Lessons from the Life of William H. Burns

The following is a transcript of an address delivered by Kevin Morgan at our monthly men's gathering on November 18, 2023.


Men and brethren, the important prospects before us are such, that it is high time to look about for some sure foundation upon which to build our happiness. The fabric to be erected must endure long, for our souls will last forever; and their eagerness for happiness will continue vehement forever. The fabric must rise high, for our capacities perpetually expand; and a low happiness will not be equal to them. The fabric must be strong, proof against all the storms that will rise upon us, and upon this guilty world. Losses, bereavements, sicknesses, and a thousand other calamities may yet try us. Evils are now breaking in, like a flood, and we, and our earthly all, are in danger of being overwhelmed. Death will certainly attack us; and that must be a strong building indeed which the King of Terrors will not be able to demolish. Now, now is the time for you to provide. And where will you look? Whither will you turn? This earth and all its pleasures will prove but a quicksand in that day. Your friends and relations can then afford you no support. If they can but find refuge for themselves, that will be all. Therefore, bethink yourselves once more, where you shall find a rock on which you may build a happiness that will stand in that day…

Nothing but Christ, nothing but Christ, can stably support our spiritual interests, and realize our expectations of happiness.

William Hamilton Burns (1779 – 1859) was the small-town Scottish pastor who preached those words to his congregation in a sermon on Isaiah 28:16 and 1 Peter 2:6.

The following are a few of the lessons, encouragements, and challenges I received as I read a biography of this man titled “The Pastor of Kilsyth – The Life and Times of W.H. Burns”, written by Burns’ own son Islay Burns in 1860 and in print today thanks to the Banner of Truth Trust.

If you spend a few minutes googling this man’s name, you will quickly find that many of the search results lead you to two of his sons: Islay Burns and William C. Burns, both of who certainly eclipsed their faither in fame. Islay was the successor of the well-known pastor, hymnwriter and biographer Robert Murray M’Cheyne at St. Peter’s Church in Dundee, Scotland. William Chalmers Burns became a well-known preacher and pastor and later went on to become a missionary to China for 20 years. Hudson Taylor called him one of his greatest influences.  

Upon learning of these men’s great faithfulness and sacrifice for the cause of Christ, I knew I wanted to study the life of the man who raised them. I wanted to learn from and emulate Burns as I seek to be a godly father and good steward of the precious children God has given me. This is, no doubt, due to my life situation with 4 young children in my home. But whether you are single, married, a parent, or childless, this short biography is worth reading.

Early Life

W.H. Burns was born February 15th 1779 to John Burns and Grizzel Ferrier. He was one of 12 children, of whom 8 boys and 2 girls lived into adulthood. Two of his siblings tragically died in infancy (the child mortality rate for children 5 and under in Scotland at this time was 329 in 1000).

Not much is written about William’s upbringing, but his son Islay has this to say about the subject:

"All we certainly know is, like Samuel, he was of godly and honorable parentage, and like him, planted by a parent’s hand in the house of God, and watered, there is reason to believe from the first not in vain, by a parent's prayers." And later: "In the genial atmosphere of that godly home, there is reason to believe that the germs of saving grace were early sown in his heart, and gradually ripened into a gentle and loving piety, which grew with his growth and strengthened with his strength."

What a great reminder that the prayers of a godly parent are never in vain!

Burns' impressive early education shows us just how vastly different Georgian-era schooling was in the United Kingdom compared to most public school systems today: By 1791, at the age of just 13, he had completed all primary education in reading, writing, arithmetic and, of course, Latin, and was now pursuing his undergraduate degree at the University of Edinburgh.

By 1795, at the age of 17 or 18, he was studying at what was then called “The Divinity Hall” (what we might call seminary today_ in preparation to enter the ministry. He wrote extensive journal entries at this time describing the shaping influences of his godly professors as well as the pastors and preachers in his local church. Here is an anecdote he wrote about a man named Legh Richmond and his tract ministry in small Scottish towns that made a great impression on Burns:

“On one occasion, as he with the other passengers in the public conveyance were ascending to well-know Moncrieff Hill near Perth, and left the coach to lighten the horses, and enjoy the magnificent prospect, he began to give a tract to any wayfarer he might meet. One of his fellow-travelers smiled when he saw one on the reacts given treated contemptuously by the receiver, torn in two, and thrown down on the road. ‘See how your tract has been used,’ said he; ‘there is one, at least, quite lost.’ ‘I am not so sure of that,’ said Mr. Richmond, ‘at any rate, the husbandmen sows not the less that some of the seed may be trodden down.’ When they turned round at the top of the hill to take another look at the prospect before mounting the coach, they saw distinctly the fate of the little tract. A puff of wind had carried it over a hedge into a hayfield, where a number of haymakers were seen seated and listening to the said tract which one of their number had found. He was observed carefully joining together the tow parts which had been torn asunder but were help together by a thread! The devil had done his work imperfectly; for instead of tearing the tract to tatters, his agent had left it still available for use, a little pains sufficing to make it legible. This the poor man who had torn the tract in two was the means of its being read by a whole band of haymakers, instead of by a single individual. Thus, no doubt, moralized the excellent Legh Richmond!”

At the turn of the century, after 5 years of study, Williams Burns became Reverend Burns and began his ministry in the small town of Dun, population about 700. Later he would become the pastor of the parish church in the likewise small country town of Kilsyth, where he would spend the rest of his life and ministry.

A Quiet and Faithful Ministry

What makes the life and ministry of William Burns so interesting to read about really is the fact that there was nothing spectacular or awesome about it? He was a simple small-town pastor who day after day, week after week and year after year gave himself to the Gospel work of service of his parish, study of the word, and prayer.

Don Maclean introduction to the biography points us to why this kind of life is so worth our time and consideration:

In our celebrity-driven age (from which the evangelical church is far from exempt), this is exactly the kind of life we need to study. We need to be reminded of the beauty, dignity and ultimately the glory of humble, obscure Christian service (Matt. 10:42). Yes, we need the towering leaders of men like John Calvin and John Knox. However, the great work of the church is ultimately carried forward by those who receive little earthly reward and recognition (but great is their reward in heaven!). William H. Burns was one of these, and we need many like him in our day.

The bulk of William Burns' day-to-day work comprised of the study of Scripture for personal devotion and in preparation to preach it, the reading of theologically beneficial texts, visiting the poor, sick and suffering, and devoting himself to prayer. The following excerpt from his daily journal highlights the nature of his daily ministry:

September 15, 1808. Visited Margaret Burley, a poor old woman in the Muir, whom I have frequently seen. She is nearly blind; a great aggravation of her other trials – widowhood, poverty. Spoke to her of the importance of having the mind illuminated, the heavenly eye salve; Seem attentive; prayed. This day read for the first time, Dr. Beattie’s beautiful poem The Minstrel, a high entertainment; many just observations on life, beautiful moral painting, Lively and striking description of nature, etc. Read portion of Erasmus’ Enchiridion; Treatise on Spiritual Armour; many good thoughts, but rather fanciful and allegorical.

Of course, for rev. Burns, the ministry of the Word in the Lord's Day gathering was the pinnacle of his work and the thing that he approached with the most solemnity. Here is what he wrote one September Saturday in as he prepared for the approaching Lord's Day:

September 17, 1808. Saturday. Rose a little before six, after a good night’s rest. Fox wandering while dressing; – two, usual with me. Read two Olney hymns, and part of Psalm 128, with Colossians three and four. Prayer. Oh, how cold and listless! Would that I could say with the Psalmist, ‘My heart is fixed, my heart is fixed!’ Delightful morning, though heavy dews. This day important, as preparatory for the solemn work of tomorrow. May my thoughts be well regulated, my affections devout, memory retentive. This day should preach to myself, that tomorrow I may be prepared to preach to others. This kind of preaching most difficult, but most important to the success of the other.

Revival in Kilsyth

In 1839, after about 40 years of this quiet, faithful ministry, revival broke out in Kilsyth. Much could be written on this revival and the causes, fruits, and results of it, but that is not the scope of this post. Nonetheless, it is worth considering how the quiet, humble, and consistent ministry that Williams Burns engaged in day in and day out among the people of his community was used by God powerfully to prepare them for a large-scale work of the Spirit. His and others' preaching during this time of revival was the tool in God's hand to subdue the hearts of lost sinners under the power of the Gospel.

From this we are reminded that there is no limit to the good God can bring about through regular folks like us! Even if there is no revival, or no other spectacular event, we should all still learn from and emulate the day-to-day devotion to God that Burns exhibited every day of his life.

If we go back for a moment to the early days of Burns’ ministry, we can observe some important life events that teach us much about his character.

First of these, was his marriage. He met and married Elizabeth Chalmers in 1806, during his 6th year of ministry in Dun. Islay Burns, who saw their married life first hand as their son, describes a union filled with joy, love, compassion, respect, and the common goal of glorifying Christ in all of life.

She was henceforth, for 54 unbroken years, his joy and strength, and she “did good to him, and not evil all his days“ of their united life. Of a quick, buoyant, nimble frame, alike of body and mind, she was the direct counterpart of his staid and unimpulsive temperament; so that the one seemed expressly made to supply the lack of the other, and their loving companionship seemed the very alliance of motion and of rest, of calm peace and lightsome gladness.

A sad break in this joy came when their son John died in infancy two years later. This was a strong and painful blow to William and Elizabeth. But the true nature of this godly man and woman can be seen in the way they handle this suffering. William wrote the following in his daily journal at this time:

“Our dear child closed his eyes in peace on the 31st day of July, being Lord’s Day, in the afternoon, while I was in church. My text that day was an Ecclesiastes 7:4 ‘It is better to go to the house of morning…’ My wife more composed than I could have expected. We trust that on this day, our beloved son and our first born, entered into that rest, which remaineth for the people of God; into that kingdom which is composed of little ones. We entertain the cheering hope that, through the merit of the blessed Redeemer, and according to the tenor of the Covenant of Grace, our child, whom we devoted to God in Christ, has obtained salvation, and now is added to the blessed company of the redeemed, singing the new song. He is moving in a higher sphere that he could have occupied on earth, and is receiving a much better education than we could have procured for him. He has made an early escape from the storms and tempests, the sins and temptations and sorrows of this mortal state. It is well with the child. Oh, may it be well with us! – May this trial (which we must long feel, many little circumstances recalling the remembrance of past joys) be made to work for good! The same afflictions are literally accomplished in my brethren, each of my married brothers, having lost a son; two of them, James and Walter, an only son, and a first born. The mortal remains of our beloved John were laid in the dust on the afternoon of Wednesday, 3 August 1808 – immediately behind the pulpit, and above the remains of my aged predecessor, the reverend James Lauder, who on 14 April 1802 had been laid in the grave, supposed to have arrived at the venerable age of 95. Thus the two extremes met – the early bud and the shock of corn fully ripe. Thus we have got ‘a possession of a bearing place’; our firstborn has taken possession of it in our names. Oh, may we be prepared to follow! May our lives henceforth be more useful, more spiritual! On the sabbath following I preached on Hebrews 13:8, ‘Jesus Christ, the same yesterday today and forever’ contrasting the unchangeableness of the Redeemer with the fleeting nature of all earthly things. All things change, and we change with them. But Jesus Christ is always the same, forever and ever.

‘I am the first, and I the last,

Through endless years the the same;

I AM is my memorial still,

And my eternal name.’

Here is a firm footing. This is the solid rock on which we would build, which resists all the beating of the winds and waves of time and change.”

When I read that, I can't help but thank God for being that beautifully immutable, unchanging ballast, footing and solid rock for them in their suffering and for us in ours. Praise God that he is our assurance in all things, and our anchor in the storm of suffering! What a glorious reminder to those suffering various trials now to lean on and cling to Christ in the tempest and seek to suffer well.

And what a timely reminder that we should surround ourselves with Christian brothers and sisters who suffer well, that the Lord might use them to train and prepare us for the day of trial, and even use us to encourage others in their hard times.

The Great Disruption

In 1843, a lengthy conflict between the Church of Scotland and the British government came to a head. The main issue at hand was the so called “right of patronage”, a law that granted the British Government had the right to control the appointment of positions in the Church and their benefits. The "Disruption Assembly" was made up of those adamantly against this so called "right of patronage" and insisted that the Church of Scotland remain independent in all matters spiritual and otherwise.

William Burns was among 194 ministers and elders of the Disruption who met at the Church of St. Andrews in Edinburgh on May 18th 1843, read aloud their formal protest, and proceeded down the street to Tanfield Hall, where they formally established the Free Church of Scotland.

For Burns and all of the other former Church of Scotland ministers present, this involved signing the "irrevocable deed of renunciation." the event was punctuated by cheering, clapping, and shaking of hands. But the real sacrifice was yet to begin.

Back home, at his church in Kilsyth, the true nature of this weighty sacrifice came to bear on William Burns. Islay Burns recounts how, by sheer force of habit, William went to the old Manse (parsonage) where his family had lived up until now, only to remember when he got there  that they wouldn’t be able to live there anymore. In fact, it was already empty.

Burns had left the national church. He had to turn away from the sanctuary he had ministered to the people in for 40 years. He had to turn his back on the pulpit from which he had preached the Gospel week after week for four decades.

The sorrow of losing ministry, job, income, and home would have been enough to cast any one of us into despair. Yet not so with William Burns. He and countless other ministers across Scotland continued to meet outdoors, in church yards, in meeting houses and in homes. Even when the local parish church in Kilsyth re-opened with a new minister, many of the original congregation stayed with Burns.

Today, the need to stand against the influence of outside forces in the government and the world is even clearer. May God grant us the courage of William Burns!

During this time, the Lord provided graciously for these pastors and their congregations who lacked meeting spaces and funds. Never allowing them to split or fall apart, the Church continued to grow and live our her calling, continuing in the ministry of the Word and Prayer.

Sabbath after Sabbath, for months together, did that congregation, and hundreds of others over the length and breath of Scotland, in quiet valleys, on bleak hillsides, and on naked shores, meet for worship under the open canopy of heaven; and it has been often remarked, that during all that time there was scarcely one rainy, or even showery Sabbath. Thus did their gracious Lord, whom they owned and worshiped as head over all things for his church, order even those lesser things for their good, “staying his rough wind in the day of his east wind.”

As the years marched on, the Lord blessed Burns and his congregation as they patiently persevered through these hard times. Eventually they were able to build a new church and a new Manse. The life of the church was very much like it had been before, though sweetened with a new gratitude. It was at this time, having learned to lean on God in the midst of trials, and having experienced how God had increased his faith and grown him in grace, that Burns wrote the following in his journal:

“Walked on, sir. Edmonstone‘s new private road musing on subjects of discourse. Heard a bell ring at the quarry. Thought with myself, what does this mean? It is a signal to drop work, being Saturday. One of the workmen said to me, you had better move, as there is to be an explosion of gunpowder. I was not tardy in making away. Thus a warning may be disregarded through ignorance and want of thought. I might have understood the signal, but did not, – was dreaming and loitering, but a friendly voice roused me. How many, alas! thus linger and delay, though danger is near, and though often loudly warned! Education begins not with the alphabet. It begins with a mother’s look, and a father is nod of approbation, or sigh of relief proof, – with a sister’s gentle pressure of the hand, or a brother’s noble act of kindness. We have it in the flowers, and in the green-daisied meadows; the birds’ nest admired, but not touched; in pleasant walks, and kindly, salutations and acts of benevolence, in deeds of virtue, in the source of all good, in God himself.”

May William H. Burns be that teacher for us,  point us to the God he was devoted to, and spur us on to the same devotion!

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