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William Chalmers Burns (1815–1868) (2)

May 2015 | by Nigel Faithfull

Part 1 is here.

 

From December 1839, Burns spent several months at Perth. He travelled by coach and ‘gave tracts to all on it and in it (a practice which I intend to follow, wherever I go)’. The congregations were solemn, and many were in tears.

He witnessed everywhere he went — on steamboats, by the wayside, in markets and in haunts of vice. On emerging from a meeting,
he saw men and women sporting themselves behind a public house and said, ‘You are making work for the day of judgment’. They all ran back in, apart from one lad, the son of the innkeeper.

Burns asked if he would allow him into the pub to pray, which was permitted. He solemnly addressed a large number, who promised to attend his meetings, and shortly after heard that the boy’s father was giving up the spirit trade.

Shortly before his time at Perth, he awoke with ‘deadness of soul, as I often am, by doubts regarding every truth of God in his Word’. Later he could say, ‘The Lord gave me victory over unbelief, and I had such an impressive realisation of the state of the unconverted, that I was able to speak very closely to their consciences … and felt that the Lord was indeed present’.

Aberdeen

On 7 April 1840, at just 25 years of age, Burns left for Aberdeen. His hearers here, as elsewhere, responded to his earnest preaching with irrepressible emotion. The local ministers disapproved of open-air preaching, but Burns considered it his duty. He preached inside the army barracks.

After a five-month absence, he returned in October, when ‘many poor sinners lay weeping all night on their knees in prayer, and some of the Lord’s people present seemed to be filled with joy’.

He addressed 300-400 mill girls. After his speaking of their sins, many were in tears, some crying aloud and refusing to disperse. They brought their Bibles to work and less than one in ten now walked the streets on a Saturday night.

In November, he addressed 2500 in the East Church, after which a young man cursed saying, ‘There is the rascal himself!’ Burns went to
speak kindly with him, saying the young man did him no ill, but himself a great deal of ill. The man replied, ‘Perhaps I’ll turn to God too’.

In June 1840, Burns said, ‘I spent the day chiefly alone, seeking personal holiness, the fundamental requirement in order to a successful ministry’. On one occasion, at Breadalbane, he had to abandon his morning sermon, sensing pride in his heart. He prayed with the congregation for assistance and returned home.

In the evening service, he ‘felt so much enlarged, that both people and preacher were tenderly moved with a view of Emmanuel’s love’.

Itineracy

The years 1841–4 were spent itinerating. He met with little encouragement at Newcastle, calling it ‘an iron-walled citadel of Satan. The sleep of death is on the city’. He sent requests for prayer, and because the churches were empty, preached in the open air and in the castle yard, ‘where Whitefield preached of old’, and had stones and manure thrown at him.

He relied on voluntary gifts and never asked for a penny of support. From here, Burns visited Sunderland, then St Luke’s, Edinburgh, to deputise for Alexander Moody Stuart. Here he fulfilled the role of evangelist- pastor and preached consecutively through Romans and James.

From January to March, he extended his labours to eager crowds in Leith, where he also preached to the sailors on the quay.

He returned to Edinburgh to protest at the desecration of the Sabbath (a train service to Glasgow had been started). He preached twice at the railway station and twice at St Luke’s — about nine hours’ ministry every Sunday for three months.

Burns also rode a horse into Perthshire, preaching from John 18:11 to 4000 in the Blair Atholl churchyard for five hours, followed by three hours in the church to a congregation that remained until daybreak.

He sided with the Free Church at the 1843 Disruption — when 121 ministers and 73 elders left the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland to form the Free Church of Scotland — but avoided church politics, to concentrate on his evangelistic calling.

Overseas

In April 1844, Burns was invited to Dublin by Rev. Dr Kirkpatrick of Mary’s Abbey Church, to make known the gospel to Roman Catholics. He chose a spot in front of the Custom House and preached standing on a chair.

There was usually a hostile mob. His chair was often broken and his clothes torn, but he persisted in making known the way of salvation. He never became impatient and his face so beamed with joy that his persecutors had to admit, ‘He’s a good man. We cannot make him angry’.

He returned in May, but soon left for Montreal, arriving in Quebec on 10 September after a 36-day voyage. The only books he took
with him were his Bible and John Owen on the Glory of Christ, ‘which I find precious indeed’.

He immediately stood in the marketplace near the river and recited Isaiah 55. Both British and Canadian sailors began mocking and threatened violence, but he stood his ground and there were some who followed him to hear more.

He next sailed to Montreal and there addressed the 93rd and 71st Regiments, a number of whom he knew from when he
had addressed them in Scotland. The Commanding Officer of the 89th Irish Regiment, a Romanist, surprised him by enabling him to address his men weekly.

On one occasion in the open air, a stone cut his face so badly that he went to get it stitched up, but returned immediately and carried on preaching, beginning with, ‘I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus’.

Eventually violent opposition from Irish Catholics, assisted by the Romanist mayor, drove him away, until a sympathetic Wesleyan mayor was subsequently appointed.

Burns had a burden for the ‘poor benighted French Catholics’, and set about learning French until he could speak it fluently. He also visited the Gaelic community at Inverness in Quebec, where he ‘pronounced the Gaelic language with astonishing accuracy, showing a mastery of the very shibboleths of the language’.

There were terrible snowstorms making roads impassable. ‘This is awful’, remarked his host. ‘Oh! My dear sir, there is nothing awful but the wrath of God’, was Burns’ reply. His Bible accompanied him to the meal table, and on any gap in the conversation he would refer to it.

China

After two years of incessant labour, Burns returned to Scotland, arriving at Glasgow on 15 September 1846, with an aged appearance and a voice that had lost its clear tones.

His itinerating in Scotland was not this time attended with previous blessings, but his heartfelt call to foreign missionary service remained and he became convinced God was now calling him in this direction.

The mission stations in India were full, so, after consulting with his parents, he considered China. He was subsequently ordained at Newcastle by his cousin William Chalmers, who was born at Malacca, and appointed as the first missionary evangelist of the English Presbyterian Church. Asked when he’d be ready to go, he replied, ‘Tomorrow’!

Burns joined the Mary Bannatyne at Portsmouth and set sail on 9 June 1847. He arranged morning and evening services and studied Chinese, but suffered a good deal from nausea.

He spoke on the dangerous life of seamen at one meeting, and answered a question from one apprentice of 17 years, the son of a
widow. Two days later the young man was swept overboard by a wave and drowned. Burns himself was lifted off his feet by a large wave which filled his watch with salt water. Eventually he anchored in Hong Kong on 13 November.

Burns was following in the footsteps of Robert Morrison (1782–1834), the first Protestant missionary to China, who was sent by the London Missionary Society in 1807 and who published a Chinese dictionary.

Five ports were open to foreign trade by 1842, and soon 50 missionaries from Britain and America were labouring there. Burns set about learning the Canton dialect. He heard, spoke, read, wrote, sang and even thought in Chinese, and by 1848 was speaking to prisoners.

He had two Chinese assistants and a language teacher, and lived in an old chemist’s shop, where he opened a school and ministered to expats, who met in an old bungalow.

To be concluded

The author is a retired analytical chemist and member of St Mellons Baptist Church, Cardiff. In 2012, he published Thoughts fixed and affections flaming (Day One) concerning Matthew Henry.