1Among Christian men a ‘living epistle’ is rare, as is an able evangelist among Christian ministers. M‘Cheyne was both; and for the benefit of our readers, and to the praise of that grace which made him to differ, we would record a few particulars about one of whom we feel it no presumption to say that he was a ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’.
God had given him a light and nimble form, which inclined him, in boyish days, for feats of agility and enabled him in more important years to go through much fatigue till his heart was weakened by overwork or disease. God had also given him a mind which was active, full of enterprise, untiring and ingenious. He had a kind and quiet eye and a pensive spirit which loved to muse on what he saw. He had a lively imagination, which scattered beauties of its own on what was already fair, and a way with words which expressed all his feelings exactly as he felt them, and gave simplicity and grace to the most common things he uttered. Besides, he had a delicate sensitivity, a particularly tender manner and an eminently affectionate heart. These are some of the gifts he received at first from God and which would have made him an interesting character though the grace of God had never given more.
He was born in Edinburgh 29 years ago, and received his education at its High School and its University. When the most important of all changes passed upon him, we do not know; but the change itself is described in some stanzas on ‘Jehovah Tsidkenu’, which strikingly describe the difference between the emotions originating in a fine taste or tender feeling and those which spring from precious faith. His own susceptible mind experienced both of these.
He was only 21 when he became a preacher of the gospel. His first field of labour was Larbert, near Falkirk, where he was assistant minister for about a year. That was the halcyon day of the Church of Scotland, before the civil power laid its arrest on the energies of the Church and the hopes of the people.2 In every populous or neglected district, new places of worship were springing up with a rapidity which made grey-haired fathers weep for joy, thinking the glory of our second temple would surpass the glory of the first, and which promised in another generation to make Scotland a delightsome land again. Among the rest, a new church was built on the west side of Dundee. The church was no sooner opened than it was filled; and in selecting a minister, M‘Cheyne was the choice of a unanimous congregation.
He began his labours in St Peter’s on 27 November 1836; as an earnest of coming usefulness, his first sermon was blessed to the salvation of some souls. When he became more closely acquainted with his people, he found a few that feared the Lord and called upon His name, but the great mass of his congregation were mere churchgoers – under a form of godliness exhibiting little evidence of being new creatures in Christ. And he found throughout his parish such an amount of dissipation, irreverence and Sabbath-breaking as told plainly that it was long since Willison3 had ceased from his labours. The state of his people pressed the spirit of this man of God and drove him to exertions which were not too great for the emergency but were far beyond his strength. He knew that nothing short of a living union to Christ could save from eternal death, and he also knew that nothing short of a new character would indicate this new relation.
He was often in an agony till he would see Christ formed in the hearts of his people, and all the fertility of his mind was expended in efforts to present Christ and His righteousness in an aspect likely to arrest or allure them. Like Moses, he spent much time in crying mightily to God on their behalf; and when he came out to meet them, the pathos of Jeremiah and the love of John were struggling in his bosom and flitting over his countenance by turns. Though he had much success, he had not all he wished. Many melted and were frozen up again, and many sat listening to this ambassador of Christ spending his vital energies in beseeching them, as if he were merely an interesting study – a phenomenon of earnestness. The vehemence of his desire and the intensity of his exertions destroyed his strength. It seemed as if the golden bowl were about to break, and after two years’ labour, heart palpitation constrained him to desist.
Each step of a good man is ordered by the Lord. This step – M‘Cheyne’s sickness – led to the visit of a deputation to Palestine and gave a great impulse to that concern for Israel which is now characteristic of Scottish Christianity. The temporary loss of their pastor was the infinite gain of St Peter’s church. When, after 12 months’ separation, M‘Cheyne returned, it was like a husbandman who lay down lamenting that the heavens were brass, and awakened amidst a plenteous rain. During his absence a remarkable outpouring of the Spirit had come down on his parish, and the ministry of his substitute was the means of a remarkable revival. M‘Cheyne came back to find a great concern for salvation pervading his flock, and many whose carelessness had cost him bitter tears were now cleaving to the Lord with full ‘purpose of heart’.
We remember the Thursday evening when he first met his people again: the solemnity of his re-appearance in that pulpit, like one alive from the dead; his touching address, so true, ‘And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech’; and the overwhelming greeting which awaited him in the crowded street when the service was over. Many who had almost hated his ministry before were now pressing near to bless him in the name of the Lord. From that time forward, with such discouragements as the impenitence of the ungodly, the inconsistency of doubtful professing Christians, and the waywardness of real disciples occasionally caused him, his labours were wonderfully lightened. The presence of God was never wholly withdrawn and, besides some joyful communion feasts and several hallowed seasons of special prayer, almost every Sabbath brought its blessing. St Peter’s enjoyed a perennial awakening, a constant revival, and the effect was manifest.
We do not say that the whole congregation or the whole parish shared it. Far from it. But an unusual number adorned the doctrine, and it was interesting on a Sabbath afternoon to see, as you passed along the street, so many of the working people keeping the Sabbath holy, often sitting at the windows of their houses with their Bible or another book, for the full benefit of the fading light. It was pleasant to think how many of these houses contained pious people or praying families. But it was in the church itself that you felt all that was special about the place; after being used to its heart-tuned melodies, its deep devotion and solemn assemblies, and knowing how many souls had there been born again, we own that we never came in sight of St Peter’s spire without feeling that God was there. To this hour memory refuses to let go, wrapped round in heavenly associations, the well-known chime of its gathering bell, the joyful burst of its parting psalm, and, above all, that tender, pensive voice which was to many as though an angel spoke to them.
- Taken, with editing, from Hamilton’s Works, vol 4; see the review on page 91 of this issue. This piece is dated 3 April 1843, shortly after M‘Cheyne’s death. Hamilton was at this point a Church of Scotland minister in London.
- The writer is referring to the period before the Disruption of 1843.
- John Willison was a noted minister, first in Brechin, and from 1718 to 1750 in Dundee.
Taken with permission from the Free Presbyterian Magazine, May 2016.