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Kilsyth, A Parish History
Chapter XVI


William H. Burns—Two Kirk Session Meetings—Dun and Kilsyth—9th May, 1843—Character Sketch—At the Feet of Christ—Birth — Ordination—Work at Dun—Induction to Kilsyth—Presentation and “ Call”—At the Grave of Robe— W. C. Burns—The Memory of Rev. John Livingston—The Second Revival—The ’43 Secession—A Long Bright Sunset— Rev. Robert Black—Family—Education—Church Building —Rev. W. Jeffrey.

The minutes of Kilsyth Kirk Session show that the first meeting of which William Burns was moderator was held on the 24th December, 1820, and that the last at which he presided was dated the 9th May, 1843. So far as the business done at these two meetings of session was concerned, it was of an entirely routine and colourless character. Three and twenty years, however, is a long time in the life of any man, and in that of a clergyman it covers much more than the average period of ordination. Looking at these two sederunts of session now, after all those years, and comparing them together, we observe that these gentlemen held session with Dr. Bums at the first meeting:—James Lang, Robert Shaw, Alexander Shaw, Alexander Aitcheson, George Young, James Goodwin, John Hay, William Wilson, Alexander Henderson, David Clelland, and Matthew Anderson— a goodly company of eleven elders. And these, with the moderator formed the court of the 9th May, 1843 James Wilson, James Shaw, William Anderson, junior,'

Andrew Clelland, John Findlay, and J. F. Walker. There were three members absent that night George Auchinvole, A. Marshall, and J. Paterson. Some of the old names survive, but the old bearers of them are all

gone. Of the elders Dr. Burns found about him when he was ordained to Kilsyth, the whole were changed during these twenty-three years he had been minister of the parish,.

I have not only compared the membership of the session, I have also compared the two signatures of the moderator. Surely there never was handwriting that for so long a period retained its original character. The names might have been printed from a wood block, so closely do they resemble each other. And yet in what different circumstances were they written, and with what different out-looks. It must have been with a quiet but sincere pleasure he took his place in the Kilsyth Kirk Session for the first time. The parish of Dun was a poor place then, and is a poor place still. Its population is dwindling. It contained seven hundred people then, and it contains little more than five hundred now. His appointment here meant substantial advancement. Dun is as beautiful and sleepy a place as one could find in all Scotland. In Kilsyth, there was more life, a deeper interest in things spiritual, and larger emoluments, a matter of importance to a clergyman with a family of boys. And then his presentation had come at an opportune time. He had reached middle life, and being in the maturity of his strength he could look forward with some confidence to the enjoyment of his preferment for a period of years, and to the performance of good work in a larger and more responsible sphere.

Such probably were his feelings and anticipations as he appended his name to the minutes of the kirk session for the first time; but what were his thoughts as he signed the minute of the 9th May, 1843? He is getting an old man now, and there is a storm cloud gathering in the ecclesiastical heavens. It was a time of crisis, and he was aware of all that was going on. To the solid qualifications of the pastor, Dr. Burns did not add the accomplishments either of the orator or man of letters. There*is consequently no means of forming a true opinion of the state of his mind at this juncture. From all that can be gathered he seems to have been one of those—and they were many—who cherished to the very last the sincerest conviction that secession would be avoided. There is reason to suppose that when he found himself one of the band that left the Assembly, and walked down to Canon Mills, his position surprised nobody so much as himself. He had never thought the wordy storm i^ould ever come to that. But to that it did come. The worthy man found at the last that he had got into a current which had been carrying him forward imperceptibly, and had swept him almost before he had time to realise it, beyond the bounds of the church to which he had been ordained, and to which he was attached by the tenderest ties.

It is not very easy to get near to Dr. Burns. Even in his son’s portrait his figure seems distant and far-away. We never get quite close up to him. A good man he undoubtedly was, a strong man he could hardly have been. If the Livingstons, or Robe, or Rennie, had lived through the Secession, we would have heard their voices mingling in the clamour and seen the flashing of their swords in the fight. But it is not so with Dr. Burns, and even in the revival of 1839* he does not move amid the spiritual scenes of that year, as we see Robe moving amid the times of refreshing that were granted to the parish in 1762. Bums does not ride on the whirlwind, and direct the spiritual storm as Robe did, but seems contented to leave the leadership in the hands of others. As a pastor he was everywhere, as a preacher he was nowhere. But all this granted, the life of Dr. Burns has a rare attractiveness which is all its own. It is full of repose, it is wrapt in a clear spiritual calm. He has his soul-dwelling, not on the mountain top, where there are only scanty herbage, the blasted peaks and the toiling tempests, but down in the valley where the crops ripen, where the oxen feed on the lush grass, where there is prosperity and tranquillity. It does one good to look back on the man who took time to live, who did his work quietly, and in whom there was an entire absence of all fussiness. In the Church of our day the spirit of Martha is wholly prevalent. One’s ear is deafened with the noise of the rattling of the pots and the paqs of the ecclesiastical kitchen. There is a prevailing restlessness and discontent. The movement and heat speak not of health, but of fever in the blood. There is a greater eagerness to be seen of men, and to stir up the little dust of praise than to live the life of day to day sobriety and Christian devotedness. The flock is pampered rather than fed. Congregations think they are doing nothing unless they are working for bazaars, introducing organs, building churches, raising endowment funds and what not. Dr. Burns was one whom this modem spirit had not yet touched. He played the part of Mary. During his long ministry he lay at the feet of Christ. Take away the revival and the secession, and Dr. Bums’ life flows onward without a ripple, without a break, calmly and deeply like some nameless stream only known to the flower-banks it laved, the flocks it refreshed, the cottage houses it passed in its onward progress. A casual observer will be inclined to say that in the course of his long ministry, Dr. Burns did little or nothing, but a more discerning, a more spiritual critic will unfailingly aver, that he chose that good part which could not be taken from him.

William H. Bums was born on the 15th February, 1779. His father was an officer of customs at Borrowstounness, and afterwards factor to the Duke of Hamilton on the Kinneil estate. There was a large family. He had three brothers lawyers, and three ministers of the Church of Scotland. William’s boyhood was like his life, contemplative rather than eventful. At the early age of thirteen he entered the University of Edinburgh. Having passed through the curriculum of arts, he became a student of divinity in 1795, and received license as a preacher of the Gospel from the Presbytery of Stranraer in 1799. His probationary period was of the shortest. On the 4th December, 1800, he entered on the charge of the parish of Dun, in Forfarshire, having been presented by John Erskine, who was both the laird and the patron of the parish. The young preacher had been adroitly brought under the notice both of patron and people by his uncle, who was at that time one of the ministers of Brechin. At first assistant to his aged predecessor, he made an excellent impression on the patron on the occasion of a service held in the parish church on a national fast-day appointed in connection with the war. Mr. Erskine, who had guests, asked them to attend church along with him, and judge of the young man’s politics. The preacher having delivered one of his divinity hall homilies, the party were delighted, not with the politics, but with the entire absence of them. So the patron was pleased with the sagacity of the young minister in avoiding the pulpit discussion of political topics, sounded his praises through the parish, did a little canvassing on his behalf, and gave him the presentation. For twenty years Dr. Burns ministered to the parishioners of Dun. They were years of quietness, and of routine duty faithfully performed. He preached every Sabbath day in the church; he baptized the children ; he blessed the union of loving hearts ; he visited the sick; attended the presbytery meetings; and that was all. He must have had leisure time at his disposal, but the thought of turning it to high literary account seems never to have occurred to him. After he had been six years in Dun he married Elizabeth, daughter of James Chalmers, printer, Aberdeen, and by her he had a family of six sons and four daughters.

It is unfortunate that whilst his son and biographer, the Rev. Islay Burns, gives such minute account of his father’s presentation and call to the parish of Dun, he should have preserved so severe a silence about his presentation and call to the parish of Kilsyth. He was presented by George IV., but by whose influence I have never been able to learn. He received the presentation in September, 1820, and was admitted on the 9th April, 1821. In the year following he went to pay his respects to his patron at Edinburgh, but that the family entertained some grudge about the matter may be concluded, for his son says, "He knows not how his father demeaned himself under the sudden blaze of majesty.” There is also a mystery about Dr. Bums’ call to the parish of Kilsyth and the number of signatures appended to it. That there was a call is conceded. If there had been no Patronage in the days of Dr. Burns, I have no doubt the voice of the people might have made him minister of Dun; on the other hand, however, I have not the least doubt that the popular vote would never have given him the parish of Kilsyth. In themselves these matters would scarcely have been worth noticing, but they are of obvious interest when we come to see the strong position which Dr. Burns took up against Patronage.

After the death of Dr. Rennie, the heritors and kirk session approached the presbytery to grant them a preacher to fill the pulpit till a new minister was appointed. Having undertaken to make liberal provision for the preacher, the presbytery highly approved of the spirit manifested by the heritors and kirk session, and granted the prayer of their petition. Thus the work of the parish was carried on without intermission till the induction of Dr. Burns, Most appropriately, the first signs of the great outpouring of the Holy Spirit which was to bless his faithful ministry were manifested by the grave of the Rev. James Robe. Dr. Burns held the memory of his illustrious predecessor in loving regard, and on a lovely Sabbath afternoon in August he preached to the congregation in the graveyard a memorial sermon. Standing oyer his dust, he chose for his text the words which Robe had engraved in Hebrew characters on the tombstone of his wife:—“Thy dead men shall live; together with my dead body shall they arise. Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust; for thy dew is as the dew of herbs, and the earth shall cast out the dead ” Stimulated by the honour in which he held his predecessor, and the picturesque associations, the preacher . delivered a heart-searching discourse. Referring to Mr. .Robe, he said: “We surround the grave of one who was eminent in his day for zeal and success in the work o( the Lord. He laboured in the vineyard for the long space of forty-one years, having been ordained in 1713, and departed this life in 1754. The narrative, well known amongst you, tells of the great things done in the latter years of his ministry, when many gave the best evidence of having been born again through the Word . then preached; and of the vast assemblies along the adjoining stream, hearing with earnest hearts the words of life; and of the additional recurring sacramental seasons caused by the intense desire to enjoy such refreshing meetings. His memory is savoury. His sermons and ‘ Narrative/ and the holy character he maintained to the end, render his memory peculiarly precious. Two other ministers have subsequently laboured here, and closed their ministry also. Their doctrine was the same as Mr. Robe’s, although no such remarkable success attended their ministrations.” Then setting forth how he himself had no new doctrine to publish, he was content, like them, to set forth Jesus Christ and Him crucified. He went on to take advantage of the memorials of mortality amid which they were standing, and concluded with a touching appeal that they might so live that at the last they might be found on the right-hand side of the Judge, and numbered with the saints in glory everlasting. The Gospel was received by the audience in the love of it, and many thought that the work of the succeeding summer was but the fruit of the seed sown in the graveyard that beautiful August afternoon.

As this solemn impression had been largely brought about by recalling the times of Mr. Robe, so the revival of the following year was brought about at the first by W. C. Burns, the son of the pastor of Kilsyth, who had been appointed to fill M‘Cheyne’s pulpit in Dundee, during his absence in the Holy Land, recounting the work of the Rev. John Livingston at Shotts, and the doing of the Lord on that memorable occasion. The communion had just been held, and the sermon which put the torch to that spiritual pile which, during these long years, Dr. Burns had. been so industriously gathering, was preached in the parish church on the 23rd July, the Tuesday immediately following the dispensation. Mr. William C. Burns chose for his text the words from which Mr. Livingston had preached at Shotts. It having become known that the young preacher was not only on his way to take Mr. M'Cheyne’s place, but that he was soon to go abroad as a missionary, the church was crowded. The preacher spoke with impassioned force, and when he reached the height of his appeal, the emotion in the congregation became overpowering, and a scene ensued which beggars all description. As through the power of the Holy Spirit, the audience had quick realisation of their lost and sinful condition: some appeared to faint and fall, others cried out as if in an agony of terror, and tears stood in the eyes of all. In the evening the church was again crowded. Mr. Lyon of Banton lectured and Mr. W. C. Burns preached, and so the work went on from day to day. The elders, as in the days of Robe, were of the utmost service. They prayed with the distressed and spoke to them words of cheer and comfort. Great crowds were addressed in the market square and the graveyard. Many of the scenes were deeply affecting. Every day brought its trophies of victory. The Dissenters on this occasion did not stand apart. A meeting was held in the Relief Church, when various ministers of the body spoke approvingly of the movement. After this great work had been in progress for three weeks, it was thought advisable by the session after mature deliberation, for they were not united about it at the first, to have a special communion season for the administration of sealing ordinances.

The Saturday night before the celebration was spent, for the most part, in prayer. The singing of psalms could be heard at intervals the whole night through. Next morning it was calculated that nearly fifteen thousand people had gathered in and about the town. The communion services began at ten in the morning, and closed at nine in the evening. There was no interval, and there were eight table services. It was observed that the probationers and younger clergy spoke with a fulness and readiness of utterance unusual with them. With the Monday meetings, which began at eleven and terminated at five, the spiritual tide that had flooded the parish began gradually to ebb. It was a precious season of blessing, and the remembrance of it was sweet. The showers in answer to prayer had been copious and refreshing. Dr. Burns conducted the revival after the manner approved by Mr. Robe; unlike him, however, he did not keep a journal of the individual cases dealt with. That some seed fell by the wayside and the birds of the air devoured it, that other seed sprang up and was choked by thorns is perfectly true,. and will always occur where the sowing is free-handed; But it is also true that much seed fell into good ground and brought forth richly of the fruits of repentance and holy living.

The venerable pastor who had had his heart rejoiced by these times of revival was soon to participate in scenes of a far different character. We may be sure of this, strife in the Church does not mean the presence but the absence of the Lord and His Spirit. If I say little about the Secession of Forty-three it is not that I have nothing to say or that my convictions are insufficiently formed. It is for the interest of our Scottish Presbyterianism, that much that was said and done then should be forgotten now. I think the Seceders were right in protesting against Patronage; I think they were wrong in making it a ground of schism. Dr. Burns was present at the Assembly of 1843, an<* cast in his lot with the seceding party. There is no record of the reasons that weighed with him, but the fact itself is enough. How or where he was trammelled in his preaching or his pastorate is not apparent, but if he saw it or thought he saw it, that was enough for him. Certainly secession in Kilsyth parish could hold out no hope of preferment for him as it did for so many in other spheres. So far as the people were concerned they were largely guided by their clergy. If the minister went they went; if the minister stayed they stayed In Kilsyth parish the minister seceding, a very large number seceded with him. Of the session two elders remained at their posts and a third dropped in again. . Dr. Burns* face turned deadly pale when he heard his old bell ringing on the Sabbath morning after his return from Edinburgh, and knew now that by his own act he could go no more back to proclaim the Gospel within those blessed walls where he had seen the Holy Spirit descending in His power, and where he had won so many signal victories through the Redeemer’s name. Time went on and the Free Church was formed and he ministered as quietly and faithfully to his congregation as he had done to the parish. He took some interest in the building of his new manse, and Princeton College, America, conferred on him the degree of D;D. But his work was now really done, and the close of his life was a long bright sunset. He passed to his rest on the morning of Sabbath, the 8th day of May, 1859.

In 1854 the Rev. Robert Black, M.A., was appointed colleague and successor to Dr. Burns. Mr. Black was born the 4th December, 1826, at Cumnock, in Ayrshire, where his father, a builder, carried on a successful business. He was descended on the maternal side from John Welsh, minister of Ayr, son-in-law of John Knox, and on the paternal side from a Huguenot stock. He was a younger member of a family of twelve. He was educated at the parish school of his native place, and one of his school-fellows was the late Dr. James Brown of Paisley. When he came to the time when he must choose what he must be and do, his uncle, a sheep-farmer, offered to make him his heir, if he would qualify himself tp succeed him on the farm.. It was a great temptation, but, believing he was formed for some intellectual pursuit, he entered a lawyer’s office. At the end of three years he prevailed on his unwilling father to allow him to go to Glasgow University and study for the ministry. He completed his Arts’ course in May, 1848. His Natural Philosophy professor was the distinguished scientist who still fills that chair!

Passing through the New College, Mr. Black was licensed a probationer of the Free Church by the Presbytery of Ayr, on the 8th June, 1852. The presbytery pronounced him the most promising student who had yet come before them. At this time he had an extraordinary attack of whooping-cough, which so reduced him that his emaciated appearance on several occasions stood in the way of his promotion. Receiving simultaneously calls to Kilsyth and Linlithgow, he accepted the former, and on the occasion of his ordination, so highly was he esteemed by the people of Cumnock, he was presented by them with a valuable collection of books. The year after the death of Dr. Burns, Mr. Black married a daughter of the family of Mr. John F. Walker, who had been parochial schoolmaster and session clerk. “His life from that date till it ended,” says his accomplished son, “was one of almost uneventful toil, broken in its later stages by the demolition of the old Disruption church and the erection in its place of that graceful Gothic edifice which now crowns the brow of the brae on the south side of the town.” The disease to which Mr. Black succumbed was of a nervous character, and was to be traced to the fact that for many years he never had had a real holiday. The decline was gradual, but the worries inseparable from the election of a colleague precipitated his end, and in the November of 1888, he passed peacefully to his rest.

When Mr. Black first began his ministry, he could not deliver even a prayer-meeting address without first writing it out and committing it to memory. His first extempore performance was at a week-day meeting, when he had to take the place of a minister who flailed to appear. He came through the ordeal creditably, and from that time onward, his evening sermons were delivered without being previously written. Mr. Black had an excellent memory, and, after having written out his sermons, he was able to commit them with great facility. He has been succeeded in office by the Rev. William Jeffrey, who, in addition to being a minister of the Free Church, is also a qualified medical practitioner.


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