When revival sweeps through a city, the Holy Spirit sends spiritual shockwaves up the highways and into the byways. Sinners are saved. Saints are sanctified. Eternal realities confront the soul and swallow worldly passions. Preachers lift Christ to unusual heights of glory, and it seems that almost everyone looks on him and finds life.
Such “remarkable times” fascinated Robert Murray M’Cheyne (Manuscripts of Robert Murray M’Cheyne, 3.2.46). The young pastor of St. Peter’s Dundee arrived at his charge in 1836 panting for revival. The Spirit moved effectively, if quietly, for a few years. But in the fall of 1839, awakening erupted in Dundee.
It all happened while M’Cheyne was away — just as he’d predicted.
When God Is a Stranger
In early 1835, St. John’s Parish Church proposed to plant a new congregation in the northwest quarter of the Hawkill in Dundee. The leaders started looking for a holy, active, and efficient preacher. In time, the elders of St. John’s received six names, one of whom was Robert M’Cheyne. After preaching a candidating sermon on Song of Songs 2:8–17, M’Cheyne received a unanimous call.
The first minister in St. Peter’s history arrived with many hopes. One of them related to revival: he was desperate for it. M’Cheyne established a Thursday night prayer meeting that swelled to over eight hundred participants. After reading a passage of Scripture and leading prayer through its truth, M’Cheyne turned to “some history of Revivals” (Memoir and Remains of the Rev. Robert Murray M’Cheyne, 62). He knew awakening would not come if God’s people did not ask.
“M’Cheyne knew awakening would not come if God’s people did not ask.”
Weeks and months passed without any sign of outpouring. Concern filled M’Cheyne. In 1837, he preached a well-regarded sermon from Jeremiah 14:8–9 that asked, “Why is God a stranger in the Land?” Two subjects came under his scrutiny. First, the preachers: “We do not invite sinners tenderly, we do not gently woo them to Christ; we do not compel them to come in; we do not travail in birth till Christ be formed in them the hope of glory. Oh, who can wonder that God is such a stranger in the land?” (Memoir and Remains, 544). Second, the people: “There seems little thirst for hearing the Word of God among Christians now . . . [and] there is very little harrowing in of the seed by prayer” (Memoir and Remains, 544–45). Optimism, however, infused M’Cheyne. “We shall have a time of reviving yet,” he declared not long after preaching this sermon (Manuscripts, 3.1.6).
Another two years passed. The revival prayers and desires continued unabated. In 1839, M’Cheyne joined the famed Mission of Inquiry, a team the Church of Scotland commissioned to explore possible strategies for reaching Jews for Christ. The men would travel to the Holy Land and back, reporting on their findings.
The mission removed M’Cheyne from St. Peter’s for six months. He had an inkling that revival might finally arrive while he was gone.
“I sometimes think that a great blessing may come to my people in my absence. Often God does not bless us when we are in the midst of our labours, lest we shall say, ‘My hand and my eloquence have done it,’” M’Cheyne confessed to a friend. “He removes us into silence, and then pours ‘down a blessing so that there is no room to receive it’; so that all that see it cry out, ‘It is the Lord!’ . . . May it really be so with my dear people” (Memoir and Remains, 86).
It soon was so.
When Revival Falls
While on the Mission of Inquiry, M’Cheyne appointed William Chalmers Burns to preach at St. Peter’s. Burns’s last name was appropriate: all contemporary accounts remark on his burning zeal. M’Cheyne told of Burns’s preaching, “There is a great deal of substance in what he preaches, and his manner is very powerful — so much so that he sometimes made me tremble” (Memoir and Remains, 118).
After months of preaching in Dundee with little effect, Burns traveled to Kilsyth to assist his father in a communion season. A hidden fire burst into flame as Burns preached from Psalm 110:3: “Thy people shall be willing in the day of thy power.” The sermon generated throbbing emotional outbursts, and thus the famous Kilsyth Revival was born.
Burns returned to Dundee in early August of 1839. The revival fire followed. After leading the Thursday night prayer meeting, Burns invited anyone to stay who needed the Spirit’s blessing. One hundred souls remained. Burns spoke to them on the need for conversion to Christ. By the end of his message, “the power of God seemed to descend, and all were bathed in tears” (Memoir and Remains, 114). Another service was held the following night with comparable results. From then on, meetings were held nightly. The Spirit seemed to have revived the entire city.
When God Uses Someone Else
M’Cheyne first heard of the revival while in Hamburg. He dashed off a letter to Burns, rejoicing, “You remember it was the prayer of my heart when we parted, that you might be a thousandfold more blessed to the people than ever my ministry had been. How it will gladden my heart, if you can really tell me it has been so!” (Memoir and Remains, 234).
Sincerity saturated M’Cheyne’s spirituality. His heart was truly glad that his long-prayed-for desires had finally come to pass, even if God used another preacher.
What can we learn from M’Cheyne’s experience of awakening? How might his model instruct us today to long for the same in our churches?
Long for sincere humility.
Many immediate observers wondered at M’Cheyne’s relationship with Burns — especially its lack of envy. The two men enjoyed several months of joint ministry in Dundee. No hint of jealousy existed.
Ever since his conversion, a five-word plea summarizes the yearnings of M’Cheyne’s diary: “Oh, for true unfeigned humility!” (Memoir and Remains, 17).
Christlike humility and honesty drove M’Cheyne’s ministry. It was so evident that even his closest friends marveled that grace seemed natural to him. But natural it was not. Any quick read through M’Cheyne’s journal reveals a young pastor fighting against tendencies to pride and the love of man’s praise. He wrote after a day of effective preaching, “In both discourses I can look back on many hateful thoughts of pride, and self-admiration, and love of praise, stealing the heart out of the service” (Memoir and Remains, 43).
Humility is the jewel in the crown of godliness. Humility receives God’s smile (Isaiah 66:2), increases honor (Proverbs 15:33), gets grace (James 4:6), and mirrors Christ (Philippians 2:4–11). “I charge you,” M’Cheyne exhorted Burns, “Be clothed with humility, or you will yet be a wandering star, for which is reserved the blackness of darkness forever. Let Christ increase; let man decrease. This is my constant prayer for myself and you” (Memoir and Remains, 130).
Labor in gospel friendships.
If friendship is a spiritual gift, M’Cheyne had it. “A book might be dedicated to the subject of McCheyne’s friendships,” concludes one biographer (Smellie, Biography of R.M. McCheyne, 53).
“Friendship in the gospel tends to undercut ministerial competition.”
M’Cheyne’s ministerial network was vast and edifying. It included mighty men such as Alexander Moody-Stuart, John Milne, James Hamilton, William Chalmers Burns, Alexander Somerville, and the Bonar brothers. These men prayed together weekly. They served together during Communion seasons. They wept together in times of loss.
Friendship in the gospel tends to undercut ministerial competition. When you know a fellow minister intimately, it is much harder to fall into the snare of jealousy. Especially when you give yourself to praying for your friend’s preaching, you notice affection rise in the soul. How many churches today would grow in the bonds of peace if they saw and heard their pastor’s love for ministers in other churches, other denominations? What unity would thrive as pastors care for and serve each other in visible ways?
Learn the need of love for Christ.
M’Cheyne was a living embodiment of the apostle’s cry, “The love of Christ controls us” (2 Corinthians 5:14). No other pulsebeat in ministry can sustain Christ’s servants. No other craving will suffice. Only the love of Christ, worked in the soul by God’s Spirit, can animate a ministry that speaks life into dead bones.
When love for Christ extinguishes sinful loves, pastors and leaders are able to rejoice wherever — and by whomever — Christ is truly proclaimed. Such love lets us say with M’Cheyne, “I have no desire but the salvation of my people, by whatever instrument” (Memoir and Remains, 117).