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Dying Alone in China, Burns Wrote of His Faith in a Goodbye to His Mother

Leader of revival in Scotland, Burns became a missionary to China and died there alone.

On this day, 15 January 1868, a Scotsman in Newchwang, China, wrote a farewell letter to his mother. William Chalmers Burns had pioneered Christian work in several Chinese cities and would die far from home, but he did so with joy. 

“To my mother. At the end of last year I got a severe chill which has not yet left the system, producing chilliness and fever every night, and for the last two nights this has been followed by perspiration, which rapidly diminishes the strength. Unless it should please God to rebuke the disease, it is evident what the end must soon be, and I write these lines beforehand to say that I am happy, and ready through the abounding grace of God either to live or die. May the God of all consolation comfort you when the tidings of my decease shall reach you, and through the redeeming blood of Jesus may we meet with joy before the throne above!”

Burns’s mother knew of his zeal for Christ. Although as a youth he had rejected the thought of ministry, determining to become a lawyer and make a fortune, a change came over him while he studied at Edinburgh. He walked thirty-six miles home to ask if he might change programs and study for the ministry. When he was seventeen, his mother found him sobbing his heart out in an alley in Glasgow. “Willie my boy, what ails you?” she asked. In broken words he explained that he was weeping for the thousands in the city who did not know Christ as their savior. 

With such a heart for souls, Burns became a leader of the spiritual renewal that swept Scotland in 1839, praying on his knees for hours for the awakening of the church. Wherever he preached in Scotland, good results followed. He visited Canada but was not well received. He was even physically assaulted and in one attack, his face was seriously cut. 

An English mission agency then sent him to China where he lived a life of great simplicity. His years of work sometimes showed promising results, but other times appeared futile. He was especially effective at Baichuan and Fujian. In 1855 he met Hudson Taylor and the two worked together for several months. Burns saw how well the Chinese received Taylor when he wore native dress, and adopted the same style. 

After he became ill, Burns lingered on until April 1868, dying at just fifty-three years of age.

Dan Graves

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