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.