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A great coloniser : the Rev. Dr. Thomas Burns, pioneer minister of Otago and nephew of the poet

Chapter XXII. — The Man and His Genius

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Chapter XXII.
The Man and His Genius.

It is with strong interest that my prophetic eye wanders over the noble plains of Otago some generations hence to mark the future herds and flocks that cover the upland pastures far away to the range of the snowy mountains, whilst the lowerlying valleys are waving with the yellow corn and the pursuits of rural husbandry; the pretty farms, "the busy mile," and the happy smiling cottages by the wayside or nestling amid the trees in some bosky dingle or sylvan dell; and all this amongst a God-fearing people, with a bold peasantry, their country's pride, and an aristocracy whose highest honour it is to think that they are the disciples of Christ. But I awake; it is only a dream.

—Letter written by the Rev. Thomas Burns to Captain Cargill from Portobello, Scotland, on January 30, 1847.

Himself from God he could not free;
He builded better than he knew;
The conscious stone to beauty grew.


For three years before his death Dr Burns took little part in any public duty, but his venerable form was still seen about the streets of Dunedin. In private conference his opinions were sought and freely given on the great subjects which concerned the province, the Church, and the proposed University. Early in January, 1871, he suffered a collapse, and he died on January 23, in the seventy-fIfth year of his age. Two days later the largest funeral procession ever held in Dunedin testified to the public sense of loss and the profound respect which was universally felt for the old minister of Otago. In accordance with a request made by the Superintendent and Mayor, all the offices and shops were closed, and flags were hoisted half-mast high on the buildings and the vessels in the harbour. At 1 o'clock the congregation assembled in First Chruch; and after service there and an address page 267given by his successor, the Rev. George Sutherland, the congregation withdrew from the church and proceeded to the residence in London street, where the faithful partner of the departed leader watched with her family beside the lifeless form. The Rev. William Will, as the senior surviving minister, read that noble passage of St. Paul, beginning: "For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens" (2 Corinthians, fifth chapter). At half-past 2 the casket was borne slowly out of the house by six of the oldest members of Session—the Hon. James Paterson, Messrs Charles Robertson, James Adam, Robert Hood, James Souness, and George Hepburn. The long procession included the relatives, the Kirk Session, the Deacons' Court, and former office-bearers, the Presbytery, and other ministers, the members of the congregation, the University Council, the Mayor and Corporation of Dunedin, officials of the General and Provincial Governments, schoolmasters, the Friendly Societies, and the general public. At the Southern Cemetery the coffin was covered with flowers which had been brought in baskets by the ladies of the congregation. There was no religious service held at the grave out of respect to the wishes of the deceased minister, who had expressed a desire that the practice of the old Scottish Church should be followed in this simple, final interment.

To quote from the contemporary tributes in the Otago Daily Times, the Otago Witness, and the Evangelist (the Presbyterian journal which was then edited by the Rev. Dr Copland), also those passed by Session, Presbytery, and Synod would occupy too much of our space, but they would all show the affectionate veneration in which the ministerial founder of the Church and province was held page 268by his contemporaries. Full of years and honours, the great, quiet man of Otago was laid to rest. His grave is marked by a plain tombstone on the hill overlooking the town and harbour which he had entered nearly 23 years before. In the vestibule of the First Church, as one passes into the sacred edifice, there is a large tablet to his memory, and in the heart of Dunedin, at the Octagon, there now rises a chaste threefold column crowned by a Celtic Cross, erected by an admiring friend (Mr Robert Chapman) to his honour. The Scottish bard, his father's brother, Robert Burns, is commemorated by a statue on the opposite side of the circular green sward. The busy traffic of the modern city passes by the spot, which resounds with the steps of the heirs of the pioneers—the dwellers of town and country. But the true monuments to Thomas Burns are to be found in all the agencies that uplift the heart to higher things—the First Church, with its spire "pricking through the mist" of earthly ambitions; and the sister spire of Knox Church, the largest of the Presbyterian sanctuaries south of, the equator. Further still, in every town and village throughout Otago and Southland, each equipped with its church and school, we may find the living harvest of his sowing. The University, Knox College (with its Theological Hall), St. Margaret's College, and the other schools and colleges dedicated to the sacredness of Truth and Life, acknowledge with gratitude their debt to the dreams and visions of a man who was old and yet ever young in heart, imagination, and enthusiasm for the Kingdom of God.

Having followed the story of his life, we are now in a position to estimate the contribution which Thomas Burns made to the Colony. In some respects we are better placed than those who knew him merely as "the page 269auld minister." The correspondence with Cargill which is reviewed—all too slightly—in this book, throws much light upon his invaluable activities between 1843 and 1847 in preserving the Scottish scheme of colonisation from complete shipwreck. His services as a recruiting officer were not rewarded by results as they should have been; but one cannot refrain from asking what would have happened to the proposed undertaking if there had been no Thomas Burns? The only answer possible in the light of the facts is that the enterprise would have been abandoned. The difficulties in which the Company found itself were at times so overwhelming that failure would have been inevitable but for the steadfast faith, courage, and unselfish labours of the minister of New Edinburgh.

From the sturdy stock of yeomen, most of our great leaders have sprung. The farmer's son brought to his task a finely-wrought frame and a great store of physical energy. He was "well-built from base to crown." He had followed the plough with the zest of a son of the soil. He could walk long distances and endure hardships without fatigue. He was tall and of a noble presence, combining strength with ease and dignity of person. The portraits reveal the man to us—his grave face, with brow, cheeks, nose, and chin in good proportions, and head well set on the neck and shoulders. Above all, the eyes, large and bright, reveal that which surpasses mere beauty or physical endowment, the soul, the mind, and the character. Imagination and the gift of "seeing ideas," together with the power of expressing what is seen, shine in such eyes. An Otago settler wrote of Burns:—

Among old identities his well-known grave and solemnly dignified figure was familiarly known, distinguished by his Geneva cap, as the Captain (Cargill) was by his frequently assumed broad lowland bonnet; the only difference perceptible to settlers page 270of the earliest date being that towards the last his long grey locks had changed to a pure silvery whiteness, and that he had aged very perceptibly, though the clear, bright eye and the soft, benignant expression of countenance remained unchanged to the end. From the first he bore among us a patriarchal carriage, and exercised a patriarchal influence, ever moving about, known to everyone, in the eyes of many the impersonated religion of the settlement, and warrant as it were for its orthodoxy.1

Dr Stuart's impressions of Dr Burns are well worth recording. At the ceremony of unveiling the monument to his late colleague Dr Stuart said:—

Dr Burns never doubted that industry, frugality, and a fixed purpose to give God and man their due would bring the prosperity, material and moral, which God connects with virtues of this order. In 1860, when I first met Dr Burns, though then well over sixty, he was well built from base to crown, with a noble presence. He went about the city with a firm step, but never in a hurry, noticing everything, especially houses that were a-building. It was his custom when we foregathered to pull up and direct my attention to the extending city, the opening of new streets, and the increasing population, with the remark that the growth of the city and settlement exceeded all his expectations. All his life his sympathies were ever on the side of education and religion, and in short the institutions of Christian civilisation.

Professor D. R. White retains a vivid recollection of the last time he saw Dr Burns. He was present at the New Year celebrations held at the northern sports ground. He wore his peaked cap with flaps over his ears, and was seated in the front row of the spectators. Like a benignant patriarch, he watched the various contests on the green, entering with a quiet pleasure into the well-earned recreations of a happy and industrious people.

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The last of the letters preserved in the brochure by Bannerman touches upon his activities as the beloved chief representative of religion in the whole province. Writing to his brother Gilbert in March, 1865, he says:—

I have just returned from Oamaru, the capital of the north of the province, and a thriving town with a fine neighbourhood. My errand was to open a new church at Oamaru. I have become a noted opener of new kirks, and I open a new church at Waihola next week. By special request I recently opened the Wesleyan Chapel, the Independent Church, and the Baptist Chapel in Dunedin. In self-defence we recently commenced the erection of an interim new church. After 17 years of my old church we are now enjoying the comfort of our new handsome edifice, which will accommodate 1000 people. My congregation is steadily increasing, and I feel as fit for my clerical duties, despite my age, as I did in my youngest days in Scotland.

The intellectual endowment of Dr Burns was intimately associated with his work as a minister and as a coloniser. His scholarship was sound, his mind was ever open to truth, as he perceived it; and his interests were broad and deep. The work to which he gave himself as a busy pastor, an administrator, and an organiser, with the thousand-and-one problems of pioneering in a virgin province, prevented him from following the pursuits of literature, in which he could almost certainly have distinguished himself. Happily for Otago in its first callow years of existence his interest in books was subordinated to the practical everyday tasks of life. But those duties in which he immersed himself were performed with greater ability because he brought a highly-trained mind to bear upon the affairs of the Church and the community.

The man has been set before us in his own words and deeds. The letters of Burns rank high in the literature of personal correspondence. There is lucidity and the sense of style about them. He was one of those rare men who page 272can always see the wood and the trees. His careful choice of the right word and his exact mode of bringing out his thought in graceful terms gave distinction to everything he wrote. His contributions to the literature of the Otago scheme and his sermons and addresses show the same artistic qualities. This characteristic impressed those who heard him preach from the pulpits of the primitive church of the early days. The obituary notice of the Evangelist on March 1, 1871, contained the following passage:—

No one could listen to the sermons delivered by the first minister of First Church without the consciousness that he was listening to a man of no common ability; to one of large natural powers, and possessed of rich stores gathered from many sources; to one whose heart was in his work, and who, from his own experience of the grace of God, longed and strove that others should be partakers with him of the great salvation, of the cheering hopes, and unspeakable peace of mind and heart which the possession of salvation invariably bestows. As a preacher of the Word he had no equal among the ministers of Otago. In depth of thought, in accuracy of statement, in beauty of diction, not less than in the calm dignity that characterised his every public appearance he excelled all the brethren. As is well known, Dr Burns was largely read in classics and general literature. He was no mean scholar in Hebrew. He was well read also in many branches of natural science; but in theology he was a very master—his sermons not unfrequently presenting the character of a professorial lecture to students in divinity, rather than a popular discourse to an ordinary congregation, yet delivered with such clearness and adaptation to his hearers as fully to carry them along with him, and leave upon their minds and hearts the most lasting impressions for good.

Sir Robert Stout, who often heard Dr Burns in First Church, has recorded the impression of perfect literary form which the sermons left on his mind. The discourses, page 273as delivered, were ready for the printer. Another writer states:—

At rare intervals, when deeply stirred, he would raise himself from the paper, his eyes flashing, his face glowing with inner light, his voice quivering with emotion, and his apt words winged with forceful eloquence. At such times his hearers were reminded of his kinship with the poet. He was deeply conscious of his own sinfulness and weakness, and all the more on that account cherished as precious beyond telling the Atonement and Lordship of Jesus Christ.

Burns was a strong patriot, and he believed implicitly in the Church of which he was a minister. He was born in the traditions of old Scotland. He was baptised in the spirit of the revival which fired the Free Church with marvellous zeal and power. He was in the succession of John Knox, the Covenanters, and Thomas Chalmers. With his intense loyalty to his convictions, however, there was found a gracious charity which sweetened his relations with those who differed from him. He was courteous and friendly in his intercourse with all men. His private letters often revealed the fierceness of his indignation against wrong. He contended strenuously with that which he held to be evil; but in his speech he exercised reserve, and thus he prevented rancour from passing all bounds. In the courts of the church he allowed no differences of opinion to embitter personal regard for his brethren.

As a leader of his Church Burns had all the elements of greatness. For six years he was the sole minister, but he did not become an autocrat. He laboured constantly in his pastorate, but he ever aimed at the establishment of the Church on wide, constitutional lines. The Presbytery and the Synod in turn were the fruit of his efforts to establish the organisation; and the honour of page 274the Moderatorship in each case was much more than a mere tribute to his seniority. The fact that the first Presbytery of three ministers has developed into six Presbyteries with about 100 ministerial charges and 20 home mission stations, and that in Dunedin the Church has a Theological Hall, two residential colleges, Missionary Training Institute, schools, social service agencies, including orphanages, an aged people's home (Ross Home), foreign missionaries, and other agencies—all serving the whole Presbyterian Church of New Zealand—reveals the wonderful progress made in the short space of 75 years, and fulfils the words of the Divine Founder of the Church—"one soweth, another reapeth; I sent you to reap that whereon ye bestowed no labour; other men laboured, and ye are entered into their labours."

In one respect at least the majority of the contemporaries of Dr Burns failed to carry on the tradition of his spirit and purpose. That was in regard to Church Union. From the inception of the Scottish scheme Burns sought for the extension of the Presbyterian Church throughout the whole of New Zealand, and he viewed the settlement at Otago as a great lay mission for establishing his Church in the land from end to end, and even unto the uttermost part of the sea. His example and precept in reference to missions was not forgotten. His little struggling congregation gave year after year to the missions of the Free Church of Scotland—to India, to Turkish lands (£36 17s 6d was given to these causes in 1856), to Scottish home missions (£15 15s 6d in 1857), to the proposed Jewish School of the Free Church (£40 in 1859). The New Hebrides mission of Dr Inglis in 1865 received a large donation. But his expectations of the Union of the Presbyteries of New Zealand were grievously weakened page 275and hindered by the narrow parochialism of many of his brethren. In 1861 Burns presided over a conference for this purpose, and a Basis of Union was drawn up and sent to the Presbyteries and Sessions of New Zealand. Dr Burns prepared a pastoral address on the subject, setting forth the claims and advantages of union in the noble Christian spirit which breathed through all his pronouncements. But postponements occurred, difficulties increased, and selfishness triumphed for more than a generation over the high hopes that had been raised by the vision of one who was never a mere sectarian or provincialist. The claims of union with other denominations were not disregarded by the veteran pioneer of Presbyterianism in New Zealand, and if he had lived in our day the great cause of Christian unity would have had in him a prophet and a champion in the name of "the Lord and Master of us all, whate'er our name or sign."

It would be a dereliction of duty if the biographer of Thomas Burns failed to remember his devoted wife, the champion of all his toils and struggles, hardships and aspirations. Mrs Burns was a truly noble woman, an aristocratic lady of gentle upbringing and refined tastes, who shared with uncomplaining heroism in the sorrows and joys of her husband. Miss Burns speaks of her mother with loving reverence and admiration. On one occasion, as the daughter watched her mother cooking in the crude manse, she asked how it was that all she did turned out so well. Mrs Burns replied quietly: "Behind all I do there are oceans of tears." Honour, honour, honour, eternal honour to her name! Let generations to come recall the example and influence of the beautiful lady of the first manse in Otago! In the care of her large family and the experience of adversity, Mrs Burns proved herself to be a true "lady of grace." Without her page 276aid and encouragement the leader of the Philip Laing and his flock could not have been the shepherd he was to so many in Otago. Her precious companionship and devotion sweetened and sanctified the manse and even the wider life of the Colony. To the women of the world's frontiers let us give the meed of praise, and let all generations call them blessed. Their powers are pervasive like beauty and truth and goodness,—

Such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man's life
His little, nameless, unremembered acts
Of kindness and of love. 2

This may be a fitting place for giving the list of the members of the family of Dr and Mrs Burns. Arthur John married Sarah Scott Dickson; Clementina married Captain Elles of the Philip Laing, afterwards Collector of Customs in Invercargill; Jane married the Rev. Dr William Bannerman; Annie married Alexander Livingston, the first teacher of the High School,. Dunedin; Frances married Henry Livingston; Agnes, the present Miss Burns, still living as the sole survivor of the generation in Dunedin; and Isabella Grant, married to Alexander Stevenson. Mrs Burns survived her husband by seven years, and rests by his side in the same grave. She died on July 19, 1878.

The following is the list of the ministers of First Church, with the dates of their ministry:—Rev. Thomas Burns, D.D., 1848-1871; Rev. George Sutherland, 1867-1872; Rev. Lindsay Mackie, 1874-1883; Rev. Wm. H. Gaulter, 1885 (six months); Rev. James Gibb, D.D., 1886-1903; Rev. Thomas Nisbet, D.D., 1904-1910; Rev. Graham H. Balfour, M.A., B.D., 1911-1923; Rev. E. N. Merrington, M.A., Ph.D., 1923-1928.

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Sufficient has been said in the course of the narrative to indicate that while Dr Burns ever set spiritual things first, he did not limit himself to the affairs of the Church as though they were the only sacred things in the sight of the God of all the earth. Burns as a coloniser might have used the word of Terence, "Homo sum; humani nihil a me alienum puto."3 As a farmer, Burns was able to guide the destinies of a young colony as few ministers or even statesmen could do. By example and precept, by hard work in cultivating his own glebe and advice to those who sought to make a start in a new land, by expert knowledge of all branches of husbandry and the care of stock, he was enabled to exercise enormous influence upon the beginnings of things in Otago. He went to the Kensington marshes with the surveyor and others to suggest the best mode of draining the land; he busied himself with seeking for the best stone, shells for lime, sites for mills, the most suitable soils for various kinds of fruit, vegetables, cereals, grasses; he weighed different schemes for industrial and pastoral development, export trade, the supply of foodstuffs, and the thousand-and-one concerns of a growing settlement. Cargill was an administrator, but Burns was a man of the land. Perhaps the minister was the most practical man who landed in Otago from the two first ships; certainly he was the most practical leader in all matters that concerned the primary industries. He was keen to have labour conditions satisfactory to those who gave their manual contribution to the prosperity of the community. He strove for the rights of self-government; he loved liberty. He hated tyranny, whether it emanated from an autocratic governor, as Sir George Grey undoubtedly proved himself to be at times, or whether it came belatedly from an incompetent Colonial page 278Office seated thousands of miles across the seas. The work of Burns for meteorology has been sufficiently treated in the earlier part of this book. He spent many days in 1851 with Mr Kettle planning the route of the road from Dunedin to Port Chalmers. Behind all the pioneering labours of the settlement the quiet hand, the keen mind, and the devout spirit of Burns was ever at work.

Cargill and Burns have often been referred to as the Moses and Aaron of the Colony of Otago. Sometimes John M' Glashan is brought in as the Hur, who upheld the hands of Moses. It is not an apt comparison in any respect. Burns was far more like Moses than Aaron, the disappointing high priest of the Children of Israel. Burns was a devout statesman, humble, ever setting the people's interests before his own, and before all else. He believed that the only foundation of a nation's greatness is in the fear of God and loyalty to the Gospel of the Kingdom of God, as proclaimed by Jesus Christ and His Apostles. For that end he ever laboured according to his light, joining religion and education in the closest bonds, and preaching the Gospel of hard work in the faith of His Master. His own life was his finest sermon, and "he being dead yet speaketh."

Like all earth's leaders and idealists he experienced great disappointments; many of his dreams did not come true. His vision was narrowed by his intense Free Church convictions. For them, like the apostle, he had suffered the loss of all things at the Disruption except his faith, hope, and courage. It is not surprising that 80 years ago the fires of sacrificial flame should sometimes heat the souls of such men to a fierce intensity of fervour and austerity of life. We have lost much by our easy tolerance and lassitude. If the men of the middle of last century erred in the opposite direction, it is unbecoming page 279on our part to adopt an air of superiority. Our post-war age has few enthusiasms. Life is too easy for all of us to permit us to appreciate the glory of men who gave every ounce of their strength for their chosen vocation. Burns had two great objectives in giving himself up to the Otago scheme of colonisation; it was a great lay mission to the islands of the Southern Seas; it was also a plan of establishing a Scottish and Free Church class settlement. He succeeded more in the first than in the second. For one thing it was more permanent. He did start a great mission of Christian colonisation, which is still going on not only in Otago, but in the whole of New Zealand, and whithersoever the finest streams of influence find their way through the earth. He could not keep to the hopes of realising the class settlement. It is impossible to maintain a homogeneous society of Scotch people and Presbyterians, even if it is desirable to do so—which is very doubtful. No nation liveth to itself. Men of other denominations and branches of nationality soon appeared in the Free Church Utopia, and ended any chance of literal fulfilment. Bitterness arose from the clash of ideals. The gold-mining rushes of the 'sixties ended the dream of a purely watertight class settlement, a Scotland under the constellation of the Southern Cross. The disillusionment was bound to come sooner or later. It appeared in the neighbouring community of Canterbury, where the English Churchmen made a similar experiment. In this age of speedy intercommunication by steam, aviation, and wireless the notion of segregation of one section of the human race is forever banished from practical politics. We see now, with Edith Cavell, that "patriotism is not enough."

But the experiment was infinitely worth while, for all that. It laid the foundations of a stable and progressive colony. It nurtured men and women from childhood with the venerable traditions of race and religion, page 280and after all "we live by admiration, hope, and love." Without such sanctions society becomes amorphous and degenerate. Instead of the anarchic groups of whalers and desperadoes which dotted the coast, the Scottish party set up a community inspired with lofty aims and organic spiritual tissues. The plantation grew. It did not merely happen or struggle into existence. It was charged with faith and ideals which alone can make life worth living for the community and the individual. The best service such a community can render is to fulfil the aims of the Christian religion, which is a religion of universal brotherhood, rising above all prejudices and distinctions, and binding all men together in the rule or Kingdom of God and Father of us all.

The prosperity of Otago rests upon the most solid of all foundations—the spiritual basis of character. Burns was appointed the Chaplain of the first Provincial Council, and prepared the following prayer, which was read in the Council during the existence of the Provincial Government at every session from December 30, 1853, till its last on May 3, 1875, and it may fittingly conclude this work:—

Most gracious God, we humbly beseech Thee, as for this Colony in general so especially for this Council now assembled, that Thou wouldst be pleased to direct and prosper all our consultations to the advancement of Thy glory, the good of Thy Church, the safety, honour, and welfare of our beloved Sovereign and these her dominions; that all things may be so ordered and settled by our endeavours upon the best and surest foundations, that peace and happiness, truth and justice, religion and piety may be established among us for all generations. These and all other neccssaries for them, for us, and Thy whole Church we humbly beg in the name and mediation of Jesus Christ our most blessed Lord and Saviour.

1 T. J. Barr, in "The Old Identities," pages 39-40.

2 Wordsworth, Tintern Abbey Re-visited.

3 Terence, Heauton Timoroumenos 1, i, 25 (I am a man; I count nothing of human interest beyond my sphere).