Personal Reminiscences by Rev. James Dodds of Dunbar

Robert M'Cheyne.

THE first time I saw Robert M'Cheyne was in the autumn of 1830, when he was a lad of seventeen, on a visit to a maiden aunt in Dumfriesshire. This aunt was a remarkable woman in her way, and her life had not been without its romantic incidents. She had seen not a little of the world, and among her youthful companions was William Kirkpatrick, a Scottish gentleman's son, who settled in Spain, married into a noble Spanish family, and had a daughter who became the mother of Eugenie, the Empress of the French. Robert M'Cheyne usually spent a part of his annual holidays with this worthy relative, who resided in the parish of Ruthwell, and was a special friend of Dr. Henry Duncan, its benevolent and well-known minister. The young Edinburgh student was a frequent visitor at Ruthwell Manse when in the country, and was on terms of intimacy with Dr. Duncan's family. It was in that celebrated manse that I first made his acquaintance, and had the opportunity of seeing the earlier developments of his remarkable character.

Robert M'Cheyne was at that time a handsome and elegant lad. I was struck with the gracefulness of his bearing and manners. Everything he did seemed to bear the stamp of early culture, and native refinement. He excelled in dancing and athletic exercises. He sang with taste and spirit, could tell a capital story by and even take part in clever and amusing practical jokes. He was a good scholar, and had never been accused of neglecting his studies, though fond of gaiety and all the amusements of the social circle. He had a decided taste for poetry, and wrote in various albums verses of no common merit. A favourite with old and young, and possessed of fine parts and graceful accomplishments, he seemed born for a brilliant life in the world. But he was yet, to use his own words, "a stranger to grace and to God." Though not without the form of godliness, he knew not its practical power. He had never openly neglected the ordinances or cast off the restraints of religion, but he had not undergone that great change which is the commencement and the guarantee of all true spiritual life.

Yet Robert M'Cheyne, when I first knew him, though a gay and elegant youth, fond of the pleasures of society, was by no means frivolous or conceited. I could notice in him a quiet dignity and a decision of character that indicated a superior mind, and promised all excellent career, should a new bent be given to his affections. In his general conduct there were few traces of vanity or weakness on the contrary, there were the of a nature that only needed the touch of the Spirit of God to become peculiarly pure and lofty. He was what Dr. Chalmers once said of a friend, "a fine specimen of the natural man," though full of that pride of heart and love of the world which afterwards, under the power of grace, he confessed and deplored.

How this remarkable young man was led in a right spirit to study for the Christian ministry, and what a blessed spiritual change came over him, and intensified his whole nature, has been simply and accurately related by his biographer, the Rev. Andrew Bonar. "I well remember when as a student in the Edinburgh Divinity Hall, attending with great diligence the classes of Drs. Chalmers and Welsh. He was, indeed, an earnest student, unconsciously elevated, as it were, above most of his contemporaries by a zeal in the pursuit of sacred learning that seemed to know no bounds. His much-used, well-worn pocket Bible was never out of his hands at any spare moment in the class-room. He searched and fed upon the Word of God with an eagerness which I have never seen equalled. All his studies seemed penetrated with prayer and the reading of the Scriptures. The seriousness of his demeanour, which was far removed from sanctimoniousness, greatly impressed his fellow-students, and he appeared to breathe the very atmosphere of spiritual life."

His chosen and intimate friend at this period was Alexander Somerville, who was long the useful and Moderator of the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland, 1886-87. honoured minister of Anderston Free Church, Glasgow. These two students seemed literally inseparable. Alone, with many others, I was often amused at the closeness of their companionship. They sat beside each other in the class-room; they came and went together; they were usually seen walking side by side in the street; or if one of them turned round a corner, the other was sure to come in sight a minute after. The one seemed to haunt the other like a shadow, and nothing apparently could separate the two bosom friends. The fact was that they loved each other dearly in the Lord. Natives of the same city, they had been friends in early youth, and having passed about the same time through a profound spiritual experience, they enjoyed spiritual fellowship, and pursued their sacred studies together, with a depth and cordiality of feeling seldom equalled. in the annals of human friendship. Many sweet and precious morning hours were by them devoted to the study of the Hebrew Bible and the Septuagint. Much time also did they spend together in prayer and spiritual conversation. In this way did they become, as students and ministers, fervent in spirit and mighty in the Scriptures.

Robert M'Cheyne took his proper part in the various meetings and associations of his fellow- students. . When public questions affecting religion or the church came to be discussed in the Divinity Hall, he was ready with his opinion, and manfully took his side. He was no recluse, but showed on various occasions not a little public spirit; and he was well informed about the leading questions and controversies of the day. Though eminently a spiritual man, he wanted. not the practical element, and was early prepared to take part in the public business of the Church. He belonged to several societies connected with the University, and, was no inactive member of any of them. I joined a debating society of which he was the secretary; and I remember hearing him read a beautiful essay on a scriptural subject, full of fine fancy and Hebrew learning. His style, at first somewhat florid and ornate, gradually grew more simple, and Saxon in its character; and before he became a preacher his compositions had much of that severe simplicity and spiritual beauty which are so admired in his Remains.

Mr. M'Cheyne was licensed to preach the Gospel by the Presbytery of Annan, Dumfriesshire; his probationary trials having been transferred from the Presbytery of Edinburgh, to which they properly belonged. He had. for some time before been burning with a holy desire to preach Christ to perishing sinners; and few so young were as well qualified for the work of the ministry. It so happened that a few years after, I was licensed as a preacher by the same presbytery, and on proceeding to sign the prescribed formula I found that I had to write my name immediately under that of my having been friend. Robert M'Cheyne, no other person licensed at Annan in the interval. Thus my life is in interesting juxtaposition with his in a volume on earth. May it be found written with his in the Lamb's book of life in heaven! He preached his first two sermons in the pulpit of his friend Dr. Duncan of Ruthwell, and a lady, nearly related to myself, who heard him on the occasion, speaks highly of the excellence of his discourses, and the earnestness of his manner. He spoke with great ease, self -possession, and tenderness, more like a veteran preacher than a mere novice in the pulpit. But he had been previously in the habit of addressing prayer-meetings, and had undergone much of that spiritual discipline which best prepares for the pulpit. He soon felt quite, at home in preaching the Gospel, and wonderfully free from the fear of man. The work of the ministry, for which he had long prayerfully and diligently prepared, he came to love with all the ardour of a passion; and in that work he found a sphere for which he had been singularly fitted by the Great Head of the Church. In the pulpit his experiences of the Presence, and Power of the Spirit of all grace were often very profound. "The pulpit is a wonderful place," he once said to me, when he was minister at Dundee; "God comes nigh you there when you cast yourself upon Him, and His help is great." Few preachers have prepared more carefully for the pulpit than he did; yet he seldom wrote his sermons completely out, and always looked in faith for the aid of that promised Spirit who never failed him, but gave him a power and a tenderness not often equalled in our day.

On several occasions I heard Mr. M'Cheyne preaching and I can testify to the singular earnestness and unction of his ministrations. He never aimed at high argument or eloquence, or anything very profound or original. His accent and delivery were of the peculiar description which were at the time associated with a certain school of "revival preachers " that had risen in the Church of Scotland; and there were not a few excellent people who did not like the manner and style of that school, or their inhibitors. But his spirituality, his earnestness, the elegance of his action, and the simple beauty of his language soon overcame all prejudices, and deeply impressed everyone that had any discernment or love of spiritual things. His views of Gospel truth were full and clear ; his deep knowledge of Scripture was manifest in almost every sentence he uttered; and his acquaintance with the human heart was wonderfully complete in one so young. The sermons published after his death, though very precious, are little better than sketches or outlines, which he filled up and effectively completed in the pulpit. Most of them he expanded in delivery to more than double their original size; and perhaps the most precious things that fell from his lips were spoken by him without premeditation as he appealed to the hearts of his hearers.

I did not often meet with this young apostle in the first years of his brief ministry. But I saw him immediately before he left Scotland for Palestine. as a member of a deputation sent by the Church of Scotland to inquire into the condition of the Jews in the land of their fathers; and I also had a short conversation with him soon after his return. The deputation set out for the East in April 1839, and its special mission was accomplished in about seven months. Mr. M'Cheyne, with his beloved friend and fellow-traveller, Mr. A. Bonar, greatly enjoyed the visit to Palestine, which was made so profitable to himself and to others. In the Narrative published by the two friends we have one of the most interesting and instructive records of travel in Palestine that has yet appeared. Indeed, in the opinion of many, it is the best of all books on the Holy Land for the ordinary reader. From the very beginning of his ministry Mr. M'Cheyne took a deep interest in the condition and prospects of the Jewish people, and his zeal for their welfare was immensely quickened by his mission to Palestine. He firmly believed in their ultimate restoration to the land of their fathers; but about other and kindred prophetical subjects he expressed himself with much caution, like one unable to form a decided opinion. He spoke to me in the liveliest terms of his travels in the East, of the downcast present state and future spiritual glory of Israel: and his views on many subjects seemed coloured by the experiences of his mission.

How he found, on his return, his flock at Dundee in a revived and quickened condition, under the powerful ministry of his friend, the Rev. William Burns, is known to all readers of his Life, It is also equally well known how joyfully and vigorously he resumed his pastoral work, and preached the Gospel with new life and power in Dundee, and in many other places where he was called to do the work of an evangelist. His labours were so abundant and incessant that several times his health failed, and he was in danger of altogether breaking down. But on the whole he was enabled to get through a vast amount of work without any serious prostration of strength. In various parts of the country he preached at times in the open air; and wherever he went he scattered with liberal hand and prayerful heart the precious seed of the kingdom.

The last time I met with this most interesting and honoured servant of Christ was in August 1842, when I was paying a visit to friends in Dumfriesshire. He had been on an evangelistic mission in England, and was on his way home. Three young ladies, cousins, whom he had never seen, were residing in that part of Scotland, and he had special reasons for wishing to make their acquaintance. And here I must relate one of the most remarkable incidents in the life of Robert M'Cheyne, and one that bears signal. testimony to his wonderful power in dealing with souls. It is not, I believe, generally known, but the time seems to have arrived when it may be publicly related.

These cousins had been brought up chiefly on the continent, where they mixed in gay circles, and were filled with all manner of high notions. When, on some reverse of fortune, they came to live in Scotland, they made little profession of religion, and were either profoundly ignorant of, or bitterly opposed to, the great truths of the Gospel. I met with them some days before their cousin Robert's arrival, and found them in many respects most interesting young ladies but haughtily averse to evangelical religion. They had been faithfully dealt with by several friends in the place, and had attended service in the parish church, where the Gospel. was preached in all its purity; but they remained obdurate and unimpressed, as if determined to resist all arguments and appeals of a certain kind. They spoke of their expected cousin Robert by the name of "Perfection," and in a bantering manner wondered what he would say to them when he arrived. When their cousin did arrive he acted towards them with consummate prudence and tenderness. He did not all at once run counter to their habitual feelings, but treated them gravely, respectfully, and kindly. He seemed anxious to show them by his example that true religion is not only a noble but a happy and cheerful thing. The day after his arrival I met him and his three cousins taking a morning walk, and thought I observed a new gravity in the deportment of the hitherto light-hearted young ladies. I had to leave that part of the country immediately after, and before I could have lengthened conversation with Mr. M'Cheyne about his newly-seen relatives. But I shall transcribe a few passages from letters I received from a great friend of all the four cousins, who lived oil the spot, and had ample opportunities of knowing accurately all that took place.

Writing a few clays after I left, my friend said: "You would be surprised to see the change already wrought in the volatile Miss D——s by the consistent conduct of their cousin Robert. They are all delighted with him, and much interested in his conversation. They visit the sick and distribute tracts with him; and today, when I went to a cottage with them all, during, Robert's prayer M—— sobbed aloud. An impression is certainly made. "A few days later the same correspondent wrote: " The work going on at C—— surprises and interests us all. Even G——'s proud spirit is quite melted down. She threw herself on me after church last night, and burst into tears, saying she saw this in a new light now. They are all so sober and quiet, and so ready to open up their hearts to us now, that they seem like new creatures."  A few days later still I received the following account:-  "We went to tea to meet Robert and his cousins. We stayed to prayers, when many of the neighbours assembled. The girls were all weeping, and such a scene followed I cannot describe on paper. M—— and G——fell on our necks, and sobbed, crying out about sin, yet exclaiming they had never known happiness before. C——, the other sister, said little, but looked much. Robert left for Edinburgh yesterday morning, and by half-past ten all his cousins were with us, full of their new feelings, and thirsting for instruction. One great peculiarity of Robert's character, which gives him such weight in mixed society, is the yearning of his soul over lost sinners. His cousins say that what struck them most when they saw him first was the solemn, affectionate compassion with which he regarded them. He said very little to them the first day; but the pitiful looks he cast on them struck them down, humbled and ashamed."

I could give more extracts of a similar nature; but it will be sufficient to add that these three sisters, soon after their cousin's departure, became decided and eminent followers of Christ. They all subsequently married Christian husbands, and adorned domestic life with the graces of the Christian character. One of them has been removed out of this world, and has, doubtless, met in glory him who was on earth the means of bringing her to the Saviour. Only a few months after this memorable visit to Dumfriesshire Robert M'Cheyne entered into his glorious rest, dying at the early age of twenty-nine, but leaving a name and memory most fragrant in all the churches of Christ. Of him truly call it be said than of most Christian ministers who have died either in youth or in old age, that "he, being dead, yet speaketh."