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On June 9, 1847, Islay Burns waved farewell to the S.S. Mary Bannatyne as it sailed out of Portsmouth harbor on its five-month voyage to China. He never expected to see again one of its passengers—his older brother, William Chalmers Burns. William would return only once to the United Kingdom, in 1854–55. For the next two decades, he served Christ as a missionary to the Chinese peoples. One of the most remarkable servants of Christ in the modern era, William died at age 53 in Nieu-Chwang, China, on April 4, 1868.
Burns’ father (also William) was a minister in Dun near Montrose and then in Kilsyth, outside Glasgow, Scotland. William Jr. was an outdoors boy whose highest aspiration was to become a farmer—although later he would interrupt his studies in Aberdeen to train as a lawyer in Edinburgh. He was a good son but not yet a converted one, and while he was in Edinburgh, his sisters wrote to urge him to seek Christ.
Not long afterward, he arrived home unexpectedly. Mrs Burns asked, “Oh, Willie, where have you come from?” (He had just walked thirty-six miles from Edinburgh.) He replied: “What would you think, Mamma, if I should be a minister after all?” “I felt,” he wrote later, “that now he [God] was in his own sovereignty touching my heart and drawing me to himself for his own glory.” Resuming his studies in Aberdeen, he graduated with distinction and then moved to Glasgow to study theology.
Burns had a special aptitude for languages. He mastered Hebrew and Greek. Later, he became fluent enough to preach in French, Chinese, and Scottish Gaelic. But he soon felt an increasing burden for the lost, for prayer, and for world missions.
On one occasion in Glasgow, he failed to see his mother, and when she spoke to him he responded, “Just now I was so overcome with the sight of the countless crowds of immortal beings eagerly hustling hither and thither, but all posting onwards towards the eternal world, that I could bear it no longer, and turned in here to seek relief in quiet thought.” He became a fearless witness to Christ and a model of the evangelistic lifestyle.
On March 27, 1839, the Glasgow Presbytery licensed him to preach. Meanwhile, a need arose in St. Peter’s Church, Dundee, for a local preacher while its young minister, Robert Murray M’Cheyne, was part of a deputation traveling through Europe to the Holy Land to investigate the conditions of the Jewish people.
M’Cheyne was only two years older than Burns, but he had been in St. Peter’s for about two and a half years. His ministry was prospering. Who could take his place? Surprisingly, the lot fell to Burns, despite his lack of pastoral experience. So, on April 14, 1839, having recently turned twenty-four, Burns preached from Romans 12:1–2. His brother Islay (who later succeeded M’Cheyne also), remembered: “I have heard old members of the congregation tell how their hearts trembled for him, when they saw what seemed to be a mere stripling standing up in the place of one whom they so revered and honored.” But M’Cheyne was given a premonition: “I sometimes think,” he wrote, “that a great blessing may come to my people in my absence . . . lest we say ‘my hand and my eloquence have done this.’ ”
The day before Burns began his ministry, an elder took him around the parish. Afterward, he went to his room in the elder’s house. They found him later, “lying on his face in an agony of prayer.” Is it altogether surprising that the next day what struck people was his calmness?
Like M’Cheyne, Burns saw much to encourage, but he sought more. His preaching became more direct and challenging. He began to spend more time in prayer than in preparing his messages. One friend wrote, “For weeks . . . he was full of prayer; he seemed to care for nothing but to pray. . . . For a season . . . he seemed two different men in private and public,” and added, significantly, that “his own spiritual strength so far exceeding what appeared in the pulpit.”
In mid-July, William Burns was scheduled to preach during the Kilsyth Communion Season. Just beforehand, however, his brother-in-law died. Immediately after the funeral on Thursday, July 18, he went to assist in the communion season. The next day, he preached from Psalm 130:1–2 and then on the Saturday on Psalm 130:3 in nearby Banton. That evening, a seeking soul with whom he was praying came to faith. He had never actually been with someone else at the moment of their conversion. He wrote:
This brought the work of the Spirit before me in a more remarkable and glorious form than I had before witnessed, and served at once to quicken my desires after, and encouraged my anticipation of seeing more glorious manifestations of the Lord’s saving strength.
On Sunday evening of the same weekend, he preached again (on Matt. 11:28), but, he felt, “without remarkable assistance or remarkable effects.” However, at the close he felt a burden to preach again and announced he would do so in the marketplace on Tuesday at 10 a.m.
That morning the dam burst. Burns recorded that he felt three things:
1. A longing to see people converted
2. A new desire for the glory of God
3. A deep sense of sorrow over the lost condition of those to whom he preached
An immense crowd had gathered. He announced the singing of Psalm 102:13 and following, and he paused on the words:
Her time for favour which was set
Behold, is now come to an end.
He later wrote: “The word ‘now’ touched my heart with divine power.” He then read, without comment, Acts 2, and preached from Psalm 110:3: “Thy people shall be willing in the day of thy power” (KJV). Then the Holy Spirit moved powerfully.
Islay Burns described the scene:
As he went on, that presence [of the Spirit] seemed more and more to pass within him and to possess him, and to bear him along in a current of strong emotion, which was alike to himself and his hearers irresistible. Appeal followed appeal, in ever increasing fervour and terrible energy, till at last, as he reached the climax of his argument, . . . the words “no cross, no crown” pealed from his lips, not so much like a sentence of ordinary speech, as a shout in the thick of a battle.
Many were converted. Preaching, praying, seeking, believing became the order of the day. People were swept into the kingdom, and remained standing for Christ. Hardened coal miners now, instead of cursing at their work, spent their breaks in corporate prayer.
Returning to St. Peter’s, Burns witnessed similar scenes. At the close of the Thursday night prayer meeting, he spoke briefly about what had happened in Kilsyth and invited the unconverted to remain behind. About one hundred did. He then spoke to them in particular. Andrew Bonar recorded what happened:
Suddenly the power of God seemed to descend, and all were bathed in tears. . . . 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.
The same happened the following evening. Night after night, week after week, people crowded into St. Peter’s to hear the gospel preached. The whole city was stirred. While some believers doubted and the ungodly raged, the word of the Lord “continued to increase and prevailed mightily” (Acts 19:20).
Burns’ industriousness was prodigious. One day, for example, we find that he met forty different people seeking spiritual help; then he went out to preach; afterward, he spoke to many who waited behind for spiritual counsel. Nor did he exhibit false piety. He sometimes slept until 9:30 a.m. or even 11 a.m. Indeed, he writes, “This appeared to be my duty after a so long and busily engaged Sabbath. Indeed it is by sleeping that I am fully refreshed, more than by any other means.” All the while his preaching was marked, his brother wrote, by
great fullness, freedom, and rich copiousness of biblical exposition and appeal, by a melting and persuasive unction, and ever by a clearness and force of thought and diction, which considering the excessive draughts made upon his resources, was remarkable.
And all this at age twenty-four.
Almost everywhere he went, an indelible gospel mark was left. His ministry was not, however, without opposition. Horatius Bonar remembered how the walls of one church where Burns preached were covered in graffiti, with caricatures and “abusive and vile” comments. His brother Andrew recalled, “Worldly men are outrageous in their opposition; newspapers also misrepresenting and vilifying those concerned in it, ministers and people.” The press despised Burns. One commentator wrote that his words were “daring blasphemy.” He called Burns “a scandal on religion and a disgrace to our city.” Another called his preaching “one of the most deplorable exhibitions of misguided enthusiasm and moral insanity which could possibly be imagined.”
From 1839 to 1844, Burns served as an unsalaried itinerant preacher in Scotland, England, and Ireland. He spent an extended period of time in Canada. Then, never having forgotten God’s call to serve overseas, he bade farewell to his brother and set sail for China.
Here, too, we must bid farewell to Burns. The rest of his remarkable life story is lovingly told by his brother Islay Burns in his Memoir of the Rev. W.C. Burns (London: James Nisbet, 1870).