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.
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.
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.