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Kilsyth, A Parish History
Chapter XVII


William C. Burns—Boyhood—"A Maxie”—Edinburgh Life—A Turning Point—Studies for the Ministry—Oratorical Power— Industrious Preaching—Second Revival—Scene in Church— Visits Dundee—Becomes an Evangelist—Visits Canada—Embarks for China—China and Chinese Sects—Methods and Means of Work—His Death—Thoughts of Home—“Very Poor.”

William C. Burns was the son of Dr. Burns of Kilsyth. He was born in the manse of Dun, 1st April, 1815. From the sequestered retirement of Dun, where the wheels of life moved slowly and quietly, he came to Kilsyth with his father when, in 1821, he was inducted minister of the parish. Dun was never a real part of William Burns’ life; it lay behind him rather like a happy dreamland or as a golden haze on the verge of his existence. The town of Kilsyth then contained 3000 inhabitants, and the landward 2000. The boy attended the parish school, and soon felt the stimulus of the more active life amid which he had now been cast. Among the sons of the farmers, weavers, and miners, he grew up, if not a tall, still a strong, ruddy lad, with a capability of going his own way and holding his own part Books were not entirely neglected, but for his natural instincts the Kilsyth hills and Carron water had irresistible attractions. The ambition of his heart was to be a farmer. At this period an uncle took him to Aberdeen, and placed him under Dr. Melvin, the famous classic. The doctor’s frown, on the occasion of his having perpetrated a maxie, William never forgot. If he had murdered his father, the teacher could not have looked upon him with greater scorn and indignation mingled with pity!

From the Aberdeen Grammar School he went to the university. In the bursary competition he stood fifth, and at the end of two sessions he entered the office of his uncle, Mr. Alexander Burns, Writer to the Signet, Edinburgh. That the young man, up to this time, had been leading a life of vicious self-indulgence is most highly improbable. Men of the temperament, and occupying the theological standpoint of William Bums, are prone to paint their spiritual condition before conversion in the blackest colours, erroneously imagining that by so doing the grace of God is magnified. That there had, however, been some wanderings in the paths of folly on the part of the young man seems to have been the case. It was, consequently, happy for him that through the interposition of the Holy Spirit he was arrested in these questionable courses before they had blossomed out into irretrievable transgression. He awoke to the consciousness that his heart was spiritually dead, on the occasion of receiving a letter from his sisters, in which they spoke of going as pilgrims to Zion* and leaving him behind them. That he should be parted from Christ gave him not the least concern, but the thought of being separated from his father and mother and sisters touched him to the quick. As he mused one evening over Pike’s Early Piety, a holy fire began to burn. In a moment, whilst he gazed on a solemn passage, his inmost soul was pierced as with a dart. God had apprehended him. Retiring to his bedroom, with many team, he besought God to blot out his transgressions, and to have mercy upon him. His prayers'.* were answered, and he felt that the Almighty had visited him with His salvation. So the conversion of the lawyer’s clerk was accomplished. That it was a real turning of the heart unto God his after life bears the most ample witness. Thenceforward his path was as the shining light which shines more and more unto the perfect day. From that time his piety burned with an unfluttering flame. When his Peniel wrestling was over, his new name was William Bums, Missionary and Evangelist.

Mr. Burns, determining now to fall in with his father’s wishes, abandoned his uncle’s office and began the prosecution of his studies for the ministry. Passing through his classes with considerable distinction, he was licensed a preacher of the Gospel by the Presbytery of Glasgow, 27th March, 1839. He preached his first sermon in Kilsyth Church, from the text, “I beseech, you, therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.” As a preacher, Mr. Bums had a voice of great compass and power. He knew the value of this rare qualification, and using it with skill, it was of enormous advantage to him when addressing large crowds. He had little imagination. The treatment of his themes was neither artistic nor poetic. The similitudes were wholly commonplace, and his use of them by no means after a manner calculated to impress the cultivated bearer with the refinement either of his oratorical or literary taste. His judgment, however, was just, and his thinking clear. The audience could never miss his meaning, and his careful divisions enabled them very easily to remember what he had preached. His appeals were direct, forcible, and impassioned. He impressed the listener as one standing in the presence of the eternal verities, of an All-Seeing God, of heaven and hell, of an endless felicity to be won or lost. He seemed to be a man who could not get enough of preaching. He was not restricted by canonical hours. In the church and out of the church, Sabbath day and week day, so far as preaching was concerned, were all alike to him. Possessing such a fund of energy, the effect of his preaching on the people of Dundee when he went, after his license, to take Mr. M'Cheyne’s place, can very readily be understood. On the week-night evenings, as well as on the Sundays, he filled St. Peter’s, and, during the whole period of his stay, conducted his evangelistic labours with unremitting enthusiasm and zeal. He was the moving spirit in the great work carried on at Kilsyth in the autumn of 1839. The sermon which set this work agoing was preached in the parish church on Tuesday, the 23rd July, 1839. The text was, Thy people shall be willing in the day of Thy power, Ps. ex. 3.

In his third and concluding head he showed that the day of Christ’s power is the time of the outpouring of His Spirit. The doctrine of Christ crucified is called the power of God, because it is the instrument which God employs in pulling down the strongholds of sin and Satan. But yet, this doctrine is, after all, but an instrument which cannot be effectual unless when it is wielded by the Almighty Spirit of God, by whose divine agency it is alone that sinners are loosed from the bondage of Satan, and brought into the glorious liberty of God’s children. Often is this great truth demonstrated in the experience of every Christian, and especially of every Christian minister. The truth of the Gospel is often preached with clearness, fulness, earnestness, and affection; sinners are taught their ruined and perishing condition under the broken covenant of works, and Christ is freely held out to them and urgently pressed upon them, and yet they remain despisers and rejectors of the Lord from heaven, and the minister of Christ is often found in sadness to exclaim, Who hath believed our report, and to whom hath the arm of the Lord been revealed? The people hear, and are, perhaps, attentive, and begin to reform many of those sinful practices in which they formerly indulged, but yet their hearts remain unconvinced of sin, and unenlightened in the glorious knowledge of Christ, and unconverted to God. There is still little seeking of Christ in secret prayer, little alarm experienced on account of sin, and few serious efforts to receive the Lord Jesus as he is freely offered. But oh! how changed is the scene when the Spirit is outpoured! Then the hearts of God’s people become full to overflowing with love to Jesus, and are drawn forth in vehement desires, after his glorious appearing to build up Zion. They are much in secret, and much in united prayer, and are cheered by the gladdening hope that the Lord is soon to listen to the groaning of the prisoner, and save those that are appointed unto death.

The ministers of God, also, are in general particularly enlivened and refreshed in their own souls. In private, they are deeply humbled in soul before the Lord, and have an uncommon measure of the spirit of supplication for sinners given them, with ardent love to Christ, melting compassion for perishing souls, and vehement desires for their salvation ; and then when they come to preach Jesus, they are evidently anointed with the Holy Ghost and with power; they speak with holy unction, earnestness, and affection, and sometimes hardly know how to leave off beseeching sinners to be reconciled to God. And then observe the frame of the hearers at such a time. Formerly no terror could awaken them from the sleep of death; they still said, Peace and safety, though sudden destruction was coming upon them; but now a few words are enough to pierce their inmost heart, and make them cry out often and aloud and against their will, Men and brethren, what shall we do? Formerly Jesus was held forth and was despised, but now every word that tells of His love is precious; His name is as an ointment poured forth, and sinners are filled with an agony of desire for a saving union unto Him. Men, and women, and children, retire from the House of God, not to profane the evening of God’s day in idle talk or idle strolling. They have much business to do with God. Their doors are shut, their Bibles are in their hands, or they are crying to God upon their knees, or they are conversing with the godly and obtaining the benefit of their counsel to guide them on the way to Jesus. “These, my friends, are, you know, some of the marks of a day of the power of the Lord Jesus. When the Spirit is poured out from on high, and sinners’ hearts are moved, the iron sinews of their necks are relaxed, and their brows of brass are crowned with shame; they flock to take shelter under His wings, like doves to their windows; they rejoice in His love as men that divide the spoil.”

Mr. Burns brought his sermon to a close by recounting various reminiscences of revival times, and by making several strong practical appeals. As he pled with the unconverted instantly to close with God’s offers of mercy, he felt his soul moved after a most remarkable manner, and the Lord’s spirit became so mighty on the souls of his hearers, that it swept through them like the mighty rushing wind of Pentecost. He says, “At the last the people’s 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. The appearance of a great part of the people from the pulpit, gave me an awfully vivid picture of the ungodly in the day of Christ’s coming to judgment. Some were screaming out in agony; others, and amongst these, strong men, fell to the ground as if they had been dead ; and such was the general commotion occasioned by the most free and urgent invitations of the Lord to sinners, I was obliged to give out a psalm, which was soon joined in by a considerable number, our voices being mingled with the mourning groans of many prisoners sighing for deliverance.”

The fire, thus kindled, blazed on till the end of September, when the communion was dispensed, and when he brought the precious season to a close by an equally powerful discourse from Ezekiel xxxvi. 26, “A new heart also will I give you.” On his return to Dundee, the scenes in Kilsyth were repeated in every particular, only the associations and surroundings were those of a large manufacturing town. In the neighbourhood of St. Peter’s, there are still to be found spiritual traces of that time and of the ministries of Mr. Burns and Mr. M‘Cheyne. And let us not forget that Mr. William Burns, when he was in the midst of these revivals in Kilsyth and Dundee, was as yet no more than twenty-four years of age!

When Mr. Burns' connection with St. Peter’s terminated on the return of Mr. M'Cheyne from the Holy Land, he became an evangelist in the truest sense, carrying the light of the Gospel here and there throughout Scotland, the north of England, and Ireland. At this work he continued for fully four years, and, with the exceptions of Dublin and Newcastle, he was everywhere received with the greatest warmth, and occasionally with the utmost enthusiasm.

The revival of 1839 had been a cause of greater talk in Canada than even in Scotland, and the people of the Province being anxious to hear Mr. Burns with their own ears, the people of Quebec, Montreal, Kingston, and Toronto, forwarded to him their urgent solicitations that he should pay them a visit. Mr. Burns was eager to comply with their request, and sailing from Greenock on the 10th August, 1844, he reached Montreal on Thursday, the 26th September. Unlike John Livingston, he had beautiful weather and a prosperous voyage. All went well with Mr. Burris in Montreal so long as he confined his efforts to barracks, halls, and churches, but when he began preaching in the streets and squares, he encountered the most violent opposition, so much so that he could with truth aver that he bore in his body the marks of the Lord Jesus. Mr. Burns had a cool temperament and a ready wit, but it may well be open to question how far the preacher’s successful rejoinders to the antagonistic and ribbald cries of individuals in a crowd were calculated to farther the holy aims of the Gospel. Upon the whole, the visit of Mr. Burns did much to stir up the lethargic spiritual life of Canada.

The work was accomplished, however, at too large a cost to the doer. The long journeys and the winter snows overtaxed his energies. Two years afterwards, when he returned to Kilsyth (15th September, 1846), to the astonishment of his friends, he had already contracted an aged appearance. In a much deeper manner than merely the weal of a stone wound, he bore to the last the memorials of his Canadian tour. The pace was beginning to tell. The physical journals were beginning to give evidence of the too rapid revolution of the intellectual shafts.

The tour in Canada had deeply moved his missionary instincts, but on his return it was still some time before he was able to accept the invitation of the English Presbyterian Church, that he should go out as their ordained missionary to China. The difficulties in the path were of an Alpine character. He did not see his way clearly, and, it may have been, he had hopes of preferment at home. On Sunday, the 10th April, 1846, “having had his heart enlarged towards the heathen,” whilst he was preaching in an Edinburgh church, he came to the resolution that he would devote his life to the prosecution of evangelical work in China. Meanwhile, the Foreign Mission Committee of the English Presbyterian Church, taking into consideration the number of missionaries already in the field, the difficulty of acquiring the language, and the fact that an entrance into so many parts of the country was not then to be obtained, had agreed to abandon their China scheme altogether. When, however, it became known that Mr. Burns was willing to labour in the Chinese field, the resolution was overturned, and, at Sunderland, on the 22nd April, he was ordained to the ministry, and solemnly set apart to his new work. If he had taken some time to make up his mind, he was now anxious to get to his chosen field with all possible speed. When asked after the ordination service was ended, when he would be able to go, he replied, “ To-morrow.” Before going to the synod, he had spent a day in his father’s study at Kilsyth in prayer, and when he left, it was with the tender consciousness that certainly not for many years, and probably never again, would he visit the village and the parish associated with his stirring boyhood, and the early triumphs of his powers as a preacher of the Gospel. After visiting the churches of the synod, he took ship at Portsmouth for China on the 9th June, 1847.

China is, indeed, a wonderful land. The eastern boundary of the empire is the Pacific Ocean. The shore line is of the most irregular character, and the coast is studded with islands. Its western barrier is the mountains of Thibet On the north it is guarded for thirteen hundred miles by that famous rampart constructed two thousand years ago, and to the rearing of which the nation devoted its undivided energies. It has an area of more than a million miles. It is watered by two noble rivers—the Yangtse-Kiang and Hwang-Ho. The climate is salubrious, the soil fertile. It contains vast cities and a teeming population. Over its ancient civilisation it keeps watch with only too zealous a care. It has three forms of religion: Confucianism, the religion of the higher classes, which denies immortality and doubts the existence of God; Taouism, which inculcates the belief in spirits and demons; and Buddhism, which insists on the virtues of contemplation and abstraction, and that the highest ambition of the soul is to lose its identity and be absorbed in Buddha. The first are the atheists of China, the second the fanatics, and the third the mystics. This country, so deeply sunk in idolatry, has long presented an inviting field for the missionaries of Europe. And from the seventh century until now they have continued their warfare, that, if possible, they might twine China, a flowery chaplet, about the arms of the Cross. The first Protestant missionary was Robert Morrison, who landed in China in September, 1807. After ten years’ toil, he wrote a dictionary of the Chinese language, and along with Dr. Milne, another labourer who had joined him, he completed the translation of the whole Bible into the Chinese language. It was not, however, until the opening of the live ports to the commerce of the world in 1842, that the missionary societies of the West were able to send out men in at all adequate numbers to carry forward the work which Morrison and Milne had so auspiciously begun.

After Mr. Burns landed in China, he set himself at once to acquiring the language. In a year, he had made so great progress that he was able to talk with the natives, and to preach to them in their own tongue, so as to make himself fairly well understood. In a short time he was able to say that he had thoroughly mastered it. The method he followed made him able in the course of his missionary life to overtake a very large portion of the empire. He chose first some large city, such as Hong-Kong, Canton, Amoy, Shanghai, or Pekin, and, making himself familiar with the dialect of the district, he worked out from that city as a centre. In the city he had some room, usually of the poorest character, upon which he could fall back in case of meeting with adverse circumstances at outlying points. But Mr. Burns* manner was more marked than his method. He wished as far as possible to disarm opposition and elude the attacks of fanaticism. To accomplish more perfectly the object of his mission, he adopted Chinese habits and customs. He ate, drank, and dressed, all as the Chinese themselves. He wished in China to be all things to all men, that if, by any means he might save some. The method which he pursued has been subjected to a good deal of criticism. For the peaceful prosecution of his work in outlying districts, it was undoubtedly of service; but in the open ports it was a hindrance rather than a help. He eventually acknowledged that his example was not one to be followed. The kind of life and living it imposed upon him injured his health, and, in a great many cases, was in no way conducive to the making the closer acquaintance of the natives. The means Mr. Burns employed were in every way commendable. He translated the u Pilgrim’s Progress” and a number of hymns and plain sermons into Chinese, and wherever he went, circulated them amongst the people. This is the only part of his work which visibly remains until this hour, and which keeps his name alive in the land to the conversion of which he devoted the best energies of his life. Thus living and working, after twenty-one years’ labour, worn out with toil in the cause of the Master he loved, in the full assurance of faith, his life came to a peaceful close at the Port of Nieuchwang, on the 4th of April, 1868.

The imagination follows the wanderings of Mr. Burns in that far distant land with pathetic interest It was a grave experiment to send him to China. In this country, his progress had been attended by enthusiastic and sympathetic crowds. One wonders, in the strange cities and amid the idolatries of the far East, if he sometimes wept when he thought of Zion, the congregation melted by his oratory, and men and women receiving the Gospel in the love of it. Who knows? He was a man who never complained. But this is clear. The light that shone in on him with dazzling brightness in his Edinburgh lodging, shone on to the end. The altar lire that began then to burn was only quenched with his life. When China is won for the Cross, the work of William Burns will have to be reckoned among the forces that have made for its Christian civilisation.

When the little trunk which contained all his property was opened in the midst of a group of young, wondering faces, and there were taken from it his English and Chinese Bibles, his battered writing-case, two or three books, a Chinese dress, and his Gospel flag, there was one of the young people who said, “Surely he must have been very poor.”


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