The Christian life of William Chalmers Burns divides itself very abruptly into two distinct periods. For the first fifteen years of his converted life, William Burns was greatly and mightily used of the Lord in the promotion of religious revivals, especially at his home town of Kilsyth and at Dundee (in the church of Robert Murray McCheyne,) and in many other parts of the country, as well.
From the midst of all this labour in these islands the Lord, in His unexplainable ways at times, removed this man who had been used to call hundreds into a saving knowledge of Christ, and placed him thousands of miles away in the, then very much unknown and unexplored, great land of China, where he was to labour in something like total obscurity for the next twenty years or so.
This fact cast an almost mysterious lustre around the shoulders of William Burns, and leaves us with two very distinct and contrasting impressions of the Minister/missionary's life. In the first place, we see him as the eloquent and fervent preacher of God's Word in the midst of the reviving church in Scotland during the first half of the nineteenth century; for the last twenty years of his life he has become that strange Chinese figure, having adopted the dress and personal appearance of the teeming multitudes of that ancient civilization in an effort to gain closer contact with them in order to bring them the Word of Life. Yet, God was greatly glorified in the life of William Burns - whether in the carved and polished pulpits of the churches in Scotland, or in the Chinese junks that lay alongside the river banks in that far-away and distant land.
The reason for all that is this: Burns had long-since settled in his heart and mind that God was to be glorified in all the earth; and so, wherever the Lord would lead him, there he would gladly follow with that great aim in view. “Take care of His cause,” he was exhorted by the venerable Rabbi Duncan, under whose ministry he grew and developed in the Milton Street church in Glasgow, “Take care of His cause, and He will take care of your interests; look after His glory, and He will look after your comforts.” The word never left William Burns' heart, and he could as gladly turn to “the land of Sinim” when the time came, as he had turned to his own realm of Scotland those fifteen years before.
But, to begin at the beginning! William Burns was born in the Manse at Duns in Angus in the year 1815. His father was minister in that place and one of the old school of evangelicals which was a fairly rare breed at that particular time. Burns was reared up under the sound of the doctrines of God's free grace to sinners, for, both in the Church of which he was minister and in his own home, the older Burns loved to set forth the glory of God in the salvation of sinners. Even in the midst of such an environment, however, the young William appeared little influenced and when the family reading was in progress was most conspicuous by his absence.
Religious books held no attraction for him, and the Pilgrim's Progress alone seems to have caught and held his imagination at this period in his life. In the providence of the Lord, it was this very book that was to be so greatly used by Burns in China when he was enabled to interpret its message into the language and thought-forms of the Chinese people. In these early days, however, the young Burns had no thought whatsoever of his life's work for God in such a barren and remote part of the world - nor, indeed, had he any thought even of God Himself. He had firmly set his eye on what he believed to be more verdant pastures, and these he laboured to enter. An uncle of the family had carved out an extremely comfortable living for himself by entering the Law profession, and young William consistently reasoned with himself - Lawyers have lots of money and live in grand houses, therefore, seeing that I want to have lots of money and live in a grand house, I will become a Lawyer! With this aim in view he left the Manse - now at Kilsyth - and entered into what he imagined his life's career was going to be in Edinburgh. “We mourn over him as one bound for the world,” his sister wrote. But, into the world he went, for it was only the world he sought.
Once settled in the fashionable society of his new life, Burns began to draw sharp contrasts between it and the fixed and solid standards that he had known “from his youth up.” His worldly resolutions and determinations began to waver somewhat, and one or two influences were brought to bear on his mind about this time. A letter from his sisters at home in which they referred to the family as pilgrims bound for eternity and leaving him behind, proved to be one of the first barbs to his conscience. Although his feelings were little more than natural at the idea of parting eternally with those that he loved, nevertheless, his eyes were taken momentarily off the things of the world and on to the things of eternity; “I could not think of my Christian parents, and my Godly home with all its sweet and solemn privileges, without an awful conflict of soul at the thought of parting with them for ever. I could think of parting with Christ, for I knew Him not, but to part with them was too much for me to bear.”
At this point, a second influence was brought to bear. Before leaving home, his father had given him a copy of Pike's Early Piety, and to this he now turned. “While gazing on a solemn passage in it,” he tells us, “my inmost soul was pierced as with a dart. God had apprehended me,” he goes on, “I felt the conviction of my lost estate rushing through me with resistless power; I left the room, and retired to a bedroom, there to pour out my heart for the first time with many tears in a genuine heart-rending cry for mercy.” His conclusions with regards to his soul and his future quickly follow; “From the first moment of this wonderful experience,” he records, “I had the inspiring hope of being saved by a sovereign and infinitely gracious God; and in the same instant almost, I felt that I must leave my present occupation and devote myself to Jesus in the ministry of the glorious gospel by which I had been saved.”
His sister takes up the narrative at this point, how he suddenly and unexpectedly walked into the old manse at Kilsyth; “Oh, Willie,” exclaimed his mother, “where have you come from?” His answer was terse and to the point; “From Edinburgh,” he replied. “How did you get here?” “I walked.” (This was a distance of 36 miles.) “There was then a silence,” his sister tells us, “and standing on the hearth-rug with his back to the fire, he said, ‘what would you think, mother, if I should be a minister after all?’ His countenance showed that he was speaking in earnest, and he then told openly how the Lord had arrested him, and that he had no rest in his spirit till he should come home and obtain his parents' consent to relinquish the law and give himself to the service of Jesus in the ministry of the gospel.”
We can imagine that no consent was more gladly given, and in process of time, we find William Burns enrolled as a Divinity student at Glasgow. The most popular University for Divinity at this time was Edinburgh where the great Thomas Chalmers was at his zenith. Burns' enrolment at Glasgow takes on a distinctively providential flavour, for it was here that he came under the influence of Rabbi Duncan - a man burning with zeal for the missionary work of the church, and who, in turn, fired the hearts of the young men under him. Burns recalls the Rabbi's ministry, “As if every Sabbath spent in Milton Church had been a day on Patmos, and every sermon as the opening of the gates of heaven.” Before he had left Glasgow, William Burns had already decided that he would seek the glory of the Lord far beyond his native shores. This was, indeed, to be the case, but he was to learn - as many before and since have had to do - that the Lord's ways can be slow in maturing in our estimation of time.
It was in the same year that Burns was licensed to preach - 1839 - that Robert Murray McCheyne received an invitation to join the party bound for Palestine to explore the possibility of a mission work among the Jews. A substitute preacher was required for McCheyne's congregation at St. Peter's in Dundee during his absence, and in the all-sovereign purposes of God, William Burns was elected to fill the vacancy. McCheyne's letter to him at this time is characteristic of the saintly pastor; “You are given in answer to prayer,” he wrote, “may you be a thousand times more blessed among my people than I have ever been.” That heart's desire and prayer was soon to be answered; McCheyne had sown the seed of the Word faithfully, and soon, both sower and reaper would rejoice together. Almost from the first, the sheaves began to be gathered in. Burns then received a call from the Mission board to go to Poona in India. He was undecided on account of the way that the Lord had apparently begun to send a time of reviving upon His church at home, and he returned to his old home at Kilsyth to seek the way of the Lord more perfectly. Kilsyth was a village that was no stranger to the reviving grace of God, and in the times of Whitefield, while under the ministry of James Robe, the place had become as “a well of living waters.”
William Burns' Godly old father remembered such days, and longed for them in the earth again, and it was his custom to take some of his congregation and gather for prayer in those very spots that the Lord had visited in a bye-gone age. Surely, neither he himself, or any member of that Kilsyth church, could ever have imagined that the instrument in the hand of the Lord for the glorious revival among them would be that runagate youth who had left the old manse not many years before with his dreams of wealth and earthly prosperity. But, so it was to be!
Burns's own account is the best commentary on those memorable days in July 1839. He had preached at the Communion service on the Lord's Day with very little visible effect, but it was during the service of the Tuesday morning following that the Lord began to speak with a voice to wake the dead. “When I entered the pulpit,” Burns tells us, “I saw before me an immense multitude from the town and neighbourhood filling the seats, stairs, passages, and porches … I began, I think, by singing Psalm 102, and was affected deeply when in reading it I came to these lines:
‘Her time for favour which was set, Behold, is now come to an end.’
That word ‘Now’ touched my heart as with Divine power, and encouraged the sweet hope that the set time was really now at hand.” He preached from the words, “Thy people shall be willing in the day of thy power,” and, says he, “during the whole of the time that I was speaking, the people listened with the most riveted and solemn attention, and with many silent tears and inward groanings of the spirit: but,” he goes on, “at last their feelings became too strong for all ordinary restraints, and broke forth simultaneously in weeping and wailing, tears and groans intermingled with shouts of joy and praise from some of the people of God.”
God had answered Burns' present indecision with regards to his place of labour in a most remarkable way, and his return to Dundee only served to add weight to the answer. What had earlier begun as a trickle of blessing in St. Peter's now enlarged into a flood, and as McCheyne returned from the Holy Land to take up the work in Dundee once more, there were many who sought the ministry of the man whom God had so manifestly laid His hand upon.
Again, Burns thought it fitting to consider his present sphere of service, but his conclusion soon grew - “It is a fearful sin to be going through the world with a light kindled by the Holy Ghost to guide sinners to Christ, and yet, carry this as a dark lantern that cannot benefit any one …” The story of his life thereafter is one of diligent labour for the Lord, of oppositions and beatings, and stonings as he preached in the open air; of crowded churches and outpourings of the Holy Spirit of God; of the establishing of the work of grace in many hearts.
A new day was about to dawn among the churches of Scotland; the Disruption of 1843 now necessitated consolidation and pastoral work, and Burns believed that the time to seek out the heathen in his strong crafts in the China waterways had come.
In November 1847, William Burns arrived in the harbour of Hong Kong to begin a new life, unknown and unsung, even in the Church of Christ.
End of Part One
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