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.