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?