Burns was brought up in a well-to-do household. The third son of a local church minister, William Hamilton Burns (1779–1859) and Elizabeth Chalmers (1784–1879). At the age of seventeen, Burns’ faith was strengthened through tragedy, and he subsequently commenced theological training at Marischal College in Aberdeen, and at the University of Glasgow’s Divinity Hall. (His brother Islay, was later a professor there).
During a revival meeting, he encountered an experience in which it became apparent that God had particularly appointed him into His service. By 1839, at the age of 24, Burns had obtained the licence to preach from the Glasgow Presbytery.
While still in his homeland of Scotland, he experienced, together with the preacher Robert Murray M’Cheyne, genuine revival meetings. It was one of the tools from which the great spiritual revivals in his home town of Kilsyth resulted, that took place from 1839-07-23. Burns preached at St. Peter’s in Dundee while Robert Murray M’Cheyne was away on a mission to the Jews in Palestine. The days of revival also deeply affected Dundee, and continued after M’Cheyne returned to St. Peter’s in November, 1839.
In 1843, Burns sided with Thomas Chalmers in the disruption within the Church of Scotland. In 1845, he visited Canada with his uncle, Rev. Dr. Robert Burns, minister from Paisley, and the younger Burns preached for the Free Church cause in many communities, including Montreal, Canada East, and in Glengarry County, where he preached in English, Gaelic and French. He later travelled into Canada West, although there was interest in his ministry in France. His uncle remained in Canada, becoming minister of Knox Church, Toronto and later (1856–1869) a Professor at Knox College, University of Toronto.
In 1847, Burns went to the Chinese empire via Hong Kong. During this long ship journey, he spent a lot of time studying the Chinese language. He began his missionary service during the late Qing Dynasty in British Hong Kong and went on to preach in such locations as Shantou, Xiamen and Beijing.
In 1855 Burns met Hudson Taylor and the two worked together for quite some time. Both had the courage to advance into the Chinese interior. Hudson Taylor regarded Burns as one of his spiritual mentors and wrote about the depth of Burns’ prayer life. Taylor, however, influenced Burns in the way in which he sought to contextualize his ministry by breaking with missionary tradition to wear Chinese clothing while evangelizing in China’s interior. During his twenty years of preaching the gospel in China, Burns also spent a short period wrongly imprisoned at Guangzhou.
In 1868, Burns died after a short illness in Yingkou (Newchwang), (Liaoning Province).
One of William Burns’ well known quotes was: “Always be ready” (1 Peter 3:15).
- Born: 01 April 1815, Angus, Scotland
- Died: 04 April 1868, Yingkou, China
- Notable Works: Revival Sermons: notes of addresses