A Book Review from Books At a Glance
By Bruce W. Speck
This biography about William Hamilton Burns (1779-1859) is a piece of history from the Scottish church, covering his ministry and including a remarkable revival beginning in 1838 in Kilsyth and extending to other parts of Scotland.
Islay Burns (1817-72) was the son of William Hamilton Burns and a minister of the Free Church after the Disruption of the Church of Scotland in 1843. He was the successor to Robert Murray M’Cheyne in Dundee.
Author (of the Publisher’s Introduction)
Donald John Maclean, an Elder in the Cambridge Presbyterian Church and Trustee of the Banner of Truth Trust, points out that Islay Burns states three reasons for writing a biography about his father. The first is to laude the faithful perseverance of an ordinary pastor. The second is to preserve a piece of Scottish church history in which pastoral piety was a highwater mark. The third is to certify the revival in which William Hamilton Burns and other worthy men of God were privileged to participate in. Maclean, while acknowledging the difference between the age in which Burns ministered and our own age, still affirms, “But with respect to the substance of his character, and the essence of his ministry we would all do well to imitate the Pastor of Kilsyth” (p. xi).
After the Publisher’s Introduction and the author’s Preface, the book is divided into twelve chapters that trace the childhood, early years of development, pastoral life, revival beginning in 1838 and its consequences, the Disruption of 1843, and the death of William Hamilton Burns. These significant events in W. H. Burns’ life touch upon conversions occurring during his ministry that affected both Scotland and England, but the focus on conversion is developed in Chapters VII-IX and in the second part of the book comprised of the “Lecture on the Mode of Conducting a Revival: Errors and Evils to be Avoided” and four sermons focusing on the need for conversion.
Chapter I. Birth and Childhood (1779-1791)
I had never heard of William Hamilton Burns and were it not for this biography by his son, his rather common life as a parish minister would probably be a footnote to the life of his more famous son, William Chalmers Burns, a pioneering missionary to China. Indeed, his son and biographer Islay Burns became Professor of Apologetics and Systematic Theology in the Free Church College, Glasgow and wrote A History of the Church of Christ and a Memoir of his brother, the missionary to China. So even without the biography, William Hamilton Burns’ life was a testimony to the greater renown of his sons. To raise two Godly sons who become noted gospel ministers is in itself quite an achievement, worthy of great acclaim, and this man who sired and nurtured godly offspring, was a man who modeled the gospel of grace through his demeanor and through his speech. Islay Burns says as much when he pictures his father as an ordinary child from Godly parents. “There is no trace in any family records or reminiscences of anything remarkable and specially memorable in his childhood and early youth. All we certainly know is, that he, like Samuel, was the child of godly and honourable 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” (p. 3). Even though the reference to Samuel raises some expectation in the reader that William will be acclaimed, his biography rather is a testament to an ordinary man, who faithfully fulfilled his spiritual duties. Indeed, the ordinariness of William Burns’ life, as typical of Godly men, is one of two themes the biography explores. The other theme is the remarkable—and temporary—work of revival.
In reading about William’s youth, we learn that the traditional mode of preaching was to exegete a text, not more than a few verses, for many, many sabbaths, many months. Islay Burns, in quoting his father’s unpublished memoranda, which are the source of the many quotes from his father, reports that this approach to preaching, as assessed by his father, is not to be a model for the pulpit even though, “‘On this plan, no doubt, much sound doctrine was brought out, and the hearers, if not too impatient, got very good matter on which to meditate, but certainly the mode was not attractive, and superinduced tedium, while it did not do justice to the fulness and variety of the divine Word’” (pp. 7-8). The main complaint about the manner of preaching is that “‘it did not do justice to the fulness and variety of the divine Word.’” In other words, it was too narrow, and it also could be tedious. Indeed, the preaching service was not short: “‘. . . the expositions of large portions of the Bible, by way of lecture, formed always the first part of the forenoon’s worship . . .’” (p. 8). That the Lord’s Day was devoted to corporate worship is perhaps shocking to the modern evangelical church with a limited taste for preaching that exceeds a tidy twenty to twenty-five minutes and resents any encumbrance that overflows the prescribed hour of worship. That low attitude of the Lord’s Day was evident already in Burns’ day. For the memoranda cite the example of a Scottish minister, who, when taking a post in a church in England, “‘. . . found that it behoved him to abbreviate much to suit the English taste. The first half hour at least he had to cut off, and became, in respect of length, an ordinary preacher’” (p. 8). Such a definition of an ordinary or typical preacher is not flattering from a Scottish viewpoint. Indeed, this rather paltry definition of ordinary is compared to the rich spiritual upbringing of William Burns, who was raised in a Godly home blessed with parents that nurtured their children in spiritual things, including weekly worship, not to be usurped or supplanted by soccer practice. One of the supreme values of reading The Pastor of Kilsyth is to be reminded that the church has always been a place of contention regarding the observance of the fourth commandment, and to faithfully adhere to public and private worship in obedience to what God has commanded is in most eras a minority position. But without doubt, the blessings of ordinary worship and simple, Godly living is to be preferred to the crowd mentality that seeks to widen God’s holy commands, believing elasticity is the preferred hermeneutical principle.
Chapter II. Boyhood and College Life (1791-1799)
Ordinariness, it must be understood, was built upon sterling spiritual foundations, not only in the home and in the church but also in Godly mentors. Thus, when thirteen, William Burns matriculated to The University of Edinburgh as an undergraduate and four years later entered the “Divinity Hall in the winter of 1795” (p. 16), and he was deeply influenced by Godly men. Although Islay Burns gives due credit to his theological professors in the Divinity Hall, he frankly admits, “The holy fire was kindled, not by the lessons of the schools, but by a live coal from the altar of God. Amid the hallowing and soul-quickening atmosphere of Sabbaths spent in Lady Glenorchy’s or Lady Yester’s Church; the one under the ministry of the lively and fervent Thomas Jones, the other of the saintly and tenderly plaintive David Black—the M’Cheyne of those days—or in kindly personal colloquy in the study or at the breakfast table of such benignant fathers in the faith as Walter Buchanan and Thomas Randal Davidson, the smoking flax in his young heart, as in many others besides, was fanned into a flame of holy decision and courage which burned on through life” (pp. 16-17). Islay Burns notes that his father “especially commemorated [Buchanan and Davidson] as pre-eminently the students’ friends. Not only did they notice and encourage pious or hopeful youths when directly thrown in their way, but positively laid themselves out for this kind of work, seeking out those young recruits of the sacred army ‘very diligently,’ gently rallying them around them, and both by loving counsel and substantial aid cheering them on to the holy conflict before them. How much good of the most precious kind was thus by them wrought unseen,—to how many a young soldier of Christ who in after days warred a good warfare, they spoke at the critical moment the word in season, the day alone will declare” (p. 17).
I cite this quotation because it enlarges upon the theme of ordinariness. First, the active engagement with ministerial students (“seeking out those young recruits”) is part of the calculus of preparing men for service to God. Certainly, academically proficient theological professors are a critical part of the calculus, but the embracing of ministerial students in a rich fellowship that overlays a spiritual continuity to their formal training is essential for their ministerial preparation because it shows them what they will do as ministers. The intellectual preparation is vital, but alone it is but sterile and can lead to a spiritual arrogance and disdain for the untutored brother. Second, the theme of ordinariness is noted in the recognition that the full fruits of such service will only be revealed in that final day. Earthly fame, even ministerial fame, even the encouragement of ministerial success, is not ours to judge adequately. In that great day, there will be those who stand before Christ and swear that they served him, even in extraordinary ways, but the final verdict will be, “Depart from me. I never knew you.” Such chilling, sobering words should be a caution to us not to judge by extraordinary ministerial “successes” but to be encouraged by the ordinary workings of Christ through his providential mercies, even in the day-to-day mundaneness of Christian living. And because we can too easily become enamored of the “special music” of worship, as congregants we should remember that our ministers, many of whom labor in small works, need our continual encouragement that ordinariness is the foundation of Godly work. Islay Burns returns to what “the day alone will declare” a number of times to reinforce the inadequacies of our fallible judgements, due in no small measure to the hiddenness of God’s blessed workings. But make no mistake, this biography is littered with Godly names familiar to church history, so the prominence of ordinariness is not a rebuttal to God’s purposes in highlighting the ministries of some prominent servants. Ordinariness contrasts with the exceptions, showing that they are peculiar.
Yet another example of ordinariness requires mention, namely,one of his mentors, Dr. Thomas Randal Davidson, who was a bit of a terror, at least at first acquaintance. William Bruns’ recollection of Dr. Davidson is notable because his manner was not “so engaging” compared to a more winsome mentor, but Dr. Davidson’s advice, although often preceded by pointed questions, was equally practical as other more approachable ministers. William Burns, in his unpublished memories of his life, noted, “‘I had at first a kind of terror of Mr. [Dr.] Randal, but at length come to like him much; and, with many ministers living, and not a few gone to a better world, owe a tribute to his memory’” (p. 23). Indeed, “‘The annals of eternity will show how much that devoted minister did in his days, in ways thus quiet and unobtrusive, in the cause of his blessed Master, and for the good of souls” (p. 25). Dr. Davidson’s initial put-offish manner is a reminder to all of us , with William Burns, not to dismiss such a blunt man but profit from a man of God who, even by his bluntness, brings us spiritual blessing. Thus, Islay Burns can say of Dr. Davidson, “Truly, few ever better earned the crown of those who, by ‘patient continuance in well-doing,’ and in the great Master’s sight alone, ‘seek for glory, honour, and immortality’” (p. 25). The memory of Dr. Davidson opens another window on the necessary role of ordinariness in the distinct lives of God’s servants, even when that ordinariness is dressed in rough clothing.
Perhaps to provide a backdrop to the ordinariness of genuine Godliness, Isay Burns notes that during his father’s academic training, the “dominant and triumphant” spirit of the age was “latitudinarian and Laodicean” (p. 29). This spirit was characterized by popularity with the “weak and wavering” rallying to its siren call, with a patina of “intellectual and literary lustre, which a few celebrated names had thrown around it,” thus creating great interest for the “young and the aspiring,” and attracting those who had “keen ambitions” to be seen as bright and genial, though they were self-deceived in the possibility of attaining such ambitions (p. 29). The like spirit of compromise in any age has similar characteristics, and when viewed with a clear-eyed Godliness, can be evaluated frankly as an opponent to the ordinariness that promotes biblical orthodoxy. As Islay Burns comments, “A certain freedom and laxity of faith was the fashionable mode. The profession of a strict orthodoxy was deemed the mark of a mean and narrow spirit, a certain boldness of heterodox speculation and free thinking, the proof of a large and enlightened mind” (p. 30). This useful biography of a history most of us have not consulted sufficiently reveals that the snarling, snarky references to fundamentalists in our day is, although unintended, a moniker of honor when it can be justly linked with “a strict orthodoxy . . . deemed the mark of a mean and narrow spirit.”
Much more could be quoted from the early life of William Burns, but I trust enough has been noted to whet the reader’s appetite for this useful biography, and I hope that William Burns’ pastoral life, as I will now review it, will increase the reader’s desire for reading this biographical gem.
Chapter III. Early Pastoral Life (1800-1821)
William Burns began his pastoral life December 4, 1800 in the bucolic setting of the church of Dun, “lying midway between the brisk seaport of Montrose and the fine old cathedral town of Brechin” (p. 39) “with a parochial circle of some three miles diameter, and a population of 700 souls” (p. 40). While the parochial model is, generally, no longer practiced, consider what the responsibilities of such a pastorate entailed in that day—and whether such a practice would benefit us today—since most churches remain in a small “parochial circle.” The following extended quotation from Islay Burns captures both the ordinariness and the glory of such a pastorate.
The simple annals of a country pastor’s daily life are uniform and uneventful, and afford little scope for the biographer’s pencil. Interesting and precious as any work done on earth in Heaven’s eyes, it is the obscurest possible in the world’s regard. Angels look down upon it; busy, eager, bustling men heed it not. A calm routine of lowly, though sacred duties, a constant unvaried ministry of love, it flows on in a still and quiet stream, arresting no attention by its noise, and known alone to the lowly homes it visits on its way, and the flowers and the fields it waters. The young pastor of Dun was no exception to this. He preached the word; dispensed the sacred supper; warned the careless; comforted the sorrowing; baptized little children; blessed the union of young and loving hearts; visited the sick, the dying; buried the dead; pressed the hand, and whispered the words of peace into the ear of mourners; carried to the poor widow and the friendless orphan the charity of the Church and his own; slipt in softly into some happy home and gently broke the sad news of the sudden disaster far away; lifted the fallen one from the ground, and pointed to Him who receiveth the publicans and the sinners,—these things and such as these, he did in that little home-walk for twenty successive years day by day; but that was all. There is much here for the records of the sky, but nothing, or next to nothing, for the noisy annals of time (p. 44).
Islay Burns continues by speaking of the attitude of his father concerning this work: “. . . all who knew him witnessed, [that he did the work] faithful[ly] and well, with a calm, serious, conscientious, cheerful, loving diligence that was the fruit of faith and prayer; always at his work, and always happy in it, and desiring nothing better or higher on earth. He was happy in his neighbors” (p. 44). Islay Burns provides details about his father’s ministry, but his summation of the work is sufficient to reinforce the theme of ordinariness that is deeply blessed by God.
It would not do to simply pass onto the work William Burns was called to after his two decades of service at Dun without acknowledging his wife, Elizabeth Chalmers, who joined him in ministry at the beginning of his sixth year at Dun. “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” (pp. 48-49). Elizabeth Chalmers is such an integral part of her husband’s ministry, especially because she managed their home so efficiently, that the passage just quoted about them could be placed in the category of those marriages made in heaven. Should we find suspect such an idyllic description of a husband and wife from a son who obviously admired them both? Our suspicion of perhaps inappropriate adulation might be heightened by the previous quotes about William Burns’ “always happy in” his work and “desiring nothing better or higher on earth.” Perhaps Islay Burns was a bit Pollyannish when recollecting his family?
That Islay Burns can be trusted in sketching a fair and accurate description of his father and his family is given credence by considering: the overall focus of the book, a particular assessment the biographer makes of his father’s ministry, and William Burns’ reflections on bereavement. First, the biography is not a hagiography that polishes the halo of a saint so that the hero is exceptional, particularly compared to the hero’s peers, friends, and enemies. The purpose of the book, although Islay’s father is the subject, is far ranging, touching on a variety of topics germane to the last quarter of the eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth century, and, at times, William Burns is not the center of a significant discussion of church history. William Burns is portrayed as a Godly man, not a perfect man, and Islay Burns nowhere places his father in any pantheon. In fact, the names Islay Burns cites that are easily recognized in church history are given careful consideration, either for praise or blame. And his father is never cited as a mover and shaker in the church.
Second, Islay Burns has recorded an assessment of his father’s ministry that falls flat if unseemly adulation is the intent. After citing examples of the daily work extracted from his father’s written remembrances, the biographer says of his father’s work, “As to ministerial success in the highest sense, I find few decisive traces belonging to this period. The tone of religious life in the parish and the country round was not high. They were a decent, regular, church-going people—commendably observant of all the outward and routine duties of religious profession, but in few cases searching deeper or rising higher. There were few that ‘called upon God; that stirred up themselves to take hold of him.’ Family worship was rare, the decided profession of personal godliness rarer. As a general rule, and with very few exceptions, open ungodliness reigned in the hall, dead indifference in the cottage, and languor and listlessness in the church” (p. 63). That a son would publicly make such an assessment of his father’s two decades of ministerial service should not be seen, it seems obvious, as a sterling tribute to the success of his work. The point is not that God so richly blessed the work of His faithful servant that people responded by the droves—and eagerly. Rather, the point, in accordance with the tenor of the biography, is that God placed a faithful servant in the midst of a needy community, and some took no thought of His goodness; others went on about their business of being religious; and in a few cases, on rare occasions, the pastor’s ministry was the means God used to dramatically transform lives. The rule is ordinariness, even in unregenerate conduct; the exception, radical transformation.
Third, the sorrows of life are neither minimized nor transformed into stupendous spiritual victories. When William and Elizabeth’s first-born son dies in infancy, after a “lingering and painful illness” (p. 49), hope for the child’s future is vested in the virtues of the 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’” (p. 49). William Burns does not appeal to infant baptism, as in baptismal regeneration, as the reason for his hope; he does not seek to impute family virtues as a reason for his hope; he does not state that all infants die in grace. He appeals to the promise of God as made in His covenant with His people. Such an appeal dissolves any suspicion that Islay Burns, quoting from his father’s unpublished papers, is attempting to make a case for his father’s superiority as a spiritual leader; rather, the humility of depending on grace strikingly confirms the ordinariness of human grief ameliorated genuinely by the extraordinary hope of God’s promises.
All this is not to say that God does not work dramatically to usher His elect into the Kingdom of God. Clearly, every person who experiences the new birth has been supernaturally transformed by the Spirit’s regenerative work—and that work is miraculous, dramatic, in every case, whether accompanied by outward manifestations of deep emotion or quietly received with marks of genuine sorrow and praise or from childhood a blessed assurance that has ever been real and vital. The new birth is extraordinary and when God chooses to pour out His Spirit on a people, as we see in the revival at Kilsyth, the transformations are dramatic.
Chapter IV. The New Century and the New Age: A Retrospective Glance at the Times (1800-1821)
Islay Burns prefaces the next phase of his father’s ministerial service, a time of revival, of extraordinary providences, by noting that the turning of the eighteenth century into the nineteenth was a turning of the tide, religiously. “Evangelism,” he writes, “hitherto an obscure and scouted sect, skulking in by-ways and in corners, and confined almost exclusively to the lower floors of social life, climbs upwards, and vindicates for itself a place in the highest circles and most influential spheres in the land. It had found for itself at least one powerful voice to plead its cause in the British Parliament; and at one of the great Universities its standard had been planted, amid general contempt and opposition, indeed, but manfully and decisively, by one who for full fifty years held it aloft before the elite of the British youth” (pp. 70-71). Amid this resurgence of evangelical fervor and initiatives, William Burns was called to the pastorate of Kilsyth, and the contrasts between Dun and Kilsyth were sharp. Kilsyth was much larger, the parish population being 4,260 with 2,900 souls living in town, and the social life of greater variety with “a greater stir of mind, greater variety of interests and excitements, greater impetus and force of existence every way,—intellectual, moral, social” (p. 74). Spiritually, the new locale was also a great contrast to William Burns’ former ministry. “Instead, in short, of a uniform colour of decent mediocrity [Dun], the scene which now presented itself to him was that of a bright centre of living piety, surrounded by a dark shadow of open ungodliness and sin, stretching out on every side” (p. 75). The question that naturally arises is how William Burns and his seemingly plodding habits of ministry will find any support in a new environment that would appear to require a very different approach to ministry.
V. Parochial Work (1821-1830)
The answer to that question is not new and better methods, at least that is not the answer Islay Burns provides. The answer from Islay Burns is two-fold. First, his father’s two decades of patient, call it plodding, service had deepened him as a minister, preparing him for the harvest ahead. Here’s how Islay Burns says it, “As regarded himself, he was in the most favorable circumstances for girding himself for the great work of his life. He was in the very prime of life and the full maturity of his powers. Having persevered, too, during his twenty years’ ministry in a retired rural parish, in the most regular and careful preparation of matter for the pulpit, he was in possession of the accumulated stores, which enabled him now, without at all trenching on the full efficiency of his public appearances, to devote a comparatively large portion both of time and strength to the private duties of the pastoral care. To this work he from the first devoted himself with a persevering assiduity, which continued unabated to the last” (pp. 80-81). Persevering assiduity is but another way to say William Burns continued to practice his ordinary method of ministry. He didn’t dismiss Godly practice for a bright, shining bobble of method that would meet new circumstances, and that is the second answer to our question. His preparation was foundational for persevering in the same ministry under different circumstances. In truth, he did gird himself up for the task; he acknowledged that he was now in a position that required him to encounter the enemy of men’s souls with a new vigor given the onslaught of the enemy’s assault. So, for example, he again saw the value of visiting each of his parishioners, as he had in his former parish. “Thus,” Islay Burns tells us, “it might be truly said, that by the space of more than thirty continuous years, he ceased not to warn, to counsel, and instruct that people, keeping back nothing that was profitable but ‘showing and teaching them the things of the kingdom of God, publicly and from house to house’” (p. 81). Islay Burns makes it clear that it was not “by any grand coup de main, or by a series of fitful, brilliant charges, that he [his father] expected to produce great results; but by a patient course of holy duty, continued on in faith and prayer from year to year. Thus his influence was rather felt than seen,—recognised in its slowly ripening results, rather than in the conspicuousness of the means” (p. 81).
Chapters VI. Home Life (1821-1830); VII. Longings for Revival (1830-1838); VIII. Longings Fulfilled (1839); IX. Fruits and Results (1839-1859); X. Disruption Times and Closing Scenes (1843-1859)
God blessed William Burns’ approach to ministry and by degrees the spiritual health of the parish was strengthened, leading to better days, namely the Spirit’s gracious work of revival. Kilsyth had experienced revival in the mid-eighteenth century, and William Burns had read about it. He also was intimately aware of the revival in Moulin in 1803, personally hearing about it from those positively affected by it. So in 1838, when the Spirit of God visited the church at Kilsyth to demonstrate God’s remarkable providences, William Burns was no stranger to the reality of revival in making sweeping changes in people’s spiritual dispositions. But, and this is surprising, William Burns was not the man whose preaching sparked the revival. His son, William C. Burns, known for his missionary work in China, was God’s primary instrument for preaching. However, the awakening of souls to their need for the Savior was a work of many hands, including various church officers who counseled those under conviction and various ministers who preached. The personal stories of those brought to conviction and to Christ are worth reading, so I will not linger to recount them. But I will note that among those converted were ones who falsely believed themselves already saved and were members of the church. Thus, an older man who was known as a dissolute character experienced outward change and reformation, taking his place among the brethren. But when men much younger than he were ordained as elders, he wondered why he, being older, was not qualified for that office. He came under great conviction as he struggled with this issue and experienced the new birth.
What is notable about revival, outside the supernatural work of the Spirit in an unusual outpouring of grace, are the challenges that often cause dissension. For example, the church was not large enough to account for the thousands who gathered to hear the gospel, so open-air preaching in the town square was used to reach the lost. This approach was called into question by some. Bringing the recently saved into church membership revealed the dearth of biblical knowledge of the newly converted that church-going people have acquired from years of hearing the word of God preached. But, clearly, from the best judgments, the lost had been saved, and why should we prevent them from being baptized and entered into the church rolls? Of course, the training of the newly converted took on an urgent need, especially encouraging them to “‘study the Shorter Catechism, and the earnest, close, and prayerful study of the Scriptures’” and as William Burns noted, “‘We solicit the prayers of Christian friends and ministers, that we may have the great joy of seeing our children “walking in the truth” and “established with grace”’” (p. 129). And the hunger for Godly preaching was such that Monday nights were treated as Sabbath nights, “‘which the ungodly jeer at, the formal wonder at and censure, and which many good Christians would at first pronounce rather carrying it too far’” (p. 133). The magnificent work of the Spirit met resistance from various quarters, which is to be expected when the devil’s works are under attack. I recommend that readers personally read about the remarkable revival, consulting the Lecture at the end of the biography about avoiding certain evils and errors. But it bears noting that the revival was not confined to Kilsyth. “At Dundee, at Perth, at Aberdeen, in the glens and straths of Aberfeldy and Blair-Athol, and far way in the Highlands of Ross-shire, the scenes of Kilsyth were, with slightly varying circumstances, renewed and many souls were quickened from the dead, and many more baptized with new life and power from on high” (p. 138). The second part of the book is a rich source of teaching about revivals, including sermons about receiving Christ as Savior and Lord.
The Pastor of Kilsyth could be seen as a study in the contrasts of God’s workings. The theme I have noted is the ordinariness of Christian ministry, the uncommon, day-to-day work of the Godly minister as normative. Indeed, this ordinariness was foundational to the extraordinary work of revival. Is it not reasonable to believe that God’s extraordinary grace of revival is built on the long-standing Christian desire and constant prayers for an ingathering of God’s people, an ingathering that will bring the Kingdom of God in its fullness? That God’s people’s prayers for renewal and revival at particular times are answered not by the final eschatological moment but by an extraordinary, short-lived work of grace is but a reminder that the continuity of faithful, even plodding, service is a precursor to brief but memorable and mighty works of God’s regenerative power. But let’s be honest about the long-term results of revival by listening carefully to Isay Burns. “That Kilsyth still is—now as before—a very wicked place, or, at least, in this respect very like other villages of the same size and character, is, I daresay, quite true. When was it that Christianity or the Christian Church ever by its influence permanently pervaded, and regenerated, and transformed the world? It is not in the world, but in the people whom it gathers out of the world that its vivifying and new-creating power is fully seen” (p. 147). Isay Burns says much more about the role of the church in society historically, and Chapter IX (Fruits and Results) is very much worth reading. From my perspective, the current interest in revival, given the state of American life, is misplaced if it is focused on a political answer to the pagan character of the American ethos. Revival, as Isay Burns points out, regenerates people, concomitantly often providing temporary changes in the social order, but the resistance to revival both within and without the visible church should remind every heart ardently seeking the kingdom of God that the ultimate transformation of the world is an eschatological issue; we press on, hoping God will send showers of blessing, not forsaking our ordinary responsibilities as members of God’s kingdom.
And it would be a mistake to assume that the ordinariness of Christian ministry will inevitably lead to revival in any one minister’s lifetime. This biography is not a formula for revival, although principles for conducting a revival are included. The sovereign God is the author of revival, and we can but plead with Him for mercy upon the church, our city, our state, our nation, and the world by sending His Spirit to work remarkable providences.
Chapters XI. The Last Enemy (April and May, 1859); Chapter XII. Rest
We know that in a biography set in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the biography’s protagonist must die. William H. Burns faced the last enemy in 1859. Rich in years at 80 with 59 years of service as a minister of the gospel, his last days and hours are recounted with details that confirm his commitment to Christ. His last words to his gathered family were, “‘Children of light, and not of the darkness—walk as children of the light—children of the light—children of the light’” (p. 175). William Burns advocates to the end a way of life that is consistent with the ordinariness of living the Christian life in a wicked world, walking in Godliness, not sprinting.
Evaluation: Read this book and buy a copy for a friend.
Bruce W. Speck, Ph.D., is an ordained Ruling Elder in the Presbyterian Church of America and a member of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Buy the books
THE PASTOR OF KILSYTH: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF W. H. BURNS, by Islay Burns