A Book Review from Books At a Glance
By R.M. Skip Ferris
Bruce McLennan is a career historian who specializes in the Scottish Reformation. In recent years his research has focused upon nineteenth century Scotland. McCheyne’s Dundee is a testimony of the scholastic knowledge McLennan has upon that period of Scottish church history. The content included in this publication was limited to a short period of time [1830s and 40s] and in a city that is mostly unfamiliar to many outside of Scotland. Therefore, interest in this topic may be reserved to those who have an understanding and passion for Scottish church history.
Throughout this work, McLennon discusses those whom Robert McCheyne was either influenced by or ministered alongside – such as William Chalmers Burns, Andrew Bonar, and Alexander Sommerville. McLennon does not go into great biographical detail about these theologians and ministers, expecting the reader to have some awareness of the subject. However, for the scholar who is familiar and interested in Scottish church history, McCheyne’s Dundee is a well written and researched treatise that paints a clear picture of McCheyne’s world of Dundee in the early part of the nineteenth century.
Summary of the Contents
McCheyne’s Dundee is about the ministry of two individuals, William Chalmers Burns [1815-1868] and Robert Murray McCheyne [1813-1843] who, for a brief period of time, engaged in a religious revival in Dundee. By the nineteenth century, Dundee had become a city as prominent as Glasgow and Edinburgh. In order to set the tone of how Burns and McCheyne ministered in and through the years of revival, the first chapter details the social and economic situation in Dundee during the early part of the nineteenth century. McLennon outlines the demographic shift resulting from the Agriculture and Industrial Revolution, as well as the effect the Highland potato famine had upon Dundee. Chapter one also walks the reader through Dundee’s unemployment crisis, inadequate housing due to population growth, segregation of classes, the impurity of the water system, and political agitation that marked nineteenth century Scotland. It was during this climate that McCheyne is introduced.
Following the social and economic outline, McLennon briefly discusses religious issues that shaped nineteenth century Dundee. Primarily, there were two religious issues that affected all of Scotland – Lay Patronage and Non-Intrusion. In an attempt to keep the focus on Mccheyne and William Burnes, McLennon did not use the space to provide too many historical details about these issues. Instead, he offers a brief analysis of how these two issues played a major role on the religious system of the Church in Dundee.
Once McLennon laid the background with chapters one and two, chapter three examines McCheyne’s ministerial approach and impression upon the spiritual condition of Dundee. McLennon said of McCheyne’s understanding of his world, “He saw there was much ignorance of spiritual things, as well as indifference and hostility .” Being the longest chapter in the book, it examines McCheyne’s ministry following his ordination in 1836 and leading up to the Revival of 1839. The reader is presented with a minister who, through ill health and weakness of body, engaged in tireless preaching, regular prayer meetings, visitation work, and preparation for a seven month visit to Palestine.
In chapter four, McLennon shifts away from McCheyne’s ministry to that of William Chalmers Burn’s. In the absence of McCheyne, who left for seven months to Palestine, Burns filled the pulpit at St. Peter’s in Dundee in 1839. Burns’ temporary ministry witnessed a church that had the marks of McCheyne’s leadership woven into its spiritual fabric. McLennon explained that Burns “entered a ground well prepared for the gospel, with ‘not a few’ hearts prepared to listen to God’s Word .” This chapter examined how Burns intended to continue the work McCheyne had begun which, in turn, led to a revival in Dundee. McCheyne’s good friend and biographer, Andrew Bonar, wrote of that time, “The Holy Spirit seemed to come down as a rushing mighty wind, and to fill the place. Very many were…struck to the heart; the sanctuary was filled with distressed and enquiring souls. All Scotland heard the glad news [77-8].”
The final chapters examined McCheyne’s ministry upon his return from Palestine until his body failed him to death in 1843. McCheyne spent his final years examining the effects of the revival that occurred while he was away and his continuing ministry to bring the Gospel to the suffering and lost. As his society around him leaned toward harshness to the human condition, McCheyne desired to show compassion and mercy upon those who did not know Jesus. McLennon draws this out, “The following year, while conversing with his close friend Andrew Bonar and learning that the latter had preached on the text, ‘The wicked shall be turned into hell,’ McCheyne asked him, ‘Were you able to preach it with tenderness?’[109-10].”
The title of the book is appropriate, but considering the content, it appears incomplete. There is a major portion of the book that consists of William Chalmers Burns impact upon Dundee during the revival of 1839 and his partnership in McCheyne’s absence. McLennon’s approach was clearly to distinguish McCheyne purpose in Dundee from others, but Burns’ influence conveyed in the book seems to warrant a mention in the title.
The strength of the book rests in McLennon’s research. His purpose was to present to the reader a clear picture of Dundee in the first half of the nineteenth century, with McCheyne and Burns at the ministerial helm. He succeeded. The researcher of nineteenth century Scotland, and for those who have an interest in the Victorian Era, will find this work very beneficial to their studies. Because McLennon’s targeted audience rests in those familiar with this period, the reader unfamiliar with this topic may find themselves unaccustomed with many of the characters and events discussed throughout.
Unique to this work was McLennon’s use of a specific timeframe. He focused primarily upon a narrow period of time [1836-1839]. He kept remarkably close to this point of reference, giving the reader a clear and concise understanding of his purpose. This book teaches that looking through the lens of nineteenth century Dundee we have a good idea of what the social, political, economic, and religious environment was like throughout Scotland. This makes McCheyne’s Dundee a valuable resource for the researcher of Scottish ecclesiology, as well as the daily life of Scotland during the Victorian Era.
Nineteenth century Scotland was a time with constant political upheaval and religious schism. McCheyne died just prior to the Disruption of 1843 when the Free Church of Scotland was formed from the Church of Scotland. The events of Dundee expressed in this work, particularly the information on Lay Patronage and Non-Intrusion, provide an ecclesial connection to the Scottish Church of the latter half of the nineteenth century.
R. M. Skip Ferris
Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
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