A Disciplined Ministry: Robert Murray M’Cheyne (1813 – 1843)

In Dundee, Scotland, Robert Murray M’Cheyne lay dying of typhus at age 29, his soaring fever resistant to all treatment. But rather than focus on his ailment, he turned to the Lord. He prayed, quoted Scripture, and sang hymns, with his last coherent words coming from William Cowper’s hymn, “Sometimes the light surprises the Christian as he sings.” Then delirium came. Yet even in that state, his speech was rich with gospel content. He alternated between preaching and praying for the congregation he pastored. Finally, he raised his hands as if pronouncing a blessing, sank down, and died.[1] Of course, those last days of dependence on God should come as no surprise, for they flowed from a lifetime of meticulous spiritual discipline.

M’Cheyne was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1813 and showed remarkable intellectual abilities from a young age. Consequently, he enrolled at the University of Edinburgh, where he attained distinction in a host of academic subjects. But life changed dramatically in 1831 when, jarred by his older brother’s death, he was converted to faith in Christ and called to ministry. In preparation, he began a rigorous devotional routine along with studies in theology and church history.[2] He went on to serve as a Church of Scotland minister in two congregations.

Personal spiritual disciplines were always a fixture of his ministry. For example, each morning he rose before sunrise to pray for two hours in preparation for the day’s activities. Often that required sacrificing sleep, as a representative excerpt from his diary indicates: “Awoke early by the kind providence of God, and had uncommon freedom and fervency in keeping the concert for prayer this morning before light.”[3]

His study of the Bible proved similarly rigorous. Immediately upon awaking he sang a Psalm to stir his soul and habitually studied the Old and New Testaments along with writings of divines like Jonathan Edwards and Samuel Rutherford. Once he explained to a friend, “[H]e would be a sorry student of the Bible who would not … examine into the most barren chapters to collect the good for which they were intended.”[4] His plan for reading the Bible in a year remains popular today.

Yet Scripture reading and private prayer were only the beginning of M’Cheyne’s devotional habits. He practiced self-examination and confession with incisive thoroughness. Shortly before his death, for instance, he wrote, “I ought to examine my dreams—my floating thoughts—my predilections—my often recurring actions—my habits of thought, feeling, speech, and action—the slanders of my enemies, and the reproofs, and even banterings, of my friends—to find out traces of my prevailing sin.”[5] On a trip to the Middle East, the discipline of silence offered unique communion with God as he rode across the desert on a camel.[6]

M’Cheyne equally prized corporate disciplines. He viewed Sabbath observance as a joyous privilege—even authoring a tract on the subject—and prayer meetings as a source of divine power. In addition to weekly church prayer gatherings, he set aside entire days to pray and confess sins aloud with fellow ministers.[7]

From the foundation of such discipline, M’Cheyne became a noted preacher. In fact, he drew crowds from miles around and saw hundreds saved under his ministry. This has led Christians ever since to wonder at the cause of his success. Yet there is no need to wonder. His friend and biographer, Andrew Bonar, knew the answer well: “[T]he real secret of his soul’s prosperity lay in the daily enlargement of his heart in fellowship with his God.”[8]

[1] Andrew A. Bonar, Memoir and Remains of Robert Murray M’Cheyne (1844; repr., Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1966), 162-164.

[2] Ibid., 28-29.

[3] Ibid., 124.

[4] Ibid., 35.

[5] Ibid., 151.

[6] Ibid., 91.

[7] Ibid., 71.

[8] Ibid., 54.