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Kilsyth, A Parish History
Chapter XVIII

Professor Islay Burns—“The Pastor of Kilsyth” and “The Chinese Missionary”—Three Different Characters—A Lovable Soul—Birth—Description of Kilsyth Manse—A Family Group —Student Days—Loss of Sight—A Quiet Place—Chosen for St. Peter’s—A Peculiar Position—A Cultured Ministry—Islay Burns and M'Cheyne—Liberal Views—Pictures of Church History—Contest with Mr. Rainy—“The Pastor” and “Missionary”—Appointed Professor—Spiteful Opposition—Life in Glasgow—An Abundant Entrance.

If the “Pastor of Kilsyth” and “The Chinese Missionary,” are better known than Dr. Islay Burns, this is largely owing to Professor Burns himself. His father and his brother would doubtless have been known apart from him, but it is very largely due to the popular portraits he has painted of them, they are so well known as they are. There have been in the Scottish Church ministers as faithful as “ The Pastor,” and missionaries as zealous as William Burns, who wanting in the one case such a son, and in the other such a brother, as Islay Burns, have passed away and their names and works become wholly unknown. It may have been that the biographer was fortunate in his subjects ; it certainly was for the father and brother that they had such a literary executor. They both did their own work in the world, but he made them what they are known to be.

And how different the three men were. If we did not know they were connected we would fail to discern the family likeness. The father was quiet and somewhat lazy; William was impetuous and somewhat eccentric; and Islay was accomplished and somewhat latitudinarian. If the three men had been generals, and sent to take a city, Burns would have sat down before it and starved it out; William would, by intense battering at one place, have made a breach in the walls through which he would have been able to pass. Again Islay would have gone round about it blowing rams’ horns, and for all his blowing the walls would not have fallen ! The beleaguered citizens would have bowed to him from the parapets, and he would have bowed back again. The men were of one family, but they were very, very different. The old pastor needed the goad, the missionary the snaffle bit, and the professor, probably, the bearing rein to keep his head up and preserve him in proper high-pacing Free Church ways. The old man was sure but slow; William was neither sure nor slow. And as for Islay, there were ill-natured people said it was only his slowness you could be sure of. In the matter of piety, the father’s smouldered, the elder son’s blazed, and the younger’s was a pure white flame.

Islay Burns was the best of the Burnses, and withal a singularly pure, cultured and lovable soul. He maintained throughout his life a fairness and candour of judgment which did him eminent credit. That he could see good in men and systems hated by the bigots of his own sect was the cause of much of the snarling which for years went on about his heels. But he went his own way and came by no harm. Islay Burns was by no means a broad Churchman, but his mind nevertheless had a certain marked catholicity. Neither was he an evangelical, and yet he held in warm reverence the simple doctrines of the common faith. He weighed things fairly. He was a truth-perceiving and a truth-loving man. He loved the Church of England, and he would have been appreciated there. He was a man of culture and refinement, and on theological questions an unmistakably able writer. Everything he had to say, he said warmly and clearly. He confessed he was no poet. That he knew so much argues the possession of a true poetic appreciation. There is a large class who are no poets, and do not know it. He writes the English language with fine taste, and here and there in his pages we come on little pictures drawn with dainty art. He had a real love of literature. Whatsoever things were lovely and of good report he could follow after, for never was spirit less bound in the fetters of narrow prejudice. To him our Lord was not only a door of entrance as he is to so many. He was also a door of exit. He could go in, and he could go out and find pasture. It is a marvel that he lived through the scenes he did, and stiil kept sweet. It was no doubt hard to see so many of the people of St. Peter’s taking their way back again to the National Church after ’43, but even in these circumstances there is hardly a word of recrimination. He was held in high esteem by the wise and the good, and he deserved to be, for he was full of charity, and the love that suffereth long and is kind.

Islay was not quite two years younger than William. He was born at the manse of Dun, on the 16th January, 1817. The two brothers grew up together. William was the more impetuous, but Islay was also full of spirit and life. The glory of the Kilsyth manse is its large trees. In front of the dining-room window there is the gigantic leaning plane, and in front of the library window his companion a beautiful beech. In the leaning plane the starlings have built for many seasons, and in summer days the pair are great domes of murmuring sound. But apart from these, there are in the grounds other eight trees—four beeches, two elms, and two horse-chestnuts. And then in the garden there are fourteen. A certain parishioner who died only a short time ago, and who was nearly an hundred years old, said in all his time he knew no difference in them. They appeared to him at the close of his life as they did in the days of his boyhood. When the spring comes the manse is enveloped in greenery. There is little doubt the old trees are as old as the Reformation, and underneath their boughs have walked one after another the whole ministerial succession since the building of the manse. The ministers come and go, but the trees remain to link one generation to another by the cords of tender association. The manses of Scotland are destitute of architectural pretensions, but when embowered like the manse of Kilsyth, the venerable growths confer upon them a dignity which inseparably links them with the old Scottish life.

The manse was the beloved home of the family of Dr. Burns. To the boys the memories of the glebe and the stable, the dovecot and the rookery, remained ever fresh. To the daughters there were the industries of the dairy, and the hospitalities of a home into which there poured a continual stream of visitors, the taxes on its resources only being met, on many occasions, by the exercise of a fertile ingenuity. In the midst of the group the father moved with becoming graciousness and dignity, and the light, nimble mother flitted here and there, the spirit of the home, and blessing it all with her homely and housewifely ministries. The nurture to which the boys were subjected was wholesome, but far from systematic. The pastor was a steadying rather than an active influence in the manse, and the lads were not so often with him as was desirable. In the dead of night they used to hear their father at prayer in his own room. The ejaculated words of devotion fell on their ears like the sounding of the high priest’s bells within the vail.

Like his brother, Islay repaired to Aberdeen and came under the influence of Dr. Melvin. He ever spoke in terms of unqualified praise of the good he received from this famous teacher. He received a love of learning which remained with him to the last. A little work on the “Latin Syntax” which Islay Burns published for the use of students, is both an evidence of the thorough nature of the grounding he received from his schoolmaster, and a witness of the aptness and diligence of the scholar. Passing from the Grammar School to Marischal College, the young man greatly distinguished himself in both the classical and mathematical departments. He won the highest prize which the university had to offer. His success, however, cost him dear. He lost the sight of one of his eyes. The other was also so irreparably damaged that, in reading, he had to hold the book to within an inch or two of his face. This was a sad trial, but he bore it with unmurmuring patience. Having to carry on ever afterwards his studies amid the consequent labours and difficulties attending his visual loss, the wonder is, not that he did so much, but that he was able to do anything at all. The ordeal of college life and isolated lodgings in a large town, so trying to many a youth, he passed through with credit, and having so many friends connected with the Church, as by a natural course, when he passed from the arts’ faculty, he entered the divinity hall. It was not with Islay as with his brother; in making choice of the ministry there was no spiritual commotion—no night of wrestling and prayer. After having received licence from the Presbytery of Glasgow, he was appointed assistant to Dr. Candlish, minister of St. George’s. He had not been long in Edinburgh when he was sent to Botriphny, to take the place of one of the seven ministers of Strath-bogie Presbytery who had refused to obey the dictates of the Assembly. The quiet was delicious, and the rest most enjoyable. He abstained from strife, and taking advantage of the walks by the Isla, and the freedom of the open country all round about, his health was greatly fortified. The main object kept in view by the spending of so much time in the open air was the restoration of his sight, but in this there appears to have been no improvement.

When Robert Murray M'Cheyne died in the beginning of 1843, the choice of the congregation fell on Islay Burns. He was ordained in the June of that year, having cast in his lot with the Free Church. At first he tried to imitate the manner of his predecessor, but he was not long in seeing his mistake. Every preacher should vindicate his own individuality. It is revolting to see a man sinking his personality in that of another, and after some experience of this sort, Islay Burns found it so. The two ministers were indeed very different— the work of the one was conversion, the other that of edification—the one startled the soul out of its sleep, the other fed it when it was awake. Both duties were of importance, and comparisons are out of place. It may be said, however, that M‘Cheyne, if the less powerful, had by far the most interesting personality. The people felt him nearer them, and all around him there was an atmosphere of sanctity. In the circumstances it is very easy to understand how Islay Burns had a very difficult position to fill and how members would be led to go elsewhere, seeking, if they could find perchance, that kind of ministry which they appreciated more. But he had another element to contend with. The position of St. Peter’s Church is a mystery. The Free Church party did not secede, they remained in the church, and in their hands they have been able to retain it St. Peter’s presented consequently in 1843 a most unique spectacle. The Churchmen had to break away from the Seceders; they had to leave St. Peter’s and seek those churches in the town that still remained in connection with the National Church. In the midst of these circumstances the young minister felt himself like a rower rowing against the tide. He was pulling hard, but he was being borne downward, the current proving too strong for him. At the end of two years he found his ministry had been one of uninterrupted anxiety, incessant toil, and declining success.

But after all deductions had been made a large congregation still gathered in St. Peter’s Church. There can be no doubt his blindness was a great hindrance to the success of his ministry* The congregation felt as if he was speaking to people in general rather than to them in particular. And then he had the feeling that much that he said was said in only too good taste. His mind was tentative. His literacy sense was very acute. In his composition there was nothing florid, nothing ornamental, nothing meretricious. It was marked by a chaste simplicity, a truth to nature, and a literary refinement which the people were not sufficiently educated to appreciate. He thought it exceedingly curious that all the pieces and sections and paragraphs which his taste was inclined to reject invariably proved the most telling and popular. This is somewhat unaccountable, for although the composition of M‘Cheyne is very different from that of Burns, the sermons of the former, so much appreciated in St. Peter’s, are very far from defective on the score of literary taste. If the sefmorts of Bums had not the evangelical warmth of M'Cheyne’s, they had still a certain fulness, richness, and depth which his lacked. All his sermons and lectures on the life and character of our Lord are of marked power and insight. He travelled over large tracks of thought, but he was never so effective, never so unanswerable in argument, as when he came to deal with matters pertaining to the divinity of Christ. He took a liberal and just view of the proprieties of public worship. He was in favour of all things being done decently and in order; and he held that where an evangelical fervour prevailed in the ministry, an ornate service would rather be helpful than otherwise to the spiritual advancement of the congregation. His views on these matters he expounded openly in the press, and it required a certain degree of boldness for a Free Churchman to state them then which it does not require now. His papers on this and kindred subjects appeared in the “ British and Foreign Evangelical Review,” and they must have had a wholesome influence on his own denomination, as they tended to direct attention to larger tides of spiritual life and movement than those which rose and fell within the narrower boundaries of the Free Church; In the pages of the “ Sunday Magazine ” he wrote his “ Pictures of Chtlrch History,” the aim of which was to guide popular feeling in a similar direction, and to show the blunder which the sectarian made who circumscribed his interest by the circle of history which recorded the progress of his own little communion, and cut off his spiritual life from the great life of the Church Catholic.

The publication of these papers was greatly serviceable to Islay Bums. They brought him into notice. People wondered at them coming from a man who occupied the pulpit of M‘Cheyne. They were a surprise to that class who can never be got frankly to allow that evangelical warmth and historical and literary power can ever be found united in the same individual. The fact of Islay Burns being amongst the critics and philosophers could not now, however, be disputed, and when the chair of Church History was left vacant by the death of Dr. Cunningham in 1861, it seemed to a large number that he was the best man the Church had for the post. Various names were mentioned, and eventually it was found that the struggle would lie between him and Mr. (now Dr.) Rainy. The latter had the support of Dr. Candlish and Dr. Buchanan, and his candidature was pushed with all the force which these gentlemen were capable of exerting. When the appointment came to be made, 230 votes were given for Rainy, and 202 votes for Burns. The office was one which Islay Burns was specially qualified to fill, and no doubt the defeat was hard enough to bear. In the circumstances, he went back to Dundee and consoled himself with the production and publication of “The Pastor of Kilsyth.” To attempt to weave into an interesting narrative so uneventful a life as that which his father had lived was no ordinary task. The difficulties of making a readable book out of the slender materials were obvious. Constrained by filial devotedness, Islay Burns went on, however, with his task, and brought it to a successful termination. It is easy to say he might have done it better, the wonder is that he could do it at all. It is a prose idyl, and is written from first to last with a fine sympathy and literary grace. We feel that there are little actions and deeds that often touch us far more deeply, come closer to the fountains of tears and sorrows, than the achievements of the heroic. He calls into view the sublimities lodged in the quietest lives. He opens up a fresh and secluded pastoral tract, pervaded by a spiritual calmness and sunshine, in the midst of which his father passes his days in patriarchal tranquillity. The memoir of the missionary is more ambitious but less successful. There is wanting in it a certain lovingness and nameless grace which is everywhere prevalent in u the Pastor.” But that being said, it is indeed a worthy record of a worthy life.

These labours brought Islay Burns the degree of D.D. from the University of Aberdeen, and when a vacancy came to be filled up in Glasgow Free Church College, it was found that his claims were such as could no longer be passed over. In coming forward as a candidate for the Chair of Apologetics and Systematic Theology, he encountered that kind of opposition which, to a man of refinement and culture, is worst to bear, the opposition of the malevolent and mean-spirited, the opposition of men who were cyphers and tried to make themselves integers by opposing him. After all was done he received the appointment by the substantial majority of 292 to 215 voices. The people of Dundee had now come to know Dr. Burns better than they did at first, and when they sent him on his way it was with substantial evidence of their appreciation, and hearts deeply touched at parting with one they had grown so much to love. The £800 which he received was subscribed, for the most part, by those unconnected with St. Peter’s, and the sorrow at parting with him was shared by the whole town.

Dr. Burns came with pleasure to Glasgow, for Glasgow was not far from Kilsyth, and it was to the old parish, the old manse, the old boyish haunts by Kelvin and Carron his heart still turned Into, the life of the metropolis of the West he cast himself with no little enthusiasm. For meetings of all sorts he was greatly sought after, and in a few years he began to feel himself a part of the city’s life. He was in favour of a hymnal for his Church, and deeply lamented the lowering tendencies of the discussion of that subject in the Free Assembly. He was also in favour of union with the United Presbyterians. It is idle to speculate on the literary and theological harvests Professor Bums might have reaped after the back of his college work had been fairly broken. In March, 1872, he had a severe attack of hemorrhage, from which he never recovered. His illness was painful and distressing, and he knew his end had come. Having loved the service of the Lord, it was probably a drop of bitterness in his cup, that some more of that work, which he could have done so well, he was not permitted to perform. But he had lived an uncomplaining life, and he died an uncomplaining death. When the cloud was darkening, his friend Dr. Blaikie asked him if he felt himself sustained by the comforts of the Gospel. He answered, with his old rare truthfulness, “I am too weak to feel much—but nothing to the contrary.” He wished his friend to pray for two things, “an abundant entrance,” and “for a blessing on those I leave behind.” And so his gentle, lovable spirit passed. And having fought the good fight of faith, he laid hold on eternal life.

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