Papers of William Chalmers Burns (1815-1868)

  • This material is held at
  • Reference
      GB 237 Coll-211
  • Dates of Creation
  • Language of Material
      English, and Chinese.
  • Physical Description
      6 volumes, 1 letter, 1 photograph. English and Chinese -->
  • Location
      MSS BUR 2.5-9; MSS BOX 9.1.1-2

Scope and Content

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).

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.


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

Access Information

Generally open for consultation to bona fide researchers, but please contact repository for details in advance.

Acquisition Information

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


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

Compiled by Caroline Brown, Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections Division. Revised by Graeme D Eddie.

Other 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.

Conditions Governing Use

Contact the repository for details.

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).