The Rev. Thomas Burns
, D.D., pioneer Presbyterian Minister of Otago, was born at the farm house of Mossgiel, Mauchline, Ayrshire, Scotland, on the 14th of April, 1796, three months to a day before the death of his uncle the poet, whose genius has made all that part of Scotland hallowed and classic ground. His father was Gilbert Burns, the intelligent, high-minded brother of the bard. Thomas Burns was primarily educated at a private school in Dumfriesshire, and at the Grammar School of Haddington. Then he proceeded to the University of Edinburgh, where he studied for the church. On leaving the University he became tutor in the family of Sir John Dalrymple, in Berwickshire and in 1825 that gentleman's brother, Sir Hugh Dalrymple, presented Mr. Burns with the living of Ballantrae, where he remained for five years. While he was at Ballantrae Mr. Burns married the daughter of the Rev. James Francis Grant, minister of the Episcopal church, Broughton Place, Edinburgh, and son of Sir Archibald Grant, of Monymusk, Aberdeenshire. Mrs Burns afterwards accompanied her husband to New Zealand, where she shared in his pioneer labours and died on the 19th of July, 1878, about seven years after he himself had passed away. From Ballantrae Mr. Burns was translated to Monckton, a wealthy parish within four miles of Ayr. This charge had been previously held by Mrs Burns's maternal uncle, the Rev. John Steel Oughterston, the last minister of a family, which for nearly two hundred years had held ministerial office in the Church of Scotland. At Monckton Mr. Burns remained for thirteen years, during the last ten of which the controversy which led to the disruption of the Church of Scotland was waged throughout the land. In this struggle Mr. Burns took so strenuous a part that he was one of the 400 ministers who accompanied by half the Established Kirk of Scotland, went out in 1843, under the leadership of Dr. Chalmers, and constituted the Free Church. In this course Mr. Burns was followed by the majority of his own parishioners at Monckton. It was after he had organised his new charge that he accepted the first colonial appointment made by the Free Church. Necessarily this had been preceded by a great deal of negotiation. Mr. Burns had for some time taken a sympathetically active interest in the Otago settlement scheme, which had been originated by Mr. George Rennie, whose co-worker, Captain William Cargill, had been in many ways cordially helped by Mr. Burns. With a view to taking advantage of the changes brought about by the disruption, Mr. Rennie visited Edinburgh, where he instructed the Rev. Dr. Candlish and Captain Cargill's brother, who was a lawyer, to place the New Zealand Company's proposals with regard to a Presbyterian church settlement in New Zealand before the Colonial Committee of the Free Church. The negotiations thus began ended in Mr. Burns becoming the pioneer Presbyterian minister of Otago, and in his accompanying the immigrants who landed there with himself and Captain Cargill, by the “John Wycliffe” and “Phillip Laing,” in 1848. about five years after the date of his appointment. Those five years were years of hard work for the projectors of the new settlement, the champions of which had to face and overcome the countless obstacles and obstructions which old and conservative communities ever place in the way of original ideas and enterprises. In that work Dr. Burns took the part of a strong and resourceful man. At last—after divers misadventures on coast and in channel—the “John Wycliffe” finally sailed on the 8th of December. 1847, and the “Philip Laing” on the 20th; the first with Captain Cargill and his party on board dropped anchor inside Taiaroa Heads on the 22nd of March, 1848, and the “Philip Laing,” in which Dr. Burns was a passenger, entered Otago Harbour nearly a month later, on Saturday, the 15th of April. Dr. Burns at once went to Dunedin to meet Captain Cargill, and the next day, which was Sunday, he conducted divine service in the chief surveyor's office. This building continued to be the place of worship until a schoolhouse was built, which for many years served as a church, as well as for other social, judicial, and political purposes. Dr. Burns had brought out material for his manse, which was speedily erected at the corner of Princes and Jetty Streets. This he occupied for several years, until a larger one was erected on Church Hill, and eventually replaced by the present First Church manse, adjoining First Church. For nearly six years Dr. Burns stood alone to discharge the duties of the ministry, and during that time he did not confine his labours to Dunedin, but extended them as far south as Clutha—encouraging all to overcome the difficulties of their new life, both by able evangelical preaching, and the wise counsels which a large experience of country life and much intercourse with all classes of men peculiarly fitted him to impart. Messrs Will and Bannerman arrived in 1854 to help him; and later on came Dr. Stuart and others, until gradually the
The late Rev. Dr. Burns.
whole province, from Oamaru in the north to Riverton in the south, was supplied with religious ordinances according to the Presbyterian system. Dr. Burns had found Otago a wilderness destitute of people and all the attributes of civilisation, and he lived to see [gap — reason: illegible]
Presbyterian minister in every settled district, town and country, a primary school in every district, a secondary school in leading townships, and a University at Dunedin. All this was effected between 1848 and 1871, the year of his death, and such progress has perhaps never been witnessed elsewhre in so short a time. The health of Dr. Burns began to decline some time before his death, and it became necessary to obtain some assistance for the work of his large congregation. The Rev. George Sutherland was appointed as his colleague and successor, and soon afterwards Dr. Burns retired from active work, and took up his residence on his property, Bankton, in London Street. There he died on the 23rd of January, 1871, leaving behind him, as a man, a citizen, a scholar, and a divine, a memory that was revered by the entire community. His monument, erected by his friend and co-worker, Mr. Robert Chapman, occupies a prominent place in the city he so loved and admired and which has every reason to cherish the remembrance of him and his labours.