The Dictionary of Australasian Biography/Burns, Rev. Thomas
Burns, Rev. Thomas, D.D., was born at Mossgiel, Ayrshire, Scotland, on April 10th, 1796. His father, Gilbert Burns, was brother to the Scottish poet, Robert Burns, and was factor to Lord Blantyre. While yet a child his parents removed to the farm of Dinniny, Dumfriesshire. At the parish school he received his primary education, proceeding in course of time for the higher branches to the Grammar Schools of Closeburn and Haddington. At the latter he was a pupil of the famous Edward Irving, from whom he received a prize for proficiency in mathematics. From the Grammar School at Haddington Mr. Burns entered the University at Edinburgh, where he pursued with success the arts curriculum, and attended the classes in theology prescribed for candidates for the ministry of the Established Church of Scotland. He was then taken on trial for licence by the Presbytery of Haddington, and by it was duly licensed to preach as a probationer of the Church of Scotland. He was at that time acting as tutor in the family of Sir Hugh Dalrymple, Berwick House, Haddington, through whose influence he obtained a presentation to the parish of Ballantrae, in the Presbytery of Stranraer, Galloway, where he was ordained by that Presbytery in 1825. From Ballantrae he was translated to the parish of Monkton, Ayrshire, in 1830. where he continued parish minister till the disruption of the Church of Scotland in 1843, when he relinquished his status as a minister of the Church of Scotland, and joined the Free Church of Scotland which was then formed. For a short time he remained in Monkton as Free Church minister, and helped largely to organise other Free Churches In the Presbytery of Ayr. His attention having been drawn to the proposal of the New Zealand Company to found a Scotch colony in Otago, possessing the church and school privileges peculiar to Scotland, and drawn from the membership of the Free Church, and having received the offer of being appointed the first minister of the projected colony, he resigned his charge at Monkton with a view of proceeding to Otago in that capacity. Circumstances having hindered the immediate realisation of the New Zealand Company's scheme of colonisation, Mr. Burns spent a year or two in giving lectures on the Company's plan, visiting for this purpose various parts of Scotland, but receiving no remuneration from the Company for this service. He accepted a call from the Free Church congregation of Portobello, in the neighbourhood of Edinburgh, and continued to act as minister there till October 1847. At that date all arrangements for prosecuting the proposed settlement of Otago having been completed, and Mr. Burns adhering to his appointment as first minister of the colony, he demitted his charge, and made ready to proceed with the outgoing emigrants to Otago. With his family, he joined at Greenwich the Philip Laing, under the command of Captain Andrew Elles, which, with the John Wickliff, appointed to sail from London, had been chartered to convey the first emigrants to Otago. These vessels left their respective ports on Nov. 27th, 1847. The John Wickliff reached Port Chalmers on March 23rd, 1848, and the Philip Laing on April 15th following. The day after the arrival of the Philip Laing being the Sabbath, the passengers on both ships assembled on board the Philip Laing for Divine service, which was conducted by Mr. Burns. On the following Sabbath Divine service was held in Dunedin, when Mr. Burns preached. From that time to February 1854 Mr. Burns continued alone to minister to the religious needs of the settlers, the majority of whom had located themselves in Dunedin and neighbourhood, while some had settled at Port Chalmers, and others had taken up land in the Taieri, Tokomairiro, and Clutha districts, all of whom were periodically visited by Mr. Burns. From his ministerial visits southwards Mr. Burns was relieved by the arrival, in February 1854, of the Rev. William Will and the Rev. William Bannerman, with whom he took part in constituting the Presbytery of Otago in June following, and of which he was the first Moderator. Further relief was given him by the settlement of Rev. William Johnstone, at Port Chalmers, in June 1858, and by the subdivision of the Free Church, Dunedin, by the formation of Knox Church, under the pastorate of the Rev. D. M. Stuart, in 1860. In 1861 Mr. Burns received the diploma of Doctor of Divinity from the University of Edinburgh. In 1866, on the formation of the synod as the Supreme Court of the Church, rendered necessary by the increase of ministers throughout Otago and Southland, and the formation of several presbyteries, Dr. Burns presided as first Moderator. Advancing years and failing health led to the appointment of a colleague and successor in the person of the Rev. George Sutherland in 1868. Towards the close of 1870 Dr. Burns retired wholly from public duties, and died on Jan. 23rd, 1871. A monument to his memory has been erected in Dunedin, not far from the spot where one of his illustrious uncle has stood for some years past. Whilst Captain Cargill was the lay organiser and ruler of the Otago settlement, the late Dr. Burns was its spiritual guide and adviser. It was in 1844 that the New Zealand Company, perceiving the wonderful life which animated the free Church, approached her with a view to found a Free Church colony in New Zealand. The offer was entertained, and the Laymen's Association for planting the colony of Otago was organised, with Dr. Alcorn for its secretary in Glasgow and Mr. John M'Glashan for its secretary in Edinburgh. The Association, with the utmost unanimity, fixed on Captain Cargill to be the Moses and Dr. Burns to be the Aaron of the enterprise, as Dr. Stuart phrased it. It is well known that Sir William Chambers was one of those who directed attention to Dr. Burns as in all respects suitable for the office of pioneer minister. The doctor devoted much time to the advocacy of the scheme, and in his speeches he gave prominence to its objects—the settlement of the people on their own acres and the planting of church and school within their reach.