Jul 5, 2023

Who Was Robert Murray M’Cheyne?

4 Min Read

Robert Murray M’Cheyne is a name that many know today. His name is synonymous in many circles with love for Christ, personal holiness, regular Bible reading, fervent prayer, and near-constant evangelism. But who is the man behind the legend? To know M’Cheyne’s life story, you need to know him as a son, a student, and a servant.

M’Cheyne the Son

Robert M’Cheyne was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on May 21, 1813, to Adam and Lockhart M’Cheyne. He was the youngest of five children. Achievement and athletics filled his early life. Of the former, Robert memorized the Greek alphabet as an amusement while sick as a four-year-old, signaling the numerous academic awards he eventually received. Of the latter, M’Cheyne was an eager gymnast.

The M’Cheyne household was a devoted church family. Robert attended the Lord’s Day sermons and was known to recite the Westminster Shorter Catechism. But Robert later reflected that he “lived in heart a Pharisee”1 throughout his childhood.

The light of Christ shone into Robert’s darkness during a summer of suffering. Always close with his siblings, Robert’s world was turned upside down in 1831 when his brother, William, went to India under the Bengal Medical Service. The anxiety Robert felt at the temporary removal of William was soon swallowed by the permanent removal of the oldest M’Cheyne child, David, who died on July 8, 1831, from a severe fever. Robert was particularly close with David. The elder brother was a devout Christian, sensible to eternal realities. He often pleaded with his younger brother to turn to Jesus Christ, but Robert admitted, “I thought myself far wiser than he, and would always take my own way.”2

David’s death struck a blow to Robert’s heart. It woke him to his need for grace and eternal life in Christ. Robert wrote on the anniversary of David’s death, “This day eleven years ago, I lost my loved and loving brother, and began to seek a Brother who cannot die.”3 The born-again son soon entered a new phase: life as a student at the Divinity Hall.

M’Cheyne the Student

M’Cheyne felt called to pursue the gospel ministry almost immediately after his conversion. In November of 1831, he began at the Divinity Hall at Edinburgh University when the student body throbbed with vitality. Much of the excitement belonged to Thomas Chalmers’ presence as instructor of theology. His brilliance was spellbinding, and many consider him Scotland’s greatest nineteenth-century mind.

Chalmers took Robert under his wing, stamping various ministerial convictions upon the student’s heart. While at the Divinity Hall, M’Cheyne learned earnest evangelism, intense prayer, and the need for personal holiness. He poured his soul into his journal, panting things like, “Oh, for true, unfeigned humility.”4 On another occasion, he scribbled, “Oh that Christ would count me faithful, that a dispensation of the gospel might be committed to me!”5

Almost two centuries since his death, Robert M’Cheyne’s legacy keeps attracting interest. It does so primarily because of M’Cheyne’s unceasing devotion to Christ.

Such a dispensation came in November of 1835 as he was named assistant to John Bonar, minister of the united parish of Larbert and Dunipace. Thus began the final season of M’Cheyne’s life, a time of service to the Lord.

M’Cheyne the Servant

Not long into his assistantship, M’Cheyne was called to become the first pastor of St. Peter’s in Dundee, being installed on November 24, 1836. Excited congregants packed the gallery of eleven hundred seats from the start. M’Cheyne instituted many initiatives: a Thursday night prayer meeting that swelled to eight hundred attendees, a Sabbath school for young children, and a Tuesday evening Bible study for older children that attracted 250 students.

Sickness plagued M’Cheyne during these years, as it had often done throughout his life. During one bout with illness in late 1838, a ministerial friend suggested that Robert join a small team the Church of Scotland was sending to Palestine to investigate missionary opportunities for reaching the Jews. The friend thought the change in climate would aid Robert’s recovery. And so it was that M’Cheyne joined the renowned “Mission of Inquiry,” a journey to Jerusalem and back that captivated Scotland. He returned in November of 1839, eight months after leaving, and discovered St. Peter’s was under the Spirit’s captivating power: revival had come to Dundee.

A fiery and full preacher, William Chalmers Burns filled the pulpit in M’Cheyne’s absence. In August of 1839, revival came after Burns led the Thursday prayer meeting. The whole city soon seemed alive to Christ. The “Dundee Revival” was celebrated throughout the land.

M’Cheyne’s ministry expanded through the early spring of 1843 as he went on itinerant preaching tours, led church planting efforts, and organized congregations fighting against government intrusion. Yet, the Lord took Robert home just as his ministry was rising toward an inevitable crest. On March 25, 1843, weeks shy of his thirtieth birthday, Robert died of typhus fever, an illness he had contracted while visiting parishioners.

A Life Worth Noticing

Almost two centuries since his death, Robert M’Cheyne’s legacy keeps attracting interest. It does so primarily because of M’Cheyne’s unceasing devotion to Christ—a devotion that is seen in his Bible reading plan, declared in his sermons, and shines in his life of holiness. He was living proof of one of his most beloved maxims: “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.”6

This article is part of the Missionary Biographies collection.

  1. Robert Murray M’Cheyne, Memoir and Remains of the Rev. Robert Murray M’Cheyne, ed. Andrew A. Bonar (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1844/1966).
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid., 282.