William Chalmers Burns
In September of 1840, Scotland’s famous praying pastor, Robert Murray M’Cheyne, wrote a letter to William Chalmers Burns.1 He wrote,
I am deepened in my conviction, that if we are to be instruments in a true revival we must be purified from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit. Oh, cry for personal holiness, constant nearness to God by the blood of the Lamb! Bask in His beams, lie back in the arms of love, be filled with the Spirit, or all success in the ministry will only be to your own everlasting confusion.2
Weeping over souls
William Burns was not merely a man of hopeful theories and empty words. Through his fervent praying and preaching, thousands witnessed the tangible glory of God. From an early age, his heart was broken for a lost and dying world. The story is told that when he was seventeen he was brought by his mother from the quiet town of Kilsyth to the bustling city of Glasgow. His mother was separated from her son while she was shopping. After retracing her steps she discovered him in an alley with tears streaming down his face. She could see he was suffering great agony and said, ‘Willie my boy, what ails you? Are you ill?’ With broken cries, he replied, ‘Oh, mother, mother – the thud of these Christless feet on the way to hell breaks my heart.’
The spiritual eyes of young William Burns had caught a glimpse of the everlasting horrors of a Christless eternity. This vision no doubt helped shape this young man who would later become one of the key instruments in the great Kilsyth Revival of 1839.3 He often found himself being driven to his knees in almost constant intercession. He wept for hours in deep soul agony on behalf of a backslidden church and the lost souls going to hell. His ministry was consistently marked by a divine urgency and intensity. His preaching produced extraordinary results.4 Later, Burns learned that the night before a powerful meeting a group of believers had gathered to labour in prayer for the lost and ungodly. During those wonderful days of revival glory it was not uncommon for Burns and many others to fervently pray and travail throughout the night. As a result, the glory of God fell as manna day after day.
William C Burns’ passion for souls was still unsatisfied. He was soon off to China to preach the gospel to those who had never heard the precious name of Jesus. He was recognized as the premier preacher with an awakening ministry of his day, and yet he joyfully surrendered himself to a life of obscurity and hardship on the neglected mission fields of China. No other episode in Burns’ wonderful life reveals more about his sterling character than this decision. In so doing he left popularity, prestige, wealth, and loved ones all behind. On being asked when he would be ready to leave for China, his answer was, ‘Now’. He boldly declared, ‘I am ready to burn out for God. I am ready to endure any hardship, if by any means I might save some. The longing of my heart is to make known my glorious Redeemer to those who have never heard of Him’. On another occasion Burns was heard to say, ‘The longing of my heart would be to go once around the world before I die, and preach a gospel invitation to the ear of every creature’. His own mother likened him to a sharp knife that would be worn out by cutting rather than by rusting; and Burns wished that it might be so.
In 1855, Burns unexpectedly met a young missionary in China named James Hudson Taylor. This seemingly random meeting resulted in a great blessing for both men. Burns found in Taylor a man after his own heart, and for seven months they walked together as kindred souls and fellow-labourers. Burns also recognized the warm reception Taylor received by the Chinese, while ministering in the native Chinese dress. Burns was quick to learn from his new friend and soon adopted this practice for himself.
The impact made upon the youthful Taylor by the experienced Scotsman is clearly seen in Taylor’s journals and letters. ‘Never had I had such a spiritual father as Mr. Burns,’ wrote Taylor. Taylor’s autobiography, A Retrospect, gives a further account of the deep impression that Burns had on him. He writes,
Those happy months were an unspeakable joy and privilege to me. His love for the Word was delightful, and his holy, reverential life and constant communing with God made fellowship with him satisfying to the deep cravings of my heart. His accounts of revival work and of persecutions in Canada, and Dublin, and in Southern China were most instructive, as well as interesting; for with true spiritual insight he often pointed out God’s purposes in trial in a way that made all life assume quite a new aspect and value. His views especially about evangelism as the great work of the church, and the order of lay evangelists as a lost order that Scripture required to be restored, were seed-thoughts which were to prove fruitful in the subsequent organization of the China Inland Mission.
Burns was driven by an all-consuming passion for the Lamb of God. God found a man who truly cared enough to listen, obey, and stay on his knees. Burns recognized that shallow and superficial praying was one of the greatest hindrances to the kingdom of Jesus Christ. He believed that a lack of true endurance in the secret place of prayer gives the victory to Satan. Burns writes,
Many who do come into the secret place, and who are God’s children, enter it and leave it just as they entered, without ever so much as realizing the presence of God. And there are some believers who, even when they do obtain a blessing, and get a little quickening of soul, leave the secret place without seeking more. They go to their chamber, and there get into the secret place, but then, as soon as they have got near to Him, they think they have been peculiarly blessed, and leave their chamber, and go back into the world. Oh, how is it that the Lord’s own people have so little perseverance? How is it that when they do enter into their place of prayer to be alone, they are so easily persuaded to turn away empty; instead of wrestling with God to pour out His Spirit, they retire from the secret place without the answer, and submit to it as being God’s will.
In Ezekiel 22:30-31, the prophet warns us of what happens when God cannot find true men and women of broken-hearted prayer and obedience:
And I sought for a man among them, that should make up the hedge, and stand in the gap before me for the land, that I should not destroy it: but I found none. Therefore have I poured out mine indignation upon them; I have consumed them with the fire of my wrath: their own way have I recompensed upon their heads, saith the Lord God.
Who among us will stand in the gap and pray, and then pray again until heaven comes down to earth?
- R. Strand Miller’s ‘Greatheart of China’, a Life of William Chalmers Burns, appears in Five Pioneer Missionaries, published by the Trust:
David Brainerd, William C. Burns, John Eliot, Henry Martyn, John G. Paton
In September of 1840, Scotland’s famous praying pastor, Robert Murray M’Cheyne, wrote a letter to William Chalmers Burns.1 He wrote, I am deepened in my conviction, that if we are to be instruments in a true revival we must be purified from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit. Oh, cry for personal holiness, constant […]
- The whole letter (along with others written to Burns by M’Cheyne) can be found in Memoir & Remains of Robert Murray M’Cheyne, pages 288-289.
- See Iain H. Murray’s A Scottish Christian Heritage, pages 105 ff.
- See, for example, J. R. de Witt’s article, Preaching: The Means of Revival on the Trust’s website.
From the Revival Resource Center.
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