Burns, William Chalmers (DNB00)

BURNS, WILLIAM CHALMERS (1815–1868), missionary to China, born in 1815 at the manse of Dun, Forfarshire, was educated along with his brother Islay [q. v.] at the grammar school of Aberdeen and at Marischal College and University. His first training was in an Edinburgh lawyer's office, but in 1832 he became the subject of such intense religious impressions that he resolved to be a minister of the gospel, returned to the university, and was licensed as a probationer by the presbytery of Glasgow in 1839. His purpose was to be a missionary abroad, but, there being then no vacancy in the mission field, he accepted temporary occupation at home. His first labours were at Dundee, where he took charge of the congregation of the Rev. R. M. McCheyne during his absence in Palestine. Burns preached with extraordinary earnestness and depth of conviction; a great revival of religious life followed, much as in the days of Whitefield and Wesley. Burns then spent some years visiting different parts of Scotland and the north of England, and with corresponding results. He tried Dublin, but had little success there. Going to Canada, he made a great impression, especially where the Scotch abounded, but the scenes did not equal those which had taken place in his native land. It was not till 1846 that he set out for China as a missionary in connection with the presbyterian church of England. His first efforts among the Chinese were very discouraging, and his faith and perseverance were put to great trial. Ere long, however, the results were much more encouraging. In 1854, at Pechuia, near Amoy, began a remarkable harvest, which in various places he continued to reap. A marvellous spiritual power accompanied his words, and numberless hearts were touched. Many native congregations of christians were formed in the neighbourhood; but it was his practice to leave these to the care of others, and always press forward to occupy new ground. Leaving that part of China, he went to Shanghae, Swatow, and then to Pekin and Nieu-chwang. Burns translated the 'Pilgrim's Progress' as well as many of our best hymns into Chinese. He was remarkable for his simple and self-denying ways. On his mission tours he took little with him but tracts and bibles, trusting to the hospitality of the people. Often he was annoyed, once arrested and imprisoned, and sometimes robbed; but he bore all with the greatest meekness. To avoid being stared at as a foreigner, he ultimately adopted the Chinese dress, and lived like a native. Having caught a chill at Nieu-chwang, an out-of-the-way place to which he went simply on account of its destitution, he died there on 4 April 1868. Burns won in a most unusual degree the esteem both of British residents and of the natives of China, and of all friends of missions, and is universally regarded as having been one of the most devoted missionaries since apostolic times.

[Memoir of the Rev. W. C. Burns. M.A., by the Rev. Islay Burns, D.D., Professor of Theology, Free Church College, Glasgow, London, 1870; Blaikie's Leaders in Modern Philanthropy, London, 1884.]

W. G. B.