William Chalmers Burns (1815-68), whose life was characterised by a deeply-felt devotion to Jesus Christ wherever he was led, was one of the most remarkable figures in the history of the Scottish Church.
Son of a parish minister, W. H. Burns, he was born at Dun (near Brechin). He was educated at Aberdeen Grammar School, and entered Aberdeen University in 1829. His early thoughts of the law were quickly forgotten when he was converted in 1832. After graduating (MA, 1834), he started divinity studies at Glasgow University. A brilliant student, he excelled in Hebrew and Greek.
In 1839 he was licensed as a probationer by the Church of Scotland Presbytery of Glasgow, and soon after supplied Robert Murray M‘Cheyne’s pulpit in Dundee during the latter’s visit to the Holy Land. While in Dundee he witnessed a remarkable spiritual awakening, and he also contributed to a revival at Kilsyth while assisting his father at the parish Communion in August 1839.
From this point until his departure for China in 1847 Burns travelled widely, usually preaching to great crowds. He was one of the group of young men God raised up in the days of M‘Cheyne and the Bonar brothers whose only concern was for the universal triumph of the Cross. Along with many of his evangelical contemporaries, he left the Church of Scotland at the Disruption to join the Free Church. In 1844 he went to Canada, and returned two years later resolved to go overseas with the gospel.
The English Presbyterian Church appointed him in 1847 as their first missionary to China. The advice of ‘Rabbi’ Duncan, ‘Take care of His cause, and He will take care of your interests’, was exemplified in his life. Burns had set his heart on reaching as yet unreached inland China, and in 1849 he left the security of the coastal mission stations to preach the gospel inland. The early years were marked by difficulties and discouragements. However, in 1854 he was involved in a remarkable work of God at Pechuia, near Amoy, when many native congregations were formed – his practice was to leave them in the care of others and press on to new regions.
Burns returned to Scotland in 1854 with a sick friend who died soon after he arrived home. Thus his first and only furlough ended within a month. In 1864 Burns went to Peking, where he translated a number of hymns into Mandarin and also completed a translation of The Pilgrim’s Progress. Next he began a translation of the Psalms.
Burns died of fever at Nieu-chwang, his last words being: ‘Thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, for ever and ever.’ In few lives have these words been more eloquently portrayed.[Adapted from Ian Hamilton’s entry on Burns for the Dictionary of Scottish Church History & Theology; see also ‘Greatheart of China’ by R. Strang Miller in Five Pioneer Missionaries, published by the Trust. The Trust also publishes a book of Burns’ Revival Sermons.]