Book Review: “The Pastor of Kilsyth: The Life and Times of W.H. Burns” by Islay Burns

Burns, Islay. The Pastor of Kilysth: The Life and Times of W.H. Burns. Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2019. 

Today, this is not necessarily a book review as it is my reflections and thoughts after finishing the book. It has been awhile since I’ve worked through a Christian biography, but I’m glad I read this.

Thoughts. I thoroughly enjoyed this biography written by the subject’s son. While W.H. Burns lived in the 1800s his life and ministry were encouraging to read about. The book spans the entirety of his life. Chapters are devoted to his childhood, young life, early pastorate, the culture of his time, his pastoral ministry in Kilsyth, the unique revival of 1839, the fruits and results of the revival, and his death.

The life of W.H. Burns is encouraging because it emphasizes steady faithfulness despite the surrounding circumstances. Burns was a passionate man that embodied steady and faithful ministry. In the book, his pastoral ministry is described as, “that of the quiet, steady, ongoing, conscientiously diligent and calmly earnest country minister, at once the father, the counsellor, and the friend of every man, woman, and child within his parochial bounds” (Burns, p. 184). 

It was humbling to read his rigor in pastoral ministry. He was constantly busy, not just with his study. He was a man that was ever present in the lives of his church members. He often visited and prayed for them and made blunt observations about their spirituality. There were even times when he would note the lack of spiritual life in some of his members.

His life was also encouraging because it also exemplified the importance of good and godly mentors in our life. From his young life he was discipled by older men. These men influenced him by providing intellectual and spiritual guidance. They suggested books to read, societies to join, and people to spend time with. In his own life, you can see the imprint this made because when he was older he did the same to younger ministers and saints.

The chapter that outlined his final days were humbling. In a society that fears death, Burns’ accepted his fate even though much of his physical body was still healthy. He ultimately lost his life to a stomach issue, with his other organs functioning at a healthy pace. It was humbling to read of a man who ministered for 58 years and see his desire for Christ only growing stronger. His final days were marked by singing of hymns and the humbling calling out to God for mercy and recounting God’s graces even in his feeble state.

The book does include a lecture on the marks of true revival and erroneous signs of revival. While this was interesting and related to the Burns’ life, it made the book a bit longer than expected. It was a great section that reminds us that revivals are merely heightened responses to the ordinary means of grace. They are marked by holy leaders, faithful preachers, and zealous prayer.

Recommendations. I’m not sure this book would be particularly helpful for those who are not in ministry. While the subject matter is interesting, it will resonate most with people who are in ministry, were in ministry, or are considering ministry. Other Christians may benefit more from reading other biographies.

I would recommend that those in pastoral ministry read this book. It was specifically helpful for me, as someone who is early on in the pastorate (~5 years as a senior pastor). It is a great reminder to stay faithful to the simple means of grace (word, ordinances, prayer, fellowship). His steady labor was blessed by God. It also displayed the high physical and emotional demand of such a commitment. Ministry is tiring, and it was encouraging to read of someone who devoted himself to the best things of ministry without distraction.

It would also help those who are considering a call to ministry. Burns’ highlight moment in ministry was the revival of 1839. This revival took place over one year. Burns ministered for 58 years. What did Burns’ do the other 57 years he served? This kind of perspective can help those considering the call to ministry. It indicates that ministry is a marathon and not a sprint and requires steady faithfulness.

I would also imagine that this book would be encouraging to older pastors who have labored in a similar manner. I would imagine it would encourage pastors by reminding them that their faithful ministry is just one of many throughout redemptive history. God has always worked through ordinary men to accomplish His work.

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