William Chalmers Burns was born at Duns, Scotland, the son of a Presbyterian minister. Early in life, he came under the Christian influence of both his father and Dr. William Hamilton, a nearby pastor, though he did not possess much of an interest in spiritual things. Nor did he love books at this time, but preferred to spend long hours outside with his friends fishing. Unusually strong, and famous for the way he could fell trees even at the age of twelve, he hoped to become a farmer.
He studied in the local school under the tutelage of a Presbyterian minister. Though he did well, he did not excel. One book did grab his attention, however: John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, which he read many times. On a visit from Aberdeen, his mother’s brother, who was a lawyer, convinced his parents that he should leave home and go Aberdeen to study at the grammar school presided over by the Rev. Dr. James Melvin, one of the finist students of the Greek and Roman Classics of his day.
There, William forsook his desire to be a farmer and plunged into the world of books and ideas. Slowly, he became the school’s outstanding student, known especially for his facility for languages. Then he went on to the university in Aberdeen, where he again distinguished himself, gaining honors in all his classes and becoming a tutor in Greek.
When he returned home two years later after graduation, he told his parents he wanted to become a lawyer like his uncle. His father had always hoped that William would become a minister of the gospel like himself, but reluctantly agreed to his son’s strong wishes. He left home and went to Edinburgh to prepare for a legal career.
In December, 1831, as he was reading a book called Early Piety, given to him years ago by his father, God changed his heart. Though he had not committed any gross sins, he suddenly realized that he had offended God in many ways in his heart and life. “The revelation of the greatness and majesty of God was so great that for the first time he realized how sinful he himself was, yet at the same time he knew just as certainly that God would forgive him and would show him what he must do next” (Matthewman 16). Almost immediately, he sensed that God wanted him to become a minister of the Word.
When they heard the news, his parents were thrilled, of course. In 1832 he enrolled in Marischal College in Aberdeen to begin his training for the gospel ministry. He received high grades in all his classes and graduated in 1834, having passed the M.A. degree examination with honors.
Even this early in his Christian life, Burns manifested a consuming desire to know and serve God. In his diary he wrote, “O Lord! Teach me to grow daily and hourly in the apprehension of thy unspeakable and sovereign love to me, a miserable sinner, that I may be constrained [compelled] out of the abundance of an overflowing heart, continually to commend thee to others who need that love as much as I, and deserve it just as little!” (July 20th, 1838; Islay Burns, Location 619). The rest of his life demonstrates that this holy aspiration was realized in Burns to an uncommon degree.
Ordination and early ministry in Dundee
The next summer, he went to Glasgow University to study in its theological schools. Here he joined the University Missionary Association, where he heard a stirring talk by a retired missionary that led him to a decision to seek to become a missionary. In 1838 he wrote to the committee of the University Missionary Association and offered himself for service; they accepted his offer immediately. On March 27, 1839, he was licensed as a preacher by the Presbytery of Glasgow. He hoped he would be shortly appointed as a missionary to India, but they had no place for him at the time. Meanwhile, in April, 1839, the famous pastor and preacher Robert Murray M’Cheyne had to take a break from his duties for a while and asked Burns to take his place in the pulpit.
His brother Islay later described the response of the congregation the first time they heard him preach: “Young, inexperienced, measured and slow of speech, gifted with no peculiar charm of poetry or sentiment or natural eloquence of winning sweetness, he bore so manifestly the visible seals of a divine commission, and carried about him… such an awe of the divine presence and majesty, as to disarm criticism and constrain [compel] even careless hearts to receive him as the messenger of God.” (Islay Burns, Location 766).
Then there was his voice: “Gifted with a solid and vigorous understanding, possessed of a voice of vast compass and power – unsurpassed even by that of Mr. [Charles Haddon] Spurgeon – and … fired with an ardour so intense and an energy so exhaustless that nothing could dampen or resist it, Mr. Burns wielded an influence over the masses whom he addressed which was almost without parallel since the days of Wesley and Whitfield” (Islay Burns, Location 776).
Revivals in Scotland
In June of that year, he returned to preach in his father’s church in Kilsyth. What he intended to be a short visit changed his life forever, for people responded to his preaching with intense fervor. Soon, a remarkable revival had broken out. Everywhere he spoke, God used Burns to bring hundreds, even thousands, to repentance and faith in Christ, or to a renewed devotion to the Lord.
Several things stand out from notes of the sermons he preached during these eight years,: His passionate love for God, whom he saw as holy, jealous for his own glory, and infinitely merciful; a heart-rending sense of the hideousness of sin; an awful dread of the judgment that will befall unrepentant sinners; an awareness that many who consider themselves Christians are so in name only; confidence in the forgiveness and salvation offered to those who truly trust in Christ; a love for souls that would stop at nothing to see them come to a saving knowledge of God in Christ; and a belief that the Spirit of God would use the preaching of his Word to bring his elect to repentance and trust in Christ. Rather than attributing the responses of his preaching to his own words, he repeatedly referred to “an outpouring of the Holy Spirit” that alone could “convert them to the Lord Jesus.” He also spent many hours on his knees in prayer, asking God to use him to bring blessing to others.
Though he may have possessed less elegance and eloquence of older or more gifted preachers, even in his mid-twenties Burns spoke with rare power and penetration. By now he had lost all fear of offending people, so that he dealt plainly and pointedly with sin, summoning his hearers to repent, lest they perish eternally. His hearers responded with deep emotions, some expressing grief and even horror for their transgressions of God’s laws, while others cried and sang for joy over their forgiveness by God. In a break with custom, Burns held meetings outside as well as in the church, during the day and after the formal services had concluded. He also instituted nightly prayer meetings for a while. In addition to public meetings he welcomed individuals to come and speak with him in private.
Some were critical, and a few said that he and his hearers had gone mad, but most did not want to hinder what they regarded as a remarkable movement of the Spirit of God. The tenor of the town and its environs changed, with the sound of hymns of praises, religious conversation, and the absence of vanity and frivolity, not to mention profane speech or open immorality.
Ireland and Canada
Soon he was invited to preach in Ireland. There, however, he met with either indifference or resistance. In 1844 he responded to an invitation to go to Canada, where, again, he often faced rejection, sometimes hostility and even violence. To reach people of all sorts, he learned to speak in Gaelic and French, once again demonstrating his facility for languages. Even so, he had to endure ridicule, but he labored on. He did not witness much of a response to his preaching, but ministers who followed him found that people were much more ready to listen to them than before.
Even at this early point in his career as an evangelist, Burns saw himself as a sower, not a reaper. He traveled from place to place, constantly preaching the gospel and leaving the follow-up work to others. In a pattern that he would follow in China, he did not make specific plans for his next step, but responded to invitations or to his sense of God’s leading.
When Burns returned to Scotland in 1846, his friends noticed that he seemed much older. The clarity and power of his voice had gone; “his mind and his spirit were both tired; and he had begun to acquire a look of age which he never afterwards wholly lost” (Matthewman 30).
He had, however, gained experience that proved invaluable in coming years as an evangelist in China. “Any undertaking he embarked upon was an undertaking which he knew was God’s will; whatever happened to him would be because God wished it to happen; why then should he be afraid? All through his life this serenity and certainty were apparent” (Matthewman 23).
Though this ministry delayed his going to China, it resulted in the conversion of many, including G. L. McKay, one of the first Protestant missionaries to Taiwan.
Ordination as a missionary and departure for China
Just before his ordination as a missionary he decided that God wanted him to be an evangelist, not to administer the sacraments as a pastor. “There was no doubt that this was what he was meant to do, his whole life showed it, and the church recognized the fact” (Matthewman 37). The official records state that “he must be left free to avail himself of such openings as may appear to be made for him in Divine Providence” (Chen 25).
During the voyage to China, he held “family prayers in his cabin every evening and sometimes in the morning, and when the captain would permit it, in other parts of the ship. He also settled down to a close study of Chinese” (Matthewman 40). He used Morrison’s Chinese New Testament “and in spite of sea sickness, by the time the voyage had ended he had a rough knowledge of the language” (Matthewman 41).
When Burns arrived in Hong Kong, he found that he was needed to fill a vacancy in the Free Church of Hong Kong. For the first fourteen months of his time in China, he preached to foreigners, “but for the most part giving himself entirely to the task of learning the Chinese language and studying the Chinese people, so that he might understand them thoroughly” (Matthewman 44).
He made rapid progress in the language, so that he was able to make himself understood to three criminals facing the death penalty; he returned often to talk to prisoners. He also “attended the daily Chinese service conducted by Chinese in the mission house and gave English lessons to the boy who waited on him, while they both and a friend gave him lessons in Chinese” (Matthewman 43). His friends concluded that he not only had a gift for languages – which he did – but that he learned quickly “because of the intense concentration he gave to the task. This was one of William’s chief characteristics; whatever he did he did with all his strength. He spoke Chinese, wrote Chinese, heard Chinese, sang in Chinese, prayed in Chinese” (Matthewman 45).
To immerse himself further in Chinese society, he left the house where he had been living with some Europeans and rented one in the middle of the Chinese section of the city, where he lived with his two Chinese servants. His Chinese teacher came very day to give him lessons.
After a while, he and his teacher started a mission school for boys. Soon they had from twelve to fifteen students, three of whom lived with Burns in the house, where they joined the others in a short worship service led by Burns and the teacher. Even though he taught or helped in several schools in coming years, however, Burns never considered himself a teacher, just as he did not see himself as a pastor; he taught only for a while before focusing on evangelism.
At the end of fourteen months, his knowledge of Cantonese allowed him to speak easily with the people. Violating the provisions of the 1842 treaty, he ventured beyond the treaty port of Hong Kong into the surrounding villages, where he preached the gospel to mostly friendly audiences. He had with him Chinese assistants and one servant. They went from village to village, staying for a shorter or longer time as he thought necessary. They had almost no money, but relied on food and shelter that were offered to him by the people to whom he spoke. From the beginning of his missionary work, Burns involved Chinese men in his ministry, thus mentoring and training them to be evangelists as well. This was a central part of his strategy up until the very end of his life.
“His method was to sit down under the shade of a tree in the middle of the village he had just reached and begin to read the Bible aloud. Before long the villages, attracted by the sound of his voice, would gather round, and he would explain to them what it was he was reading. When meal times came round, someone would ask him to share their food and at night would offer him shelter” (Matthewman 47). The storyteller was a familiar figure in Chinese society, but Burns differed in that he did not ask people to make a contribution before he went on with this narrative.
After seven weeks, he returned to Hong Kong for a rest. Then he set out again. Perhaps because he went further inland, he met with less success. When he heard that a mandarin lived nearby, he would keep his distance. Robbers were also a threat, which is one reason he never carried much money, especially after he was left entirely destitute by two thieves in the middle of the night. He returned to Hong Kong after seven weeks and stayed with a friend, Dr. Hirschberg, who had opened a hospital in Victoria, the capital of Hong Kong. He remained for eight months, “Perfecting his knowledge of the language and working each day in the hospital.” He steadily grew in his facility not only with spoken Chinese but also in reading and writing.
In Hong Kong he met Dr. James Hume Young, an English physician who had become, like Burns, a missionary of the Presbyterian Church in England. They became friends, and this friendship lasted for many years. In 1850, the two men set out for Guangzhou (Canton). They found it hard to obtain lodgings with a Chinese, but they were able to lease a place from a fellow missionary for eight months. After only a few months, however, Dr. Young decided to move to Xiamen (Amoy), partly because their labors had borne little fruit. Burns stayed on until the lease was up. He left Guangzhou for Xiamen in July 1851, after sixteen months of preaching with hardly any favorable response. He and Young were part of a team of missionaries from the English Presbyterian Mission and the Reformed Church in America
In Xiamen Burns met with a warm welcome from Dr. Young and missionaries of the London Society and the American Board of Missions. By this time, Dr. Young had opened two schools and a hospital, where he tended the sick while two Chinese Christian helpers shared the gospel with the patients. Burns lived in a room above the hospital and again threw himself into the task of learning a new language, the dialect of Amoy. With his gift for languages, he soon was able to preach and teach, going from village to village and meeting with much more success than he had in Guangzhou.
While in Xiamen, Burns began to translate Pilgrim’s Progress, the book that had meant so much to him as a boy. This classic tale had a profound effect on the Chinese teacher who was helping him. “It wasn’t the first time Pilgrim’s Progress had been translated, but it was the first time the whole book had been done in Chinese” (Matthewman 62). This edition became quite popular, partly because it was illustrated by a Scottish artist who took great pains to draw the Chinese dress accurately. He also wrote and translated hymns, which also became popular, especially among children.
In January, 1854, Burns and his two Chinese assistants went on a preaching tour that eventually took them to Pechuia, a market town on the river. They had planned to stay only a few days and move on, but, for the first time since he had landed in China, Burns met the kind of response to the gospel that reminded him of his days as a revivalist in Scotland and Canada. The people were not only interested in the message but eager to learn more, so they rented a house were Burns could live and teach. Chinese crowded the ground floor every night for two months. On market days, some came from nearby towns, returned, and brought their friends with them.
After two months, Burns took his assistants on a tour of places where people had come, leaving the care of the new believers to Chinese who had come to Xiamen to help. In fact, Burns never displayed any interest in settled pastoral work. As he had said before leaving Scotland, he believed that God had called him to be an evangelist, not a pastor. He would sow and others would reap and care for the harvest.
All around the province they met with the same reaction. At a town called Bay Pay several converts were made. When they returned to Pechuia, they found that several people, including some well educated young men, had burned their idols and joined themselves to Christ. Burns was especially happy when a cloth-maker and his wife wanted to be baptized and seemed ready. Their little son also asked for baptism. When Burns saw that the boy seemed to have a genuine faith, he acceded to his request.
Burns’ love for the Chinese manifested itself when, after the Manchu army had expelled the Triads who had occupied Xiamen for a while, they brutally butchered civilians who had had no choice but to cooperate with the Triads. He treated the wounds of the survivors in such a way that “the gratitude of the people found expression in an openness to the gospel he preached.” Indeed, as a British naval officer present at the time said later, Burns “found himself looked upon almost as a father” ( Broomhall 128, 320).
Though Burns did not settle in any one place, through his itinerant evangelism and preaching in different congregations “the foundations had been laid by him to be built upon successfully by his successors” (Latourette 259). These “successors” included not only the missionaries who had invited him to serve with them but the Chinese assistants and converts whom he had trained by involving them in preaching as much as possible. He believed strongly in the ministry of un-ordained Christians and volunteers. Burns always sought to build a Chinese church that was self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating.
Return to Scotland
Only a few months later, however, this remarkable movement of the Spirit was interrupted for Burns when Dr. Young became so ill that he had to return to Scotland and Burns was selected to accompany him. Dr. Young’s wife had died unexpectedly only a few months before, so Burns had to care for the doctor’s child and also for the Chinese amah who accompanied them to care for the child. This woman, whose name was Boo-a, was a convert. Clutching her hymn-book in her hands, she lit up with happiness when given an opportunity to share, through Burns’ interpretation, the joy of her new-found faith in Christ.
Dr. Young died in February, 1855; Burns set out for China a month later. His friends and family had noticed that he looked much older and worn that when they had last seen him, but that his eyes sparkled with joy. “He was more loving and companionable, less reserved and austere,” than before (Matthewman 66). His brother wrote that he seemed less like John the Baptist and more like Christ. His love for children was especially marked. What struck people most, however, was his burning passion for the work in China. He longed to be back with the people he had grown to love.
He set sail along with the Rev. Carstairs Douglas, who remained one of his closest friends for the rest of his life.
Shanghai, Shantou, etc.
Burns arrived in Shanghai in August, 1855. Instead of going back to Xiamen with Mr. Douglas, he decided to try to reach the headquarters of the Taiping rebels in Nanjing. Many missionaries had heard that the leader of the Taipings, Hong Xiuquan, was a Christian, and wanted to send someone to find out the facts. The journey would be difficult and the outcome uncertain, but Burns thought he was the person to make the attempt.
In fact, Burns had to stop without reaching Nanjing, because the boatmen were afraid that their craft would be taken and they would be killed. They turned back toward Shanghai by way of the Grand Canal. Along the way, Burns had several adventures. Everywhere he could, he sold books to the Chinese who thronged about him. The local Chinese magistrates treated him kindly, as did the police who were ordered to attend and protect him.
More than once, a policeman, after having warned the people to stay away from the boat, would see a friend in the crowd and order a book to be given to him. When the police left Burns, one of them took an armful of books for his friends. The boat was anchored only a short distance from the shore. Some Chinese were so eager to receive books that they swam out to the boat. Burns gave each one a book, which they tied upon the head with the long queue (pony tail) that the Manchus required the men to wear. They would swim back to shore with the book completely dry. All the way back to Shanghai the policemen helped them to distribute their literature. Burns thought that this was the real reason God had arranged a police escort.
Burns made Shanghai his headquarters for another six months, living on a boat and making forays into the surrounding towns and cities. Almost everywhere, he encountered friendly and receptive audiences for the gospel message he proclaimed. He writes on one memorable evening: “When it was dark we halted for the night at Chung-too-keon, where there are only a few houses. Going ashore we found many people we could address, lingering about the gambling and eating houses. The people had their lanterns and we had ours, and amid the darkness thus broken, we addressed a multitude of precious souls, assisted by God speak with more than usual earnestness, and the people also listened with a fixed and serious interest” (Matthewman 75).
With Hudson Taylor December 1855 to July 1856
While in Shanghai, Burns began to guild a close friendship with Hudson Taylor, who had arrived in China in 1854 and who was also living in a houseboat and wearing Chinese dress. After they had made several preaching trips together, Burns invited Taylor, who was seventeen his junior, to accompany him on his next journey to Shantou (then called Swatow). When Taylor joined Burns, “he found himself in the presence of a saint” (Broomhall 319).
Burns made a profound impression on Hudson Taylor, whom he taught priceless lessons learned “from years of grueling effort, opposition, persecution and disappointment, in Dublin, Canada and South China. Three lessons in particular Hudson Taylor appropriated to himself and passed on to generation after generation of missionaries… The first was God’s purpose in permitting his servants to undergo suffering and frustration. The second, the importance of evangelism as the great work of the Church. And the third, the place of lay evangelists as a ‘lost order’ in the Church ‘that Scripture required to be restored’” (Broomhall 320-321).
Taking a Chinese preacher with them they traveled together in their two boats. Ordinarily, Burns would start at the outskirts of a city and work his way gradually toward the center, giving people time to get used to his presence. At Nanxun they came upon a vast concourse of people outside the city engaging in idol worship and every sort of immorality. Burns boldly mounted a stage upon which a lewd performance was being presented and warned the crowd that they were headed for hell unless they repented. Onlookers escorted him away, but he and Taylor returned the next day.
After several days of going systematically towards the center of the city, they could thank God that a few people had expressed interest in their new doctrine, and one had even agreed with them. Seeing how much more easily Taylor gained and held the people’s attention, Burns finally decided to shave his head, attach a queue (a long pony-tail) and don Chinese dress.
After a short return visit to Shanghai, they both sensed God’s leading to go to Shantou (Swatow), a town with the worst possible reputation for degradation and vice, fueled by unrestricted trade in opium and “coolies,” that is slaves, both men and women. They found a place to live and planned to stay for a while, but encountered difficulties. At one point, robbers invaded their rooms and took all except the clothes they were wearing. Burns often left Taylor and went to Double Island to preach to the foreign sailors and merchants.
After Taylor returned to Shanghai, he was replaced by two Chinese assistants, who accompanied Burns as he went from town to town, living on a boat. Without warning, the authorities in arrested him. He was ordered to bow down before the magistrate on two knees, but he refused. Instead, he bowed on one knee, as he would to his sovereign, Queen Victoria. Though the Chinese later learned that they had acted on a false report, they thought that, having arrested and detained him, they could not now let him go. They had to transfer him to the custody of the British consul in Guangzhou. With a number of Chinese officials, Burns made the month-long journey down the river to Guangzhou. Burns was ill with a fever most of the time.
A letter from Commissioner Yeh, the Chinese official in charge of the province in which Swatow is located, showed that he had suspected Burns of being a spy for the British. He also objected to Burns violation of the treaty that restricted foreigners to five ports, including Hong Kong and Shanghai, and said that he should not return there. The consul agreed, and advised Burns to stay in Guangzhou. Not long afterward, however Burns did return to Shantou. He wanted to find out what had happened to his two Chinese assistants. He learned that they had been beaten but had not renounced their faith in Christ, even in prison. Burns finally gained their release.
He remained in Shantou for two years, during which he assisted a Dr. De La Porte, acting as an interpreter and, of course, joining his now-free assistants in telling patients about Jesus Christ. While in Shantou he was asked by the British military commander Lord Panmure to become a chaplain to the British forces, but he refused. He did not want to be associated with British imperialism and aggression; nor did he want to be diverted from his main work of spreading the gospel.
In 1858 he went to live with Dr. De La Porte in his house on Double Island. Initially, he just wanted a change of air and a rest, but later agreed to superintend repairs and renovations on the physician’s home. He did this both because his ability with the Chinese language was needed and also because he was to take over the cottage when Dr. De La Ported went back to England for a while. His letters home show that he thoroughly enjoyed this change of place and lifestyle. He must have been a good builder, because when a storm came and blew down all the nearby structures, his was left intact.
Xiamen (Amoy), Pechuia, Fuzhou
In October 1858 he responded to invitations to return to Xiamen and work there. He labored in Fujian province for the next five years. As before, he traveled around from one village to another, but this time it was by boat. His Chinese assistants named it the Gospel Boat. On the sails were written, in large Chinese characters that could be read from a distance, “Jesus said, ‘The Son of Man came to seek and to save that which was lost.’” On the prow they painted the craft’s name: “The good news boat.”
They enjoyed favor among the people, and not once were they molested in any way. Burns left Xiamen for Fuzhou, where he assisted other missionaries. These noted that “he had a particular power among the native Christians. This was to due to many things: his own deep love of God, his accurate knowledge of the Chinese language, they way in which he could use his own great Christian knowledge to help them and the fact, most striking of all, that he had only one aim, to teach about the Saviour he loved so deeply” (Matthewman 85).
While in Fuzhou, he wrote hymns in the spoken dialect. Previously, hymns had been composed in the written language, which better-educated Chinese preferred. Burns wanted to reach common people, however, so he published these hymns in a style they understood.
After serving in Fuzhou and Shantou for a while, Burns was called back to Xiamen (Amoy) to help the local Christians, who were encountering persecution. The mandarins rejected Christianity because they considered it a foreign religion, while the common people “hated it because it concerned only one God. [The Christians] they regarded as fanatics, enemies of the Chinese gods and despisers of the ancestral rites” (Matthewman 86). Though they hardly ever killed the Christians, they caused them great suffering. Believers in Jesus endured robbing, destruction of their rice fields, theft of their cattle, and cutting down of their trees. They could not use the public wells, and no one would help them during harvest time. Then there were the constant ridicule and even beatings.
Burns was asked to help because the non-Christians respected him so much and he possessed unusual wisdom and power in communicating with the authorities. His intervention produced a great deal of relief and restitution for the Christians, but the missionaries agreed that he should go to Beijing to state the case of the Christians before Sir Frederick Bruce, the British minister. Burns argued the case of the Christians so well that he gained some, though not all, of the concessions for which he asked.
After his interview with Bruce, Burns settled in Beijing, staying first with the Rev. W. H. Collins of the Church Missionary Society and then with a Dr. Lockard, who lived near the British Legation. This house had a courtyard where Burns would play with a little boy who lived there. Burns loved children and the feeling was mutual. “Children had no fear of him. They knew he loved them and, like all children, they expected him to play with them whenever they wanted it. It was very rarely they were refused” (Matthewman 90).
Then Burns rented a small house where he could live alone. There, he worked constantly writing and translating hymns, this time into the Mandarin dialect. After the hymnbook, he translated a book of Bible lessons for children. Then came a second translation of Pilgrim’s Progress, also in Mandarin. “It was published in two parts, illustrated with wood-cuts, and he added an addition to the text in the second part, setting out the principles that should govern a Christian marriage” to make the book more useful to Chinese women.” (Matthewman 91) After that, he made a translation of the Psalms from the Hebrew into the classical style of four words per sentence. Each Psalm also had an introduction, as well as many text references to the New Testament another parts of Scripture. It was published in the spring of 1867, a year before his death.
In addition to translation, he continued his preaching ministry, always ready to help out any Protestant missionaries who invited him to speak in their meetings. One who was present with him at many social gatherings wrote later: “His manly character, his sober views, his practical good sense, his kindly sociality, his mental strength, his moral decision and his consistent and unaffected piety made him a friend greatly valued by us all” (Islay Burns Location 5379).
Final days: Nieu-chwang
In the fall of 1867 he left Beijing for Nieu- chwang, because he had heard that a missionary was needed there. He once more found a small house for himself and his Chinese assistant and began to preach and teach. In January 1868 he caught a cold from which he never recovered. William Burns died on April 4, 1868, and was buried in Nieu-chwang. His Chinese assistant was heartbroken, but obeyed Burns’ last instructions to remain there until a missionary could replace hm.
“It is not so much because of what he did, as because of what he was, that he is remembered” (Islay Burns Location 5852). Hardly ever did he see the results of his preaching. He sowed the seed, others reaped it. “Never did he think of himself; always he thought first of others.”
Because of his itinerant ministry, he left an impression among thousands of people across wide stretches of China. His books continued to influence Chinese for decades. Many converts were heard to say “that they got their idea of what the Saviour was on earth from the holy calm, warm love, and earnest zeal of Mr. Burns’ ‘walk with God’” (Matthewman 95).
After his death, tributes to his life and character poured in. One missionary said, “All China knows him; he is the holiest man alive” (Islay Burns, Location 5854).
“Known as ‘The man of the Book,’ … [he] was an inspiration to his colleagues within the English Presbyterian Mission, and his spiritual gifts, to which Hudson Taylor among many others bore personal testimony, were recognized throughout the missionary community in China” (Hood).
Not all have expressed full approval of Burns’ way of operating. At least one modern critic – a pastor, we should note – has faulted him for “a lack of long-term planning and fixed objectives, … coupled with an extreme openness to spontaneity,” a characteristic this critic repeatedly labels “planless.” He repeatedly faults Burns for not wanting to make pastoral work a priority (Chen 27). Burns put it this way: “How I shall be afterward occupied and how long, I cannot tell but [am] looking to the Lord for guidance and grace. I would desire to do from day to day what my hand finds to do in the work of His Kingdom” (Chen 29).
This criticism obscures the fact that Burns almost never engaged in pioneer evangelism. With the exception of a few years at the beginning and end of his career, he always preached where he had been invited by other missionaries, and in order to help them in their church-planting and church-formation ministries.
Those who knew him best saw other qualities. Hudson Taylor, who had lived and worked with Burns intimately for seven months, wrote: “He is one of those holy men one seldom meets with, who do possess a single eye to God’s glory… The secret is easily learned and told – he is a man of prayer – added to which he possesses an iron frame, and a strong will, which would not be easily moved from its purpose… His love for the Word was delightful, and his holy, reverential life and constant communings with God made fellowship with him satisfying to the deep cravings of my heart” (Broomhall 321).
Though never frivolous, he possessed a fine sense of humor and was “genial and hearty” (Islay Burns, Location 5941).
Concerning his outstanding effectiveness as a preacher a fellow missionary said, “His greatest power in preaching seemed to me to consist in the manner in which he quoted the Holy Scriptures. In this I do not think that I have ever heard him surpassed” (Islay Burns, Location 5797).
His brother Islay wrote that Burns was “one who lived for nothing else but to serve and glorify Christ” (Islay Burns, Location 1616). Material possessions had no attraction to him; rather, lived as simply as he could. At his death he had very few possessions to bequeath to his family and friends. His modern biographer reflects the testimony of many when she writes, “Throughout the whole of his life his humility was one of the things most noticeable about him, and it was his great strength” (Matthewman 23).
- Broomhall, A.J., Hudson Taylor and China’s Open Century. Book Two. Over the treaty Wall. SevenOaks, UK: Hodder & Stoughton and the Overseas Missionary Fellowship, 1982. Now printed in Volume One of A.J. Broomhall, The Shaping of Modern China: Hudson Taylor’s Life and Legacy. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2005.
- Burns, Islay. Memoir of the Rev. Wm. C. Burns. 1869; rev. 1885. Kindle Edition.
- Burns, William Chalmers, and M.F. Barbour. Notes of Addresses by William Chalmers Burns. Missionary of the English Presbyterian Church to China. London: James Nisbet & co, 1869. Kessinger Publishing: Kessinger Legacy Reprints. www.kessinger.net
- Cheung, David (Chen Yiqiang). Christianity in Modern China: The Making of the First Native Protestant Church. Leiden-Boston: Brill, 2004.
- Hood, George A., “Burns, William,” in Gerald H. Anderson, ed., Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1998, 102.
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