Burns, William Chalmers

Reference code(s): GB 0237 Edinburgh University New College Library MSS BUR 2. 5-9 and MSS BOX 9.1.1-2
Held at: Edinburgh University New College Library
Title: Burns, William Chalmers
Date(s) of contents: 1833-1913
Level of description: Fonds
Extent and medium: 6 volumes, 1 letter and 1 photograph


Name of creator(s): Burns, William Chalmers (1815-1868)

Administrative/Biographical history: William Chalmers Burns, Scottish Presbyterian missionary to China, was born at Duns (near Brechin) in 1815 the son of William Hamilton Burns a parish minister. He was educated at Aberdeen Grammar School and University. After graduating (M.A. 1834) he studied divinity at Glasgow University where he proved to be a brilliant student. From 1839, when he received a licence to preach, Burns travelled widely preaching to great crowds and was a leading figure in the revivals that occurred in Scotland at that time. He supplied Robert Murray M'Cheyne's pulpit in Dundee while the latter was in the Holy Land and spent two years in Canada from 1844. He was appointed by the English Presbyterian Church to go to China as their first missionary in 1847. He spent his first two years at coastal mission stations then moved inland but found that it was several years before any results became apparent. For a time Burns travelled with James Hudson Taylor but usually he worked on his own covering great distances in his attempt to reach as many people as possible. When he succeeded in forming native congregations he would leave them to be looked after by others while he moved on to new areas. Burns only returned home once during his time in China, to accompany a sick missionary. In 1864, towards the end of his life, he spent some time in Peking translating hymns, The Pilgrim's Progress and the Psalms into Mandarin. He died of fever at Newchang in 1868. He is remembered as one of the most remarkable figures in the history of the Scottish church and was an inspiration to many missionaries in China and elsewhere.

Custodial history:

Immediate source of acquisition: The Memoir by Islay Burns was presented to New College Library in 1913 by Charlotte and Elizabeth, sisters of Burns.


Scope and content/abstract: The collection consists of the following items: notes by Burns on addresses on the Bible (1839); three volumes belonging to Burns (Fox's Book of Martyrs, Lectures on the Revival of Religion, and a history of the reformation in Italy by Thomas McCrie); Gathered Flowers by O. Winslow (1846) an account of the conversion by Burns of 'two young believers' belonging to James Orr Burns; Memoir of the Reverend William Chalmers Burns by Burn's brother Islay (1872); a letter to Burns from a Chinese native preacher; and a photograph of one of Burns' Chinese converts (1885).

System of arrangement: The volumes are held at MSS BUR 2. 5-9. The Chinese items are stored separately in MSS BOX 9.1.1-2.


Language: English and Chinese.

Conditions governing access: Contact the repository for details.

Conditions governing reproduction: Contact the repository for details.

Finding aids: The Index to Manuscripts held at New College Library mentions the collection. A handlist is filed in the New College Inventory of Manuscripts under MSS BOX 9 and MSS BUR.


Related material: The R.M. M'Cheyne collection at Edinburgh University New College Library contains twenty-seven letters (1838-1842) from W.C. Burns to M'Cheyne (reference MSS MACCH 2.4) and there is a further Burns letter (1864) in the James Cunningham collection at New College (reference CM/B 166). Material relating to Burns' father, William Hamilton Burns, is also held by New College, see the Index to Manuscripts. William Chalmers Burns deposited his library with New College on loan in 1844, a catalogue of the library is at reference AA.2.1.1. Letters and writings of Burns are also at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University (reference PCE).


Archivist's note: Compiled by Caroline Brown, Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections and Archives.

Note: The biographical history was compiled using: (1) Bibliographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, G.H. Anderson (ed.) (New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 1998). (2) Dictionary of Scottish Church History and Theology N.M. de S. Cameron (ed.) (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1993).

Date(s) of descriptions: 7 July 2000


Personal names
Burns | William Chalmers | 1815-1868

Corporate names