Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Burns, James Drummond

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BURNS, JAMES DRUMMOND (1823–1864), presbyterian minister and poet, was born in Edinburgh 18 Feb. 1823, and educated on the charitable foundation of Heriot's Hospital. He and two other lads got through the prescribed curriculum two years before the usual time of leaving; whereupon the governor sent them to the rector's (Dr. Carson's [q. v.]) class at the high school, a thing never done before. His early religious impressions were given to him at the New Greyfriars church, of which Daniel Wilkie was minister. In November 1837 he entered the arts classes at the Edinburgh university as a Heriot bursar; he owed much to the influence of the moral philosophy lectures of John Wilson (‘Christopher North’). In November 1841 he proceeded to the divinity classes under Chalmers and David Welsh, and followed them in 1843 to the new divinity hall established by the Free church. Early in 1845 Chalmers sent him to preach at the Free church, Dunblane; though he stuck in the morning sermon, he was at once called by the congregation, and was ordained at Dunblane in August. Overwork soon brought on an alarming attack in the right lung, and he was advised to winter in Madeira. He was appointed to the congregation at Funchal under the Free church colonial mission, and landed 21 Sept. 1847. His diary of this period, though chiefly occupied with devotional and theological matter, gives interesting glimpses of a poetic nature. He left Madeira 27 May and arrived at Broadstairs 11 June 1848. Under medical advice he was induced to return, with a view to take permanent charge of the presbyterian congregation at Funchal. Set free from Dunblane on 4 Oct. he sailed again on 6 Oct. and arrived on 1 Nov. But his stay was not lasting. Owing to the failure of the vintage and the diminished influx of invalids, his congregation fell off. In the summer of 1853 he left Madeira considerably improved in health. After preaching at Brighton and St. Heliers, he settled (on 22 May 1855) with the newly formed presbyterian congregation in Well Walk, Hampstead. His ministry was successful, and a new church was built. In 1863 a manse was added. Burns was a man of catholic spirit; he admitted, as a member of his church, one who frankly said he ‘was not a strict presbyterian,’ and who professed simply to be a Christian. His preaching was practical and emotional, rather than dogmatic; its effect was much assisted by a voice which is said to have resembled that of Maurice. His personal influence was stronger than his pulpit work. In the man there was a vein of kindly humour, which never lighted up his preaching. He was one of the examining board of the English Presbyterian Theological College. In church courts he took little part; but going in 1863 to the English presbyterian synod at Manchester, and thence on a deputation to the Free church assembly in Edinburgh, he contracted a severe cold. In January 1864 he went to Mentone. In May he resorted to Switzerland, but returned to Mentone in October, and there died on Sunday, 27 Nov. 1864. He married, in the autumn of 1859, Margaret, daughter of Major-general John Macdonald, of the Bengal service, and widow of Lieutenant A. Procter, of the same. He published:

  1. ‘The Vision of Prophecy, and other Poems,’ Edin. 1854, 8vo (the ‘Vision’ is poor, and its prominence injured the book, but it came to a second edition, Edin. 1858, 8vo).
  2. ‘The Heavenly Jerusalem, or Glimpses within the Gates,’ 1856, 16mo (poems).
  3. ‘The Climax, or on Condemnation and no Separation, a sermon [Rom. viii. 17, 18], with an Illustration by another Hand,’ 1865, 8vo.

Besides these he contributed the article ‘Hymns’ to the eighth edition of the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica;’ and a series of papers on the cities of the Bible to the ‘Family Treasury,’ edited by Rev. A. Cameron. His ‘Remains’ (see below) consist of hymns and miscellaneous verse, thirty-nine translations from German hymns, versions of six psalms, selections from an unpublished poem called ‘The Evening Hymn,’ thirteen sermons, and two prose fragments.

[Reminiscences of the late J. D. Burns (1864), reprinted from the Weekly Review, 17 Dec. 1864; Hamilton's Memoir and Remains of J. D. Burns, 1869 (portrait); catalogues of British Museum and Advocates' Library, Edinburgh; Gent. Mag. 1865, p. 120.]

A. G.