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George Burns, His Times and Friends
Chapter I. The Burns Family


George Burns was born on the 10th of December, 1795. He came of an old and long-lived family, which for many generations had occupied an honourable position in the West of Scotland. The life of his grandfather carries us back to the beginning of the eighteenth century, and that is far enough in history for us to travel in this narrative.

Old John Burn has left on record, among his early remembrances, the fact that he saw from his father’s house the soldiers crowding past with their wounded from the battle of “Shirra Muir” in the Jacobite rising of 1715.

The family was originally named Burn, and John Burn, the grandfather of the subject of our narrative, was a Stirling man, where he owned the little property of Corntown. He was an author, a man of considerable learning, and of deep piety.

There lies before the present writer the contract of marriage betwixt Mr. John Burn, of Stirth, and Sheriff Muir.

Janet Young, youngest daughter of the deceas'1 William Young, of Risk, and Jean White, his relict spouse—at St. Ninians, February 9, 1741.”

Janet Young had been a staunch adherent of the Rev. Ebenezer Erskinel of Stirling, one of the four “outed ministers” of 1733, and she continued a Seceder for some time after her marriage to John Burn, who was an Established Churchman, although in course of time she, like many others, seceded from the Secession.

An episode of this period is furnished by Dr. William Blair in a letter to George Burns, dated February 13, 1888.

“I am writing a sketch of the U. P. Church, and among other interesting things I find that Ebenezer Erskine, of Stirling, to whom we look up, as the Jews of old did when they said, ‘We have Abraham to our father,’ was so loyal to the Hanoverian dynasty, that in 1745 he formed a regiment of Seceders to defend Stirling against the rebels. ‘One night,’ as the story goes, ‘when the rebels were expected to make an attack on the town, Ebenezer Erskine presented himself in the guardroom fully accoutred in the military garb of the times. Dr. John Anderson, late Professor of Natural'Philosophy in the University of Glasgow, and Mr. John Burn, father of the Rev. Dr. Burns, Barony parish, in that city, happened to be on guard the same night, and, surprised to see the venerable clergyman in this attire, recommended him to go home to his prayers, as more suitable to his vocation. “I am determined,” was his reply, “to take the hazard of the night along with yon, for the present crisis requires the arms as well as the prayers of all good subjects.” ’I am pleased to think that your grandfather, now 143 years ago, was on the same watch-tower with my ecclesiastical father.”

John Burn was a simple, God-fearing man, and when he had got “a grip o’ the truth,” he did what people of that day were wont to do—he sat down one Sabbath afternoon and wrote out “a covenant” in accordance with the theological notion that the promises of God, as recorded in the Scriptures, are conditional on certain terms on the part of man. It need not be said that the first bond, or oath, drawn up by the Scottish Reformers, and signed in 1557, was a covenant; that the “Confession of Faith,” drawn up in 1581, was also a covenant, the subscription to which was renewed from time to time ; and that when the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland contracted with the Commissioners of the English Parliament in 1643 for uniformity of doctrine, worship, and discipline throughout Scotland, England, and Ireland, “according to the Word of God, and the example of the best reformed churches,” the instrument was “the Solemn League and Covenant.”

The idea of a covenant, as distinct from a contract (the former having no civil penalty necessarily following the infraction of it), being ingrained in the Scottish mind, it is not surprising that when a man found himself in an attitude to "accept salvation on God’s own terms,” as the phrase went, he should, taking the written Word of God as the first part of the covenant, enter into a written engagement to fulfil the second part — namely, his own moral and religious obligations. And as subscription to the “Confession of Faith” was renewed from time to time, so with these “covenants with God,”—or dedications as they were in later times called—it was customary to keep them constantly in remembrance, and at recurring intervals, or at great crises in the history of those who made them, to officially “recognise” the covenant. It may interest those who are not familiar with this quaint old notion in religion to read the covenant of John Burn.

Luss, June 25, 1738, Sabbath afternoon.

O Lord God Almighty, I would in Thy presence humbly confess that iniquities greatly prevail against me, the power of conquering which, 0 Lord, Thou knowest is far beyond my feeble strength ; but in Thee alone is my sufficiency. 0 perfect Thy strength in my weakness, and deliver me from the love, the power, the stain, and the guilt of all sin, original and actual. Alas! with what aggravated transgressions of Thy Holy Law do I stand chargeable! How I have indulged Atheism, hatred of Thee, despising Thy people, disregarding the institutions of Thy Word, impurity of heart and life, lasciviousness, variance, strife, hatred, malice, and perjury, inasmuch as I have not lived up to the baptismal engagements and vows undertaken for me by my parents, in which I have been instructed, nor have I lived up to the present vows which I have, at sundry times, solemnly come under to renounce the devil, the world, and the lust of the flesh. The breach of all these vows and resolutions to forsake all sin and unrighteousness is heinously aggravated by breaking them so often against light and knowledge. To these I have added unbelief of the truths of the glorious Gospel of Thy well-beloved and ever blessed Son, have indulged pride, self-seeking, self-esteem, and self-exaltation. Besides, I have, times and ways, O Lord, without number, broken all Thy Commandments, for which I deserve Thy wrath and fury to be poured out upon my soul and body to all eternity! But now, O most merciful God, I desire this afternoon to renounce the love and practice of every wicked way, and in Thy name and strength to devote myself, soul and body, to Thee, that I may be Thine in prosperity or adversity, in health or sickness, in time and through eternity! I desire to believe in God the Father, who sent the Son into the world on the gracious errand of man’s redemption, as my God and Father, and in -Jesus Christ as my only Lord and Redeemer, whom I desire to embrace as the Lord my righteousness ; and in the Holy Ghost as my sanctifier, and the applier of all Christ’s purchase to my defiled and polluted soul, and whose quickening influences and Divine illumination I beseech Thee, Holy Father, to shed abroad into my soul, through the infinite merits of Jesus Christ, Thine only and well-beloved Son, in whom Thou art ever well pleased. Thou hast said, “Come unto Me, all ye that are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Good Lord, in obedience to Thy gracious invitation, I desire to come to thee for rest to my weary soul. I am polluted. I desire to fly to the blood of Christ which cleanseth from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, that I may be made a fit temple for the Holy Spirit. O let the peace-speaking blood of Christ cleanse me from the filth and stain of sin—give me freedom from the power of it, and save me from the curse due to me on account of it. Blessed Jesus ! Thou art every way qualified to save such a vile, guilty wretch as I am. 0 love me freely, receive me graciously, notwithstanding my great vileness by nature and practice. I am a sinner, but Thou, Lord Jesus, earnest not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance ; for sinners Thou hast procured redemption by the shedding of Thy precious blood. O give me faith in Thy blood, give me an interest in Thy perfect righteousness. Let the blessing of my soul, ready to perish, come upon Thee, almighty Saviour, who art the Prophet, Priest, and King of Thy Church. Be Thou from this moment my Prophet, Priest, and King, to teach me, to intercede for me, and to rule over me and in me. that henceforth I may have no will but Thine. O make me willing in a day of Thy power to be entirely governed by Thy will. O Heavenly Father, I humbly implore the continual supplies of Thy grace and Spirit to enable me to stand stedfast in the faith of Jesus Christ as the Lord my righteousness, wisdom, and everlasting strength. O perfect a work of sanctification on my defiled and polluted soul, and keep me, O keep me, by Thy mighty power, through faith in Jesus Christ unto eternal life; for without Thee this, like all my former resolutions and engagements, will become as the morning cloud and early dew, which soon passeth away. O Lord, renouncing all my own righteousness, all I have done or ever can do, I desire to embrace Thee in all Thy mediatory character, and henceforth desire to walk in Thy strength, making mention of Thy righteousness, even of Thine only. John Burn.

Recognized at Stirling, May 12, 1750.

Attain, June 25, 17G0.—O Lord, with shame and confusion of face I must confess the obligations which I had bound upon my own soul many years ago have been often totally neglected or forgotten. Cast me not off in Thine anger. Let not Thy wrath burn against me for ever. O let the blood of Jesus wash out these deeper stains of guilt. Be, O most merciful Father and exalted Redeemer, reconciled to my guilty soul, or rather O reconcile my heart unto Thyself and to Tin blessed will. John Burn.

Glasgow, April 11, 1757.—O Lord, wash me with clean water and I shall be clean from all my filthiness and from all my idols ; in the multitude of Thy tender mercies do Thou cleanse me. A new heart (according to Thy promise, Ezek. xxxvi. 25, 25, 27) do Thou also give unto me, and a right spirit put within me. And take away the stony heart out of my flesh, and give me a heart of flesh. Put Thy Spirit within me, and cause me to walk in Thy statutes; then shall I keep Thy judgments and do them. All I ask is in the name of Christ, to whom with Thee, Holy Father and ever blessed Spirit, be all glory, honour, dominion, power, and praise, ascribed now and for evermore. Amen. John Burn.

Glasgow, April 8, 1780.—O Lord, turn me and I shall be turned, draw me and I will run after Thee, for I have gone astray like a lost sheep. O seek and find me. In the midst of deserved wrath remember me with rich, undeserved mercy and free grace. Say unto me, Live, and I shall live; for nothing can resist Thy command. I desire to account it a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the chief. Upon Thy infinite merits I desire to cast myself for grace to help me in every time of need while here, and for complete deliverance from all sin hereafter. Not unto me, not unto me, but to Thee be all the glory. Amen. John Burn.

In 1744, there was born to John Burn and Janet, his wife, an only child, who afterwards became Dr. Burns of the Barony Church, and the father of George Burns.

In course of time John Burn sold the property of Corntown in the county of Stirling—which had been long in the family, Thomas Burne having held it in 1538, by Crown Charter—and came to reside in Glasgow, probably in 1767, one of the dates on which his covenant is "recognized.” Here he wrote an English Grammar, which bore his name and was highly popular as a school-book in the West of Scotland. He was also the author of a good English Dictionary, and of several other educational works of considerable repute in their day. On October the 20th, 1768, he was admitted Burgess and Guild Brother of Glasgow, and on September 1, 1781, Burgess of Kilmarnock. In both the burgess tickets he is described as “John Burn.” Some years prior to the date of this latter document, however, viz., in 1774, his son was “created a free Burgess of the Burgh of Paisley,” and his name is inserted therein as John Burns.

The exact date of the alteration in the surname is not known; the occasion for it was, that certain property had been left to John Burn, who, in the legal documents transferring it to him, had been incorrectly described as Burns. To save the complications and expenses of the law, that name was henceforth adopted by him, and in the first Glasgow directory, published in 1788, he is described as “John Burns.” He died at the age of eighty-four, at his house in Duncan’s Land, High Street, Glasgow, but not until he had seen his own piety, virtue, and diligence reproduced in his only son.

Of that son, the father of the subject of this narrative, we shall have much to tell hereafter, but some account of his earlier life and of his family may be introduced appropriately in this place.

He was born at Stirling on the 18th of February, 1744 (old style), and remembered having seen the Hessians encamped on Corntown, when a rising was expected. They were dressed in blue uniforms, and impressed the people by their quiet manners and sobriety.

Early in life he developed great earnestness of character, and gave evidence of considerable talent; more than this, he worshipped the God of his fathers with a deep sincerity, and chose as his lot in life the work of His ministry. At the age of twenty-two he made his written covenant, as his father had done before him—a singularly thoughtful and spiritual dedication of himself to God. Ye will not quote it, as there is a certain family likeness in all such documents; hut on the same evening that he signed it, viz., the 6th of April, 1766, he wrote the following prayer, which shows the attitude of his mind and the tendency of his theology :—

O Heavenly Father, Thou knowest the instability of my heart, and how ready I am to draw back. Therefore, O Thou who settest hounds unto the spacious sea, and who art the Absolute Governor of the whole universe, of all things and creatures in heaven and on earth, I beseech Thee, in the prevailing name of Jesus, keep me from drawing hack, keep me steadfast in Thy covenant, keep me after vows from making inquiry how I may elude the obligation of them. Of Thine infinite mercy give me strength to persevere unto the end in the righteous ways of God, without wearying or distraction, that I may receive the end of my faith, even the salvation of my soul. O Lord, I renounce everything that I have done, or can do, as the ground, or procuring cause, of my salvation, but desire only to seek eternal life and salvation through Jesus Christ, and the merits of His blood, death and sufferings, and intercession.

O Lord most holy, just, and righteous, bring up my heart to comply willingly with the scheme of salvation in the new covenant upon Thine own terms. Ratify in heaven, O God, what I have this evening been essaying in Thy name and strength on earth, and grant at all times, and in all circumstances, heart-establishing grace, that I may abide in Christ, as the branch abideth in the vine, and may bring forth much of the fruits of holiness in my life and conversation to the praise of Thy free grace and mercy. Let the engagements which I have this day entered into be as a standing bar against prevailing sin, through the Divine operations and benign influences of the Holy Ghost. Enable me by Thy grace to be fervent and diligent in the use of those means Thou hast appointed for bringing men off from a state of sin and misery to a state of holiness and happiness, that I may be found in Christ Jesus in the day when Thou makest up Thy jewels, restored to more than a state of primitive rectitude of heart and nature. O Lord, my waiting eyes are toward Thee. Let me never be put to shame. Say to my soul, ‘ I am thy salvation,’ and to Thine adorable name, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, one God, be the glory and praise of all, both now and throughout the endless ages of eternity. Amen and Amen.

In course of time John Burns was appointed assistant to the Rev. Laurence Hill, minister of the Barony Church. He died on the 3rd of October, 1773, and John Burns was chosen as his successor.

At the Ordination of “the Rev. Mister John Burns,” Minister of the Barony, the sermon was preached in the High Church Yard, Glasgow, on the 2Gth of May, 1774, the subject being “Sober and Religious Conference Considered and Recommended.” In the charge, delivered by the Rev. William Thom, M.A., minister of Govan, Mr. Burns was congratulated that in his settlement he had “been presented by the patron, the Crown, and had also been the choice of the congregation, and that all of them had had experience of his gift of prayer and talents in preaching.”

It was not a brilliant appointment from a worldly point of view, for, in a letter written many years later, Mr. Burns says that “from the death of Mr. Hill, in October, 1773, till Candlemas, 1775, several months after my induction, I did not receive a shilling of salary or stipend.” From that time, and for many years afterwards, his stipend averaged only .£111, besides which he had an allowance of £30 in lieu of a manse, and he let the glebe to a gardener, one Duncan McArthur, for £25 ; so that for the first nineteen or twenty years of his ministry his income amounted to only £166 per annum. He should have received the stipend of a bishop if his work could have been measured by and sordid calculations, for it was carried on in what we of to-day must regard as a most unpromising sphere.

In the course of this narrative we shall have to refer many times to the Barony Church, and it will assist the imagination of the reader if we give a short account of it here.

The Presbyterian form of Church government, as everybody knows, was established in Scotland soon after the Reformation, but it gave place occasionally to the Episcopal mode, and it was not until 1688, at the Revolution, that it became formally and finally fixed.

The Cathedral or High Church of Glasgow, named in honour of its founder, St. Iventigern, or Mungo (“The Beloved”), was made to accommodate the congregations of three separate parishes, and was divided into the High Kirk, the Laigh Kirk, and the Crypt. The latter, a weird, uncanny place, was the spiritual home of the parishioners of the Barony parish, and here John Burns ministered tor twenty-eight years.

It might have been that the Barony parishioners would not have had even the Crypt to worship in if the attempt, made in 1578 with the sanction of the magistrates, to demolish the Cathedral and build little churches with the materials had been carried into effect. The attempt was made, and a number of quarriers, masons, and other workmen were conduced,” but the crafts of the city rose in tumult and vowed that he who would cast clown the first stone should be buried under it. But why attempt to describe the incident when Sir Walter Scott has given it in “Bob Boy”?

“Ah, it’s a brave kirk—nane o’ yere whigma-leeries, and curliewurlies, and opensteek hems about it—a’ solid, weel-jointed masonwark, that will stand as lang as the warlcl, keep hands and gunpowtlier alt it. It had amaist a douncome lang syne at the Beformation, when they pu’d doun the kirks of St. Andrews and Perth, and thereawa’, to cleanse them o’ Papery, and idolatry, and image worship, and surplices, and sic like rags o’ the muckle lnire that sitteth on seven hills, as if ane wasna braid eneugh for her auld hinder end. Sae the commons o’ lien-frew, and o’ the Barony, and the Gorbals, and a’ about, they behoved to come into Glasgow ae fair morning to try their hand on purging the High Kirk o’ Popish nick-nackets. But the tounsmen o’ Glasgow, they were feared their auld edifice might slip the girths in gaun through siccan rough physic, sae they rang the common bell, and assembled the trainbands wi’ took o’ drum. By good luck, the worthy Janies Babat was Dean o’ Guild that year (and a gude mason lie was himsell, made him the keener to keep up the auld biggin’), and tlie trades assembled and offered downright battle to the commons, rather than their kirk should coup the crans, as others had done elsewhere. It wasna for luve o’ Papery—na’, na’!—1 an I could ever say that o’ the trades o’ Glasgow. Sae they sune came to an agreement to tak’ a’ the idolatrous statues of saints (sorrow be on them) out 0’ their neuks. And sae the bits 0’ stane idols were broken in pieces by Scripture warrant, and flung into the Molendinar Burn, and the auld kirk stood as crouse as a cat when the flaes are kaimed aff her, and a’ body was alike pleased.” Thus the Cathedral was preserved, and in 159G the Synod appointed Mr. Alexander Bowatt “to minister to the parishioners without the burgh.”

“Joceline’s Crypt,” in which Dr. Burns (as we shall call him, although he did not receive his degree for many years afterwards) ministered, though the finest in the three kingdoms and the lightsomest, could not make a very cheerful church. But it is a fairy bower now to what it used to be. In old Barony days the damp floor was packed below with recent heritors; scutcheons mouldered on the dripping walls, the columns were smeared with lamp-black, and the roof was covered with death-emblems. The pulpit stood near the south door, with a great pillar to intercept what light the narrow windows might have given it; the Elders were dimly seen on a raised platform round Ebenezer Allen, the precentor; and great box-pews stretched in the gloom from column to column. Once a year at the “Preachings” (or annual communion time) the Barony folk emerged from their gloomy fane into the light of day. On the preaching 'Sunday“ the tent ” (or covered wooden pulpit) made its appearance for use on the great day of the feast. It was set up in the corner of the High Kirk yard, on the right as one enters the gate, and the people stood about or I sat on the through-stanes, or on chairs an’ stools.” The communion itself (“the Sacrament”), and the services specially connected with it, were held in the crypt, but the tent was used for simultaneous overflow services of sermons, addresses, prayer and praise. The whole work of the day, in the crypt and at the tent—including “Action Sermon,” “Debarrings” (or “Fencing of the Tables”), “Table Addresses” before and after each Table, singing between each two Tables, “Evening Directions,” Evening Sermon—lasted from nine in the morning till nine at night without a break. As these Sunday services were preceded by two full services on the Thursday, a sermon on the Friday evening for young communicants, and a service on the Saturday afternoon of two sermons and the address oddly known as “pirliecuing,” and were followed 011 the Monday by one or, it might be, two sermons at one diet, it is easy to see how the Scottish Bctraite was called “the preachings.”

It was at the Barony, not long before the time when Dr. Burns was minister, that Frank Osbaldistone; when about to meet Bob Boy, according to the fiction of Sir Walter Scott, dropped in upon the worshippers. This is the scene he is represented as having witnessed:—

“We entered a small, low-arched door, secured by a wicket which a grave-looking person seemed on the point of closing, and descended several steps, as if into the funeral vaults beneath the church. It was even so; for in these subterranean precincts—why chosen for such a purpose I know not—was established a very singular place of worship. Conceive an extensive range of low-browed, dark and twilight vaults, such as are used for sepulchres in other countries, and had long been dedicated to the same purpose in this, a portion of which was seated with pews and used as a church. The part of the vaults thus occupied, though capable of containing a congregation of many hundreds, bore Note affixed to an article on “James Purns,” by J. O. Mitchell,, in “Memoirs and Portraits of One Hundred Glasgow Men.” a small proportion to the darker and more extensive caverns which yawned around what may he termed the Inhabited space. In those waste regions of oblivion, dusky banners and tattered escutcheons indicated the graves of those who were doubtless ‘princes in Israel.’ . . . Surrounded by these receptacles of the last remains of mortality, I found a numerous congregation engaged in the act of pray."

We must try and picture to ourselves what good Dr. Burns was like, because he will pass before us many times in the course of this narrative.

His portrait hangs in the Library of the University of Glasgow, and we see him there depicted with a broad, open, genial face, a quick penetrating eye, a massive forehead, an intellectual brow, a commanding figure, and—a wig; and thereby hangs a tale.

In February, 1888, a complimentary banquet was given to the Bev. Dr. Smith, of Cathcart, on the completion of the sixtieth year of his ministry in the Church of Scotland. George Burns (who has only been dimly introduced to the reader as yet) was unable to be present, but he sent a letter of congratulation and apology, in the course of which he said :—

Many a time I have heard my father speak of you when you met at the Presbytery dinners in the Black Bull Inn. He used to tell of a custom the reverend brethren practised on one another in the way of a fine of a bottle of wine, got up by any plausible pretext, such as their discovering that my father had got a new wig, or some other equally important event. You, as Clerk to the Presbytery, no doubt would consider it your duty to insert the incident in the minutes of proceedings.

In acknowledging the letter on the following day, Dr. Smith, who, after the Disruption, was Clerk to the Presbytery, said :—

I do not find the anecdote of your venerable father’s change of wig, and its penal consequences, recorded in our minutes—through some criminal negligence of the clerk. But I find much recorded there which gives proof of qualities within that reverend head—devotion to the Master whom he so long, so faithfully, and so successfully served.

Even the wig was a new-fangled fashion. When Dr. Burns was assistant to Mr. Hill, he had occasion to preach in the “tent,” and when forcing himself through the crowd he heard one woman say to another, “Did ye ever see sic a head for a Fast-day!” It was at that time the custom for ministers to have their heads powdered!

The years rolled by, and the heritors of the Barony parish, taking into consideration the ruinous condition of the seating and the deficiency of accommodation in their church, resolved to abandon the crypt of the High Kirk as a place of worship. Dr. Burns was the last minister who preached in the old Barony, and one of the last, if not the last, Glasgow minister who kept up the old “Tent-preaching.”

When an official inspection of the old Barony was made, the Surveyor in his report gravely wrote that “very little light came from the pulpit!” Literally this was true, hut metaphorically it was not. Dr. Burns wras considerably in advance of his times, and when men were lifting up their hands in holy horror at that wonderful innovation “The British and Boreign Bible Society”; when ministers deprecated from the pulpit the “extravagant notion ” of converting the Heathen by missionary agency; when they even held aloof from the Anti-Slavery Society, using in support of their position arguments which shock the moral sense of to-day, he stood forth, almost alone in the Presbytery, as an advocate of these institutions. His preaching was of the Evangelical stamp; his living was of that simple and earnest type which distinguished the men who were reckoned as “sound in faith,” and by this dual ministry he was as a light shining in a dark place and in a dark day.

We have said he was in advance of his times: the assertion may be further proved by an illustration.

There are many claimants to the honour of originating Sunday schools. Ludwig Hacker is said to have commenced one between 1740 and 1747 at Ephrata, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, among the German Seventli-day Baptists. It is stated that a Sunday school existed at Catterick, in Yorkshire, in 1763. Certain it is that Robert Raikes, conjointly with the Rev. Thomas Stock, planned and instituted Sunday schools in Gloucester in 1780-82; but it is equally certain that in 1775, the year after entering upon his ministry, Dr. Burns was successfully working Sunday schools at Calton, in Glasgow, which was included in 1775 his parish. These, so far as is known, were the first Sunday schools instituted in Scotland, and they were in a vigorous condition, under the personal superintendence of Dr. Burns, live years before that memorable Sunday in July 1780, when, at the house of Mr. King, in St. Catherine’s Street, Gloucester, the so-called first Sunday school met under the superintendence of Mrs. King, who was engaged as the first teacher “at a salary of one shilling and sixpence per Sunday, of which sum Mr. Raikes contributed a shilling and Mr. Stock sixpence.”

In that same year, 1775, Dr. Burns married Elizabeth Stevenson, daughter of John Stevenson—of the family now represented by Stevenson Hamilton of Fairholm and Braidwood. Seven sons and two daughters were the fruit of this marriage, the youngest of the family being George, of whose life and times and friends we now proceed to write.


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