“Even though he died at such a young age the impact of his ministry continue to be felt for many decades, and indeed the ripples continue today. By 1855 the congregation had grown to such an extent that they started a new mission church just 200 yards of the Perth Road. This became McCheyne Memorial church that was opened in 1870 by the well-known Baptist preacher CH Spurgeon.”
St Peter’s Free Church in Dundee is famous throughout the evangelical world for being the church of Robert Murray McCheyne. But many of those who come to the church now, know very little about McCheyne; and many of those who are aware of McCheyne know very little about the current St Peters. This short article is intended to remedy those deficiencies in knowledge!
Birth and Background – Robert Murray McCheyne, the last of Adam and Lockhart McCheyne’s children, was born on 21 May 1813 at 14 Dublin St, Edinburgh. His father was a lawyer and he grew up in a comfortable, middle-class, well educated and well connected home. After attending Edinburgh high school he entered the University of Edinburgh in the winter of 1827 aged 14. As well as a good home and an excellent education, Robert had many friends. He was athletic, tall, popular, intelligent, well educated and of sound moral character. And yet despite all this he would describe himself as “a stranger to grace and to God”.
The death of his brother David on 8 July 1831 had a shattering impact on him. His brother was a believer who often encouraged him to look to Christ. His death caused McCheyne to worry about his own mortality and his own preparation for eternity. This eventually led to his conversion as an 18-year-old. Immediately he was accepted to study divinity at the University of Edinburgh where under the teaching of professors such as Thomas Chalmers, David Welsh, Alexander Brunton he developed his love for church history, theology, Greek and especially Hebrew.
Call to St Peters – He was ordained as an assistant on 12 July 1835 in Larbert near Falkirk. In November 1836 he was called to be the Minister of the new church of St Peters in the growing industrial city of Dundee. The population at that time was around 50,000. It was a town with extremes of wealth and poverty. The area around St Peters was the key industrial area. Amidst the smell, the unclean air, the overcrowded tenements around St Peter’s, and the growing inequities between rich and poor, he sought to bring the gospel to all.
St Peters was a new church and McCheyne was ordained and inducted to it on 24 November 1836. The Dundee advertiser described him as “not the man of controversy, but the man of prayer – not a loiterer, but a labourer in the vineyard – one who will be found more frequently in the chambers of the sick and the afflicted than the gaieties of the drawing room, and whose steps will be often directed to the habitation of the poor than to the mansions of the rich. Such a one would indeed prove a blessing to us and to our children, and to the district with which he is connected”
His preaching was simple, sermons varying in length from 20 to 90 minutes! He preached in normal clothes and with an evident passion and love for the Lord and his people. A colleague and friend, James Hamilton, spoke about the atmosphere in St Peters.
“It was pleasant to preach in St Peters Church. The children on the pulpit stairs, the prayers in the vestry, the solemn often crowded auditorium, the sincerity of all the worship, and the often felt presence of God”
He laid great stress on youth work, holding youth meetings on a Tuesday evening with an average of some 250 young people present. Over 300 children were enrolled at St Peter’s school, where evening classes were held mainly for the mill girls. He had a children’s worship service at 8 AM on the Sunday, and an evening Sunday school from 6 to 8 PM – despite the opposition from some within the presbytery who thought this was quite an innovation!
He was always an evangelist. He worked on the basis of parish visitation rather than congregational visitation. Sometimes he would visit up to 20 families per day. His pastoral care was quite outstanding. He may wide use of elders and deacons and even established a system of deaconess’s whose job was to help with the visitation.
His personal prayer life and Bible reading was unquestionably the secret of his deep walk with God. He wrote to a fellow minister
“learn much of the Lord Jesus. For every look at yourself take 10 looks at Christ. He is altogether lovely… Live much in the smiles of God. Bask in his beams. Feel his all seeing eyes settled on you in love, and repose in his almighty arms.”
“Study universal holiness of life. Your whole usefulness depends on this, for your sermons last but an hour or two; your life preaches all the week. If Satan can only make a covetous minister a lover of praise, pleasure, of good eating, he has ruined your ministry. Give yourself to prayer, and get your text, your thoughts, your words from God.”
Israel – McCheyne had always had a desire to be an overseas missionary. He had an especial interest in the Jewish work. In 1838 the Gen assembly decided to appoint a committee to examine the state of the Jews in what could be done. McCheyne was one of its members. He was thrilled to have Mr. Frey, a converted Jew, preach in St Peter’s at this time. At the same time he was ill and Robert Candlish, a leading figure in the church, decided that it would be good for him to go on an exploratory trip to Israel with three other men. And so on 9 April 1839 he began a six-month trip through Europe and North Africa to Israel. It was the beginnings of a great work amongst the Jewish people, one of whose consequences was to be the Balfour declaration and the formation of the modern state of Israel.
Revival – when he returned from Israel it was defined that St Peters was in a state of revival. In St Peters Parish in 1839 there were 53 pubs (although many were little more than drinking dens and homes), one for every 80 people! Whilst he was away a young man called William Chalmers Burns came to fill in. When I first came to St Peters an elderly Chinese man came in and asked me for the photograph of William Chalmers Burns that we have. When I asked him why he wanted it he said,
“Because that man is the founding father of the modern Chinese church”!
On Wednesday, 8 August 1839, Chalmers describes a meeting in St Peters
“suddenly the power of God seem to descend, and all were bathed in tears. Was to become the next evening there was a prayer meeting in the church. There was much melting of heart and intense desire after the beloved of the Father… No sooner was the vestry door opened to admit those who might feel anxious to converse, than a vast number pressed in with awful eagerness. It was like a pent-up flood breaking forth; tears were streaming from the eyes of many, and some fell on the ground, groaning and weeping, and crying for mercy.’
Although there was, as can be expected, fierce opposition, this “awakening” continued for several months. Hundreds were converted and the fruits of it were felt for many decades afterwards. When McCheyne arrived back from Israel on Thursday, 23 November, he immediately headed to the Thursday meeting where the building was crowded with over 1200 people. His description of what happened is very moving – “I never saw such an assembly in a church before. Mr. Roxburgh, Mr. Arnott, Mr. Hamilton, Mr. Law and other ministers, came to support me. There was not a spot in the church left unoccupied. Every passage and stair were filled. I was almost overwhelmed by the sight; but felt great liberty in preaching… I never before preached such an audience… So many weeping… So many waiting, for the words of eternal life.”
Death and Memorial – In March 1843 whilst visiting in the Hawkhill area he contracted typhus, from which he never recovered. On 25 March at 9:30 AM, with Dr Gibson sitting beside him, McCheyne raised his hand then sank back in death. The words of his most famous hymn, Jehovah Tsidkenu, were fulfilled:
Even trading the valley, the shadow of death,
This watchword shall rally my faltering breath;
For when from life’s fever my God sets me free,
Jehovah Tsidkenu my death song shall be.
Even though he died at such a young age the impact of his ministry continue to be felt for many decades, and indeed the ripples continue today. By 1855 the congregation had grown to such an extent that they started a new mission church just 200 yards of the Perth Road. This became McCheyne Memorial church that was opened in 1870 by the well-known Baptist preacher CH surgeon. Although McCheyne himself wrote very little, a memorial about him by his friend Andrew Bonar, The Life and Remains of Robert Murray McCheyne, was to become a classic.
St Peters Today – If we fast-forward 175 years we now find a vastly different situation in Dundee. McCheyne Memorial has been close and sold off to a Muslim businessman. St Peters had joined the Free Church, and then in 1900 became part of the United free before in 1927 returning to the Church of Scotland. In the 1980s it too was closed and the building look likely to be turned into flats or a restaurant. But the tiny Free Church congregation in Dundee, with the aid of the wider denomination, bought the somewhat dilapidated building. The congregation continued to decline until when Annabel and myself arrived here in 1992, there were only a handful of people left. In this building in which McCheyne preached to more than 1000 people, I was sometimes preaching to single figures! What could be done?
Over the past 24 years we have seen many ups and downs, but we have also seen the Lord’s hand and blessing upon us to a considerable extent. The congregation continues to grow and is now between 250 and 300 most Sundays. We have even had to open up the balcony again! And this in an age when churchgoing is in decline in the Christian church is supposed to be on its last legs. Why has this occurred?
I believe that is occurred for the same reasons that the church flourished under McCheyne. It is the preaching of the Word, prayer, and the work of the Spirit, which are the key factors. It really is all down to the grace and mercy of God. There has been fierce opposition, terrible troubles and great discouragement. These go hand-in-hand with the Lords Spirit being at work, spiritual fruit and great encouragement. The renewal of the building, the growth in the Sunday school, the interest in international mission, and the desire for local outreach are all factors that I think McCheyne would recognize.
I know that the building is not the church, but sometimes places have significance. My own view is that St Peter’s building is a very special place and I am glad that for the sake of the wider church in Scotland, there has been some renewal and reformation here. May it be just the beginning!
David Robertson is the Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland. He’s also the minister of St Peter’s Free Church in Dundee and director of Solas the Centre for Public Christianity. This article appeared on his blog and is used with permission.