The value of this work is found in these additional materials, and in Robertson’s attempt to correct and explain the overly favorable nature of Bonar’s account.
Robert Murray McCheyne’s seven year ministry was terminated by his premature death at age 30 in 1843. Yet the spiritual impact of his brief earthly sojourn extends beyond our knowledge and imagination.
Now David Robertson has attempted to give us yet another view of this Scottish preacher/pastor with a new biography, Awakening: The Life and Ministry of Robert Murray McCheyne (Christian Focus, 2010, 282 pages).
Why another biography of McCheyne? Was he not amply chronicled by his friend Andrew Bonar and others? Do we not know the facts concerning his work at St. Peter’s, Dundee, Scotland?
Robertson takes a different approach. Instead of a chronological development this biography is arranged topically into 21 chapters each addressing an aspect of McCheyne’s life such as “Reaching the Lost”, “Preaching, Psalms and Politics” and, intriguingly, “Licensed to Thrill” and “Girls and Gymnastics”.
Furthermore, the biography is designed to be used devotionally, each chapter containing several questions for meditation and a brief prayer. It is written on a popular level and would well serve modern readers who may have difficulty with the details and prose of earlier biographies.
There are 5 appendices which provide points on further reading and a couple documents from McCheyne’s hand including his report to the Presbytery of Aberdeen regarding the revival of 1840. Finally there is a brief description (chapter 21) of the current gospel ministry at St. Peter’s, Dundee where Robertson is now the pastor.
The value of this work is found in these additional materials, and in Robertson’s attempt to correct and explain the overly favorable nature of Bonar’s account. Robertson is clearly enamored with McCheyne and his legacy, but not uncritically. Throughout the book Robertson helpfully evaluates, analyzes and assesses McCheyne’s motivations, decisions and labors.
We read again of McCheyne’s personal piety, his amazing efforts at pastoral visitation, his laboring on though various illnesses and trials and the reviving work of God’s Spirit in many parts of Scotland (breaking out when McCheyne was traveling in the Middle East).
As to the facts of McCheyne’s life, there is little new ground broken, but the topical arrangement is a helpful tool to see the man and his ministry in a different light. Yet this structure, and the overlapping of topics and themes, leads at times to redundancy and repetition which might have been avoided with stronger editing.
Robertson supplies what is missing in Bonar’s biography by setting McCheyne in his historical context and thus giving the reader a framework to understand the days in which McCheyne labored. A couple of times movements, names and terms are left unexplained (Jesse Thain, Glassities, Chartists) and the reader unversed in Scottish church history will be left wondering.
The republishing of this book, we are told, is to help raise the funds necessary to refurbish and maintain the historic building where McCheyne was mightily used of God and to support the particular ministry of that body of believers.
I recommend this book for church libraries, and for individuals who want a different look at one who was greatly used of God.
Robert Davis is a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America and is currently serving as Senior Pastor at Draper’s Valley Presbyterian Church in Draper, VA.