When Robert Murray McCheyne died at the age of 30 on March 25, 1843, he had served the Lord Jesus only six years and four months. But the blessed ministry of “The Shining Light of Scotland” was not finished. Throughout the years, many saints have been blessed by the example of Robert Murray McCheyne’s life.
McCheyne was born May 21, 1813, at Edinburgh to a prosperous Scottish High Court judge. He entered the University of Edinburgh at 14 years of age. When he was 18, he lost his older brother David Thomas. This event brought the first arrow of conviction into his soul – in fact, an entry to that end was made in his personal journal each year on the date, July 8. The same year he began theological studies at Divinity Hall under Dr. Thomas Chalmers who became his mentor. After reading the biography of Henry Martyn, he wrote of giving up all for Christ. “Lord, purify me and give me strength to dedicate myself, my all to Thee!” He wrote at 19 years of age, “It is not talents God blesses so much as great likeness to Jesus.”
In 1836 he was ordained and appointed minister of the Church of St. Peter’s, Dundee. In this godless and hardened city he set a remarkable example of dedication and service, laboring night and day. The study and teaching of the Bible was of paramount importance. Strongly believing in private and family worship, he prepared a calendar (Daily Bread) for his members for reading through the whole Bible in a year. He was a dedicated shepherd among his people, caring for, praying for, and visiting each of them to the point of personal exhaustion.
Andrew Bonar, in The Memoir and Remains of Robert Murray McCheyne, states, “His eminently holy walk and conversation, combined with the deep solemnity of his preaching, was specially felt.” Communion with Christ was for him the true secret of holiness. And for Robert, the secret of happiness and joy was holiness, which he felt were as inseparably linked as light and heat. He stated, “God Himself could not make you happy, except you be holy.”
He labored and preached in Dundee for three years (1836 – 1839), and although it was a parish of nearly 4,000 souls, he saw little fruit in the way of conversions. Being delicate in health, he was forced to have a complete break.
In 1839 he was sent as part of a Commission to Palestine, for six months, to examine the state of the Jews and take the gospel to them. Many Jews were saved at that time. During this time of his absence, William Chalmers Burns took on the ministry at St. Peters, and a revival broke out. There were many confessions of Christ, and hundreds of inquiries. Robert was anxious to return and when he did, he reported it to the Presbytery of Aberdeen to be a glorious work of God, even though God had, from St. Peters, seemingly removed him for a period. He impartially observed that while there were hundreds of conversions, many of the cases were of backsliders restored, of believers enlarged, and even many false professions of salvation. Consequently, he felt the “real number of those who received saving benefits from such revivals will only be known at the judgment day.” He further emphasized that the Holy Spirit more often works in a quiet manner.
His sermons were neither profound nor theological in their content, but they were marked by a sense of urgency. They were both sweet and solemn. There were sweet unfoldings of the person of Christ with entreaties to come to Him, but solemn warnings of the consequences of leaving life without Him. He preached as “dying to dying” and “with eternity stamped upon his brow.” According to Bonar, he also saw no inconsistency in preaching an electing God, “Who calleth whom He will,” and a salvation free to “whomsoever will”; nor in declaring the absolute sovereignty of God, and yet, the unimpaired responsibility of man.
Doctrinally, McCheyne was well-grounded, and stressed sound teaching in the up-building of the church. But rather than preach it as cold orthodoxy, he emphasized the importance of being affected by it, to feel it experientially. In the matter of prophecy, the truths of the premillennial return of Christ, the relation of the Church to Israel, and other eschatological matters were being introduced and discussed in church circles. This was in the 1830s when there was a revival of the truth of the rapture of the Church. Robert was accepting of these, along with Andrew Bonar, his friend and biographer, even though there is no record of his teaching on it.
The example he has left is one of deep devotion to the Savior, of a holy life, of love and care for all the Lord’s people, and of a fervent desire to make the gospel known to the world. He also left a legacy in the form of hymns. Two of the most well-known are “When this passing world is done” (BHB #356), and “I once was a stranger to grace and to God” (BHB #96).
On March 25, 1843, not quite 30 years old, after a two-week battle with typhus, he lifted up his hands as if pronouncing the blessing, and then sank back on the bed – at home with His Lord. More than 6,000 people honored his passing; with tears and sobs his body was laid in a simple resting place at the southwest corner of the church, within yards of the pulpit from which he faithfully preached the Word of life. J. Roxborough concluded the eulogy at the graveside with “He was the most faultless and attractive exhibition of the true Christian which they had ever seen embodied in a living form.”
To use the words of Robert Murray McCheyne, “Live, so as to be missed.”