosphere charged with anticipation and excitement. The Bible was read avidly and given a place of authority. Believers did not hesitate to share their faith with one another, and this led to many finding a real sense of assurance (“…by their confession they were saved”: Romans 10 verse 10).

There is little to suggest that McCheyne was deeply involved with the community in terms of social concern. There were fruits from the experience of individual redemption; such converts generally adopted a new life-style without drunkenness and other excesses. The new concern for spiritual matters and family duties kept many ‘off the streets’, as we would say. But it was not until later in the century (when the young converts matured and had positions of greater influence in society? ) that evangelical zeal spread into social concern reflected in Dundee in the start of the Tent Mission and other missions to the poor.

Even if he took existing structures for granted. McCheyne did show interest in the less fortunate. On August 21st 1840 he was in the chair at the public examination of children at the Deaf and Dumb Institute. There was also a school built with the top floor used as an evening institute for working girls—

Clearly there were lasting effects in the lives of many who regarded their conversion as dating from the time of the revival. It produced a generation of young people dedicated to God and to the Church, a number of whom entered the Christian ministry. The ministry had become exciting!

The authenticity of the revival was endorsed, after investigation, by the Presbytery of Aberdeen—

From the time of the Council of Jerusalem (noted in Acts chapter 15) there has always been a tension between the Church of authority and the Church of the Spirit. Both must coexist in proper balance if fruitful revival is to occur. Too much of the institutional, and ceremonies and creeds are substituted for living personal experience. Too much of an emphasis on the more exciting manifestations and unrestrained practice and one is left with emotional excess, instability, and generally grossly exaggerated claims of a spiritual awakening which turns out to be short-lived and which brings the gospel of Jesus Christ in disrepute. When authentic revival does break out, an inflowing, refreshing, penetrating power sweeps through the Church and is permanent in its effects.

The New Testament indicates that our Lord’s first concern was not to found an institution, but to create a way and a fellowship in order that personal and social life might be transformed; the vision was given that “the kingdoms of this world have become the kingdom of our Lord” and the Church lives in this hope.

New life; in individuals and in the Church, was certainly the concern of McCheyne; Dundee and Scotland are the better for his short but powerful ministry. Why not today ?


The death of such a noble spirit, due to his influence and his youth, brought great gloom. Returning from a preaching tour on the 1st of March 1843, he was confronted by typhus which was raging throughout Dundee, and nowhere more virulent than in Perth Road and the Hawkhill. Characteristically during the following two weeks he was to be found visiting his stricken people, for McCheyne was not only a great preacher but also a great pastor. As he endeavoured to support and strengthen his people, he himself contracted the disease.

On Tuesday evening March 14th, after marrying two of his congregation in the afternoon even though he felt ill, he lay down on his bed “from which he was never to rise”. On Saturday morning 25th March 1843, with his doctor in attendance, Robert Murray McCheyne slipped away to join the Lord Jesus whom he loved. On the day of his funeral business in the parish was almost completely closed down, many thousands lined the route of the cortege, and every man who could command appropriate dress attended. Ministers from far and near of all persuasions came to pay their final respects, glowing testimony to one held in high esteem. During the week of the funeral St Peter’s was open for worship every night, and every night it was crowded to overflowing.

Today’s churches are seldom crowded on Sundays, let alone weekdays. Crimes of violence and vandalism have increased almost in proportion to the decline in religious practice. Many within the Church feel that a true revival is the only answer to this situation. Only in this way is the Church likely to emerge from its present paralysis and sense of crisis.

The name of Robert Murray McCheyne survives in connection with revival not only in Dundee but throughout Scotland. God grant that the same Spirit which worked mightily through him, may also work through us today, that the fire of revival may again break out and burn to the glory of God.

For further reading:

Andrew Bonar, Memoir and Remains of R.M. McCheyne.

Drummond and Bulloch, The Scottish Church 1688-1843.