I suspect that many well read Christian folks will see the title and author of this book and say, “Never heard of them.” I was one such reader, having never heard of W. H. Burns, who pastored in Kilsyth (in Scotland) or of his son and biographer Islay Burns. That is actually a reason for wanting and needing to read this book. We can all fall for the very inaccurate idea that God has worked through Luther, Calvin, Knox, Edwards, and Kuyper in the past and is working through the big name pastors in the present, but the rest are merely filler for the Kingdom advances.
Having recently finished reading and reviewing A Big Gospel in Small Places: Why Ministry Matters in Forgotten Communities by Stephen Witmer, I have been thinking about the small, obscure, unknown, often undesired, and underrated areas of service in God’s Kingdom. I confess to being in awe of the big names from past and present and astounded by the mighty works of Spurgeon, the Hodges, Kuyper, and others. Rightly so, but that overlooks the many pastors, leaders, teachers, missionaries, and faithful Christians whose only written biographies are the dates on their tombstones.
There is another hindrance to this book: Style. First published in 1860, this book reads like all too many biographies of that time. Many bore titles like “The Life and Letters of ****.” The books are short on actual probing into the thoughts, struggles, and conflicts of the subjects, but are strong on their virtues, spiritual attainments, and often wordy letters and sermons. This doesn’t appeal to the modern reader, nor does it dig much into the person being examined. Some might call it hagiography, which means writing of the lives of the saints.
This style does not suit modern scholarship. It contains a lack of dimensions of the complexities of a person’s life. It verges toward flowery and noble language.
But I commend these types of books. The style may be a challenge for those of us who have been influenced directly and indirectly by the likes of Ernest Hemingway’s prose style, Freud’s psychoanalytical probing, and modernity’s quest to puncture every heroic figure from the past. The biographers were never seeking to tell the untold secrets of their subjects. They were writing biographies with pastoral intent. Their Scriptural touchstone is Hebrews 11.
Cultivate a love of this style of writing. Cultivate an appreciation of these types of biographies. Cultivate a hunger for this type of spiritual nourishment.
I should add that the main motivation for me to embrace the book was the words on the dust jacket from Iain Murray: “One of the best Scottish ministerial biographies.” Add a second witness: George Grant, a preferred author, preacher, teacher, who called The Pastor of Kilsyth one of the best book he read this year.
William Hamilton Burns (1779-1859) pastored in the Scottish community of Kilsyth for most of his working life. Islay Burns writes of his father: “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 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; slipped in softly in some happy home and gently broke the sad news of the sudden disaster far away; lifted up the fallen one from the ground, and pointed to Him who receiveth the publicans and the sinners….”
This very aptly constitutes the main and most necessary labors of the typical pastor. Even if he is also a renowned scholar, even if he is employed elsewhere during the week, even if he has numerous other labors and distractions, these things define ministry.
Scottish church history is still a puzzle to me at points. I don’t always understand the church structures and polity, the conflicts and divisions, and the customs that were all familiar to the Scots of the past. This does not prevent the reader from finding many points of similarity between Burns’s day and ours. However, there is a degree of intensity that recurs in these accounts. My own spiritual life seems really paltry, weak, and thin compared to what the people in that day and time thought, believed, and said. Maybe there is an exaggeration in the writing style of that time. But perhaps there is a greater minimization of Christian living in our time.
So, we need regular workouts with books like this. It should not be dismissed as quaint history, but be viewed as a plan for our own spiritual exercises. God’s Kingdom is made up of the obscure, the forgotten, the little known, but what a blessing when one such pastor gets better known some 150 plus years after his life.
And what was said of W. H. Burns be said of many of us: “He was a peculiarly attractive representative of a type of the Christian pastorate which is rapidly becoming obsolete–that is of the quiet, steady, ongoing, conscientiously diligent and calmly earnest country minister, at once the father, the counselor, and the friend of every man, woman, and child within his parochial bounds.”