"Know him? All China knows him to be the holiest man alive!"
Evangelist and pioneer Presbyterian Church of England
missionary in China, born Kilsyth, Scotland, 1 April 1815, died Yingkou, China,
4 April 1868. He studied law in Edinburgh and theology in Glasgow and was
involved in revivals in Dundee and Kilsyth where he developed his gifts as an
evangelist. After time in Ireland and Canada, in 1847 he was ordained and
appointed to China as the first missionary of the Presbyterian Church of
England. His itinerant ministry laid the foundation for their work in Guangzhou,
Xiamen, Shanghai, Shantou, and Fujian. Known as “the man of the Book”, he
translated Pilgrim’s Progress and the metrical Psalms and wrote a
number of hymns in Chinese.
There are many stories about Burns, and some have been embroidered over the years: Like Chinese whispers, they get better with the telling. Two stories: which one is true:? (our money is on the second but the first is really quite priceless!)
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|The story is told that when he was seventeen he was brought by his mother from the quiet town of Kilsyth to the bustling city of Glasgow. His mother was separated from her son while she was shopping. After retracing her steps she discovered him in an alley with tears streaming down his face. She could see he was suffering great agony and said, "Willie my boy, what ails you? Are you ill?" With broken cries he replied, "Oh, mother, mother - the thud of these Christless feet on the way to hell breaks my heart !!"||By the time he received a licence to preach in 1839, Burns was twenty-four and so profoundly was he moved by compassion for the multitudes in Glasgow who were unreached by the gospel that on one occasion when his mother saw him silently standing at the side of a busy street, he told her, "I was so overcome by the sight of countless crowds .... towards the eternal world that I could bear it no longer and I turned in here to seek relief in quiet thought."|
William C. Burns, like M’Cheyne, was not merely a man of hopeful theories and empty words. Through his fervent praying and preaching, literally thousands witnessed the tangible glory of God. From an early age, William C. Burns heart was broken for a lost and dying world. The story is told that when he was seventeen he was brought by his mother from the quiet town of Kilsyth to the bustling city of Glasgow. His mother was separated from her son while she was shopping. After retracing her steps she discovered him in an alley with tears streaming down his face. She could see he was suffering great agony and said, "Willie my boy, what ails you? Are you ill?" With broken cries he replied, "Oh, mother, mother - the thud of these Christless feet on the way to hell breaks my heart !!"
The spiritual eyes of young William Burns had caught a glimpse of the everlasting horrors of a Christless eternity. This vision no doubt help shape this young man who would later become one of the key instruments in the great Kilsyth Revival of 1839. He often found himself being driven to his knees in almost constant intercession. "He wept for hours in deep soul agony on behalf of a backslidden church and the lost souls going to hell." His ministry was consistently marked by a divine urgency and intensity. As a result, his preaching produced extraordinary results.
Mr. Burns recalls a time during the Kilsyth Revival when strong men fell powerless under the power of the Gospel hammer. "During the whole time that I was speaking, the people listened with the most solemn attention. At last their feelings became too strong and broke forth in weeping and wailing, tears and groans, intermingled with shouts of glory and praise from some of the people of God. The appearance of a great part of the people gave me a vivid picture of the state of the ungodly in the day of Christ’s coming to judgement. Some were screaming out in agony. Strong men fell to the ground as if they were dead. Such was the general commotion even after repeating for some time the most free and urgent invitations of the Lord to sinners."
Later, William C. Burns learned that the night before this powerful meeting a group of believers had gathered to labor in prayer for the lost and ungodly. During those wonderful days of revival glory it was not uncommon for Mr. Burns and many others to fervently pray and travail throughout the night. As a result the glory of God fell day after day. Again, William C. Burns describes for us the miraculous affect of the Spirit of revival. He writes, "At the conclusion of a solemn address to some anxious souls suddenly the power of God seem 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 crying for mercy... The whole town was moved. The ungodly raged but the word of God grew mightily and prevailed."
Even after being used of God to turn Scotland upside down, William C. Burns’ passion for souls was still unsatisfied. He was soon off to China to preach the gospel to those who had never heard the precious name of JESUS! He was recognized as the premier revivalist of his day, and yet he joyfully surrendered himself to a life of obscurity and hardship on the neglected mission fields of China. No other episode in Burns’ wonderful life reveals more about his sterling character than this one decision. In so doing he left popularity, prestige, wealth and loved ones all behind. When he was asked when he would be ready to leave for China, his answer was, "NOW". He boldly declared, "I am ready to burn out for God. I am ready to endure any hardship, if by any means I might save some. The longing of my heart is to make known my glorious Redeemer to those who have never heard." On another occasion Burns was heard to say, "The longing of my heart would be to go once around the world before I die, and preach one gospel invitation in the ear of every creature." His own mother likened him to a sharp knife that would be worn out by cutting, rather than by rusting; and the young Burns wished that it might be so!
In 1855, William C. Burns unexpectedly met a young missionary in China by the name of James Hudson Taylor. This seemingly random meeting resulted in a great blessing for both men. William Burns found in Hudson Taylor a man after his own heart, and for seven months they walked together as kindred souls and fellow-laborers. Mr. Burns also recognized the warm reception Hudson Taylor received by the Chinese, while ministering in the native Chinese dress. Burns was quick to learn from his new friend and soon adopted this practice for himself. The impact made upon the youthful Taylor by the experienced Scotsman is clearly seen in Hudson Taylor's journals and letters. "Never had I had such a spiritual father as Mr. Burns", wrote Hudson Taylor. The autobiographical work of Hudson Taylor, "A Retrospect" gives a further account of the deep impression that Burns had on him. He writes, "Those happy months were an unspeakable joy and privilege to me. His love for the Word was delightful, and his holy, reverential life and constant communings with GOD made fellowship with him satisfying to the deep cravings of my heart. His accounts of revival work and of persecutions in Canada, and Dublin, and in Southern China were most instructive, as well as interesting; for with true spiritual insight he often pointed out GOD'S purposes in trial in a way that made all life assume quite a new aspect and value. His views especially about evangelism as the great work of the Church, and the order of lay evangelists as a lost order that Scripture required to be restored, were seed-thoughts which were to prove fruitful in the subsequent organization of the China Inland Mission"
"We were in the habit of leaving our boats, after prayer for blessing, at about nine o'clock in the morning, with a light bamboo stool in hand. Selecting a suitable station, one would mount the stool and speak for twenty minutes, while the other was pleading for blessing; and then changing places, the voice of the first speaker had a rest. After an hour or two thus occupied, we would move on to another point at some distance from the first, and speak again. Usually about midday we returned to our boats for dinner, fellowship, and prayer, and then resumed our out-door work until dusk. After tea and further rest, we would go with our native helpers to some tea-shop, where several hours might be spent in free conversation with the people. Not infrequently before leaving a town we had good reason to believe that much truth had been grasped; and we placed many Scriptures and books in the hands of those interested." Another missionary to China was once asked. "Do you know William Burns?" The missionary replied, "Know him? All China knows him to be the holiest man alive!"
William C. Burns was driven by an all-consuming passion for the Lamb of God. In Burns, God found a man who truly cared. He cared enough to listen, obey, and stay on his knees. William Burns recognized that shallow and superficial praying was one of the greatest hindrances to the Kingdom of Jesus Christ. He believed that a lack of true endurance in the secret place of prayer gives the victory to Satan. Burns writes, "Many who do come into the secret place, and who are God's children, enter it and leave it just as they entered, without ever so much as realizing the presence of God. And there are some believers who, even when they do obtain a blessing, and get a little quickening of soul, leave the secret place without seeking more. They go to their chamber, and there get into the secret place, but then, as soon as they have got near to Him, they think they have been peculiarly blessed, and leave their chamber, and go back into the world… Oh, how is it that the Lord's own people have so little perseverance? How is it that when they do enter into their place of prayer to be alone, they are so easily persuaded to be turned away empty; instead of wrestling with God to pour out His Spirit, they retire from the secret place without the answer, and submit to it as being God's will."
In Ezekiel 22:30,31, the prophet warns us of what happens when God cannot find true men and women of broken-hearted prayer and obedience. - "So I sought for a man among them who would make a wall, and stand in the gap before Me on behalf of the land, that I should not destroy it, but I found no one. "Therefore I have poured out My indignation on them; I have consumed them with the fire of My wrath; and I have recompensed their deeds on their own heads, says the Lord God." Whom among us will STAND In the gap and pray, and then pray again until heaven comes down to earth?
References Used - The Memoirs of William C. Burns by Islay Burn, William C. Burns by James A. Stewart, The Memoirs and Remains of Robert Murray M’Cheyne by Andrew A. Bonar, Robert Murray McCheyne by Alexander Smellie, Revival Sermons by William C. Burns, The Revival of Religion: Addresses by Scottish Evangelical Leaders delivered in Glasgow in 1840, Narratives of Revivals of Religion in Scotland, Ireland, and Wales by The Presbyterian Board of Publication, Scotland Saw His Glory by W. J. Couper, A Retrospect by J. Hudson Taylor, Hudson Taylor in Early Years: The Growth of a Soul by Dr. & Mrs. Howard Taylor, Hudson Taylor: The Man Who Believed God by Marshall Broomhall, The Story of the China Inland Mission by M. Geraldine Guinness, The Jubilee Story of the China Inland Mission by Marshall Broomhall
The great out-pouring of blessing that God granted in Scotland in the 1840s had many wonderful effects, reaching far beyond the borders of that country. The way in which men such as Robert Murray M'Cheyne, Thomas Chalmers and the Bonar brothers were mightily used in the propagation of the gospel has rightly received attention down to the present day. Not so well known perhaps, is the story of William Chalmers Burns who was closely involved in the Scottish revival from the beginning and was then called to the mission field in China where he spent the rest of his life.
Burns was born as the Napoleonic Wars against France came to an end in 1815, but although it was a time of economic and social disruption, he enjoyed the advantages of a godly upbringing since his father was a minister at Kilsyth. In addition several other close relatives were evangelical pastors, but Burns originally had no intention of following their example. After showing great promise at school he decided to train for a legal career because of the wealth prospects he hoped it would bring and duly began his studies in Edinburgh. Within a short time however all this was changed when he came to faith in Christ at the age of seventeen, and walked the thirty-six miles back to Kilsyth to tell his family the good news.
With his heart set on entering the ministry Burns went to Aberdeen university and then to Glasgow to study theology. It was while at the latter that he attended the Milton Church where the ministry of John Duncan was powerfully blessed at that time. Burns was deeply moved by the sense of God's presence filling the congregation during Sabbath worship and knew that his own call to service for the Lord was being confirmed. He also came into contact with the Students Missionary Society which held regular meetings to encourage interest in, and support for, missionary work - and he immediately took an active part in its affairs.
By the time he received a licence to preach in 1839, Burns was twenty-four and so profoundly was he moved by compassion for the multitudes in Glasgow who were unreached by the gospel that on one occasion when his mother saw him silently standing at the side of a busy street, he told her, "I was so overcome by the sight of countless crowds .... towards the eternal world that I could bear it no longer and I turned in here to seek relief in quiet thought."
Burns had developed a keen interest in India as a sphere of service and was actually waiting in anticipation of a call to go there when a letter arrived from Robert Murray M'Cheyne in March 1839. It contained an invitation not to India, but to Dundee to deputise at St Peter's Church while M'Cheyne was visiting Palestine with a view to establishing missionary work there on behalf of the Church of Scotland. M'Cheyne had been much in prayer for the right person to take charge of the church while he was away and he had no doubt that God would provide in His own perfect when he wrote, "You are given in answer to prayer, and these gifts are, I believe, always without exception blessed. I hope you may be a thousand times more blessed amongst them than ever I was. Perhaps there are many souls that would never have been saved under my ministry, who may be touched under yours; and God has taken this method of bringing you into my place. His name is Wonderful."
For some time Burns had been helping his father by taking services at Kilsyth, but he was conscious of his own insufficiency in replacing a minister such as M'Cheyne. Nevertheless, trusting in God to honour the faithful preaching of His word, Burns accepted the temporary position and began his work at Dundee the following week. The next engagement Burns had to preach at Kilsyth was in June and it was during the morning worship that he felt deeply constrained to lay the claims of Christ upon, "the sleeping saints and lost sinners" in the congregation. The power of the Holy Spirit was so strongly present that the service which began at ten o'clock continued until after three in the afternoon as men and women fell under conviction of sin and called for mercy and forgiveness. The evening service saw the blessing continue far into the night and despite the fact that Burns had to return back to Dundee a few days later, the awakening at Kilsyth went on through the summer months.
As soon as Burns arrived back the stirrings of revival were evident at Dundee also. At the end of the next midweek prayer meeting he spoke briefly of the wonderful works of God at Kilsyth and gave an invitation to all who were earnestly seeking a visitation of the Holy Spirit to remain behind to continue in prayer. Around a hundred people responded to his appeal and as the meeting progressed the Spirit of God broke in upon them with great power. So many were moved to prayer that meetings had to be hastily arranged for every evening of the following week, and each night the large number of people pressing into the minister's vestry to speak of God's gracious dealings with them caused Burns to ask other pastors to help him. The preaching services on Sundays drew such congregations that it seemed most of the population of Dundee was attending and by November the revival had spread to such an extent that M'Cheyne heard about it in Germany on his way back to Scotland. In a letter to his parents he wrote, "We have heard something of a reviving work at Kilsyth. We saw it noticed in one of the newspapers. I also saw the name of Dundee associated with it: so that I earnestly hope good has been doing in our church, and the dew from on high watering our parishes, and that the flocks whose pastors have been wandering may also have shared in the blessing." The reports which M'Cheyne had read were not exaggerated, since he found that the first prayer meeting he attended after returning to Dundee was crowded with people filling every space in the church. They even sat on the pulpit steps and as the opening hymn was sung M'Cheyne said it felt that, "they were praising a present God."
Burns was now free to accept invitations by other churches and M'Cheyne wrote to him, "I shall never be able to thank you for all your labours among the precious souls committed to me: and what is worse, I can never thank God fully for His kindness and grace, which every day appears to me more remarkable. He has answered prayer to me in all that has happened, in a way which I have never told anyone." M'Cheyne was ready for Burns to remain with him, but acknowledged that he should go wherever God led him, when he wrote, "I thought the Lord had so blessed you in Dundee, that you were called to a fuller and deeper \work there: but if the Lord accompanies you to other places, I have nothing to object."
For several years Burns travelled throughout Scotland preaching in many places and even made visits abroad to Ireland and Canada. His heart was still drawn towards service on the mission field and in 1847 he learned of the great need for missionaries in China. He immediately applied to go and when this was approved at a meeting in Sunderland, he set off for London on the next day, having already bid farewell to his family in Scotland. He spent the long voyage to the East learning the language and studying a Chinese translation of the Gospel of Matthew, and once he arrived at Hong Kong he stayed with Europeans for only two months before moving into the Chinese community and adopting their dress and language.
Since 1842, China had allowed British citizens to live in five of its trading cities and Burns began his work at one of these named Amoy. His plans to extend his activities to the Yangtze valley were prevented and instead he made evangelistic visits to the vast crowds living on the river boats at Shanghai. It was here in December 1855 he met the young missionary James Hudson Taylor. The two men immediately recognised the kindred nature of their work and they agreed to make a series of joint visits to new unreached areas until July 1856.
Taylor greatly valued these times, writing, "Never had I such a spiritual father as Mr Burns," and his foundation of the China Inland Mission owed much to the support Burns gave him. Although Burns was arrested in 1856 for being outside the permitted towns, he was not discouraged and soon resumed his work of evangelism. From then onwards his work was essentially of a pioneer kind, going wherever he perceived an opportunity to speak of Christ, whether it was to condemned criminals In prison, travellers by the roadside, or villagers gathered in the market places. This meant that he was constantly moving from town to town, and apart from one brief furlough when he accompanied a sick missionary back to Scotland, Burns spent over twenty years seeking out those who had not yet heard of the Saviour. Because he had no permanent home, he depended on hospitality when travelling, but he was content to share the simplest accommodation and food with his hosts, and all his possessions could be packed into a single wooden box.
Despite the size of China and the slowness of travel, Burns covered enormous distances, preaching and witnessing tirelessly until he became a familiar sight in province after province. So great was his love and compassion for the people that when a fellow missionary was asked if he knew Burns, he replied, "Sir, all China knows him: he's the holiest man alive." Having spent his life working for God's glory Burns was prepared when His master should call him home. At the age of fifty-three, while in Manchuria, he became seriously ill and although cared for by another missionary and a Chinese he had befriended, he died shortly afterwards. In his final moments Burns and his companions repeated the twenty-third Psalm and the Lord's Prayer, resting in assurance upon the everlasting arms of the eternal God who was his refuge.
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Most recent revision 04 October 1997