Andrew Bonar sat at his desk late in the afternoon of March 25, 1843. He scribbled out the final edits on his Lord’s Day sermon for the following morning. Then, at 5:00, Bonar received some shocking news: his beloved friend Robert Murray M’Cheyne had died from typhus fever, only weeks shy of his thirtieth birthday.
Bonar did not know M’Cheyne had been sick. Days before, a letter was sent to Bonar’s residence informing him of Robert’s illness, but the document was misaddressed. Thus, Bonar recorded on that somber Saturday, “A message has just come to tell me of Robert M’Cheyne’s death. 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.”1
Bonar raced down to Dundee, where M’Cheyne had a famous ministry at St. Peter’s. He discovered a church almost convulsing in grief. Hundreds of congregants filled the lower gallery. Weeping and crying were heard in the street. “Such a scene of sorrow has not often been witnessed in Scotland,” Bonar reported.2 One local paper, The Witness, soon devoted numerous articles to M’Cheyne in three different editions. “His precious life was short,” one column recalled, “but he was an aged saint in Christian experience. . . . Into those few years there was compressed a life-time of ministerial usefulness.”3
For almost two centuries now, M’Cheyne’s “ministerial usefulness” has fascinated countless Christians. How is it that a young man, who served in gospel ministry for only seven years, has so captured hearts and instructed minds? How do people even come to know about M’Cheyne?
The answer is found in a book: The Memoir and Remains of Robert Murray M’Cheyne by Andrew Bonar.
Within weeks of M’Cheyne’s death, family and friends discussed the possibility of someone writing his biography. Bonar was the first nominee and most logical choice. Bonar had long possessed a literary gift, and no one had been closer to M’Cheyne since their days as students at the Divinity Hall in Edinburgh. Bonar agreed to take on the task.
Bonar began his work in September of 1843 and completed the first edition three months later. “Finished my Memoir of Robert M’Cheyne yesterday morning,” Bonar journaled on December 23, 1843. “Praise, praise to the Lord. I have been praying, ‘Guide me with Thine eye.’ I may soon be gone; but I am glad that the Lord has permitted me to finish this record of His beloved servant.”4
The Memoir was published in the spring of 1844. “The M’Cheyne Circle” of pastors, a collection of evangelical titans in the just-formed Free Church of Scotland, prayed fervently for the book. Before the book’s publication, Bonar and his friends committed to “a season of special prayer and fast to ask blessing on the Memoir, and the raising up of many holy men.”5
The Lord answered their prayers.
Popularity and Power
The Memoir was published in 1844 to near-universal acclaim. It “commanded a sale almost unprecedented in the annals of religious biography,” one newspaper stated.6 Within 25 years, the Memoir went through 116 English editions, and close to 500,000 copies were printed through the early 1900s. The book remains in print today and has been translated into multiple languages.
Bonar’s diary often remarks on correspondence received from readers of the Memoir. “Many tokens have I received of the Lord’s blessing that book,” he rejoiced.7 Bonar’s children later recalled how an unconverted curate in the Church of England received the book from his brother. The curate decided to read some of M’Cheyne’s sermons to his congregation on the Lord’s Day. He was amazed to discover his church asking questions about Christ and eternity that “they had never spoken of before.”8 God used the Memoir to convert sinners, comfort saints, and commission servants of Christ.
Charles Spurgeon held the Memoir in the highest regard, commending it to his students at the Pastor’s College as “one of the best and most profitable volumes ever published. Every minister should read it often.”9 More recently, Sinclair Ferguson has referred to the Memoir as “one of my most treasured possessions. . . . It is a book every young Christian man should read — more than once.” Joel Beeke calls it “one of the top ten books in the world.”
Profiting from the Memoir
Late in his life, Bonar traveled to America. He was surprised with the notoriety attached to him as the famed author of M’Cheyne’s life. “Filled with alarm and regret in reviewing the Lord’s mercies to me, in using me to write the Memoir of R. M. M’Cheyne, for which I’m continually received thanks from ministers,” Bonar wrote. “Why was I commissioned to write that book? How poor have been my returns of thankfulness. Oh, when shall I attain to the same holy sweetness and unction, and when shall I reach the deep fellowship with God which he used to manifest?”10
Bonar’s mention of holiness, unction, and communion with God underlines the Memoir’s typical attractions. As the title suggests, The Memoir and Remains of Robert Murray M’Cheyne consists of two parts. The book begins with Bonar’s memoir, a biography of M’Cheyne that stretches to something like 160 pages. The second part, the Remains, fills a few hundred pages with writings from M’Cheyne — sermons, letters, tracts, and hymns. Each page bursts with that grand secret of M’Cheyne’s ministry: love to Christ.
Why, then, should someone today read Bonar’s Memoir and Remains of Robert Murray M’Cheyne? Because the pages unfold and embody the apostolic heartbeat to preach earnestly “for the love of Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:14) and to “count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:8).
Read the Memoir to enter M’Cheyne’s school of piety and ministry. Read to discover what it means that “it is not great talents God blesses so much as great likeness to Jesus.”11 Read to know the power that comes from a life saturated with Scripture, one that not only tries to understand God’s word, but also “to feel it.”12 Read to remember how preaching is indeed “the grand instrument which God has put into our hands, by which sinners are to be saved, and saints fitted for glory.”13 Read to have your soul stirred from M’Cheyne’s experience of revival, that “very glorious and remarkable work of God.”14 Read to hear a thirst for holiness that prayed, “Lord, make me as holy as a pardoned sinner can be made.”15
Finally, understand something vital. M’Cheyne once warned about people paying more attention to preachers than to the Christ they proclaimed. He used the story of Moses and the bronze serpent to illustrate his point (Numbers 21:4–9). “As I have told you before, the only use of the pole was to hold up the brazen serpent. No one thought of looking at the pole. . . . We are to hold up Jesus before you, and before ourselves too: so that we shall disappear, and nothing shall be seen but Christ.”
Read the Memoir rightly, and the real shining light you see is nothing other than the beauty and excellency of Jesus Christ.
Andrew Bonar, Diary and Life (1893; repr., Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2013), 7. ↩
Andrew Bonar, Memoir and Remains of Robert Murray M’Cheyne (1844; repr., Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2009), 165. ↩
Quoted in David Victor Yeaworth, “Robert Murray McCheyne (1813–1843): A Study of an Early Nineteenth-Century Scottish Evangelical,” (Ph.D. diss., University of Edinburgh, 1957), 349. ↩
Bonar, Diary and Letters, 114. ↩
Bonar, Diary and Letters, 116. To the end of his life, Bonar believed it was these prayers that perpetuated the book’s wonderful blessing. ↩
“The ‘Memoir’ of M’Cheyne,’” The Jewish Herald (January 1, 1845), 11. ↩
Bonar, Diary and Letters, 124. ↩
Andrew Bonar, Reminiscences of Andrew A. Bonar, ed. Marjory Bonar (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1895), xviii. ↩
Charles Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students, 70. ↩
Bonar, Reminiscences of Andrew A. Bonar, 13. ↩
Bonar, Memoir and Remains, 243. ↩
Bonar, Memoir and Remains, 48 (emphasis original). ↩
Bonar, Memoir and Remains, 360. ↩
Bonar, Memoir and Remains, 497. ↩
Bonar, Memoir and Remains, 160. ↩