Jordan Stone

Who was Robert Murray M’Cheyne?

Almost two centuries since his death, Robert M’Cheyne’s legacy keeps attracting interest. It does so primarily because of M’Cheyne’s unceasing devotion to Christ—a devotion that is seen in his Bible reading plan, declared in his sermons, and shines in his life of holiness. He was living proof of one of his most beloved maxims: “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.”6

Robert Murray M’Cheyne is a name that many know today. His name is synonymous in many circles with love for Christ, personal holiness, regular Bible reading, fervent prayer, and near-constant evangelism. But who is the man behind the legend? To know M’Cheyne’s life story, you need to know him as a son, a student, and a servant.
M’Cheyne the Son
Robert M’Cheyne was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on May 21, 1813, to Adam and Lockhart M’Cheyne. He was the youngest of five children. Achievement and athletics filled his early life. Of the former, Robert memorized the Greek alphabet as an amusement while sick as a four-year-old, signaling the numerous academic awards he eventually received. Of the latter, M’Cheyne was an eager gymnast.
The M’Cheyne household was a devoted church family. Robert attended the Lord’s Day sermons and was known to recite the Westminster Shorter Catechism. But Robert later reflected that he “lived in heart a Pharisee”1 throughout his childhood.
The light of Christ shone into Robert’s darkness during a summer of suffering. Always close with his siblings, Robert’s world was turned upside down in 1831 when his brother, William, went to India under the Bengal Medical Service. The anxiety Robert felt at the temporary removal of William was soon swallowed by the permanent removal of the oldest M’Cheyne child, David, who died on July 8, 1831, from a severe fever. Robert was particularly close with David. The elder brother was a devout Christian, sensible to eternal realities. He often pleaded with his younger brother to turn to Jesus Christ, but Robert admitted, “I thought myself far wiser than he, and would always take my own way.”2
David’s death struck a blow to Robert’s heart. It woke him to his need for grace and eternal life in Christ. Robert wrote on the anniversary of David’s death, “This day eleven years ago, I lost my loved and loving brother, and began to seek a Brother who cannot die.”3 The born-again son soon entered a new phase: life as a student at the Divinity Hall.
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Memoir and Remains of Robert Murray M’Cheyne: A Reader’s Guide to a Christian Classic

Andrew Bonar sat at his desk late in the afternoon of March 25, 1843. He scribbled out the final edits on his Lord’s Day sermon for the following morning. Then, at 5:00, Bonar received some shocking news: his beloved friend Robert Murray M’Cheyne had died from typhus fever, only weeks shy of his thirtieth birthday.

Bonar did not know M’Cheyne had been sick. Days before, a letter was sent to Bonar’s residence informing him of Robert’s illness, but the document was misaddressed. Thus, Bonar recorded on that somber Saturday, “A message has just come to tell me of Robert M’Cheyne’s death. Never, never yet 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.”1

Bonar raced down to Dundee, where M’Cheyne had a famous ministry at St. Peter’s. He discovered a church almost convulsing in grief. Hundreds of congregants filled the lower gallery. Weeping and crying were heard in the street. “Such a scene of sorrow has not often been witnessed in Scotland,” Bonar reported.2 One local paper, The Witness, soon devoted numerous articles to M’Cheyne in three different editions. “His precious life was short,” one column recalled, “but he was an aged saint in Christian experience. . . . Into those few years there was compressed a life-time of ministerial usefulness.”3

For almost two centuries now, M’Cheyne’s “ministerial usefulness” has fascinated countless Christians. How is it that a young man, who served in gospel ministry for only seven years, has so captured hearts and instructed minds? How do people even come to know about M’Cheyne?

The answer is found in a book: The Memoir and Remains of Robert Murray M’Cheyne by Andrew Bonar.

Prayer-Saturated Book

Within weeks of M’Cheyne’s death, family and friends discussed the possibility of someone writing his biography. Bonar was the first nominee and most logical choice. Bonar had long possessed a literary gift, and no one had been closer to M’Cheyne since their days as students at the Divinity Hall in Edinburgh. Bonar agreed to take on the task.

Bonar began his work in September of 1843 and completed the first edition three months later. “Finished my Memoir of Robert M’Cheyne yesterday morning,” Bonar journaled on December 23, 1843. “Praise, praise to the Lord. I have been praying, ‘Guide me with Thine eye.’ I may soon be gone; but I am glad that the Lord has permitted me to finish this record of His beloved servant.”4

The Memoir was published in the spring of 1844. “The M’Cheyne Circle” of pastors, a collection of evangelical titans in the just-formed Free Church of Scotland, prayed fervently for the book. Before the book’s publication, Bonar and his friends committed to “a season of special prayer and fast to ask blessing on the Memoir, and the raising up of many holy men.”5

The Lord answered their prayers.

Popularity and Power

The Memoir was published in 1844 to near-universal acclaim. It “commanded a sale almost unprecedented in the annals of religious biography,” one newspaper stated.6 Within 25 years, the Memoir went through 116 English editions, and close to 500,000 copies were printed through the early 1900s. The book remains in print today and has been translated into multiple languages.

Bonar’s diary often remarks on correspondence received from readers of the Memoir. “Many tokens have I received of the Lord’s blessing that book,” he rejoiced.7 Bonar’s children later recalled how an unconverted curate in the Church of England received the book from his brother. The curate decided to read some of M’Cheyne’s sermons to his congregation on the Lord’s Day. He was amazed to discover his church asking questions about Christ and eternity that “they had never spoken of before.”8 God used the Memoir to convert sinners, comfort saints, and commission servants of Christ.

Charles Spurgeon held the Memoir in the highest regard, commending it to his students at the Pastor’s College as “one of the best and most profitable volumes ever published. Every minister should read it often.”9 More recently, Sinclair Ferguson has referred to the Memoir as “one of my most treasured possessions. . . . It is a book every young Christian man should read — more than once.” Joel Beeke calls it “one of the top ten books in the world.”

Profiting from the Memoir

Late in his life, Bonar traveled to America. He was surprised with the notoriety attached to him as the famed author of M’Cheyne’s life. “Filled with alarm and regret in reviewing the Lord’s mercies to me, in using me to write the Memoir of R. M. M’Cheyne, for which I’m continually received thanks from ministers,” Bonar wrote. “Why was I commissioned to write that book? How poor have been my returns of thankfulness. Oh, when shall I attain to the same holy sweetness and unction, and when shall I reach the deep fellowship with God which he used to manifest?”10

Bonar’s mention of holiness, unction, and communion with God underlines the Memoir’s typical attractions. As the title suggests, The Memoir and Remains of Robert Murray M’Cheyne consists of two parts. The book begins with Bonar’s memoir, a biography of M’Cheyne that stretches to something like 160 pages. The second part, the Remains, fills a few hundred pages with writings from M’Cheyne — sermons, letters, tracts, and hymns. Each page bursts with that grand secret of M’Cheyne’s ministry: love to Christ.

Why, then, should someone today read Bonar’s Memoir and Remains of Robert Murray M’Cheyne? Because the pages unfold and embody the apostolic heartbeat to preach earnestly “for the love of Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:14) and to “count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:8).

Read the Memoir to enter M’Cheyne’s school of piety and ministry. Read to discover what it means that “it is not great talents God blesses so much as great likeness to Jesus.”11 Read to know the power that comes from a life saturated with Scripture, one that not only tries to understand God’s word, but also “to feel it.”12 Read to remember how preaching is indeed “the grand instrument which God has put into our hands, by which sinners are to be saved, and saints fitted for glory.”13 Read to have your soul stirred from M’Cheyne’s experience of revival, that “very glorious and remarkable work of God.”14 Read to hear a thirst for holiness that prayed, “Lord, make me as holy as a pardoned sinner can be made.”15

M’Cheyne’s Christ

Finally, understand something vital. M’Cheyne once warned about people paying more attention to preachers than to the Christ they proclaimed. He used the story of Moses and the bronze serpent to illustrate his point (Numbers 21:4–9). “As I have told you before, the only use of the pole was to hold up the brazen serpent. No one thought of looking at the pole. . . . We are to hold up Jesus before you, and before ourselves too: so that we shall disappear, and nothing shall be seen but Christ.”

Read the Memoir rightly, and the real shining light you see is nothing other than the beauty and excellency of Jesus Christ.

Worship in Light of Eternity

To come into God’s presence, then, means to arrive with a soul that understands the weight of who God is. Light and casual approaches miss that our Lord is a consuming fire, and so we enter with reverence (Heb. 12:28). We want eternity’s solemnity to fill our worship with earnestness and awe, knowing that we aren’t promised another Lord’s Day. Knowing heaven and hell hang in the balance fuels urgency and vitality in our adoration, confession, and supplication.

Robert Murray M’Cheyne lay on his sickbed in January 1839. Illness had punctuated much of his life and would eventually claim him at the tender age of twenty-nine. Eternity was ever before him in such seasons. Thus, on January 12, 1839, he wrote to a ministerial friend: “May your mind be solemnized, my dear friend, by the thought that we are ministers but for a time, that the Master may summon us to retire into silence. . . . Make all your services tell for eternity.”

Worship is the main theme in the symphony that is the Christian life. Lord’s Day meetings are the center of our experience, for it’s in gathered worship that we encounter the triune God through His Word, sacraments, and prayer.
When the saints gather on Sunday, eternity kisses the earth.
Worship that Understands the Reality of Eternity
What might happen to our services if they told for eternity? At least four things would be true.
I. We would enjoy God’s presence. One great mystery of the Christian’s experience is that we live already as citizens of heaven (Phil. 3:20). The Lord has raised us with Christ and has seated us next to Him in the heavenly places (Eph. 2:6). Thus, the author to the Hebrews explains, we have “come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all” (Heb. 12:22–23). To gather in worship is to gather before God.
Francis Schaeffer once asked, “What difference would it make if God’s presence left the evangelical church today?” He wrote, “The simple tragic fact is that in much of the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ—the evangelical church—there would be no difference whatsoever.” The indictment surely rings true decades later. May it not be said of us, however. Let us join Moses, the man of God who knew that if God left His people, their existence would be pointless (Ex. 33:15). When God’s people gather to worship, God is there. And nothing is sweeter or more satisfying than His presence (Ps. 17:15).
II. We would encounter God’s power. Worshiping in God’s presence means experiencing God’s power through His ordinary means of grace. In the reading and preaching of God’s Word, Christ confronts our conscience and soothes our soul (Eph. 2:17). The sacraments tangibly hold forth Christ’s blessings and benefits (1 Cor 11:26).

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