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The Biography of Robert Murray M'Cheyne online

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minister; for he can get acquainted with all his people, and have some
insight into their real character." Many of us thought that he
afterwards erred, in the abundant frequency of his evangelistic labors
at a time when he was still bound to a particular flock.

He had an evening class every week for the young people of his
congregation. The Catechism and the Bible were his text-books, while
he freely introduced all manner of useful illustrations. He thought
himself bound to prepare diligently for his classes, that he might
give accurate and simple explanations, and unite what was interesting
with the most solemn and awakening views. But it was his class for
young communicants that engaged his deepest care, and wherein he saw
most success. He began a class of this kind previous to his first
Communion, and continued to form it again some weeks before every
similar occasion. His tract, published in 1840, _This do in
remembrance of Me_, may be considered as exhibiting the substance of
his solemn examination on these occasions.

He usually noted down his first impressions of his communicants, and
compared these notes with what he afterwards saw in them. Thus: "M.K.,
sprightly and lightsome, yet sensible; she saw plainly that the
converted alone should come to the Table, but stumbled at the
question, If she were converted? Yet she claimed being awakened and
brought to Christ." Another: "Very staid, intelligent-like person,
with a steady kind of anxiety, but, I fear, no feeling of
helplessness. Thought that sorrow and prayer would obtain forgiveness.
Told her plainly what I thought of her case." Another: "Knows she was
once Christless; now she reads, and prays, and is anxious. I doubt not
there is some anxiety, yet I fear it may be only a self-reformation to
recommend herself to God and to man. Told her plainly." "A.M., I fear
much for him. Gave him a token with much anxiety; warned him very
much." "C.P. does not seem to have any work of anxiety. He reads
prayer-books, etc. Does not pray in secret. Seems not very

He sought to encourage Sabbath schools in all the districts of his
parish. The hymn, _Oil for the Lamp_, was written to impress the
parable on a class of Sabbath scholars in 1841. Some of his sweet,
simple tracts were written for these schools. _Reasons why Children
should fly to Christ_ was the first, written at the New Year 1839; and
_The Lambs of the Flock_ was another at a later period. His heart felt
for the young. One evening, after visiting some of his Sabbath
schools, he writes: "Had considerable joy in teaching the children. Oh
for real heart-work among them!" He could accommodate himself to their
capacities; and he did not reckon it vain to use his talents in order
to attract their attention, for he regarded the soul of a child as
infinitely precious. Ever watchful for opportunities, on the blank
leaf of a book which he had sent to a little boy of his congregation,
he wrote these simple lines: -

Peace be to thee, gentle boy!
Many years of health and joy!
Love your Bible more than play,
Grow in wisdom every day.
Like the lark on hovering wing,
Early rise, and mount and sing;
Like the dove that found no rest
Till it flew to Noah's breast,
Rest not in this world of sin,
Till the Saviour take thee in.

He had a high standard in his mind as to the moral qualifications of
those who should teach the young. When a female teacher was sought for
to conduct an evening school in his parish for the sake of the
mill-girls, he wrote to one interested in the cause: "The
qualifications she should possess for sewing and knitting you will
understand far better than I. She should be able to keep up in her
scholars the fluency of reading, and the knowledge of the Bible and
Catechism which they may have already acquired. She should be able to
teach them to sing the praises of God with feeling and melody. But,
far above all, she should be a Christian woman, not in name only but
in deed and in truth, - one whose heart has been touched by the Spirit
of God, and who can love the souls of little children. Any teacher who
wanted this last qualification, I would look upon as a curse rather
than a blessing, - a centre of blasting and coldness and death, instead
of a centre from which life and warmth and heavenly influence might

It was very soon after his ordination that he began his weekly
prayer-meeting in the church. He had heard how meetings of this kind
had been blessed in other places, and never had he any cause to regret
having set apart the Thursday evening for this holy purpose. One of
its first effects was to quicken those who had already believed; they
were often refreshed upon these occasions even more than on the
Sabbath. Some of the most solemn seasons of his ministry were at those
meetings. At their commencement, he wrote to me an account of his
manner of conducting them: "I give my people a Scripture to be hidden
in the heart - generally a promise of the Spirit or the wonderful
effects of his outpouring.[10] I give them the heads of a sermon upon
it for about twenty minutes. Prayer goes before and follows. Then I
read some history of Revivals, and comment in passing. I think the
people are very much interested in it: a number of people come from
all parts of the town. But, oh! I need much the living Spirit to my
own soul; I want my life to be hid with Christ in God. At present
there is too much hurry, and bustle, and outward working, to allow the
calm working of the Spirit on the heart. I seldom get time to
meditate, like Isaac, at evening-tide, except when I am tired; but the
dew comes down when all nature is at rest - when every leaf is still."

[10] The first text he gave to be thus hidden in the heart was
Isaiah 34:15; "Until the Spirit be poured out from on high."

A specimen of the happy freedom and familiar illustrations which his
people felt to be peculiar to these meetings, may be found in the
notes taken by one of his hearers, of _Expositions of the Epistles to
the Seven Churches_, given during the year 1838. He had himself great
delight in the Thursday evening meetings. "They will doubtless be
remembered in eternity with songs of praise," said he, on one
occasion; and at another time, observing the tender frame of a soul
which was often manifested at these seasons, he said, "There is a
stillness to the last word, - not as on Sabbaths, a rushing down at the
end of the prayer, as if glad to get out of God's presence." So many
believing and so many inquiring souls used to attend, and so few of
the worldlings, that you seemed to breathe the atmosphere of heaven.

But it was his Sabbath-day's services that brought multitudes
together, and were soon felt throughout the town. He was ever so ready
to assist his brethren so much engaged in every good work, and
latterly so often interrupted by inquiries, that it might be thought
he had no time for careful preparation, and might be excused for the
absence of it. But, in truth, he never preached without careful
attention bestowed on his subject. He might, indeed, have little
time - often the hours of a Saturday was all the time he could
obtain, - but his daily study of the Scriptures stored his mind, and
formed a continual preparation. Much of his Sabbath services was a
drawing out of what he had carried in during busy days of the week.

His voice was remarkably clear, - his manner attractive by its mild
dignity. His form itself drew the eye.[11] He spoke from the pulpit as
one earnestly occupied with the souls before him. He made them feel
sympathy with what he spoke, for his own eye and heart were on them.
He was, at the same time, able to bring out illustrations at once
simple and felicitous, often with poetic skill and elegance. He wished
to use Saxon words, for the sake of being understood by the most
illiterate in his audience. And while his style was singularly clear,
this clearness itself was so much the consequence of his being able
thoroughly to analyse and explain his subject, that all his hearers
alike reaped the benefit.

[11] "Gration est pulchro veniens e corpore virtus."

He went about his public work with awful reverence. So evident was
this, that I remember a countryman in my parish observed to me:
"Before he opened his lips, as he came along the passage, there was
something about him that sorely affected me." In the vestry there was
never any idle conversation; all was preparation of heart in
approaching God; and a short prayer preceded his entering the pulpit.
Surely in going forth to speak for God, a man may well be overawed!
Surely in putting forth his hand to sow the seed of the kingdom, a man
may even tremble! And surely we should aim at nothing less than to
pour forth the truth upon our people through the channel of our own
living and deeply affected souls.

After announcing the subject of his discourse, he used generally to
show the position it occupied in the context, and then proceed to
bring out the doctrines of the text, in the manner of our old divines.
This done, he divided his subject; and herein he was eminently
skilful. "The heads of his sermons," said a friend, "were not the
mile-stones that tell you how near you are to your journey's end, but
they were nails which fixed and fastened all he said. Divisions are
often dry; but not so _his_ divisions, - they were so textual and so
feeling, and they brought out the spirit of a passage so

It was his wish to arrive nearer at the primitive mode of expounding
Scripture in his sermons. Hence when one asked him, If he was never
afraid of running short of sermons some day? he replied, "No; I am
just an interpreter of Scripture in my sermons; and when the Bible
runs dry, then I shall." And in the same spirit he carefully avoided
the too common mode of accommodating texts, - fastening a doctrine on
the words, not drawing it from the obvious connection of the passage.
He endeavored at all times to _preach the mind of the Spirit in a
passage_; for he feared that to do otherwise would be to grieve the
Spirit who had written it. Interpretation was thus a solemn matter to
him. And yet, adhering scrupulously to this sure principle, he felt
himself in no way restrained from using, for every day's necessities,
all parts of the Old Testament as much as the New. His manner was
first to ascertain the primary sense and application, and so proceed
to handle it for present use. Thus, on Isaiah 26:16-19, he began:
"This passage, I believe, refers _literally_ to the conversion of
God's ancient people." He regarded the _prophecies_ as _history yet to
be_, and drew lessons from them accordingly as he would have done from
the past. Every spiritual gift being in the hands of Jesus, if he
found Moses or Paul in the possession of precious things, he forthwith
was led to follow them into the presence of that same Lord who gave
them all their grace.

There is a wide difference between preaching _doctrine_ and preaching
_Christ_. Mr. M'Cheyne preached all the doctrines of Scripture as
understood by our Confession of Faith, dwelling upon ruin by the Fall,
and recovery by the Mediator. "The things of the human heart, and the
things of the Divine Mind," were in substance his constant theme. From
personal experience of deep temptation, he could lay open the secrets
of the heart, so that he once said, "He supposed the reason why some
of the worst sinners in Dundee had come to hear him was, because his
heart exhibited so much likeness to theirs." Still it was not
_doctrine_ alone that he preached; it was _Christ_, from whom all
doctrine shoots forth as rays from a centre. He sought to hang every
vessel and flagon upon Him. "It is strange," he wrote after preaching
on Revelation 1:15: "It is strange how sweet and precious it is to
preach directly about Christ, compared with all other subjects of
preaching." And he often expressed a dislike of the phrase "_giving
attention to religion_," because it seemed to substitute doctrine, and
a devout way of thinking, for _Christ himself_.

It is difficult to convey to those who never knew him a correct idea
of the sweetness and holy unction of his preaching. Some of his
sermons, printed from his own MSS. (although almost all are first
copies), may convey a correct idea of his style and mode of preaching
doctrine. But there are no notes that give any true idea of his
affectionate appeals to the heart and searching applications. These he
seldom wrote; they were poured forth at the moment when his heart
filled with his subject; for his rule was to set before his hearers a
body of truth first, - and there always was a vast amount of Bible
truth in his discourses, - and then urge home the application. His
exhortations flowed from his doctrine, and thus had both variety and
power. He was systematic in this; for he observed: "Appeals to the
careless, etc., come with power on the back of some massy truth. See
how Paul does (Acts 13:40), 'Beware, _therefore_, lest,' etc., and
(Hebrews 2:1), '_Therefore_ we should,'" etc.

He was sometimes a little unguarded in his statements, when his heart
was deeply moved and his feelings stirred, and sometimes he was too
long in his addresses; but this also arose from the fulness of his
soul. "Another word," he thought, "may be blessed, though the last has
made no impression."

Many will remember forever the blessed Communion Sabbaths that were
enjoyed in St. Peter's. From the very first these Communion seasons
were remarkably owned of God. The awe of his presence used to be upon
his people, and the house filled with the odor of the ointment, when
his name was poured forth (Song 1:3). But on common Sabbaths also many
soon began to journey long distances to attend St. Peter's, - many from
country parishes, who would return home with their hearts burning, as
they talked of what they had heard that day.

Mr. M'Cheyne knew the snare of popularity, and naturally was one that
would have been fascinated by it; but the Lord kept him.

He was sometimes extraordinarily helped in his preaching; but at other
times, though not perceived by his hearers, his soul felt as if left
to its own resources. The cry of Rowland Hill was constantly on his
lips, "Master, help!" and often is it written at the close of his
sermon. Much affliction, also, was a thorn in the flesh to him. He
described himself as often "strong as a giant when in the church, but
like a willow-wand when all was over." But certainly, above all, his
abiding sense of the divine favor was his safeguard. He began his
ministry in Dundee with this sunshine on his way. "As yet I have been
kept not only in the light of his reconciled countenance, but very
much under the guiding eye of our providing God. Indeed, as I remember
good old Swartz used to say, 'I could not have imagined that He could
have been so gracious to us.'" I believe that while he had some sorer
conflicts, he had also far deeper joy after his return from Palestine
than in the early part of his ministry, though from the very
commencement of it he enjoyed that sense of the love of God which
"keeps the heart and mind." (Phil. 4:7.) This was the true secret of
his holy walk, and of his calm humility. But for this, his ambition
would have become the only principle of many an action; but now the
sweeter love of God constrained him, and the natural ambition of his
spirit could be discerned only as suggesting to him the idea of making
attempts which others would have declined.

What monotony there is in the ministry of many! Duty presses on the
heels of duty in an endless circle. But it is not so when the Spirit
is quickening both the pastor and his flock. Then there is all the
variety of life. It was so here. The Lord began to work by his means
almost from the first day he came. There was ever one and another
stricken, and going apart to weep alone.

The flocking of souls to his ministry, and the deep interest excited,
drew the attention of many, and raised the wish in some quarters to
have him as their pastor. He had not been many months engaged in his
laborious work when he was solicited to remove to the parish of
Skirling, near Biggar. It was an offer that presented great advantages
above his own field of labor as to worldly gain, and in respect of the
prospect it held out of comparative ease and comfort; for the parish
was small and the emolument great. But as it is required of a bishop,
that he be "not greedy of filthy lucre," nay, that he be "one who has
no love of money" ([Greek: aphilarguros] 1 Tim. 3:3) at all, so was it
true that in him these qualifications eminently shone. His remarks in
a letter to his father contain the honest expression of his feelings:
"I am set down among nearly 4000 people; 1100 people have taken seats
in my church. I bring my message, such as it is, within the reach of
that great company every Sabbath-day. I dare not leave 3000 or 4000,
for 300 people. Had this been offered me before, I would have seen it
a direct intimation from God, and would heartily have embraced it. How
I should have delighted to feed so precious a little flock, - to watch
over every family, - to know every heart, - 'to allure to brighter
worlds and lead the way!' But God has not so ordered it. He has set me
down among the noisy mechanics and political weavers of this godless
town. He will make the money sufficient. He that paid his taxes from a
fish's mouth, will supply all my need." He had already expressed the
hope, "Perhaps the Lord will make his wilderness of chimney-tops to be
green and beautiful as the garden of the Lord, a field which the Lord
hath blessed!"

His health was delicate; and the harassing care and endless fatigue
incident to his position, in a town like Dundee, seemed unsuitable to
his spirit. This belief led to another attempt to remove him to a
country sphere. In the summer of this same year (1837) he was strongly
urged to preach as a candidate for the vacant parish of St. Martin's,
near Perth, and assured of the appointment if he would only come
forward. But he declined again: "My Master has placed me here with his
own hand; and I never will, directly or indirectly, seek to be

There were circumstances in this latter case that made the call on him
appear urgent in several points of view. In coming to a resolution, he
mentions one interesting element in the decision, in a letter to me,
dated August 8th. "I was much troubled about being asked to go to a
neighboring parish at present vacant, and made it a matter of prayer;
and I mention it now because of the wonderful answer to prayer which I
think I received from God. I prayed that in order to settle my own
mind completely about staying, He would awaken some of my people. I
agreed that that should be a sign He would wish me to stay. The next
morning I think, or at least the second morning, there came to me two
young persons I had never seen before, in great distress. What brought
this to my mind was, that they came to me yesterday, and their
distress is greatly increased. Indeed I never saw any people in such
anguish about their soul. I cannot but regard this as a real answer to
prayer. I have also several other persons in deep distress, and I feel
that I am quite helpless in comforting them. I would fain be like
Noah, who put out his hand and took in the weary dove; but God makes
me stand by and feel that I am a child. Will God never cast the scenes
of our labor near each other? We are in his hand; let Him do as
seemeth Him good. Pray for me, for my people, for my own soul, that I
be not a cast away."

Few godly pastors can be willing to change the scene of their labors,
unless it be plain that the Cloudy Pillar is pointing them away. It is
perilous for men to choose for themselves; and too often has it
happened that the minister who, on slight grounds, moved away from his
former watch-tower, has had reason to mourn over the disappointment of
his hopes in his larger and wider sphere. But while this is admitted,
probably it may appear unwarrantable in Mr. M'Cheyne to have prayed
for a sign of the Lord's will. It is to be observed, however, that he
decided the point of duty on other grounds; and it was only with the
view of obtaining an additional confirmation by the occurrences of
providence, that he prayed in this manner, in submission to the will
of the Lord. He never held it right to decide the path of duty by any
such signs or tokens; he believed that the written word supplied
sufficient data for guiding the believing soul; and such providential
occurrences as happened in this case he regarded as important only as
far as they might be answers to prayer. Indeed, he himself has left us
a glance of his views on this point in a fragment, which (for it is
not dated) may have been written about this time. He had been thinking
on _Gideon's Fleece_.

When God called Gideon forth to fight -
"Go, save thou Israel in thy might," -
The faithful warrior sought a sign
That God would on his labors shine.
The man who, at thy dread command,
Lifted the shield and deadly brand.
To do thy strange and fearful work -
Thy work of blood and vengeance, Lord! -
Might need assurance doubly tried,
To prove Thou wouldst his steps betide.
But when the message which we bring
Is one to make the dumb man sing;
To bid the blind man wash and see,
The lame to leap with ecstasy;
To raise the soul that's bowed down,
To wipe away the tears and frown
To sprinkle all the heart within
From the accusing voice of sin -
Then, such a sign my call to prove,
To preach my Saviour's dying love,
I cannot, dare not, hope to find.

In the close of the same year 1837, he agreed to become Secretary to
the Association for Church Extension in the country of Forfar. The
Church Extension Scheme, though much misrepresented and much
misunderstood, had in view as its genuine, sincere endeavor, to bring
to overgrown parishes the advantage of a faithful minister, placed
over such a number of souls as he could really visit. Mr. M'Cheyne
cheerfully and diligently forwarded these objects to the utmost of his
power. "It is the cause of God," said he, "and therefore I am willing
to spend and be spent for it." It compelled him to ride much from
place to place; but riding was an exercise of which he was fond, and
which was favorable to his health. As a specimen - "_Dec. 4, 1838._
Travelled to Montrose. Spoke along with Mr. Guthrie at a Church
Extension meeting; eight or nine hundred present. Tried to do
something in the Saviour's cause, both directly and indirectly. Next
day at Forfar. Spoke in the same cause."

How heartily he entered into this scheme may be seen from the
following extract. In a letter of an after date to Mr. Roxburgh, he
says: "Every day I live, I feel more and more persuaded that it is the
cause of God and of his kingdom in Scotland in our day. Many a time,
when I thought myself a dying man, the souls of the perishing
thousands in my own parish, who never enter any house of God, have
lain heavy on my heart. Many a time have I prayed that the eyes of our
enemies might be opened, and that God would open the hearts of our
rulers, to feel that their highest duty and greatest glory is to
support the ministers of Christ, and to send these to every perishing
soul in Scotland." He felt that their misery was all the greater, and
their need the deeper, that such neglected souls had no wish for help,
and would never ask for it themselves. Nor was it that he imagined
that, if churches were built and ministers endowed, this would of
itself be sufficient to reclaim the multitudes of perishing men. But
he sought and expected that the Lord would send faithful men into his
vineyard. These new churches were to be like cisterns - ready to catch
the shower when it should fall, just as his own did in the day of the
Lord's power.

His views on this subject were summed up in the following lines,
written one day as he sat in company with some of his zealous brethren
who were deeply engaged in the scheme:

Give me a man of God the truth to preach,
A house of prayer within convenient reach,
Seat-rents the poorest of the poor can pay,
A spot so small one pastor can survey:
Give these - and give the Spirit's genial shower,
Scotland shall be a garden all in flower!

Another public duty to which, during all the years of his ministry, he
gave constant attention, was attendance at the meetings of presbytery.

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Online LibraryAndrew A. BonarThe Biography of Robert Murray M'Cheyne → online text (page 7 of 17)