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Northern Lights
William Chalmers Burns, M.A.

THERE are few Scotch parishes more pleasantly situated than Dun in Angus. The surrounding country is broken into soft hollows and slanting uplands, and though not densely wooded, has shadowy coppices on its slopes, and a luxuriant show of embowering branches along its water-courses. Dun is not without historical interest, for it was the seat of the Erskine who was so true a friend to John Knox in the struggles of the Reformation, and whose wisdom and piety was manifested with such good effect in the development of the Presbyterian Church. While faithful to his religious principles, he was so amiable in manner, that even the bigoted Queen Mary spoke of him in approving terms; and the memory of Erskine of Dun is still bright and fragrant as the flowers which unfold their beauty in the antique garden connected with the old mansion-house. It was in the manse of Dun, which, with the parish church, stands in a quiet dell overhung by venerable trees, that William C. Burns was born. He had as the music of his early boyhood, the clamour of rooks, the songs of larks and thrushes, and the morning and evening psalm of his father’s devout household. The peaceful pleasures of the manse were varied by visits to his uncle, who was minister of Brechin, and so serene and heavenly in character, that his face seemed a perpetual benediction. There was a more than golden joy in the days spent with him; and the ancient burgh, with its stately church, its grotesque streets, and municipal pomps, was as wonderful to the child as if it had been a Nineveh or Persepolis. When he was in his sixth year his father was translated to Kilsyth, a small town at the foot of grassy hills which stand as outposts of the Campsie range. The town, though lively with the clatter of looms, was not attractive; but the home of the minister’s family, sheltered by plane and beech trees, was a little apart from it, and commanded a view not only of the green declivities of the hills, but also of a broad plain over which the blue craig of Groatfell in Arran could be seen on a clear day.

The father of the gifted James Hamilton was minister of Strathblane about twelve miles from Kilsyth, and the two families enjoyed interchange of visits, when, instead of boisterous games, there were lively discussions as to the merits of great political leaders, or as to whether Henry Melville excelled Thomas Chalmers in the long roll of gorgeous words from the pulpit; or there were mock trials with James Hamilton as senior counsel for the Crown, and a lovely little girl as the panel at the bar. William Burns was not so much given to books as his brother Islay or his young friends at Strathblane, but rather delighted in angling in Carron water, or going into the fields with an old gun to shoot crows and sparrows. He was also fond of work which tried his strength, such as felling trees, and helping to get in the hay and com on the glebe. His highest ambition was to be a farmer; and while attending the parish school manifested but slight interest in any studies beyond those that were necessary to fit him for that calling. But when he was thirteen years old a visit from a maternal uncle, who was practising as a lawyer in Aberdeen, put an end to the farming project. He was invited to accompany his uncle to Aberdeen, and to attend the grammar-school of that city, which was then under the care of Dr. James Melvin, who had the reputation of being one of the first classical scholars of the time. Yonng Burns was so influenced by the spirit of the school that he soon abandoned his dream of the field and the farmstead, and working in the classes with all his might, took a foremost place among the scholars.

From the school he went to Marischal College, where he was so diligent that in two sessions he won high honours. Through his intercourse with his uncle, he was led to make choice of the legal profession as the one he desired to follow, and his father sent him to a Writer to the Signet in Edinburgh. Up to that time, while acknowledging the beauty of religion as exemplified in the character of his parents, he had given but slight attention to the state of his own heart, but was impressed by an affectionate letter, in which two converted sisters had urged him to thorough decision for Christ. In reply to the letter he asked to be directed to religious reading ; and soon after walking from Edinburgh, astonished the inmates of the Manse at Kilsyth by his unexpected appearance, and, addressing his mother, said, “What would you think, mamma, if I should be a minister after all?” The Lord had touched his heart, and he was eager to obtain his parents’ permission to give up his legal studies, and prepare himself for the pastoral office. They gladly assented to his proposal, for it had always been their wish and prayer that he might be devoted to God in the ministry of His Word. Rejoicing in the sense of Divine favour, which he first experienced while weeping and praying in his room in Edinburgh, he went to Aberdeen to resume his university studies. “ When he returned to Aberdeen,” says his old class-fellow, Dr. Murray Mitchell, “he was an altered man. He came back full of earnestness, having in the meantime sustained the greatest revolution of which the spirit of man is susceptible, and seeking now every opportunity to converse with his old companions regarding Christ and salvation.” His earnestness was apparent in his intellectual work as well as in his religions activities, and in 1834 he took his degree of M.A. with special distinctions. Having ended his course in Aberdeen, he entered the University of Glasgow for the purpose of studying theology, an4 getting a further acquaintance with languages that would he helpful to him in the sacred office he was about to fill. In the Divinity Hall he was associated with a band of young men whose names now form a rare constellation of mental and religious glories: James Hailey, James Hamilton, William Araot, and Norman McLeod. Mr. Burns was as industrious in Glasgow as Aberdeen, and was not only a strenuous competitor for honours in the Hebrew Class, but also obtained a gold medal for an essay on the characteristics of Hellenistic Greek. While in Glasgow he attended the ministry of the famous B-abbi Duncan, and had his views of Divine truth widened, and his heart excited to gracious feeling, by the massive yet luminous and fervent discourses of that master in Israel. He also received great benefit from his connection with the Student’s Missionary Society. The thought of what had been done by Brainerd and Mariyn, and other brave men who had borne the standard of Christ to the citadels of heathenism, inspired him with ardent longing to tread in their steps, and emulate their self-denying heroism. But he did not content himself with visions of idols dethroned at. his bidding, and the tribes of India or China rising from their degradations to hail the truth as preached by him in the shadow of palms and pagodas. He saw in Glasgow a vast quarry in which he could hew stones for the spiritual temple, and strove to help forward the work of God by holding meetings in school-rooms and conducting Sabbath classes for young people. One day passing through the Argyle Arcade, he was so deeply commiserating the endangered condition of the thousands of men and women about him, that he did not notice his mother, who was coming towards him from an opposite direction. When startled by her voice from his painfnl reverie, he said, “O, mother, I did not see you: for when walking along Argyle Street just now, I was so overcome with the sight of the countless crowds of immortal beings, eagerly hastening hither and thither, but all posting onwards towards the eternal world, that I could bear it no longer, and turned in here to seek relief in quiet thought.”

Mr. Bums was licensed to preach by the Glasgow Presbytery in March, 1839. He was willing to go at once as a missionary to the heathen, but God had a great work for him to do in his own land. His earlier labours as a minister associated his name with that of the Rev. Robert Murray McCheyne. After spending some months in a rural parish, Mr. McCheyne was called to St. Peter’s, Dundee. His preaching was from the first earnest, faithful, and Scriptural. When some one asked him if he was not afraid of running short of sermons, he said, “Ho, I am just an interpreter of Scripture, and when the Bible runs dry, I shall.” So reverently did he enter on the work of the sanctuary that a man said of him, “ Before he opened his lips, as he came along the passage, there was something about him that sorely affected me.” He was too intent on winning souls to think about popularity; yet such was the grace of his delivery, and the winsome beauty of his language, that crowds were drawn to hear him. The secret of his power was to be found in two things: preparation and prayer. He knew that God would not help him unless he helped himself; and, moreover, he knew that all he could do would be of no avail without the influences of the Spirit. “Beaten oil,” he exclaimed, “Beaten oil for the sanctuary.” As to prayer, being asked if the accumulation of business connected with his church never led him to neglect the season of prayer on Saturday, he replied he was not aware that it did, adding, “What would my people do if I were not to pray?” In the beginning of the year 1839 he was out of health, and was resting in Edinburgh, when he was asked to go on a mission to the Holy Land, to inquire into the religious condition of the Jews. The missionary feeling had long been in his heart, and he said of Dundee, “This place hardens me for a foreign land.” His sympathy with the work to he done, the state of his health, his desire to know whatever was illustrative of Holy Writ—a desire which would be abundantly gratified in Palestine; all combined to urge him to respond to what appeared as a call of Providence. Letters and poems, steeped in beauty and fragrance, attest the sacred pleasures which animated his soul while wandering over scenes consecrated by the memory of patriarchs and prophets, and by the holy footsteps of the Master; but he was stricken with fever at the base of Lebanon, and for change of air was taken to a village near Smyrna. While thus laid low in Asia Minor, and in the neighbourhood which had once rung with the warning voice from Patmos, a strange glory was beginning to shine over Dundee, and his own hope for the town was about to be realised: “Perhaps the Lord will make this wilderness of chimney-tops to be green and beautiful as the garden of the Lord—a field which the Lord hath blessed.”

Mr. Burns was requested to take charge of St. Peter’s during the absence of Mr. McCheyne. His power as a preacher was soon felt, and the church was filled with people not only from all parts of Dundee, but also from the villages on the Sidlaw hills and along the shining track of the Tay. His sermons were not like those of his friend James Hamilton, jewelled gates opening into amaranthine gardens, but were characterised by strong common-sense, firm grasp of the trtith, and simplicity of expression; and were delivered with impassioned feeling, and in a voice of fine compass and modulation- There were several awakenings under his ministry, and the members of the church were roused to more thorough devotedness to their Christian calling; but it was not until after the memorable scenes of revival he witnessed in Kilsyth that Dundee was so gloriously visited by the Spirit of God. He went to Kilsyth to assist his father in the Communion, and spoke with such power at one of the services that the people began to weep and cry for mercy. The wail of stricken sinners was so loud and general that he had to pause in his sermon and give out a psalm, which was sung with heartiness, but in which numbers, on account of their distress, were unable to join. In that great excitement his own soul was perfectly calm, and he wrote: “Along with the awful and affecting realisation which I obtained of the state of the unconverted, I had such a view of the glory redounding to God, and the blessings conferred on poor sinners, by the work that was advancing, as to fill my soul with tranquil joy and praise.*

Having to hasten back to Dundee, there were many delightful incidents in the work then begun which did not come directly under his observation ; but his father soon held a second Communion, when he was again in Kilsyth, and saw such a succession of inquirers for salvation that he was compelled to stay a fortnight longer than he intended staying. The first Thursday after his return to Dundee he held a prayer-meeting, at which he spoke of the demonstrations of Divine grace he had just witnessed, and invited those to remain who felt the need of the Holy Spirit’s converting energy. About a hundred responded to his invitation, and as he was concluding a solemn address the power of God came upon them, and they were all in tears. Night after night, and week after week, the services were continued, and numbers who till then had thought that a decent formality would ensure their admission to the kingdom of heaven, were roused into spiritual life and activity; while notorious sinners obtained mercy, and were arrayed in “fine linen clean and white,” which “is the righteousness of saints.” The town, from the river with its crowded docks to the green slopes of the Law, was moved; and in addition to the gatherings in the church, the people met for prayer in workshops, private houses, fields, and gardens; and sermons were preached in the Market-place, in churchyards, and in the streets. Tidings of the work filled Mr. McCheyne’s heart with joy, and arriving in Dundee one Thursday he met his people in the church at night. Every seat was occupied, and even the stairs to the pulpit were crowded. He saw many faces shining with a new light, and heard new power and sweetness in the singing. On leaving the church he found the road leading to his house crowded with young and old, waiting to greet him, and he had again to speak to and pray with them before they would disperse. “To Thy Name, O Lord,” were the words which came from his lips when he got to his house, “to Thy Hame, O Lord, be all the glory! ”

Mr. Burns being freed by the return of Mr. McCheyne from stated ministrations in Dundee, devoted himself for a time to evangelistic work in different parts of Scotland. In many villages his sonorous voice was heard calling sinners to repentance; and St. Andrews, Perth, and Aberdeen were each for some time favoured by more protracted labours. While in St. Andrews he seemed to catch the spirit of the martyred Wishart and the saintly Rutherford, and preached with such success that “closed lips opened to shout for joy, and sing praise to our redeeming God.” When he left St. Andrews he visited Dunfermline, Cumbernauld, Kilsyth, and other places, and then went to Perth, where he spent several months. The Rev. John Milne, a man like-minded with himself, who was minister of one of the churches in the city, joyfully united with him in his soul-saving work.

There was an almost unbroken series of special services. Inquiry meetings were held three times a week, and one whose heart was in the movement wrote: “ All the roads from the town were nightly trod by groups of country hearers. Some were returning home to sing for the first time the new song. Others with heavy pace carried an arrow rankling in the heart. Others bore the good news of companions in town turning to God, the public-house signs taken down, the police comparatively idle, and families and workshops sharing the wide-spread blessing.”

From Perth Mr. Bums travelled northward to Aberdeen. While there he preached three times to crowded audiences every Sabbath; and had numerous prayer-meetings and preaching services through the week. The word was often mighty in its effects; hearts that seemed hard as the granite in the streets of the city were melted, and the evangelist saw by repeated signs and wonders that his labour was not in vain. But he also saw that there was work to be done beyond the walls of the churches; and scandalised frigid religionists by standing in Castle-street, or at the foot of the Barrack-hill, and with his Bible in his hand, beseeching the multitudes gathered about him to be reconciled to God through Christ. Those open-air services, if condemned by man were approved by God, and, in addition to other benefits accruing from them, several soldiers received impressions they retained to the day of their death.

In 1840, Mr. Burns was in the Highlands. He was not insensible to the stem magnificence of the hills, the lovely quietude of the sequestered valleys, the torrents dashing their white foam against the black boulders, the lochs beautiful with inverted images of hazel copse and heathery steep; but his delight in romantic scenery was subordinate to his passion for the salvation of souls, and he made the glens and forest thickets resound with proclamations of mercy to the guilty. At one place he was about to preach out of doors, but the wind was so high that the congregation had to go into the church. “The subject,” he says, “was conversion; text, Matthew xviii. 3, and in discoursing on this I experienced more assistance in attempting to speak home to the very marrow of men’s souls than at almost any other time. Two wicked men could not stand it, as we supposed, and retired from their seats. Many others, and among these the stoutest men, were in tears. At the conclusion, when I had pronounced the blessing, I sat down in the pulpit in secret prayer as usual, but to my amazement I heard nobody moving; and waiting a full minute, I rose, and saw them all standing or sitting, with their eyes in many cases filled with tears, and all fixed on the pulpit. It was indeed a solemn moment. I asked them what they were waiting for, and whether they were waiting for Christ. I prayed again, when there was the utmost solemnity, and then spoke a little from a psalm which we sung. The people retired slowly and most of them in tears.”

From 1841 to 1844, Mr. Burns laboured in Newcastle, Edinburgh, and Dublin; and then in compliance with urgent invitations visited Canada. As soon as he landed at Quebec he stood by the river side, and began to repeat the fifty-fifth chapter of Isaiah, and drew together a crowd of Canadians and British sailors. When their astonishment at the singular proceeding had passed away, they began to mock him, and to threaten him with violence; but he went on with his testimony for Grod, and when he left the spot, had an interesting conversation with individuals who followed him. On reaching Montreal he was welcomed by soldiers who had received benefit from his ministrations in Aberdeen. The first Sabbath after his arrival he conducted service for them, and ended a discourse of three hours, to which they had listened with unwearying delight, by saying, “ I see your time is up, but I hope to have further opportunities of addressing yon.” He did address them frequently, and also preached in the streets and squares of the city. In his open-air meetings he had opposition from the Papists. On one occasion his coat was torn, his hat was knocked off and his Bible snatched from his hand. Another time a stone was thrown which cut his cheek. Blood was pouring from the wound, and some of his military friends hastening to his rescue, one of them exclaimed, as he glanced at his bleeding face, “What’s this! What’s this! ” With a smile he replied, “Never mind; it’s only a few scars in the Master’s service.”

The Rev. W. Amot was then in Montreal, and thus graphically described the treatment he and Mr. Bums received in their attempt to get at the hearts of the people by announcing the truth of Christ. “Once I went with him to the Haymarket-square, where he meant to preach in English. I went somewhat anxious for his safety, with intent to help him if need should arise. A circle soon gathered. He began to preach. More assembled outside—thicker and thicker the girdle grew, but the roughest were outside. William and I stood alone in the middle of the ring, hedged very closely in, but the gentlest nearest us. Where they stood at first, they remained. No possibility of movement. Noise and throwing of dirt increased. When he became somewhat wearied I now and then took up the address, and the change of voice operated a little in our favour for getting a hearing. One Irish voice from the outside interrupted William at one time, shouting clear over all the din, ‘The devil’s dead.’ A great laugh followed. When it hushed, William struck in with a plaintive voice, tinged almost with the sarcastic, 'Ah, then, you are a poor fatherless child!’ This raised a laugh in his favour, and under cover of it, he was enabled to proceed for a while. We were besmeared with mud, thrown from the outer circles, but not hurt.” A Wesleyan gentleman having taken the place of the Roman Catholic mayor who had been hostile to evangelistic movements, endeavours were made to uphold the law, and support Mr. Burns in his work. One day when a disturbance was apprehended the new mayor appeared in the midst of the crowd, and succeeded in calming the excitement, and in getting the people to go away peaceably. He afterwards waited on Mr. Burns to consult with him as to what was best to be done. Mr. Bums said, “Let us pray,” and, as they were about to kneel down, touched the mayor on the shoulder and suggested that he should pray. He did so, and earnestly commended the Scotchman and his Mission to God.

Mr. Bums spent two years in Canada, and then embarked for Scotland. He had not been long in his native land before he was requested to go as a Missionary to China. It had always been his determination when the Providence of God indicated that the time had come, to labour among the heathen, and it is said that on being asked when he would be ready to start for China, he replied “Tomorrow.” The arrangements for his departure were so sudden that when he went on his farewell visit to the Manse at Kilsyth, his parents were in the north of Scotland, and did not return in time to see him. Just before leaving he offered fervent prayer in his father’s study, and having gone a few steps from the house with his plaid on his arm, went back and changed it for his mother’s, which hung in the lobby: a simple act, but one that would afford pleasure to his mother, as intimating his affection for her and his desire to have a memorial of her when in a distant land. He went on board the May Bannaiyne in June, 1847, and in a few days was busily employed in the acquisition of the Chinese language, or in efforts for the religious instruction of the crew and passengers.

After voyaging past Sumatra, and over a smooth sea picturesque with the canoes of Javanese and Malays, a terrible storm was encountered, but through the Providence of God the ship anchored in Hong-Kong Bay, on the night of November 13th. Mr. Burns began his Missionary operations by visiting three Chinese criminals under sentence of death, and by giving lessons in English to Chinese boys, on condition that they were to help him in the mastery of their vernacular. So intent was he on qualifying himself for intercourse with the people, that ho left comfortable European lodgings, and hired a house in a part of the town inhabited only by natives, that he might become habituated to Chinese customs, and hear only the Chinese tongue. Whilst still having his home in Hong-Kong, he passed over to the mainland, and itinerated among the villages. In one of his excursions he was robbed of everything but some articles of the Chinese costume he had adopted, as being suitable to the climate, and in the hope that it would diminish prejudice against him as a foreigner. His connection with Hong-Kong was only intended to be temporary; he went thence to Canton, where he resided sixteen months, but could make only a slight impression on its inhabitants, and as Amoy presented encouraging openings he removed to that island in 1851.

He located himself in a chamber above the Mission school-house, but had too much of the spirit of Christian aggressiveness to confine his efforts to one place, and in company with native evangelists visited the great city of Chang-Chow, and other places that were accessible by boat. In a market-town, named Pechuia, he had the satisfaction of seeing about twenty people, young and old, declaring themselves on the side of the Gospel. All the family of a cloth-merchant evinced a newness of thought and feeling that was cheering to witness. When the father was going to Amoy as a candidate for baptism, his youngest son, Som-a, asked to be allowed to accompany him, that he also might become a visible member of Christ’s Church. He was told that he was too young, and that he might fall back if he professed himself to be a Christian before he rightly understood the doctrines to be believed, and the duties to be practised. His reply to the objection was, “ Jesus has promised to carry the lambs in His arms. As I am only a little boy it will be easier for .Jesus to carry me.” Nothing further could be said in opposition to the boy’s request, and soon after he confessed Christ in baptism.

Mr. Burns’s colleague, Dr. Young, having lost his wife, was so broken in body and mind, that a change to his native land became necessary, and Mr. Burns had to accompany him. He watched over his afflicted friend with tender care through the voyage; and spent part of 1854 and 1855 in Scotland, endeavouring to excite interest in his mission, by addressing the congregations to which he had formerly ministered, on the vastness of its claims and the sublimity of its purpose. Though he had only been away six years his friends noticed a great change in his appearance; the bloom of early manhood had faded, and his countenance was sallow, his brow furrowed and his head streaked with gray. His preaching was less impetuous than when he startled Kilsyth and Dundee as with the thunders of a later Baptist; but there was richer spirituality and mellower tone in his sermons, and love rather than terror was the power by which he sought to influence his hearers. It was a pleasure to him to look once more on the Clyde and the Tay, and the blue ridges of hills he had gaily climbed in boyhood, but his heart was in China, and he was never happier than when speaking of its people, or singing the hymns in which the Christian converts glorified their Saviour’s Name. A letter he received from the little Church in Pechuia, while staying in the Free Church Manse at Kilsyth, filled him with thankfulness, and his eyes glistened with strange delight as he explained “its mystic hieroglyphic lines” to the family. The following is the conclusion of the letter, “ Teacher, from the time that we parted with you in the seventh month, we have been meditating on our Lord Jesus’ love to sinners, in giving up His life for them; also thinking of your good conduct, your faith in the Lord and compassion for us.....Teacher, you know that we are like sheep that have lost their shepherd, or an infant that has lost its milk. Many thanks to the Holy Spirit, our Lord morning and evening {i.e., continually) comforts our hearts and gives us peace. And in the seventh month, the twenty-fourth day, the brethren with united heart prayed, and shedding tears, bitterly begged of God again to send a number of pastors, quickly to come, again to teach the Gospel.”

In March, 1855, Mr. Burns re-embarked for China. Before resuming his ordinary labours he endeavoured, but unsuccessfully, to reach the head-quarters of the Taeping rebels. The distribution of books was almost all that he was able to effect in that expedition, and when he returned from it, he made Shanghae, for some months, the centre of his operations. He spent the greater part of the time in his boat, and gliding along rivers and canals, preached in towns and villages embowered in mulberry and other trees, and standing amid scenes of wonderful beauty and luxuriance. From Shanghae he removed to Swatow, where, though he reaped but little fruit, he enjoyed the friendship and co-operation of a medical Missionary belonging to the Methodist Church.

The work in Pechuia and the neighbouring stations had grown to encouraging proportions, but difficulties having arisen about the building of a cjiapel, and other matters, Mr. Burns was urged to take the oversight of the Churches for a time. He was cheered by the scenes of Christian simplicity and earnestness he witnessed in his former field of toil, but wishing to widen the area of his influence, went to Peking, where lie not only did the usual Missionary work, but also translated the second part of “Pilgrim’s Progress,” and the “Peep of Day,” into Chinese. Though Peking was in many respects congenial to him, he thought it his duty to go to Nieu-chwang, where he died. Writing to his mother he said, “At the end of last year I got a severe chill, which has not yet left the system, producing chilliness and fever every night, and for the last two nights this has been followed by perspiration which rapidly diminishes the strength. Unless it should please God to rebuke the disease, it is evident what the end must soon be, and I write these lines beforehand to say that I am happy, and ready through the abounding grace of God either to live or die. May the God of all consolation comfort you when the tidings of my decease shall reach you, and through the redeeming blood of Jesus may we meet with joy before the throne above! ” His death was bright with hope, and in the last moment of his consciousness, he became suddenly animated and emphatic as he repeated the doxology, “For Thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glory.” He was buried by Christian friends, and, in accordance with his own desire, a modest head-stone was placed on his grave, bearing the following inscription—

4TH APRIL, 1868.

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