M‘Cheyne in London (1839) Article by John Ross
Man About Town: Robert Murray M‘Cheyne in London (1839) in Reformed Theological Review, Vol.67, April 2008, No.1
The M‘Cheyne archive in the library of New College, Edinburgh, contains a number of papers that cast light on Robert Murray M‘Cheyne’s first visit to London, in 1839. Neither Andrew Bonar, in his classic Memoirs and Remains of Robert Murray M‘Cheyne, nor Alexander Smellie, make use of these materials, though they were undoubtedly aware of them. Nor have modern biographers, such as David Robertson (2003) and L J Van Valen (2004) incorporated them into their researches. Bonar compresses M‘Cheyne’s time in London to a paragraph or so, Smellie provides us with little more, and, more disappointingly, contemporary researchers, obviously depending too much on secondary sources, are little different. Such poor scholarship is a pity, for M‘Cheyne’s detailed records, journal, notebooks and correspondence give us intriguing insights into the careful preparations he made for his friends and himself for their long journey to Palestine and back.. His red journal, bearing the catalogue marking of NCL MACCH 1.8, and a little De La Rue leatherette note-book, measuring approximately 2×4 inches, marked NCL MACCH 1.9, contains drawings and notes, names and addresses, and lists of provisions he thought necessary, including tea, biscuits and brandy.
Through this collection of personal ephemera and supplementary material, we learn something not only of his personal piety, his robust attitude to the great metropolis that stood at the heart of the world’s greatest empire, and his often acerbic remarks concerning the English Church, but also how deeply evangelical Scotsmen had penetrated to the heart of the British Establishment and how willing they were to use their knowledge and influence to support the Church of Scotland’s missionary endeavours.
Edinburgh to London
Robert Murray M‘Cheyne, together with his contemporary, Andrew Bonar and two older ministers of experience, Alexander Keith and Alexander Black, had been selected by the Church of Scotland’s recently established Jewish missionary committee to compile a report of an extensive journey through Europe to Palestine to assist the committee determine where best to locate the first mission station. Travelling ahead of the rest of the party, to make preparations, M‘Cheyne set sail on the steamboat Caledonian, from the port of Leith on Wednesday, 27th March, 1839 at 4.45 in the afternoon: it was a pleasant evening, with a light breeze:
After a heavy shower came a beautiful evening, North Berwick shore and Isle of May lighted up by the setting sun – the solitary Bass stood immovable in the calm sea – thought of the many godly ministers who had been exiled there and whose prayers had ascended from its rocky summit. Thought of Him who takes up the isles as a very small thing. Opposite me at dinner observed a Jewish countenance… he was very gentlemanly – heard afterwards that his name was Tobias.
On the morning of the 28th they were off Whitby, interesting to him, because of its connection with the ancient Synod. Before breakfast he engaged in conversation with Mr Tobias, and asked him if he could read Hebrew. He said he could, but asked how M‘Cheyne knew him to be a Jew – ‘said I must be a good Physiognomist.’ Tobias, much to M‘Cheyne’s disappointment was not at all religious: ‘he ridiculed the reading of prayers in an unknown tongue – said that two thirds of the synagogue do not understand Hebrew.’ M‘Cheyne was further surprised when Tobias scorned the keeping of two days at the commencement of Passover — ‘he would keep one and quite enough’ — he also denied the inspiration of the Bible, although he said he had ‘Tsitsit and Tephillin and Torah in the bottom of his portmanteau.’ M‘Cheyne, face to face, perhaps for the first time, with an ordinary, modern, Jewish man, recorded his disillusionment: ‘I suppose this is a genuine specimen of the worldly infidel Jew.’ He therefore set himself to ‘convince him that he was ignorant of true happiness not knowing how to be forgiven.’ On the morning of 29th, much to his disgust, M‘Cheyne records:
The Jew ate swine’s flesh beside me, saying at the same time ‘This is wrong’ but evidently not with much feeling. Tried to convince him of inconsistency – had not slept any and asked me if it was from a troubled conscience. Read him part of 1st Psalm in Hebrew and impressed on him the need of ‘meditating on God’s word’ – he seemed more serious and impressed. We may never meet again. Peace be to this child of Abraham. The red journal also gives interesting insights into M‘Cheyne’s piety: he typically made the most of the journey by drawing out many spiritual analogies and lessons, which he not only jotted down in the journal but incorporated in his correspondence to his family at Hill Street, Edinburgh:
Noticed this morning two sea-gulls following the vessel, not straight but flying hither and thither. So my soul follows Christ, not straight as I would desire, for then I should never wander from him — but hither and thither, “faint yet pursuing”. 
A lull in the wind reminds M‘Cheyne of his reading of David Brainerd and the desirability of a short but useful life; this all the more interesting in view of the fragile state of his own health at the time, and our knowledge that he would die four years later, aged twenty-nine:
At midday a complete calm – sails hanging loose or flapping to and fro – Soon the sailors took them in. So may God’s ministers when their work is done be taken in. Brainerd used to pray that if it were God’s will he might not outlive his usefulness.
Again, he observed:
Heard the Captain say when asked if the wind was fair — ‘Quite fair but not enough to make sail.’ Many Christians seem to have God’s Spirit fair enough but not enough to make sail. They do not ‘go forward.’
On passing, at night, the brilliant lighthouse off Cromer Point, Norfolk, he wrote:
So may God’s ministers be a beacon on the waters casting a steady light, guiding those that are near shipwreck… shedding light on all within range of their influence.
By 11 o’clock on the morning of 29th March, the Caledonian was making its way along the Thames and by 5 o’clock in the afternoon M‘Cheyne had settled into his lodging at Hampstead Heath, and was concluding a letter to his parents. He had found the journey entirely refreshing:
I feel a great deal the better of the voyage — The palpitation has quite left me…
Man About Town
In the same letter M‘Cheyne confessed to nervousness at the thought of attempting to negotiate the bustling metropolis without his three companions: ‘I know not how I am to get about London without them.’ But his records show that he managed remarkably well, for during the following days he took every opportunity to see the sights of London:
Rode through Regent’s park — saw some of the finest buildings in London — called on friends and friends of Israel — walked up Pall Mall — & Piccadilly — never well known to me — Found it a lesson in humility — So many better dressed — better looking — wiser — than myself.
He informed his parents and sister, Eliza, that the jaunt through Regent’s Park was ‘in a carriage with Mrs Tate.’ On another occasion, frustrated to find that some friends on whom he had intended to call were not at home, he did what many a visitor to the capital, before and since, has done, he went to the shops of the West End, and walked through Burlington Arcade and the Quadrant to call on Mr Nisbet, the bookseller.
James Nisbet, publisher and philanthropist, was born in 1785, in the Scottish Borders, near the town of Kelso; he arrived in London in 1803, taking up employment with Hugh Ussher, a West India merchant, and attended Swallow Street Church of Scotland. In 1809 he commenced trading in Castle Street as a religious bookseller. He prospered, received the freedom of the City of London and was elected to office in the Stationer’s Company. Diversifying into publishing, as well as book selling, he moved his premises to Berner’s Street, off Oxford Street. Leaving Swallow Street to attend Edward Irving’s preaching, Nisbet joined the National Scotch Church, Regent Square, becoming an elder, trustee and a member of the Building Committee. At its opening in 1828 he provided a communion service consisting of ‘eight cups, two flagons and two plates.’ His generosity extended to investing in 1837 the sum of £1,550 to build and endow the North Kelso Church, where Horatius Bonar was minister from 1837 to 1866. At the Disruption of the Church of Scotland in 1843 he contributed £1000 to the Free Church cause. Nisbet served as a member or officer of thirty seven different societies, associations and charities, and served as treasurer of the Foreign and Jewish Missionary Committee of the Presbyterian Church in England. He was especially fond of the explorer and missionary, Joseph Wolff and, along with Irving, may have been influential in encouraging Wolff’s failed application for ordination to the London Presbytery. The plaque that was erected in memoriam in Regent Square Church testifies to ‘James Nisbet …whose house was the missionary’s home.’ He died in 1854. James Hamilton, Nisbet’s minister for over twenty years, cherished the thought of writing his biography but this was never achieved, though he did produce a sketch of his life. It was left to Nisbet’s son-in-law, John A. Wallace, to write a brief memoir.
After visiting Nisbet’s shop, M‘Cheyne returned to his hosts in Hampstead, ‘heartily tired.’ The next day, being Sunday and feeling ‘a little fatigued’, he decided to worship locally, and sat through two services, neither of which really pleased him: he described both sermons and ministers as either ‘feeble’ or ‘very feeble indeed’, adding that in his opinion there was in their addresses ‘little or nothing of Christ.’ He rather grudgingly conceded that one of the ministers was ‘evidently a very good man, though needing much to be roused up into life and energy.’ Despite having spent only a single weekend in London, M‘Cheyne nevertheless felt qualified to pass sweeping critical generalisations on Anglican ministry; nothing he saw or heard in Hampstead altered his low opinion, and in a letter to his parents he scathingly panned it thus:
There is very little substance or power in English preaching — the people are all able to bear strong meat. …Saw the Baptismal services, far too long, too many kneelings, and the absurd signing with the sign of the X on the forehead of the child. The sponsors too seemed ignorant clowns. I fear there is a sore evil here.
St Paul’s Cathedral, however, he found very impressive, being greatly interested in the ‘marble statues of departed persons’, especially that commemorating the first bishop of Calcutta, Reginald Heber, baptising two Hindus. Striking though the architecture and adornments were, his utilitarian Scottish Presbyterian outlook gave rise to a rather caustic judgement: ‘It is a glorious edifice — but more for looking at than for use.’ He greatly enjoyed walking back from St Paul’s down Ludgate Hill, up Fleet Street and along the Strand, to the West End. A few days later he returned to hear a service and admitted to being ‘much solemnised by its beautiful singing.’
Much of his time was taken up meeting friends and influential supporters of the mission, as well as seeing first hand the work of the London Society for Promoting Christianity Among the Jews:. A visit to J. B. Cartwright, the secretary, at Palestine Place, Bethnal Green had been arranged, and M‘Cheyne arrived at the Society’s schools at dinner time, where some of the forty five boys read Hebrew to him, and where girls, engaged in study and sewing, sang to him Psalm 111 in Hebrew. Here he also met Aaron Saul, a Jewish Christian, who had opened up a little reading room in which Jewish people could sit, relax and read the tracts and books provided. On the Friday night M‘Cheyne attended an unspecified but newly built synagogue to observe the Erev Shabbat service and he was much taken with the splendour of the buildings and the impressive Hebrew inscriptions, lit by light from many chandeliers. In contrast to the slower paced singing at home, he was disconcerted by the speed with which the rabbi and the two tenor cantors conducted the service. He was, however, much taken by a prayer, in the form of an intercession on behalf of the new Queen, Victoria, which he recorded verbatim in his note book:
May the supreme King of kings, through his infinite mercy inspire her and her counsellors and nobles with benevolence towards us and all Israel, in her days and in ours may Judah be saved and Israel dwell in safety and may the Redeemer come unto Zion, which God in his infinite mercy grant and we will say Amen.
On Sunday, unwilling to endure a repetition of the services of the previous weekend, he walked the nearly five miles into town from Hampstead to worship at a famous rallying point for many of London’s evangelical Anglicans, St. John’s, Bedford Row. He spend the whole day in the congenial company of the minister, the Honourable and Reverend Baptist Wriothseley Noel, who was notable as an enthusiastic promoter of missionary and evangelistic schemes. Noel’s style of ministry was much more to his taste:
…saw the Communion dispensed with which I was much pleased. It was very simple and solemn. Found Mr Noel a very pleasant man, very kind and interested about our mission.
Bonar, Black and Keith’s journey to London was by the longer east coast route; they set off from Greenock for London on Friday 5th April, 1839. Writing on Saturday 6th to S. L. Laurie, the secretary of the General Committee, John G. Lorimer, the Convenor of the Glasgow sub-committee, reported, with a neat allusion to the Acts of the Apostles 20.28:
I ‘accompanied them to the ship’ yesterday. They were to have a meeting at Greenock in the forenoon, sail for Liverpool in the evening. I wrote Dr Ralph to give them an opportunity of preaching on the Lord’s Day and then to have prayer for them. They are to be in London on Thursday 11th. In the evening there is to be a prayer meeting for them in Regent Sq. Church. Our merchants here are to send introductory letters after them to merchants at Constantinople.
Dr Hugh Ralph, moderator of the English Presbyterian Synod of 1836, was minister of Oldham Street Presbyterian Church, Liverpool. Among the church’s founders was William Ewart Gladstone’s father. Gladstone, himself, was, at the time, out of political office and unable to provide diplomatic assistance but as a subscriber to the London Society for Promoting Christianity Among the Jews was much interested in the work of the delegation.
Lorimer’s timing was out; two days earlier than he expected, on Tuesday 9th April, Bonar, Black and Keith arrived in London and the deputation was reunited: M‘Cheyne noted ‘Met my brethren of the deputation, arrived here the night before, with joy…’ All three brought M‘Cheyne news of his family in Edinburgh, dined together at the Nisbet’s home and afterwards attended the great prayer meeting at The National Scotch Church, Regent’s Square, organised to bid them farewell. About a week earlier M‘Cheyne had ridden out to Wapping, just east of London, to persuaded Dr Crombie to print Robert Candlish’s appeal on behalf of the deputation, and to arrange a prayer meeting at which the seven congregations of the London Presbytery could send them away ‘in the Apostolic mode.’ The meeting turned out to be well attended not only by Presbyterians, but very many Anglicans were present, and a number of Jewish Christians, including Joseph Samuel C.F. Frey, who had earlier preached for M‘Cheyne in Dundee. M‘Cheyne, satisfied and encouraged, recorded the meeting in his red journal:
Evening prayer meeting of all the Scottish ministers in London and many people in Regent’s Square Chapel – to send us away. Very pleasant meeting – many converted Jews present – Frey – Calman – &c Mr MacMorland read Ezekiel 36 and prayed – most suitable chapter. Dr. Black addressed the meeting – Dr Crombie read Rom XI and concluded with prayer – in a very earnest & feeling manner. Met with many afterwards – Capt. Crawford who had been at Jerusalem. The Corridors of Power Many arrangements had to be made in the days that followed, including the collection of passports and other documents guaranteeing the deputation safe conduct, therefore M‘Cheyne set off
…to the Foreign Office about our Passport – Got promise of a Government Passport and consular Letter.
His account of his days in London explodes a myth perpetuated by Don Chambers and others that the Mission of Inquiry was a naive venture got up by enthusiastic evangelicals without the support of people of expertise and power: it is clear, however, that the deputation could count on assistance from very highly influential supporters well placed at the very heart of the most powerful nation of its day.
M‘Cheyne enjoyed dinner on 4th April with Sir John McNeill and his wife, who showed him every kindness and consideration. McNeill, a native of Colonsay, a small island off the west coast of Scotland, had risen to high office in the Foreign service under Palmerston, and in 1836 was appointed British Ambassador to the Shah of Persia. He was enthusiastic about the Church of Scotland’s plans and offered helpful information and expert advice regarding Jewish populations in Persia, though, somewhat discouragingly for the committee in Edinburgh, he advised that Aden was unstable and therefore unsuitable as a mission station. The committee had hoped that recent British action declaring Aden a protectorate would open up the hinterland and provide access to the 200,000 Yemenite Jews, naively considered to be very open to the Christian message. The reality was very different, and McNeill advised strongly against even attempting a visit. M‘Cheyne’s aide memoir, written after dinner, was as follows:
Would not recommend a mission to Aden until British power be fully established — the Arabs are very jealous of their faith — the hold of Britain on Aden is very uncertain and he would be far from recommending it at present.
Glad to facilitate the deputation in any way possible, McNeill provided two letters of introduction, one addressed to Col. Taylor at Baghdad, should the deputation ever reach there; and an open letter of introduction for M‘Cheyne personally, which makes clear the cordiality with which McNeill viewed M‘Cheyne, and the entire project.
Will you permit me to introduce to you Mr McCheyne a particular friend of some members of my family who is about to proceed with some other ministers of the Kirk of Scotland on deputation from our national Church to enquire into the state of the Jews. Any attention you may have the kindness to pay to him or to them will be conferring an obligation on me.
The deputation also called at the family home of Anthony Ashley Cooper. Lord Ashley, who entered Parliament in 1826 at the age of twenty five, was later to become even more famous as the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, the leading Evangelical social reformer in England. Amongst his numerous other social and religious causes, and as well as supporting missions to the Jews, he was an ardent pro-Zionist, championing the right of Jews to return to Palestine. He was then aged thirty-eight, some twelve years older than M‘Cheyne, who thought him a ‘fine looking young man with six children’; and ‘deeply interested in the cause.’
On the 10th April 1839, the day before their departure from Dover, en route to France, they dined with Sir George Grey, judge-advocate-general in Lord Melbourne’s second administration. Grey’s mother, an evangelical and close friend and supporter of the anti-slavery campaigner, William Wilberforce, had ‘impressed upon her son in early days a fervent and simple piety which never left him.’  At dinner they also met, amongst others, Arthur Kinnaird, the influential banker, member of parliament for Perth, and keen supporter of evangelical and philanthropic causes. M‘Cheyne recalled that he was ‘much interested and kind.’
They slept that night at the Nisbets and the following day were invited to call on Lord Aberdeen. Beyond simply recording the event, M‘Cheyne made no additional comment about the visit, which, perhaps, is not so very remarkable in view of the fact that Aberdeen was stridently hostile to the position adopted by all the delegates and many of the leading men on the committee regarding the Non-Intrusion debate, which would lead to the formation of the Free Church of Scotland. Aberdeen and Chalmers represented the polar extremities of the debate, and had opened up an animated correspondence on the question, with Chalmers’ first letter, dated 23rd March 1839, having arrived on Aberdeen’s desk just a few days earlier, shortly after the hearing of the Auchterarder Case by the House of Lords. In all probability it was still lying on his desk; at least it was fresh in his mind, making it all the more remarkable he deigned to see them at all.
After dinner they packed, purchased useful articles and at seven set off for Dover. M‘Cheyne noted that the ‘thought that we were really on our way raised our hearts.’ It was a chilly April night; the deputation travelled inside the coach, with the Nisbets following in another. M‘Cheyne pithily recorded the journey through the sleeping Kentish countryside to the Channel port where they joined the cross Channel packet to Boulogne:
We rattled thro’ Dartford, Gravesend, Rochester, Chatham, Canterbury — Dover by half past 6 in the morning – 72 miles from London. …At half past seven we left the white chalky cliffs behind. Mr and Mrs Nisbet bidding us farewell.’
M‘Cheyne was present in London on at least two other occasions. The visit of the following year, when he and Bonar returned to from Palestine to Britain separately from Black and Keith, was exceedingly brief. They had read in Hamburg a brief but tantalising newspaper notice of revivals that had taken place in Kilsyth and in M‘Cheyne’s church, St Peters, Dundee under William Chalmers Burns; hearing this news, they hastened home, arrived in London on 6th November 1804 and a few days later reached Scotland.
James Hamilton, Robert M‘Cheyne’s close friend and the minister of The National Scotch Church, invited M‘Cheyne to preach at the November 1842 communion services in Regent Square, to which he travelled from Edinburgh by train. On 7th November a meeting was held in the church to consider founding a missionary society for the Jews of London. M‘Cheyne was invited to attend. Those present included Dr Burder, a Congregationalist minister from Islington; the controversial Secession Church minister, Dr Alexander Fletcher, of Stepney; Dr. Henderson, a lecturer of Highbury College; Rev. John Cumming of Crown Court Church of Scotland; Rev. James Brown of London Wall Church of Scotland; Rev. William Yonge of Albany Congregational chapel, Brentford; Peter Lorimer of Islington Church of Scotland; Rev. Ridley Herschell, a Jewish Christian minister in Islington, and Rev James Hamilton.
M‘Cheyne was invited to open the meeting with prayer and the group proceeded to form themselves into The British Society for the Propagation of the Gospel Among the Jews, (now known as Christian Witness to Israel), electing Hamilton and Henderson to be the first secretaries. Curiously, but perhaps understandably, in view of the preoccupation with the impending meeting of the pre-Disruption Convocation in Edinburgh on the 17th of the same month, there is no mention of the formation of the BSPGJ in either M‘Cheyne’s or Hamilton’s biographies, though both refer to M‘Cheyne preaching at Hamilton’s communion services. M‘Cheyne died in Edinburgh the following March and is buried in the churchyard of St. Peter’s, Dundee. There is no consistent spelling of his name: following a reasonably common nineteenth century convention, his closest friend, Andrew Bonar in his Memoirs and Remains of Robert Murray M‘Cheyne, 1844, abbreviated the Mac or Mc to M’, thus M‘Cheyne. As this seems to have been his own spelling, it might reasonably be considered the last word on the subject; his signature, however, is not always entirely unambiguous. Subsequent authors, including Alexander Smellie in his 1913 biography Robert Murray McCheyne (London: National Council of Evangelical Free Churches, 1913) and Allan H. Harman in his reprint of M‘Cheyne and Bonar’s Narrative of a Visit to the Holy Land and Mission of Inquiry to the Jews as Mission of Discovery (Tain: Christian Focus, 1996), consistently use McCheyne; as does David Robertson, Awakening: The Life and Ministry of Robert Murray McCheyne (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2004). To add to the confusion, I possess early editions of both Bonar’s Memoirs and the Narrative which have ‘McCheyne’ on the cover and ‘M‘Cheyne’ throughout the text! Curiously, the very same ambiguity is evident over one hundred and fifty years later in L J Van Valen Constrained by His Love: A New Biography on Robert Murray McCheyne (Tain: Christian Focus, 2002). Apart from quotations, and out of deference to the predominant way the man styled himself and the usage of many of his contemporaries, I have consistently opted for M‘Cheyne. A style also adopted by Iain Hamilton in the Dictionary Scottish Church History and Theology (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1993).  Andrew A. Bonar. Memoir and Remains of Robert Murray M‘Cheyne (London: James Nisbet, 1844); Alexander Smellie Robert Murray McCheyne (London: National Council of Evangelical Free Church, 1913); David Robertson, Awakening (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 2004), L. J. Van Valen Constrained by His Love (Tain: Christian Focus Publications, 2004).  Bonar op. cit., p.90; Smellie op. cit., pp.100f.  MACCH 1 8.  Ibid.  Ibid.  MACCH 1.4 M‘Cheyne’s letters to his parents were published as ed. Adam M‘Cheyne Familiar Letter by the Rev. Robert Murray M‘Cheyne (Edinburgh: John Johnstone, 1848), and are included in Bonar’s Memoir.  MACCH 1.8.  Ibid.  MACCH 1.4.  MACCH 1.8.  John A. Wallace Lessons from the Life of the Late James Nisbet, Publisher, London, a Study for Young Men (London: Johnston and Hunter, 1867). Cf. William Arnot Life of James Hamilton (London: James Nisbet & Co, 1870) pp. 431, 284, 320, 330, 332, 415.  MACCH 1.8.  MACCH 1.4.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Ibid.  MACCH 1.8.  For Aaron Saul see W. T. Gidney, The History of the London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews: 1809 – 1908 (London: London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews, 1908) pp.160, 221; A. Bernstein Some Jewish Witnesses for Christ (London: Operative Jewish Converts Institution, 1909) p.448.  MACCH 1.8 & 1.4.  Minute Book of the Committee for the Conversion of the Jews of the Church of Scotland (NLS Dep. 298/203), p.6.  Cf. John Lorimer to Laurie, 6th April 1839, NLS Acc 11820; MACCH 1.4.  Cf. Gidney, Op. cit. p.210. Cf. Fasti 7.486.  MACCH 1.8.  MACCH 1.4.  Ibid.  MACCH 1.8.  Ibid.  Don Chambers, Mission and Party in the Church of Scotland, 1810 – 1843, unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Cambridge University, 1971.  MACCH 1.8  Idem. Cf. Michael J. Pragai Faith and Fulfilment (London: Valentine Mitchell, 1985). p.44f.  See DNB ad. loc.  MACCH 1.8.  The Correspondence Between Dr Chalmers and the Earl of Aberdeen in the years 1839 and 1840 (Edinburgh: David Douglas, 1893).  MACCH 1.8.  Minute Book 1 of British Society for the Propagation of the Gospel Among the Jews, p.1.  Idem.  Arnot, op. cit. p.214; Bonar, op. cit. p.146.