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George Burns, His Times and Friends
Chapter XII. Personal Traits and Characteristics


A distinctive feature in the religious belief of Air. Burns was that, for the Christian, “whatever is, is right;” that all things, apparently good, bad, or indifferent, are in reality the very best; that every circumstance in his lot is influenced by the direct movement of the Divine will ; and that, literally, “all things work together for good to them that love God.”

It may be said that to men who succeed, who know nothing of the hand-to-hand struggle for existence, who live in the midst of luxury, and who flourish under the world’s applause, this is a natural and comfortable belief; and so it is. But Mr. Burns had his full share of the trials of life. He knew the bitterness of domestic sorrows, he bore the burden of business anxiety, he knew the weariness of continuous opposition; he endured the discomforts of long separations from family and home—in times, too, when his heart cried out for cessation from toil; he had encountered the jealousies and machinations of rivals in business; he had borne the burden of religious controversy, and had "fought with beasts at Ephesus;” his life had its dark as well as its bright side (although it is on its latter aspect we have particularly dwelt), and yet, in the face of all these things, he held firmly to the belief that whatever happened was of Divine appointment, and was therefore the best that could have happened. This belief comes out strongly in letters written at times of deep feeling. Thus in September, 1845, when writing to Miss Maclver to condole with her on the loss of her brother, Mr. David Maclver, his late partner, he says :—

Glasgow, Sept. 30, 1845.

It is with a sorrowful heart I have this day received the intelligence of your brother’s death. He was one in whom I felt a very deep interest, and for whom I entertained great regard. My wife fully participated in this, and our united earnest desire was, at all times, to promote his spiritual good. Many a conversation we had upon the great truths of the gospel, and he opened his mind to us more freely, I believe, than was his wont with people in general. I mention this as a means of comforting you in this trying hour, when, of all things, the most anxious question with Christian survivors is, whether the departed had fled for refuge to the Saviour. I hope he had, and that he is now realising the blessedness of having died in the Lord. His removal is a solemn lesson to all; nothing that the world can give is worth possessing if unsanctified by the Holy Spirit. But, on the other hand, whatever the believer has, or is destitute of, it is his fixed lot ordained in the wisdom of God, and made to work for the good of his soul. All things are his ; all are covenant mercies, whether joy or sorrow, life or death; and what he knows not now, of the intentions of God in the dark and cloudy day of painful visitation, he shall know hereafter, and shall be satisfied with the goodness and mercy involved in all God’s dealings. There is no chance, no uncertainty, in the government of God; we are assured that all things shall work together for the good of the souls of them that are in Christ Jesus. Think of this in your present distress, and may the consolation of the God of all comfort abound in your soul.

One who found it hard to accept the belief to which Mr. Burns tenaciously held, when announcing the death, under very painful circumstances, of a dearly loved and intimate friend, said in a letter, “You do not expect me to be thankful for this, surely?"

Mr. Burns replied :—

Truly, indeed, I do not expect you to be thankful for this sore calamity. I know from bitter experience what it is to have had, once and again, wrenched from me those who were dear to me as my own soul, and I cannot be thankful for that which, in itself, is a dreadful evil. But by the grace of God I hope I have learned some lessons which will be useful to me throughout eternity. It is well, for one thing, to see what a curse sin is, and the consequences it has inflicted on our race, but then let us look to Jesus, who has borne the curse and carried the sorrow. If you knew my heart, you would see that I have been feeling for yon and your dear departed one. I know what it is to be unable to realise the departure. Sympathy you have from me, but there the matter stops. I can do no more, but One there is whose sympathy can be carried into effect, to soothe your troubles, and even to bring blessings out of them. It is but a small part of God’s ways we can see, or even partially comprehend here. He is working in our souls with reference to their everlasting duration, and we must learn to wait. May He, by His Holy Spirit, speak usefully and peacefully to you in this dark hour.

Another characteristic of the religious life of Mr. Burns was, that lie found meditation to be not, only sweet but eminently helpful. In these days of excessive preaching and reading, and of restless religions activity, the meditative element seems to have well-nigh died out of the lives of most Christians. Luther’s practice of spending the three best hours of every day in solitary devotion is far more wondered at in these times than imitated, and yet, as a modern preacher has said, “the hours spent in quiet meditation are the sweetest part of any life. David ‘sat before the Lord.’ It is a great thing to hold these quiet sittings ; the mind being receptive, like an open flower, drinks in the sunbeams. Quietude, which some men cannot abide because it reveals their inward poverty, is as a palace of cedar to the wise, for along its hallowed courts the King in His beauty deigns to walk. Quiet contemplation, still worship, unuttered rapture—these are mine when my best jewels are before me. Let us rob not our hearts of the deep-sea joys; let us miss not the far-down life by for ever babbling among the broken shells and foaming surges of the shore.”

Many of the best-spent hours in Mr. Burns’ life were those in which he sat still and thought, and they were hours full of fruitfulness. Moreover, he loved meditative books, and the works which he read and re-read with always increasing pleasure were the writings of Pascal, for which he entertained a love perhaps beyond all other human productions.

Mr. Burns never at any time kept a diary, and very rarely put in writing tlie thoughts that arose within him. Sometimes, however, lie would jot down a few rough notes, and these invariably show the contemplative nature of his religious life. Thus, at Homburg, in 1847, he wrote in a fly-leaf of a book, when on a holiday tour—and no man entered into holiday-life with .a keener or more natural relish—the following :—

July 21s?.—A beautiful clay for our voyage up the Rhine from Goblentz. Some pleasant company on board, among them a couple who replaced our friends at the table d’hote at Ems, on the day they left; but we were not quite prepared to take them to our hearts so soon after having had broken up one of the happiest unions we have enjoyed. Arrived at Frankfort the same evening; welcomed at the Hotel d’Angleterre; reminded of former happy days; the night serene and air balmy, but still something a-wanting. Proceeded next day to Homburg; liked it better than formerly; remembered its shaded walks, fragrant meadows, wooded hills, and old-fashioned garden of the Schloss—greatly superior to Ems or Weisbaden. The freshness of nature reigns around, notwithstanding the evils that seem to be inseparable from a German watering-place. We get up betimes in the morning, and join the busy and cheerful throng at the springs ; we were much touched and solemnised on hearing again the beautiful band play the customary hymn at the commencement of the morning operations. Surrounded with mercies and comforts, thought of the past, looked forward to the future, when, in the full realisation of God’s love, we shall love one another with pure hearts fervently. Desired to rest in submission to His sovereign will who orders all things well, who reminds us by oft-repeated discipline that here we have no continuing city, who teaches us by a touching experience that .separations await us, and constantly interrupts the current of our happiness, so that we are forced to say ot all earthly unions, be they what they may, the best and the purest, that time is scarcely allowed to form them, until they are dissolved; that the paths through the wilderness diverge in many a direction; that the people who are in Christ, and afterwards to be gathered into one, must meanwhile be dispersed and travel alone that they must pass through tribulation more or less ere they feel that they have escaped from the curse that hangs over this world, and are permitted to join in the song of Moses and the Lamb, and to walk in the brightness of that City which hath no need of the sun, neither of the moon to shine in it, for the glory of God lightens it, and the Lamb is the light thereof, and into which nothing that is unholy shall ever enter.

‘Christian friendships are soon formed, but will never end,’ so said Dr. Marsh to us last year, on a break-up in Switzerland. May the God of love and peace be ever with ns, and our times in His hand as our unerring Guide, then will all the meetings and all the partings in this life be good for us, and blessings will flow from them into eternity; we shall meet with one another, and mingle among the nations of them who are saved, and enjoy the perfected communion of saints in the heavenly house not made with hands.

These exceeding great and precious promises are scattered all over the Scriptures; the subjects of them are brought into light in the concluding chapters of the Revelation. David comforted his soul with them even in 'the Seventy-first Psalm; he expressed his belief that after passing through great and sore trials he should be quickened again and brought] up from the depths of the earth, that his greatness should be increased, and that he should be comforted 011 every side. That we may surely participate in these ineffable blessings, may God the Holy Spirit incline our hearts to accept, without cavilling, the great salvation wrought for man by Christ, the gift of the Father’s love. May He teach us to use this world as not abusing it, to receive all our comforts as covenant blessings; and may He, in great condescension to our weakness, confer upon us the well-grounded assurance that we are one with Christ, and walking in safety, waiting for the great salvation, the completion of our longing desires after happiness, will be the praise and glory of His name.

Frankfort, Aug. 2.

Heard the parting hymn this morning at Homburg, and afterwards left for this on our way home.

Although Mr. Burns was never a “public man” in connection with the social and religious questions of the day, his tastes and sympathies, and his practical knowledge, brought him in contact with many of the leaders of men.

One of his great personal friends was Sir Andrew Agnew, who was strong on the Sabbath question. When railways were beginning to intersect the land, he foresaw that the new system of traffic would bring about a sensible increase in “Sabbath desecration.” Already it had commenced, and by many the reproach of being Sabbath desecrators was thrown upon the committees and directors of railways. But Sir Andrew Agnew pointed out in pamphlets and in the public press that the regulating power, and consequently the responsibility, was placed by Act of Parliament in the hands of the shareholders and proprietors, to he exercised by them at every half-yearly general meeting, at which, by the statute law, the executive powers of the directors might he continued or withdrawn for each ensuing half-year. He regretted, therefore, that many well-known men, hitherto connected with railways, had retired from them in consequence of the prevalence of Sunday traffic, and he set to work to urge Sabbatarians everywhere to become shareholders and prevail upon others to do so.

This was his novel argument: — “Freedom of speech and of debate being given, we can reiterate our principles, and make all half-yearly meetings so many Lord’s Day societies!"

He entertained a fear lest English shareholders in Scotch railways should he the authors of a new system of Sabbath profanation in Scotland, and he spent much of his time, money, and thought, in organising meetings, circulating pamphlets! and forming public opinion in order to obtain the protest of Christians of all denominations “against the profanation of an}’ one of the twenty-four hours of the Lord’s Day.”

Sir Andrew was a voluminous correspondent, and “the Sabbath” was the burden of the majority of his letters. Thus, to Mr. Burns :—

Lochnaw Castle, March 4, 1845.

The last number of the Aberdeen banner will, I think, interest you. The meeting regarding the steam packets seems to have been sustained in an excellent spirit; the speech also of Mr. Leslie in presenting the resolutions of the meeting to the Steam Navigation Company was good, and the first part of the resolution moved by him was also good, but in the latter part of his resolution he fell into a strange mistake at a moment when contending for a principle. He forgot on the moment that a preconcerted arrangement for working on alternate Sabbaths was as much a violation of his principle as an arrangement for working every consecutive Sabbath, which may be thus tested, viz.: If I make myself a party to such a compromise to-day, I must, if true to my principle, oppose to-morrow the carrying out of my own compromise, for it implies working on a Sabbath day by premeditation. In point of fact, ‘Necessity’ and ‘Mercy,’ the two great exceptions to strict abstinence from Sabbath work, must needs be unpremeditated, incidental, or providential; otherwise, if premeditated and systematic and predetermined, they make the commandment of Clod to contradict itself, for He who knew beforehand what necessities of society would require, deliberately commanded ‘no work’ to be done on the Sabbath day.

I send the Aberdeen paper, which, when you have made all possible use of it, I would beg you to preserve for me. May I request you to explain to Mr. Miles the subject of our conversation regarding the desirableness of prevailing upon members of his congregation to procure railway shares for the purpose of qualifying themselves for raising their testimonies against ‘Sunday trains.’ Mr. Burnley also will, I trust, use his influence. A little leaven may, with the blessing of God, do much; but if that little is withheld, what will become of the lump?—it will crush our National morality.

With many thanks for all kindness,

Believe me, your faithful

Andrew Agnew.

A few days after the date of this letter, Sir Andrew Agnew wrote again to Mr. Bums, urging him to call at the office of the Lord’s Day Society at Exeter Hall, Strand, for “some interesting information regarding the Lord’s Day,” and enclosing an introduction to Mr. Joseph Wilson—cousin of the Bishop of Calcutta, and honorary secretary to the society. This circumstance led to the appearance of Mr. Burns on the platform of Exeter Hall as a public speaker, for the first and last time in his life.

Mr. Burns says :—

I was busy in London, as usual, and could not find time to see Mr. Wilson, so I thought I would go to the annual meeting of the Lord’s Day Society, which was being held at Exeter Hall, and that if I sat on the platform I should probably find him. While I was sitting there, a gentleman came up to me and said, ‘ You must speak to-night; the Archbishop of Canterbury was to have moved a resolution, but he cannot come, so you must do duty for him.’

1 was obliged to speak, and I spoke. Afterwards General Mac Kinnon, Mr. Syme, of Montague Square, and others, came round, shook me by the hand, and thanked me. Mr. Syme asked me to dine that day with all the Directors of the Society, who were to be there. I accepted, and in the drawing-room, before dinner, asked Mr. Wilson what induced him to urge me to speak, saying, r I never saw you before, nor you me.’ He answered, ‘That may be, but you were turning over some letters in your hand, and 1 caught sight of Sir Andrew Agnew’s handwriting.’ It was the letter of introduction Sir Andrew had given me to Mr. Wilson.

Mr. Burns, notwithstanding his contemplative habits, was always a very busy man. Although he had a large correspondence in connection with his shipping business, an almost equally large one concerning Church and philanthropic matters, and an exceptionally large one with personal friends, there was, as his name and influence increased, another class of correspondence growing up, of which the following may be taken as a specimen. Sir William Hooker was already a personal friend, hut it often happened that those who commenced a correspondence with Mr. Burns as strangers were not long before they subscribed themselves as friends.

Kew, June ‘20, 1843.

I wish much to see you and to speak to you on the subject of a privilege which I believe the Government possesses of sending certain packages by the mail steamers. This, I understand from the Admiralty, is an arrangement -with the companies. But at present our Garden has only taken advantage of it in the West India steamers. You, I am sure, will kindly facilitate the little intercourse I may wish to have with North America, and will tell me whether or not I may send direct to Liverpool (and to what address), simply putting on the packet ‘ On H. M. Service,’ I pledging my word that the contents are on account of the Royal Botanical Gardens. In general, my packets will be small—seeds, perhaps, and bulbs. But now and then a box of plants will require to go or come, and such box should be placed on deck. I should also like to know at what periods the packets sail. Before I was aware of this privilege, I sent a noble case of five hundred plants (about two months ago) to Boston. I sent them to the railway station, and paid freight to Liverpool. My correspondent did not receive them by first vessel, nor by the next a fortnight after, and when they did arrive four hundred out of the five hundred were dead!—and a great loss they were to the Boston (or rather New Cambridge) Botanical Garden. I believe the fault was tlnit .Master Pickfonl, or some sluggish conveyance, took up the box, and that it was more than a fortnight on the mad to Liverpool. Now the fact is that if we take proper advantage of steam conveyance, it is of inestimable service to botanical communications. 1 do hope you will be able to come and see our Garden, and I am sure you will kindly further our wishes in regard to the transport of plants.

Faithfully yours,

W. J. Hooker.

It was characteristic of Mr. Burns to give a word of praise or of affectionate appreciation whenever lie felt that it was deserved. He did this in his offices, and cheered the lives of those who were working under him; he did it to preachers and teachers for whose ministrations he felt grateful, and he did it to those of his own household.

A word of praise, an expression of gratitude, or a tribute of admiration, costs little to the giver, hut it acts as a powerful stimulant to the toiler, and the world would he a thousandfold happier to-day if this grace of Christian courtesy were only cultivated a little more than it is. Many a philanthropist, worn out with the grinding' routine of the machinery of benevolence, has had new life put into him by a few incoherent and ungrammatical words penned by some poor sufferer whom he has been the means of Imlping ; many a preacher, who has felt as it all his words had fallen upon asphalt, has started on a new career of helpful activity by a pressure of the hand, and the simple utterance, “Sir, your words have, by God’s blessing, given a new impulse to my life;” and many a home has been made full of sunshine by the expression of only a few words of kindly appreciation.

In letters of Mr. Burns to his wife, written in 1845-7, the following passages occur :—

The longer you are my wife, the fonder I love you, my darling old -Jeanie. May God in his infinite mercy bless and keep you. I have great reason to render thanks to His holy name.

I have loved you for nearly thirty years, and I have a more affectionate heart towards all around me.

Duty is before me: pray that I may be helped, in faithfulness and kindness, to walk circumspectly.

Our cup overflows with goodness, and we have fresh cause to bless our Lord that our separation, which took place from duty, has not been so irksome to either of us as we dreaded. Your improved health has comforted me greatly, and our mutual love exchanged in daily letters has kept up a sweet intercourse. May the Lord grant that we love Him supremely.

This gift of grateful utterance was the origin of many of the friendships which Mr. Burns formed and highly valued. When a preacher had been particularly helpful to him, he would tarry behind to express his thanks; if a cause had been pleaded which aroused his sympathy, he would seek out the pleader and hand in a contribution with a generous and cheery word. He writes to Jiis wife :—

I penetrated this morning into the far east, and have just trudged back from hearing God’s word faithfully and manfully preached by Dr. McCaul in his church, which is off' Aldgate Street, beyond the

India House. After the sermon I went into the vestry, and gave I)r. McCaul a contribution for the Moggodore Jews. He asked me to come and see the Jews’ school.

In a similar way a friendship sprang up between Mr. Burns and the Bev. B. W. Dibdin, of West Street Chapel, St. Martin’s Lane, one of the places of worship in London where Mr. Burns always felt himself “at home” on the Sabbath day. In his letters to his wife he often refers to the ministrations of Mr. Dibdin. Thus :—

March 16, 1845.

My beloved in the Lord, I have just come from the house of God, where I have had a feast of fat things in tlie worship, and edification and comfort to my soul in the preaching of Mr. Dibdin.

April, 1845.

Evening. Mr. Dibdin preached from 2 Chronicles xix. 2, ‘Shouldest thou help the ungodly?’ He applied the subject to the Maynooth grant, and in a very fine spirit, because in the spirit of love and faithfulness. I signed the petition as one of his congregation, and so did John, against the grant. Mr. Dibdin told me he used in former years to preach much on such subjects, and predicted what would happen, but considering the matter hopeless, he had given it up and applied himself simply to offering the gospel.

Referring to his intercourse with Mr. Dibdin, Mr. Burns says :—

My wife and I and family attended Mr. Dibdin’s church whenever we were in town. At one time John Wesley preached in that church, and Mr. Dibdin pointed out to us a window overlooking the lane, where a number of timid people of the higher class assembled to hearken to Wesley’s discourse, not venturing to be seen inside.

It was remarkable that, in Mr. Dibdin’s church, there was a large number of very poor people, and a great many young people, who partook of the Communion, as we also did. In reply to a question of my wife, he said he had every reason to believe that each one of them was a truly converted person.

On one occasion there was sitting in the same pew with us a rather notable farmer-looking man, who, when the offertory was being collected for the Communion, put a sovereign into the plate. My wife had chanced to observe the circumstance, and when we came out she called my attention to the fact, thinking that the man had perhaps made a mistake. I told her that the gentleman was the Duke of Manchester.

When we were living in 16, Hanover Street, Hanoveiy Square, Mr. Dibdin frequently paid us visits, and once during my.absence he proposed to my wife to have prayer, saying that he had not much time to spare for ordinary chit-chat visits. He was, as this incident shows, a very earnest and direct man in his ministrations, although such methods are not always ‘convenient,’ and my wife said to me on the occasion to which I refer, that she was suffering considerable uneasiness lest some of my particular official friends should drop in. Our intimate friendship with Mr. Dibdin was sustained all our lives. Every New Year’s Eve he delivered a special address to his congregation, and ushered in the new year in this interesting way. These addresses were printed, and he invariably sent me a copy.

On one occasion, many years later than the time to which we now refer, Mr. Burns wrote to Mr. Dibclin asking him to occupy for a few Sundays the pulpit of a church of which Mr. Burns was patron. The reply gives a glimpse of love of work probably unique in clerical annals :—

Torrington Square, W.C., Jan. 27, 1871.

My dear Mr. Burns,— ... As for leaving my pulpit at West Street, I have not been absent twenty-eight Sundays during the twenty-eight years I have been its preacher. The annual of a month never formed part of my ministerial plan. I have never felt the need of it. Perhaps if I were troubled with the routine of parish surplice duty, and the amount of secular work which is required in a parochial minister, it might be with me as with most others. I have (very rarely) gone away to preach in some country town for the ‘Aged Christian’s Society’ on the Lord’s Day, or for some other great cause. But as for leaving my people for j rest ’ or ‘ pleasure,’ I have never done so. I am never tired of my work and need no rest, and I need go nowhere else for pleasure, when I always find it among my many spiritual children. More than half of my 250 communicants have grown up from childhood under my teaching; many of them are married, and are bringing their sons and daughters to hear their old pastor. Every day, too, brings its pastoral work, and I never go to bed without having seen from two to twelve of my congregation privately. Work like mine can only be done by myself. The longer I am in it, the better I love it. . . . With our united kindest regards,

I am most truly yours,

R. W. Dibdin.

‘Judge before friendship,
Then confide till death,’

was the advice of Young the poet, and it was religiously followed by Mr. Burns. To him friendship was a very sacred thing implying a great responsibility, and thus we shall find that, as the years went on, although troops of new friends gathered round him from time to time, the freshness of his love for the old ones never wore off.


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