William Chalmers Burns was born in the Manse of Dun, in Angus, on April Ist, 1815. He was the third son of the Parish Church minister there. After leaving school, he went to Edinburgh to be apprenticed with an uncle to the legal profession. His eldest sister, a gay young lady, was converted to God, and became a bright witness for the Lord Jesus in 1831, and it was by means of her decided testimony that William was first awakened to a sense of his need of salvation, and led to put his trust in the Son of God, as his Redeemer and Saviour.
It was shortly after his conversion that he walked into the manse of Kilsyth, where the family then resided, having walked on foot the thirty-six miles from Edinburgh, to tell his mother and his sisters the glad news of his conversion, and to say that his desire now was to relinquish his study of law, and devote himself entirely to the preaching of the Gospel of God’s grace to his fellowmen. And this he did heartily and with all his might, first in the neglected Parts of Scotland, and latterly among many heathen millions of the great Chinese Empire, then scarcely touched by the feet of God’s messengers of peace.
Mr. Burns’s name came into prominence in connection with a wonderful work of grace in Dundee, while he was preaching for Robert Murray M’Cheyne, then on a visit to Palestine, for the evangelization of the Jews. During Mr. Burns’s preaching in Dundee, a remarkable awakening took place; thousands were aroused to their condition in the sight of God, truly converted, and set on the heavenward way.
Remarkable scenes were witnessed in the old church of St. Peter’s, near to which M’Cheyne’s body now lies, awaiting the first resurrection. It was on the evening of a Lord’s Day in Kilsyth, after preaching to a crowded congregation, that Mr. Burns felt constrained to intimate to the people that he would preach to the people in the open air, before returning to Dundee the following day.
Deeply burdened with the souls of the people, he went into the village and invited the people, who thronged into the old church, until every seat and passage was filled. And the Lord helped His servant to preach straight to the people with great power, with the result that the whole congregation became melted under the message, many weeping aloud and crying to God for mercy. A glorious work of conversion followed. Meetings for prayer and preaching of the Gospel continued in the churchyard, the market-place and elsewhere for weeks, while Mr. Burns returned to Dundee to resume his ministry. The work progressed in Dundee with increased interest, until the return of Mr. M’Cheyne, who greatly rejoiced in all that the Lord had done during his absence, through the ministry of His servant. There was no jealousy, but the deepest gratitude, and these two true ministers of Christ rejoiced together over the Lord’s doings, which were indeed marvellous in their eyes.
From that time onward, until the Lord’s call came to go to China, Mr. Burns gave himself almost wholly to itinerant Gospel preaching, through Perthshire, up as far north as Aberdeen, preaching in barns, on market-places, and wherever the people could be gathered together to hear the Word. His message was plain, and to the point; thousands were awakened and many saved. But the adversary opposed. Time and again Mr. Burns was stoned, and bore the marks of these brands of the enemy for many days.
Believing it to be the call of the Lord, he went forth to China as the first missionary of the Presbyterian Church of England, in June, 1847. When questioned by those interested in his out-going, how long it would take him to prepare for the voyage, he replied with all simplicity, “I will be ready to go to-morrow.” On a brief visit to his home, to take farewell of his sister, he silently wrung her hand, took a last glance around their old home, and with a small bag in his hand and his mother’s plaid across his arm, went forth, in the Name of the Lord with the Gospel to China’s benighted people, of whom it was said “a million a month” were dying without having once heard the Gospel.
For years this solitary witness toiled alone, at times with a few helpers, in the great heathen land, amid overwhelming hindrances, but his faith in God never faltered. On and on he went, sowing the seed which others would reap, until he reached the borders of the great kingdom of Manchuria, where, in a small, comfortless room in Nieu-chang, wearied and worn in labours abundant, he fell asleep on April 4th, 1868, his last audible words being, “For Thine is the Kingdom and the Power and the Glory.” It is of this great land that the story of grace related in the following pages is told, and those who saw and shared in its joyful results, say that it was no doubt part of the result of William Burns’s sowing, in his earlier years in China.
This brief sketch was taken from ‘Days of Grace in Manchuria’ – author unknown.