The exact book that FWB refers to in this article is in the F W Boreham Heritage Section in the Whitley College library. Look out for it and other Boreham memorabilia if you are going to Melbourne, Australia.
There’s a wealth of insight in this wonderful paragraph that I have extracted from the following article:
“I believe in the immortality of the soul! How can I doubt it when, in books like this, I actually hold palpitating fellowship with the man whose body was committed to the grave a hundred years ago? To read the Life of Francis Xavier is to be infected by his missionary passion; to read the Journal of Mr. Wesley is to be caught in the hot flame of his evangelistic fervor: whilst to read the Memoir of Robert Murray McCheyne is to share the heavenly glow of his radiant and beautiful soul.”
As I approach my task this morning I find, on the left-hand side of my desk, a well-worn book that I greatly prize, and, on the right-hand side, a pair of photographs of almost equal value. The book is the Memoir of the Rev. Robert Murray McCheyne, by his intimate friend, Dr. Andrew Bonar. I bought it and read it in the early days of my Mosgiel ministry: I have read it many times since; and, in view of the fact that the world is just now celebrating the centenary of McCheyne, I have read it yet once more during the past few days. There are very few books that will bear frequent perusal; but, in this case, each re-reading has proved more stimulating and more profitable than any of its predecessors.
The greatest tribute ever paid to the book is recorded by Dr. James Stalker. Dr. Stalker says that he was once chatting with a survivor of that select group of Scottish ministers to which McCheyne belonged. They were discussing the circumstance that McCheyne died at twenty-nine. `Ah!' exclaimed Dr. Stalker's companion, who had known both McCheyne and Bonar, `but it was far better for McCheyne to die young, and to be embalmed in the glowing pages of Bonar's biography, than to have lived out the full span of human existence and to have missed that privilege!' So much for the book on my left: now for the photographs!
Many years ago, after preaching at Aberdeen overnight, I left in the morning for Dundee. We arrived at midday. As the train drew into the station, two or three gentlemen stepped forward to welcome us.
`You are to preach this afternoon,' they explained, `and again this evening, with a tea and a reception in between; and then your train for the South leaves early tomorrow morning; so that, if there's anything in Dundee that YOU particularly wish to see, your only chance is to go straight away!'
'My dear sir,' I replied, `I would far rather go without my meals whilst I'm here than miss the chance of visiting St. Peter's! I want to see Mr. McCheyne's church and his vestry and his pulpit and his tomb and anything that still exists that is in any way related to him!'
'Good!' my new friends replied; `then we'll go now!' And off we went. I have paid many such pilgrimages in my time, but I have seldom been as deeply moved as by that one. Next morning, one of the gentlemen who had met us at the station, and accompanied us to St. Peter's, again rushed on to the railway platform just as our train was leaving.
`Seeing your interest in Mr. McCheyne and St. Peter's,' he explained, `I tried yesterday afternoon to get you some picture postcards: but I could not satisfy myself; so I had these photographs taken. It has been a little difficult to get them finished in time; but here they are!' And he very kindly presented me with these portraits of the church and the tomb that lie at this moment on my desk.
I believe in the immortality of the soul! How can I doubt it when, in books like this, I actually hold palpitating fellowship with the man whose body was committed to the grave a hundred years ago? To read the Life of Francis Xavier is to be infected by his missionary passion; to read the Journal of Mr. Wesley is to be caught in the hot flame of his evangelistic fervor: whilst to read the Memoir of Robert Murray McCheyne is to share the heavenly glow of his radiant and beautiful soul.
His personality is a gem of many glittering facets. Notwithstanding a certain physical frailty, he was an athlete: his death was hastened by the snapping of his vaulting-pole in a jumping contest. He was a scholar, qualified to speak with authority on matters of geology and natural history; his Hebrew served him in good stead when conversing with learned European Jews; he appreciated the finer points of Greek translation; and, when he wished to secure the entries in his diary from curious eyes, he dropped into Latin and made his notes in that ancient tongue with perfect facility and ease.
He was a musician, too, skilled in the use of several instruments and possessing, withal, a rich and pleasing singing voice. As a poet, he poured his choicest inspirations and most poignant emotions into tuneful stanzas, some of which, like When this passing world is done, have found a permanent place in the hymnals of all the Churches. He was an artist, clever at sketching every interesting object or picturesque scene that enchanted his wide-open eyes. A preacher of' culture, persuasiveness and passion, he was the valued companion of men like Thomas Guthrie, James Hamilton, Alexander Somerville, Robert Macdonald, Moody Stuart, and Andrew and Horatius Bonar.
And, although he himself never for a moment suspected it, he was, in the best sense of the word, a saint. One historian has said that it is the unique distinction of Robert Murray McCheyne that he has been canonized, not by any papal mandate or ecclesiastical court, but by popular acclaim. Those who were privileged to luxuriate in his perfect friendship, and those of a later generation who have breathed the fragrance of his life in the pages of his biography, have alike felt the magnetism and charm of his sheer, downright goodness. `If ever there was a saint,' you say to yourself, 'Murray McCheyne was one!' Yet he wist not that the skin of his face did shine.
How it all began, nobody knows. McCheyne himself did not know. He could never fix any particular date as the date of his conversion or recall the exact circumstances that precipitated the spiritual crisis. When Robert was eighteen, his brother David, eight years older than himself, suddenly died. David was Robert's hero, his beau-ideal of perfect manhood. The melancholy event left an indelible impression on the delicate mind of the susceptible youth. It took place on July 8, 1831, and, to the end of his life, Robert kept that day as sacred. Each year, in his journal, he refers to it in terms of fond recollection and renewed consecration. In 1842, for example, he remarks that `this day, eleven years ago, I lost my holy and loving brother and began to seek the Saviour'.
Shortly after his brother's death, I find him debating with himself as to whether or not he should take the Communion. In terms as terrible as any used by Bunyan or Newton, he describes the hideous depravity of his own heart. He decides at length to approach the sacred table, not in spite of his sins, but because of them. It is his sins that drive him to the Saviour whose body was broken and whose blood was shed for the likes of him. `Much peace!' he records, on the evening of that Communion feast; and, a few days later, he is wondering if it will be possible for him to go as a missionary to India or some other land.
It was shortly after this, and as a record of this, that he wrote his first hymn—Jehovah Tsidkenu, the Lord our Righteousness:
I once was a stranger to grace and to God;
I knew not my danger and felt not my load;
Though friends spoke in rapture of Christ on the tree,
'Jehovah Tsidkenu' was nothing to me.
When free grace awoke me by light from on high,
Then legal fears shook me, I trembled to die;
No refuge, no safety, in self could I see;
'Jehovah Tsidkenu' my Saviour must be.
My terrors all vanished before the sweet name;
My guilty fears banished, with boldness I came
To drink at the fountain, life-giving and free;
`Jehovah Tsidkenu' is all things to me.
His dream of becoming a foreign missionary haunted him to the end; though, in his heart of hearts, he knew perfectly well that the hardships of such a life, and the ravages of a tropical climate, would overtax his slender powers of physical endurance. In this dilemma, he consulted Dr. Chalmers, who had just created a profound sensation by relinquishing his glorious public ministry in order, within the cloistral seclusion of a university, to fire the imagination of divinity students with the vision of the world's tremendous need. Chalmers advised him, whilst yet a student, to seek missionary experience among the slums of Edinburgh. He adopted the suggestion with characteristic rest; visited among the poorest of the poor; and, to his dying day, kept in touch with some of the unpromising characters with whom he was then brought into contact.
After a short but memorable period of service as assistant to Rev. John Bonar, in the parish of Larbert and Dunipace, near Stirling, he was called, at the age of twenty-three, to St. Peter's, Dundee, and commenced that brief but famous ministry which, in a land of noble ministries, is still regarded as a model and an inspiration.
Strangely enough, the outstanding event of Mr. McCheyne's historic ministry at Dundee was his long absence from his charge in 1839. From 1836 until 1839 he had laboured among his people at St. Peter's with exemplary fidelity, with intense devotion, but with no sensational success. He drew congregations of about a thousand people: he visited his parishioners with the utmost diligence and solicitude: he laid great stress on meetings for prayer and on systematic Bible study; and, however busy or however tired, he was always available to anybody seeking guidance or comfort or help. He was exceedingly happy in his work: he made everybody very fond of him: he was encouraged by a fair number of conversions: the Communion seasons at St. Peter's were times of wonderful grace and refreshment: and many larger and wealthier churches tried in vain to allure the young minister to other fields. But that was as far as it went.
In 1839, however, McCheyne being then twenty-six and in the third year of his ministry at Dundee, his health began to cause his friends much anxiety. Chancing to meet Dr. Candlish one day in Princes Street, Edinburgh, the doctor was shocked at the young minister's emaciated appearance. A sudden idea flashed into his mind. The Church had recently resolved to send a Commission, consisting of a little band of carefully-selected ministers, to the Jews in Palestine and Eastern Europe. Mr. McCheyne would be the very man! He possessed all the essential qualities of heart and mind; and the voyage might re-establish his health into the bargain!
He went, and revelled in the experience. It gave him at least a taste of that foreign missionary adventure for which he had always hungered. Luxuriating in his contact with the Jewish people in many lands, he earnestly sought to learn all that they had to teach and to impart all that he could persuade them to receive. Competent authorities have declared that the printed report of the Commission is one of the best books on the Holy Land ever written, because, together with its vivid descriptions of the country illustrated by McCheyne's own sketches, it is saturated in the spirit of the sublime happenings that lend a sacred lustre to every landscape.
The Mission stimulated or inspired much of the evangelistic work that has subsequently been undertaken among the Jews. Incidentally, it was the means of the conversion of Dr. Adolph Saphir and Dr. Alfred Edersheim. And, according to Dr. Stalker, it fastened upon the Scottish mind an entirely new conception of the Hebrew people, `For whereas', he says, `the Jew is regarded in all other countries as a Shylock, oppressed and oppressing, hateful and hating, the Jew of the Scottish imagination is an ideal being, surrounded with affection and reverence, a child of that race to which pertain the adoption and the glory and the covenants.'
But what of St. Peter's during this long absence? St. Peter's was on fire! A revival had broken out there which moved the whole of Scotland. Mr. McCheyne had entrusted his pulpit to the Rev. W. C. Burns, afterwards the apostle to the Chinese people. Even then, as a very young man, he was consumed by a passionate longing for the salvation of his fellow men. Almost as soon as Mr. McCheyne's back was turned, the wonderful work began. On weekdays and on Sundays, people of all ages and of all classes, some from the immediate vicinity and some from the surrounding countryside, flocked to the church; and hundreds of men and women, under deep emotion, sought and found the Saviour. Every sermon was punctuated by the groans and sobs and tears of the crowded congregations.
Mr. McCheyne heard of all this with profound gratitude and yearned to be back in Dundee to share the joy of the abundant harvest. And his people longed to have him back. He arrived on a Thursday; went down to St. Peter's in the evening to meet anybody who might be there; and, to his astonishment, found that so many people had come to the church on the chance of seeing him that the building was crowded to its utmost capacity. Aisles and stairways were packed. Mr. McCheyne, went to the pulpit and poured out his heart, not concerning his travels, but concerning the work of God among his people at Dundee. For more than an hour he preached Christ with all his old intensity and charm. It was a night that the people never forgot. After the, meeting was over, he could scarcely force his way through the throng that pressed upon him to welcome him home and tell of their delight.
The revival continued during the three years that remained to him. The novelty wore off and the excitement subsided; but the reaping continued and a steady stream of penitents passed through Mr. McCheyne's vestry. Then, early in 1843, typhus broke out in Dundee. The young minister’s entire time and strength were devoted to visiting the dying and burying the dead. The inevitable happened. He himself contracted the dread scourge, and, after a brief struggle, passed triumphantly away. When his friend, Andrew Bonar, heard the news a few hours later, he hurried across to St. Peter's. Slipping into the church, he found hundreds of people there, weeping as though their hearts would break; and, early in the following week, the entire city gave itself up to lamentation on the occasion of his burial. A massive monument marks the tomb, which is much visited by tourists, whilst the sweetness and chivalry of his character have woven themselves into the most cherished traditions of the North.
It would be pleasant, if space permitted, to say a few words concerning Mr. McCheyne's part in the Disruption. He died a few weeks before that memorable event took place. Yet, in a sense, he was one of the leaders and walked out side by side with Chalmers. He had no taste for controversy; yet, when a matter of public debate stilted his conscience, he did not hesitate to speak his mind, quietly, persuasively, and convincingly. The very fact that Mr. McCheyne was in sympathy with Chalmers drew to the cause all those who had felt the gracious influence of the revival. It secured the allegiance of thousands of the most devout, the most godly, and the most spiritually-minded folk in Scotland; and it imparted to the Disruption movement an indefinable aroma that sweetened the atmosphere and reduced to a minimum the bitterness of the fray.
What was his secret? It was simply this: he walked with God. He knew from the first that his course would be a brief one. His earliest letters bear the seal The Night Cometh. He felt that, in order to make the most of his meagre span of years, he must dwell in the secret place and abide under the shadow. God was always closer to him than breathing, nearer than hands or feet. I find him, in the course of his Jewish mission in a crowded foreign city. `How real God is!' he says to himself. 'He is the only person I can talk to!' On the very next page, I find him, by way of contrast, in the solitudes of the desert, not a soul in sight. `How near God seems!' he remarks. He used to say that, even in days of sickness and depression, he could never really doubt, for God had given him such overwhelming manifestations of His presence when in the pulpit that he could live on the memory of those rapturous experiences in drearier and darker days.
His life was hid with Christ in God. It was in rapt communion with the unseen that he became infected by his Master's insatiable hunger for the souls of men. He wept over Dundee as Jesus wept over Jerusalem. A few years after his death, a young English minister visited St. Peter's to discover, as he explained, the secret of Mr. McCheyne's amazing influence. The sexton, who had served under Mr. McCheyne, took the youthful inquirer into the vestry, and pointed to some of McCheyne's books still lying on the table.
`Sit down here,' said the canny old sexton, leading his visitor to the chair in which McCheyne used to sit.
`Now put your elbows on the table!' The visitor obeyed. `Now put your face in your hands!' The visitor did so.
`Now let the tears flow! That was the way Mr. McCheyne used to do!'
The sexton led his guest to the pulpit; and gave him a fresh series of instructions.
`Put your elbows down into the pulpit!' He put his elbows down.
`Now put your face in your hands!' He did so.
'Now let the tears flow! That was the way Mr. McCheyne used to do!'
Yes, that was the way; and it is not an easy way. It is an art that can only be acquired at the feet of the Divine Master from whom Mr. McCheyne learned it.
All his converts agree that it was not so much what he said as the spirit in which he said it, that lured them into the kingdom. In his biography of Mr. McCheyne, Dr. Andrew Bonar tells how Mrs. Bonar, before her marriage, was affected by Mr. McCheyne's presence. It was at a meeting at St. Andrew's Church, Edinburgh, a few months before Mr. McCheyne's death. `It was neither his matter nor his manner that struck me,' she says, `it was the impression of his likeness to Christ—a picture so lovely that I felt that I would have given all the world to be as he was!' One of Dr. Bonar's own parishioners was talking to him about Mr. McCheyne. `Before he so much as opened his lips', this man said, `there was something about him that sorely affected me.' And Dr. Bonar tells of many of Mr. McCheyne's converts who testified that it was not his words that broke them down; but the fact that he appeared to them to be standing in the immediate presence of the Most High, whilst, when he prayed, he seemed to be looking into the very eyes of God and talking with Him face to face.
`When he spoke of my being alienated from God by my sins,' one woman declared, `it seemed so terrible that I felt that hell itself would be some relief from the horror of it!'
`When, in his prayer, I heard him say, “O Lord, Thou knowest that we love Thee!" I felt that I would gladly give all that I ever hoped to possess to be able to say that to the Saviour!' another woman exclaimed.
Thus, literally, he was a living epistle. As people interpret, in a letter, the mind of the writer, so people read in him the very mind of Christ. And, as a letter need not be a long letter in order to be a love-letter, so, within the compass of his brief span of existence, he communicated to the hearts of all whom he met the sense of his Lord's everlasting love and pity and grace. It was said of Keats that he `ensphered himself in thirty perfect years and died, not young'. The lovely tribute is even more fitting in the case of Robert Murray McCheyne.
F W Boreham, ‘The Secret of Murray McCheyne,’ A Late Lark Singing (London: The Epworth Press, 1945), 58-67.
Image: Robert Murray McCheyne.