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Robert Smith Candlish was once speaking with Alexander Moody-Stuart. Such a conversation would have been amazing to overhear, since both men were evangelical titans in the Church of Scotland. Nevertheless, history has recorded only one thing from that old conversation. Candlish told Moody-Stuart that he was struck by a minister capturing the attention of Dundee: Robert Murray M’Cheyne. “I can’t understand M’Cheyne,” Candlish remarked. “Grace seems natural to him.”

a trophy of grace

Robert Murray M’Cheyne (1813–43) continues to captivate Christians almost two centuries since his death—just as he did Candlish. People spoke of the young pastor as “the most Jesus-like man” they had ever met. To study M’Cheyne is to observe a testimony to the sovereign Lord who “saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 1:9).

God’s grace is a thread woven deeply into the tapestry of M’Cheyne’s life. The grace that converted M’Cheyne’s soul from darkness also commissioned him as a minister of the evangel, of the gospel.

salvation by grace

Born in 1813 to Adam and Lockhart M’Cheyne, Robert was the youngest of five children. From the start, Robert demonstrated a noticeable ability in his studies and a personality that always found him among the most popular students in his class. Adam fondly recalled how four-year-old Robert learned the Greek alphabet for fun while recovering from sickness. In time, Robert gravitated toward gymnastics, poetry, sketching, and reading. Natural gifts seeped through all of M’Cheyne’s endeavors. Spiritual grace, however, was absent in Robert’s early years.

The M’Cheyne family were members of various congregations of the Church of Scotland during Robert’s childhood. Robert was a faithful attendee at the catechism classes, and his friends later recalled the clarity and sweetness with which he recited Scripture passages and answers to the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Yet the public piety masked an inward self-righteousness. M’Cheyne later reckoned his early religious devotion as nothing more than a “lifeless morality,” regarding these days as ones “wherein he cherished a pure morality, but lived in heart a Pharisee.”

Robert was close with all his siblings, but his eldest brother, David, was a model and mentor. Robert watched David’s every move. David’s soul had experienced true conversion, and his keen sense of eternal realities convicted Robert’s complacency. “I well remember,” Robert wrote, “I have seen him reading his Bible, or shutting his closet door to pray, when I have been dressing to go to some frolic, or some dance or folly.”

In God’s providence, David was the human agent through which Robert received new life in Christ. But it was David’s dying, more than his living, that brought Robert to full conviction.

M’Cheyne knew nothing could be done for Christ apart from Christ’s grace.

In July 1831, David died from a severe fever. On the eleventh anniversary of David’s heavenly homecoming, Robert recorded, “This day eleven years ago, I lost my loved and loving brother, and began to seek a Brother who cannot die.” Robert’s seeking drove him to The Sum of Saving Knowledge, a short work of theology typically attached to the Westminster Confession of Faith. The book declared the way of acceptance with God and provided M’Cheyne with the assurance of faith. Friends remarked on the evident change in Robert. He soon thrust himself into Christian service—Sabbath school, diligent reading of Scripture, and feasting on God’s gracious gospel.

Robert’s call to ministry was almost simultaneous with his conversion. Within weeks of coming to Christ, Robert appeared before the Presbytery of Edinburgh and indicated his desire to study for the ministry.

studying god’s grace

In November 1831, Robert M’Cheyne matriculated into the thriving Divinity Hall at the University of Edinburgh. There he came under the influence of Thomas Chalmers, who was at the pinnacle of his power. Chalmers taught the divinity courses and took M’Cheyne under his wing, training the young man in theological, ministerial, and spiritual concerns.
Growth in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ marked M’Cheyne’s years at the Divinity Hall. Increased piety matched his ever-increasing ability in Bible and theology. His diary bursts with longings for Christlikeness:

What right have I to steal and abuse my Master’s time? “Redeem it,” He is crying to me.

Not a trait worth remembering! And yet these four-and-twenty hours must be accounted for.

Oh that heart and understanding may grow together, like brother and sister, leaning on one another!

Oh for true, unfeigned humility!

More abundant longings for the work of the ministry. Oh that Christ would but count me faithful, that a dispensation of the gospel might be committed to me!

A gospel dispensation arrived soon after M’Cheyne completed his seminary studies.

ministry by grace

Robert Murray M’Cheyne became assistant to John Bonar in the autumn of 1835. Bonar was the minister of the united parish of Larbert and Dunipace. M’Cheyne’s brief time under Bonar provided numerous preaching opportunities and cemented a feature of his future ministerial pattern: pastoral visitation. Bonar was an earnest shepherd, visiting countless souls and homes each day. Robert told his parents that he enjoyed visitation more than any other aspect of ministry.

In the spring of 1836, St. Peter’s Dundee was searching for its first pastor. Robert Candlish thought M’Cheyne was the best candidate and tried to secure an ideal date for M’Cheyne’s visit to Dundee. And so it was, in August 1836, that Robert preached a candidating sermon from Song of Songs 2:8–17. The congregation immediately recognized M’Cheyne’s gifts and graces, as the church unanimously called M’Cheyne to be its minister.

Robert M’Cheyne enjoyed a remarkably successful ministry in Dundee for the next three years, preaching twice every Lord’s Day to a gallery of 1,100 attendees. He installed ten elders to the session. He introduced a Thursday-night prayer meeting; eight hundred participants attended. During the summer months, he held weekly “meetings for singing,” intended to improve the congregation’s ability in song. Other innovative practices included increasing the number of communion seasons—festivals that culminated with the celebration of the Lord’s Supper—from two to four times per year. In 1837, M’Cheyne started a Sabbath school to reach young children. He also established a Tuesday-night Bible study for older children that attracted more than 250 youth.

M’Cheyne was naturally gifted and supernaturally graced. His motto was “the love of Christ.”

The evident fruitfulness did not remove a restlessness in M’Cheyne’s heart, a restlessness for revival. Since 1836, M’Cheyne had preached and prayed for revival in the land.

The Lord answered Robert’s prayer in 1839. It just so happened that M’Cheyne was out of town when the revival began.

Earlier that year, M’Cheyne had been appointed a member of the soon-to-be-famous “Mission of Inquiry” to the Holy Land. The Church of Scotland had appointed a committee to travel to the Holy Land and back, scouting potential sites for missionary activity to the Jews. In his stead, Robert placed William Chalmers Burns in St. Peter’s pulpit. Although young, Burns preached the gospel with noticeable unction. M’Cheyne had long thought that revival would come when he was absent. “I sometimes think that a great blessing may come to my people in my absence. Often God does not bless us when we are in the midst of our labours, lest we shall say, ‘My hand and my eloquence have done it,’ ” M’Cheyne commented.

The Dundee revival began in August 1839 through Burns’ ministry. For months, church meetings were held nightly. When M’Cheyne returned, it seemed as if the whole town had been awakened—such was the Spirit’s sovereign work in salvation and sanctification.

M’Cheyne’s final years found him faithful in the gospel ministry. He worked to extend the revival joy and campaigned in denominational politics. He also went on various evangelistic tours, finding such happiness in evangelistic preaching that he planned to become an itinerant minister.

The Lord had other plans.

In early March 1843, M’Cheyne contracted “the typhus fever.” On March 25, while on his sickbed, Robert raised his hands as if pronouncing a benediction and then breathed his last. He was only twenty-nine years old.

living by grace

A letter from a visitor to St. Peter’s lay unopened on Robert M’Cheyne’s desk while the preacher passed from this world to the next. Someone opened it the week after his death.

I hope you will pardon a stranger for addressing you a few lines. I heard you preach last Sabbath evening, and it pleased God to bless that sermon to my soul. It was not so much what you said, as your manner of speaking, that struck me. I saw in you a beauty in holiness that I never saw before.

Such luster in living and might in ministry was all of grace. M’Cheyne knew nothing could be done for Christ apart from Christ’s grace. “Unfathomable oceans of grace are in Christ for you,” M’Cheyne declared. “Dive and dive again, you will never come to the bottom of these depths.” M’Cheyne plumbed those depths with particular zeal through his feasting on Scripture, persistent prayer, sanctifying the Sabbath, and all-consuming love for Christ. His preaching was little more than testifying to the gospel of God’s grace. M’Cheyne was naturally gifted and supernaturally graced. His motto was “the love of Christ.” His life was thus a living epistle to the grace of Christ.

Disciplining Children as a Witness

Christ, the Authoritative Teacher

Keep Reading A Manual for Kingdom Living: The Sermon on the Mount

From the March 2023 Issue
Mar 2023 Issue