A Brief Life Still Burning

The Unlikely Impact of Robert Murray M’Cheyne

On an overcast day in August 2013, I stood in the churchyard of St. Peter’s Free Church in Dundee, Scotland, staring at the gravestone of Robert Murray M’Cheyne. As I did, I felt a surge of emotion that transported me 24 years into the past and 3,700 miles west, back to the moment I first met the godly young man whose remains lay buried beneath my feet.

The moment occurred in a makeshift bookstore when I was 23 years old. The church my wife and I had begun attending had just hosted a pastors’ conference and had kindly left the book tables up to give us regular folk a chance to pick through the literary leftovers.

As I was browsing, I came upon a small greenish book titled Robert Murray M’Cheyne. It was authored by a nineteenth-century Scottish pastor I had never heard of (Andrew Bonar) and recorded the life of another nineteenth-century Scottish pastor I had never heard of. I knew next to nothing about Scottish history, let alone Scottish Christian history, so I don’t remember what moved me to buy that book. But I did.

And I am profoundly grateful that I did. Because the godly young man I came to know in the pages of that book shaped me in ways few others have. I even named our first dog after him.

Death to Remember

Robert Murray M’Cheyne was born on May 21, 1813. But like many who lived before the advancements in medicine we now take for granted, M’Cheyne wasn’t long for this world. He died of typhus on March 25, 1843, before reaching his thirtieth birthday.

The day his frail body was laid to rest in St. Peter’s churchyard — the church he had pastored for a mere six and a half years — seven thousand people showed up to honor his memory, grieve their sense of profound loss, and thank God for the grace they received through him. That alone speaks volumes of the kind of man M’Cheyne was.

It is remarkable how God so often uses a death to stop his people in their tracks and force them to think seriously about what life and death truly mean. In fact, that’s precisely what he did with M’Cheyne twelve years earlier.

Life-Changing Death

At age eighteen, M’Cheyne was a bright honor student of classic literature at the University of Edinburgh who fully enjoyed the partying scene of his day. Having been raised attending church, M’Cheyne considered himself a Christian, but he was a Christian of the nineteenth-century Scottish “Bible Belt” variety. He professed faith in Christ, but his heart really loved the worldly delights of his intellectual pursuits and active social life. That is, until he was throttled by a death.

In the summer of 1831, his beloved older brother David succumbed to a deep depression that quickly wore him down in body and soul. His body didn’t survive the ordeal, but by God’s grace, his soul did. In the days before his death, David found profound peace in Jesus’s atoning death for him. His face seemed to shine with an inner radiance.

Robert was gripped both by the grief of his devastating loss and by his brother’s spiritual transformation. And God used this terrible event to bring about Robert’s own spiritual transformation.

In the fall after David’s death, Robert enrolled in the University of Edinburgh’s Divinity Hall, where, over the course of several months, he too was born again to a living hope. There he studied under, among others, the great evangelical pastor-scholar Thomas Chalmers, and he forged deep, lasting friendships with other godly young men — Andrew Bonar being perhaps his closest.

Over the next few years, Robert experienced a profound growth in grace, developing a burning passion for the Scriptures, personal holiness, and evangelism that would characterize him for the rest of his brief life. But as true as that description is, it doesn’t explain why less than twelve years later, seven thousand showed up to his funeral, and why I’m still talking about him 34 years after reading his brief memoir a century and a half after his death.

He Had Been with Jesus

The truth is, it’s impossible for me to capture the power of M’Cheyne’s life in a brief bio sketch and a few quotes, though he said and wrote some beautiful and memorable lines. You may have heard a few of them quoted, such as this well-known excerpt gleaned from one of his personal letters:

Learn much of the Lord Jesus. For every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ. He is altogether lovely. Such infinite majesty, and yet such meekness and grace, and all for sinners, even the chief! Live much in the smiles of God. Bask in his beams. (Memoir and Remains of Robert Murray M’Cheyne, 293)

While words like these give us a small glimpse into his great soul, the real power of this quote comes from knowing the soul from which it came, as evidenced in how he really lived. M’Cheyne’s enduring impact on me wasn’t so much what he said, but who he was: a truly holy man.

If such a description sounds more off-putting than attractive, it may be because we have the wrong connotations associated with holiness, such as sanctimonious, “holier than thou” aloofness — which is not true Christian holiness. For as John Piper says, “Human holiness is nothing other than a God-besotted life.”

That’s what M’Cheyne was: a God-besotted man, a God-enthralled man. What I found so captivating about him was how captivated he was by Jesus. He was on fire, but not with mere zeal. His heart burned with holy divine love, the kind that is ignited only when one is truly near the holy Fire that burns but doesn’t consume.

We can debate for decades over apologetic arguments and textual criticism. We can doubt and wrestle with endless questions. But we can often discern in minutes when we encounter someone who has encountered the Real Thing.

That’s what makes M’Cheyne so compelling. He was a man who had encountered the Light of the World, and he radiated that Light of Life to everyone around him, from the educated and erudite to those in the slums of Edinburgh to the working-class residents of Dundee, where he so briefly pastored. He was “a burning and shining lamp,” and his people had “[rejoiced] for a while in his light” (John 5:35) because they recognized that this young man “had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13).

Life to Remember

That’s why thousands were drawn to St. Peter’s churchyard in March of 1843 and why I was drawn there 170 years later: this young man’s life is worth remembering.

For those who knew him, their gratitude was laced with deep grief because to lose a burning and shining lamp in a dark world is a great loss. His dear friend Andrew Bonar captured what many were feeling that day when he said, “Never, never yet in all my life have I felt anything like this: It is a blow to myself, to his people, to the church of Christ in Scotland.” And yet to have glimpsed the Light in the lamp — the Light we long most to see — is a great, gracious gain.

And thanks to that same dear friend’s labor of love in publishing M’Cheyne’s memoir and the few literary remains he left behind, untold thousands in the generations since have been able to experience this great, gracious gain. What a gift it has been! Of the book, the great Charles Spurgeon said,

This is one of the best and most profitable volumes ever published. The memoir of such a man ought surely to be in the hands of every Christian and certainly every preacher of the Gospel. (Bonar, Robert Murray M’Cheyne)

I am no Spurgeon, but I can tell you that the young man I met in the small greenish book 34 years ago is worth knowing — and remembering. I don’t know if you’ll end up naming your dog after him, but I expect you will join me thanking God for the day you opened the book and glimpsed the burning and shining Light that filled Robert Murray M’Cheyne.