logo of this website


The Revival Preacher Circular No.8

Robert Murray M'Cheyne

Based on an article by Iain H. Murray.

M’Cheyne’s brief ministry of seven-and-a-half years 'stamped an indelible impress on Scotland,' and though he died when he was only twenty nine, more was wrought by him that will last for eternity than most accomplish in a long lifetime. If we could summon but one life from the past, the lessons of which would apply most directly to this slothful and careless generation, it would probably have to be the life of Robert M'Cheyne. After his death, a fellow minister wrote, "Indolence and levity and unfaithfulness are sins that beset me ; and his living presence was a rebuke to all these, for I never knew one so instant in season and out of season, so impressed with the invisible realities, and so faithful in reproving sin and witnessing for Christ."

Early Life

Robert M'Cheyne was born in Edinburgh in May, 1813, the youngest child in a family of five. After passing successfully though the High School, he entered the Arts Faculty of the University in the Autumn of 1827. M'Cheyne became at this time an eager participant in the city's fashionable entertainments, and scenes of gaiety: card plating, dancing and music, occupied his leisure hours. But he was the subject of his elder brother's fervent prayers, and the early death of this brother in 1831 was an event which was used to awaken Robert from the sleep of sin. It was "the first overwhelming blow to my worldliness," Robert later confessed. He began to be serious, and to sit under an evangelical ministry. Soon we read entries like this in his diary: "March 10, 1832. I hope never to play cards again." "March 25. Never visit on a Sunday evening again." "April 10. Absented myself from the dance. Having himself once followed such fading pleasures, M'Cheyne often declared later in his preaching: "O Christless man, you have pleasure, but it is only for a season. Laugh on if you will, your candle will soon be out. Your games, your dance, your parties, will soon be over. There are no games in hell."


In the winter of 1831, following his desire to enter the ministry, he entered the Divinity Hall of the University. Under the leadership of men like Chalmers and Welsh there was a new stir of spiritual life in the College and in the Church of Scotland. We see from his diary in the following years a growing grasp of Scriptural truth, and a growing desire to live in communion with God and under the power of the world to come. Entries like this speak for themselves: "June 22. Bought Edwards' works. "August 15. Awfully important question, Am I redeeming the time ?" "February 23. Sabbath. Rose early to seek God, and found Him whom my soul loveth. Who would not rise early to meet such company ?" Reading the biographies of past ministers had a profound influence on M'Cheyne at this time, especially such lives as Jonathan Edwards, David Brainerd and Henry Martyn. In fact, he became so familiar with the works of the first named, that Edwards' 'Resolutions' were adopted by M'Cheyne. "Resolved, never to lose one moment of time, but to improve it in the most profitable way I possibly can. Resolved, that I will live so, as I shall wish I had done when I come to die. Resolved, to live with all my might, while I do live." From a letter M'Cheyne later wrote to a student, we can see what rules he applied to himself: "Do get on with your studies. Remember you are now forming the character of your future ministry, if God spare you. If you acquire slovenly or sleepy habits of study now, you will never get the better of it. Do everything in earnest. Above all, keep much in the presence of God. Never see the face of man till you have seen His face who is our life, our all." The last entry of his student days is "March 29, 1835. College finished on Friday last. My last appearance there. Life is vanishing fast, make haste for eternity." So ended his preparatory discipline, both of heart and mind. "His soul," writes Bonar, "was prepared for the awful work of ministry by much prayer; by much study of the word of God ; by inward trials; by experience of the depth of corruption in his own heart, and by discoveries of the Saviour's fulness of grace."

Starting at Dundee

M'Cheyne was licensed by the presbytery of Annan on July 1st, 1835 and became "a preacher of the Gospel, an honour to which I cannot name an equal." After a further period, largely of preparation for the future, as assistant to Mr. John Bonar the minister of Larbert and Dunipace, he was ordained minister of St. Peter's, Dundee, I November, 1836. It was a new church built in a sadly neglected district containing some 4,000 souls. "A city given to idolatry and hardness of heart," was his first impression. "A very dead region," is Bonar's description. "The surrounding mass of impenetrable heathenism cast its influence even on those few who were living Christians." "He has set me down among the noisy mechanics and political weavers of this godless town," M'Cheyne wrote. There was nothing in his message to please such a people ; "If the Gospel pleased carnal men it would not be the Gospel," he declared. He was deeply persuaded that the Spirit's first work in salvation is to convict of sin, and to bring men to despair of their condition by nature. It was therefore on this note that his ministry commenced and continued. "Men must be brought down by law work to see their guilt and misery, or all our preaching is beating the air. A broken heart alone can receive a crucified Christ. The most, I fear, in all congregations, are sailing easily down the stream into an undone eternity, unconverted and unawakened." Urgency and alarm characterised his message. "God help me to speak to you plainly! The longest lifetime is still short. It is all that is given you to be converted in. In a very little, it will all be over; and all that is here is changing. Even the hills are crumbling. The loveliest face is withering away. The finest garments rot and decay. Every day that passes is bringing you nearer to the judgment seat. Not one of you is standing still. You may sleep; but the tide is going on, bringing you nearer death, judgment, and eternity.

M'Cheyne was enabled to walk in a continual awareness of these truths - "I think I can say, I have never risen a morning without thinking how I could bring more souls to Christ." In his diary we find records like this: "As I was walking in the fields, the thought came over me with almost overwhelming power, that every one of my flock must soon be in heaven or hell."

Personal Holiness

But there is another feature of M'Cheyne's life which is perhaps even more prominent than his constant longings for the salvation of souls. "Above all things, cultivate your own spirit," he wrote to a fellow-minister. "Your own soul is your first and greatest care. Seek to advance in personal holiness. From his diary, we gather his own private observations: "I ought to spend the best part of the day in communion with God. It is my noblest and most fruitful employment" It was M'Cheyne's constant aim to avoid any hurry which prevents "the calm working of the Spirit on the heart. The dew comes down when all nature is at rest, when every leaf is still. A calm hour with God is worth a whole lifetime with man …"


M'Cheyne was ever concerned to deepen his ministry by continual study. "Few", says Bonar ; have maintained such an "undecaying esteem for the advantages of study." Though always conscious that souls were perishing every day, he never fell into the error of thinking that a minister's main work consists of outward activity. "The great fault I find with this generation is, they cry that ministers should be more in public; they think that it is an easy thing to interpret the word of God, and to preach. But a minister's duty is not so much public as private." Two thick notebooks show that he was constantly storing his mind by reading the Puritans, and Reformers. This emphasis on personal growth he never lost. "Oh," he declared to a friend, "we preachers need to know God in another way than heretofore, in order to speak aright of sin and of salvation. The work of God would flourish by us, if it flourished more richly in us."

Success and Sickness

"The lack of ministerial success," says Robinson, "is a tremendous circumstance, never to be contemplated without horror." Never to rest without success was M'Cheyne's unvarying aim; though from his earliest days at St. Peter's, his preaching was attended with saving power, and produced deep convictions and distress in the hearts of many, he and his people ever prayed for further manifestations of God's glory. But towards the end of 1838 the course of his ministry was interrupted by symptoms which alarmed his friends. He was attacked by violent palpitation of heart, the effect of unremitting labour. It soon increased, so that his medical advisers insisted on a total cessation of work. Accordingly M'Cheyne, with deep regret, returned to his parents home in Edinburgh, to rest until he could resume his ministry. This separation from his people occasioned some of his richest letters. "Ah!" he writes, "there is nothing like a calm look into the eternal world to teach us the emptiness of human praise, the sinfulness of self-seeking, and the preciousness of Christ

Prolonged illness prevented M'Cheyne's speedy restoration to his people, and in the spring of 1839 it was proposed that he should accompany a party of ministers who were to visit Palestine to make personal enquiries into the state of the land. The voyage and climate it was thought would prove beneficial to him. His acceptance of their offer, and their subsequent travels to Jerusalem and Galilee we cannot pause to describe. Even when far from them, the spiritual prosperity of his people in Dundee was uppermost in his heart. After surveying the barren spot in Galilee where Capernaum once stood, he wrote to them, "If you tread the glorious gospel of the grace of God under your feet, your souls will perish ; and I fear Dundee will one day be a howling wilderness like Capernaum." "Ah! would my flock from thee might learn, How days of grace will flee ; How all an offered Christ who spurn, shall mourn at last, like thee."

Sickness, Revival and Awakening

Not long after the party had begun to return homewards through Asia Minor, M'Cheyne was taken dangerously ill. Towards the end of July, 1839 as he lay apparently dying near Smyrna, he believed it was not to his native Scotland but to his eternal home that he was going. "My most earnest prayer was for my dear flock." "The cry of his servant in Asia was not forgotten," writes Bonar ; "the eye of the Lord turned toward his people. Their pastor was at the gate of death, in utter helplessness. But the Lord answered their prayers in more ways than one. William Chalmers. Burns, a young man of twenty-four, was supplying M'Cheyne's place at Dundee in his absence. It was under his preaching on 23rd of July that the great Revival at Kilsyth took place. "All Scotland heard the glad news that the sky was no longer brass. The Spirit in mighty power began to work from that day forward in many places of the land." As soon as Burns resumed his ministry in Dundee early in August, the same effects occurred. The truth pierced hearts in an overwhelming manner: "tears were streaming from the eyes of many, and some fell on the ground groaning and weeping and crying for mercy." Services were held every night for many weeks, often lasting till late hours. The whole town was moved. The fear of God fell upon the ungodly. Anxious multitudes filled the churches.

Return to Dundee

When M'Cheyne, restored to health, returned to St. Peter's in November of that year, he viewed an unforgettable scene. A deep concern and realization of eternal realities possessed the vast congregation. In worship, the presence of God was very real, and this remained so throughout the remainder of his ministry. The grief over sin which filled the hearts of many could only be expressed by tears. Such was the anxiety which people had to hear the Gospel, that even when M'Cheyne was preaching in the open air meadows at Dundee, and heavy rain began to fall, the dense crowd stood till the last. The Word was listened to on these occasions with "an awful and breathless stillness."

It was M'Cheyne's custom never to accept mere professions of faith as signs of conversion. "It is a holy making gospel," he declared. "Without holy fruit, all evidences are vain. Dear friends, you have awakenings, enlightenings, experiences, a full heart in prayer, and many due signs ; but if you lack holiness, you will never see the Lord. A real desire after complete holiness is the truest mark of being born again. Jesus is a holy Saviour. He first covers the soul with His white raiment, then makes the soul glorious within, restores the lost image of God, and fills the soul with pure, heavenly holiness. Unregenerate men among you cannot bear this."

The Brevity of Life

As his ministry drew towards its solemn close, he became increasingly conscious of the brevity of time. "I do not expect to live long …Changes are coming. Every eye before me shall soon be dim in death. Another pastor shall feed this flock, another singer lead the psalm, another flock shall fill this fold….There is no believing, no repenting, no conversion in the grave, no minister will speak to you there. This is the time of conversion. Oh my friends, you will have no ordinances in hell. There will be no preaching in hell. Oh that you would use this little time! Every moment of it is priceless."

In his last year at St. Peter's we find him preaching with terrible clearness on the eternal punishment of the unconverted. Four sermons were devoted to this subject. He never dreaded the reproach a dying woman addressed to John Newton. "You often spoke to me of Christ ; but oh you did not tell me enough about my danger." "Brethren," M'Cheyne warned his fellow ministers, our people will not thank us in eternity for speaking smooth things, and crying Peace, peace, when there is no peace. No, they may praise us now, but they will curse our flattery in eternity."

In February 1843, he was away in the north west of Scotland, and preached twenty-seven times, in twenty-four different places, often travelling through heavy snow. On his return to Dundee he confessed he felt "very tired." March 12th proved to be his last Sabbath in the pulpit of St. Peter's. The following Tuesday he felt ill but took a wedding service, and afterwards spoke to a group of children, who informally gathered round him, on "The Good Shepherd." It was his last public appearance. That evening, he succumbed to a fever which was prevalent in the parish at the time. After lying helplessly for a week with burning fever, a delirium overtook him on Tuesday 21st. His utterances now showed the thoughts which were uppermost in his mind. As if addressing his people he cried "You must be awakened in time, or you will be awakened in everlasting torment, to your eternal confusion." Then he prayed, "This parish, Lord, this people, this whole place!" He died on Saturday, March 25th, 1843. The truth, he had so often preached was fulfilled: "Live for eternity. A few days more and our journey is done." His desire was fulfilled. "Oh to be like Jesus, and with Him to all eternity!"

We have finished our outlines of the life of one who declared he was "just a common man." But our impression must surely be that such a ministry is very uncommon in our times. It is then no small question for ministers to ask - "Where lies the difference between his ministry and ours?"

Lessons to learn

First, M'Cheyne was different in doctrine. His preaching was clearly in line with the faith of the Reformers and the Puritans. Ruin by the fall, righteousness by Christ, and regeneration by the Spirit were his emphases. Sin has so ruined man's mind and heart that only Christ can save him. "You will only have yourselves to blame if you awake in hell. If you die, it is because you have willed to die. The constant aim of M'Cheyne's preaching to the awakened and converted was to bring them to see the vastness, completeness and freeness of the salvation brought by Christ. "Remember Jesus for us is all our righteousness before a holy God, and Jesus in us is all our strength in an ungodly world. … He justifies sinners who have no righteousness, and sanctifies souls that have no holiness. Let Jesus bear your whole weight. Remember, He loves to be the only support of your soul. There is nothing that you can possibly need but you will find it in Him."

The most prominent cause of the absence of such ministries as M'Cheyne's to-day lies in the absence of such doctrine, for it is only the truth of God which the Spirit will honour and bless.

Secondly, M'Cheyne was different in his life. I do not mean he was exempt from the temptations to sin, for the fight with sin is known by every Christian. On the contrary it was the constant awareness of the attacks of the enemy that brought him into such continual dependence upon Christ. But he was different in that he ever lived as one on the brink of eternity, as one who longed for a "full conformity to God," and prized communion with Him as his chief joy. He was ever reminding himself; "If I could follow the Lord more fully myself, my ministry would be used to make a deeper impression than it has yet done." Are we not rebuked by this minister who was given hundreds of souls as his reward? Have we not failed to estimate aright the value of near access to God? The same Jesus reigns; the same Spirit is able; and the same source of grace is open to us. "Oh! brethren, be wise. 'Why stand ye all the day idle?' In a little moment it will be all over. A little while and the day of grace will be over; preaching, praying will be done. A little while, and we shall stand before the great white throne; a little while, and the wicked shall not be; we shall see them going away into everlasting punishment. A little while, and the work of eternity shall be begun. We shall be like Him; we shall see Him day and night in His temple, we shall sing the new song, without sin and without weariness, for ever and ever."

That sense of the shortness of life is shown in the fact that M‘Cheyne was a prodigious letter writer and many of his letters were headed with his sketch of the setting sun above the words, "The night cometh, when no man can work." (Jn. 9: 4)

What was it about M‘Cheyne that made such a deep impression on his hearers? What is it about the record of his life that even today can stir the reader’s heart? One writer had this to say, "M'Cheyne brought into the pulpit all the reverence for Scripture of the Reformation period ; all the honour for the headship of Christ of the Covenanter period ; all the freeness of the Gospel offer of the Marrow theology ; all the bright imagery of Samuel Rutherfurd, all the delight of the Erskines in the fulness of Christ. The new element he brought into the pulpit, or rather which he revived, was winsomeness. A pity that turned many of his sermons into poems that thrilled his heart and, by the power of the Spirit, imparted the thrill to many souls." (Blaikie)

You see this in his sermons, and you read it in his letters. Some of the sayings from sermons and letters, and others taken from his journal entries illustrate how his spirituality was rooted in a deep knowledge of the Scriptures, a yearning for fellowship with God, coupled with a profound understanding of the depths of sin and deceit in the human heart.


Some of his more memorable words may be already familiar as short quotations. Here are a few of these:

"A man is what he is on his knees before God, and nothing more."

"For every look at self, take ten looks at Christ."

"The Christian is a person who makes it easy for others to believe in God."

"Most of God's people are contented to be saved from the hell that is without; they are not so anxious to be saved from the hell that is within."

"It is a sure mark of grace to desire more."

"If I could hear Christ praying for me in the next room, I would not fear a million enemies. Yet distance makes no difference. He is praying for me."

"Lord, make me as holy as a pardoned sinner can be."

"Oh how sweet to work for God all day, and then lie down at night beneath His smile."

"The greatest need of my people is my personal holiness."

"A man who loves you the most is the man who tells you the most truth about yourself."

Even some of his lengthier quotations have found their way into modern evangelical sermon craft. Here are a few of these:

"Study universal holiness of life. Your whole usefulness depends on this, for your sermons last but an hour or two; your life preaches all the week. If Satan can only make a minister covetous, a lover of praise, of pleasure, of good eating, he has ruined your ministry.

Give yourself to prayer, and get your texts, your thoughts, your words from God. Luther spent his best three hours in prayer."

"I ought to pray before seeing any one. Often when I sleep long, or meet with others early, it is eleven or twelve o'clock before I begin secret prayer. This is a wretched system. It is unscriptural. Christ arose before day and went into a solitary place. David says: 'Early will I seek thee'; 'Thou shalt early hear my voice.' Family prayer loses much of its power and sweetness, and I can do no good to those who come to seek from me. The conscience feels guilty, the soul unfed, the lamp not trimmed. Then when in secret prayer the soul is often out of tune, I feel it is far better to begin with God, to see His face first, to get my soul near him before it is near another."

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. A word spoken by you when your conscience is clear, and your heart full of God's Spirit, is worth ten thousand words spoken in unbelief and sin."

"You will never find Jesus so precious as when the world is one vast howling wilderness. Then He is like a rose blooming in the midst of the desolation, a rock rising above the storm."

"I am tempted to think that I am now an established Christian, that I have overcome this or that lust so long, that I have got into the habit of the opposite grace, so that there is no fear; I may venture very near the temptation, nearer than other men. This is a lie of Satan. "Every wise workman takes his tools away from the work from time to time that they may be ground and sharpened; so does the only wise Jehovah take his ministers oftentimes away into darkness and loneliness and trouble, that He may sharpen and prepare them for harder work in His service."

Holy affections

Some of these quotations already give a clue to M‘Cheyne’s character. He possessed an earnest desire to grow in personal holiness. Yet his quest for holiness is entirely rooted and grounded in a love for Christ. There is no hint of self-righteousness about him. The

love of Christ constrained him, and made him seek after God, being conformed to the image of His Son. R.S. Candlish once wrote of him, "Assuredly he had more of the mind of his Master than almost any one I ever knew, and made known to me more of the likeness of the beloved disciple."

His affections extended to all those who sincerely followed Jesus Christ. One of his public letters is entitled, "On Communion with brethren of other denominations".


His progress in his close walk with God must surely be accounted in part to his habit of self examination. Much of this comes over in his journal, which he began early on as an informal day-book to record his experiences and inmost thoughts. He was a keen

advocate of personal reformation, and wrote a guide on this subject for his own benefit, which was published after his death with the title, "Personal Examinations and Reformation". In it he notes some of the steps he had resolved to take in order to live a more God-pleasing life.

. M‘Cheyne’s closest friend outside his own family was Andrew Alexander Bonar, who

became his biographer. Even though Bonar outlived M’Cheyne by fifty years, on the subsequent anniversaries of Robert’s death, he often noted the day in his diary and wished that he’d been even as half as useful to God as his friend had been.

Duncan Matheson, the Scottish Evangelist, an eye-witness of M‘Cheyne’s preaching, wrote the following: "He preached with eternity stamped on his brow. I think I yet can see his seraphic countenance, and hear his sweet and tender voice. I was spell-bound, and would not keep my eyes off him for a moment. He announced his text : Paul’s thorn in the flesh. What a sermon! I trembled, and never felt God so near. His appeals went to my heart, and, as he spoke of the last great day in the darkening twilight, at once I began to pray."

This illustrates that even though we have access to M‘Cheyne’s sermons in print, there was something about his preaching which the printed form cannot effectively reproduce or convey to us. "All his sermons reflect his awareness of the brevity of life, the preciousness of man’s immortal soul, the reality of hell, the sole sufficiency of Christ to save the sinner and the absolute necessity of the new birth." (Maurice Roberts)

"The true secret of his success in the pulpit was his combination of faithfulness to the word of God with tenderness for the souls of men," wrote Marcus Loane. "He went about his work with an air of reverence, which made men feel that the majesty of God was in his heart. No man could exhort the guilty in more searching or tremendous terms; yet no man could address the troubled in more gentle or persuasive tones."

Now we are getting near to the heart of Robert Murray M’Cheyne. He truly lived in the light of eternity, was so convinced of the truths he declared; so aware of their reality in his innermost soul; and felt such an urgency to declare them to sinners on every possible occasion; that he showed this not only in the words he spoke, not only in the earnest tones of his voice, but in the tears that flowed from his eyes. When he went into the pulpit, straight from the throne room, he would stand and look out at the people, and his heart would break and the tears would flow, because he was not certain if they were the Lord’s. He would pray for the people, and with passion in his voice, he would weep because he knew that time was short, they would soon be before the judgment seat, and they were not ready. He would read the Word to them, and his eyes would fill with tears as he thought of all those who were opposing its entrance into their lives. When he preached the Word to them and spoke on judgment and hell, he would break down in tears, for he feared for their salvation. That is the mark of a man of God. Jesus would never have spoken of the judgment of God with dry eyes, so neither should we.

This is what is needed in every generation, and especially in this one; the religion of the heart that shows itself in agonizing prayer and tears. People are moved and changed far more by what they feel in their hearts than by what they think in their minds. But so many of our churches today are so cold and formal and intellectual, or they are shallow and superficial. There is no reality, no honesty with the word of God, no brokenness, nor even a true seeking of the Lord. Where are the men like Robert Murray M’Cheyne, who really believe and feel the terrible truth of people all around them rejecting Christ and going to an eternity without Him? Where are those who will confront the awful belief in universalism that pervades not just the world, but also the churches? Where are the preachers who will pray and preach and weep until men and women and boys and girls are broken down in contrition? Where are those who will really be honest before God and before people, and tell them what God thinks about their sin, and the terrible result of it; and, like Robert Murray M’Cheyne, show it not just in the words they say, but in the tone of their voice and the tears that fall from their eyes? We need preachers like Robert Murray M’Cheyne, for whom absolute honesty, urgency and alarm characterize their message; who truly live in the light of eternity, not caring what people think about them or say about them, but whose one concern is the glory of God and bringing people out of darkness into His marvellous light, so that they live lives of holiness and righteousness.

If this is not your experience, than seek the Lord for it. Ask Him to give you that spirit of honesty and urgency that Robert Murray M’Cheyne knew; ask Him to enable you to truly live in the light of eternity; ask Him to break your heart, as Robert’s heart was broken; then ask Him to use you, as He used M’Cheyne, for His glory alone.