BURNS, JOHN, Presbyterian minister and teacher; baptized 12 Feb. 1773 in the parish of Fenwick, Ayrshire, Scotland, eldest son of Thomas B. Burns, a farmer, and Ann Tod; m. Jane —, and they had at least six children; buried 27 Feb. 1822 in Stamford (Niagara Falls), Upper Canada.
The details of John Burns’s early life are few. He was educated at the University of Glasgow and the Secession Theological Hall, becoming a licentiate of the Associate Synod in 1803. According to some sources, Burns, having travelled by way of Pennsylvania, arrived in Upper Canada in 1804. By his own account, however, the date of his arrival in the Niagara District was 1805.
As early as 1792 a numerous and prosperous Presbyterian congregation had been in existence at Newark (Niagara-on-the-Lake). In subsequent years its members had difficulty in securing the services of a regular minister for their church, later known as St Andrew’s. Their first minister, John Dun*, resigned in 1796 and their second, John Young, held office briefly in 1802 before resigning because of alcoholism. Burns’s association with the church began in 1805; he served as minister until 1811 and then again from 1816 to 1818, and presided over sessions of the elders as late as 1820. Like Dun, Burns also preached regularly at Stamford.
In 1805 St Andrew’s agreed to pay its minister an additional stipend to instruct 13 pupils in Latin, Greek, and mathematics, but it is not known whether Burns began teaching at this time. Two years later the District School Act provided for the establishment of district grammar schools and a salary of £100 annually for the teacher selected by the district trustees. In Niagara (Niagara-on-the-Lake) the local trustees, including Robert Hamilton*, Robert Kerr, and William Dickson*, selected Burns as the first teacher at the district school. He held this position from 1808 until his death, when he was succeeded by the Reverend Thomas Creen. Burns was said to have educated many youths who later achieved prominence, including William Hamilton Merritt* and his own son Robert Easton Burns*. In his report of 13 July 1821 Burns had 59 scholars under his instruction: 20 commencing English reading, 30 studying “English Reading, Writing, Arithmetic,” and the remainder at various stages of Latin and Greek authors.
During the War of 1812 the Niagara frontier was open to the depredations of disaffected raiders [see Abraham Markle] and the movement of armies. Like so many others in the region, Burns suffered greatly. From the spring of 1813 the American army occupied Fort George (Niagara-on-the-Lake). Later the invaders took possession of Burns’s home, described as “a Very Comfortable Dwelling.” On one occasion he tried to recover his furniture but was prevented by American officers. On 27 August the Americans burned the Presbyterian church. Burns’s house was near the defence works thrown up on the commons and was destroyed some time before the retreating forces of Brigadier-General George McLure razed Niagara in December. Burns himself was taken prisoner and incarcerated, probably in New York state, for six months. During this time he was said to have preached every Sunday to the American garrison. With the war over Burns began the task of rebuilding his life and recouping his losses, which his wife later estimated at £275 provincial currency (she received £213 in compensation). He also distributed relief funds for the Loyal and Patriotic Society of Upper Canada and petitioned for land. He was granted 400 acres in 1819.
The most noteworthy aspect of Burns’s career was the publication in 1814 of a sermon he preached at Stamford on 3 June as part of a public day of general thanksgiving for British victories over Napoleon. On such occasions the pulpit often became a political rostrum, and thus can offer insights into the political language of early Upper Canada. Burns’s text was taken from Proverbs 24:21 – “My son, Fear thou the Lord and the King; and meddle not with them that are given to change.” In many ways the sermon followed the by then commonplace themes of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the revolution in France . . . (London, 1790), which had begun the ideological attack on the French revolution, but it differed in some important respects. Whereas Burke had been careful to distinguish the legitimacy of the American revolution from the illegitimacy of the French, Burns made no such distinction. Mindful of Upper Canada’s loyalist roots and fearful of France’s North American republican ally, he saw the two revolutions as products of the same destructive spirit that threatened the world with democratic tumult and despotism. Within the framework of the struggle between counter-revolution and revolution, represented by Great Britain and France, Upper Canada became the besieged western bastion of royalism. This Upper Canadian extension of a mentality common to the British élite in the period was not unique to Burns. It was shared by figures as diverse as Isaac Brock*, John Beverley Robinson*, John Strachan*, and William Dummer Powell.
Peculiar to Burns was the origin of his political language in 17th-century English royalist ideas about the divine nature of kingship. Burns claimed that “when a daring spirit of anarchy, and confusion seems to prevail through the world, it becomes the duty of every man, whose situation in life gives him the opportunity, to inculcate the lessons of obedience and subordination.” He urged the fear of God as a “guard to the conscience in an evil time, and a noble preservative from the spreading infection and insinuating poison of prevailing or fashionable sins.” Following on this theme he stressed that the king should be feared because “Kings are God’s deputies, or viceregents here on earth.” He decried modern doctrines “of investigating the origin of government, or defining the prerogative of princes, or stating the pretended unalienable rights of individuals,” instead of submitting to the ordinances of kings for God’s sake. Human institutions were consecrated with divine initiation and deserved therefore to be revered. Burns cited the Cromwellian and Roman revolutions as examples of events by which people had “gained only an accumulated load of misery and oppression.” In Upper Canada it would be just to look for “expedients and defenders” only if liberty and property, guaranteed by the British constitution, were threatened. Finally, Burns echoed another common theme within the early 19th-century mentality – the belief in a providential dispensation preserving both Great Britain and Upper Canada from the revolutionary onslaught. He exhorted Upper Canadians to defend their country with a courage “founded on religion” and based upon personal piety.
Burns died of pleurisy in February 1822. For several years after his death the Niagara congregation saw a number of ministers come and go – a period of instability that ended with the appointment in 1829 of Robert McGill*. Burns seems to have been a reserved and scholarly man with a love of learning and books. Surely few scenes could have provided such delicious irony as that of the ferocious royalist preaching his lessons during his captivity to an American military garrison.
John Burns is the author of True patriotism; a sermon, preached in the Presbyterian Church in Stamford, Upper Canada, on the 3d day of June, 1814, being the day appointed by his honor the president, &c.&c.&c. of Upper Canada, for a provincial thanksgiving (Montreal, 1814).
AO, MS 522; RG 22, ser.155. PAC, RG 1, E3, 100: 214–21; L1, 29: 178; L3, 42: B12/117; 68: B misc., 1793–1840/82; RG 5, A1: 3324–25, 26384–85, 29129–30, 30027–32; RG 19, 3741, E5(a), claim 66. [James Croil], A historical and statistical report of the Presbyterian Church of Canada, in connection with the Church of Scotland, for the year 1866 (Montreal, 1867). Documentary history of education in Upper Canada from the passing of the Constitutional Act of 1791 to the close of Rev. Dr. Ryerson’s administration of the Education Department in 1876, ed. J. G. Hodgins (28v., Toronto, 1894–1910), 1: 30, 60–61. “Early records of St. Mark’s and St. Andrew’s churches, Niagara,” comp. Janet Carnochan, OH, 3 (1901): 72. The matriculation albums of the University of Glasgow from 1728 to 1858, comp. W. I. Addison (Glasgow, 1913), 152. Read, Lives of the judges, 294. Scott et al., Fasti ecclesiæ scoticanæ, 7: 628. E. R. Arthur, St Andrew’s Church, Niagara-on-the-Lake (Toronto, 1938), 27. Janet Carnochan, Centennial, St Andrews, Niagara, 1794–1894 (Toronto, 1895), 20–24. Gregg, Hist. of Presbyterian Church (1885), 184. An historical narrative of some important events in the life of First Church, St. Catharines, 1831–1931, ed. J. A. Tuer (Toronto, ), 3–4. History of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, 1791–1975 ([Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., 1975]), 4–6. J. S. Moir, Enduring witness: a history of the Presbyterian Church in Canada ([Hamilton, Ont., 1974?]). S. F. Wise, “God’s peculiar peoples,” The shield of Achilles: aspects of Canada in the Victorian age, ed. W. L. Morton (Toronto and Montreal, 1968), 36–61; “Upper Canada and the conservative tradition,” Profiles of a province: studies in the history of Ontario . . . (Toronto, 1967), 20–33. Janet Carnochan, “Early schools of Niagara,” Niagara Hist. Soc., [Pub.], no.6 (1900): 35, and “Two frontier churches,” no.7 (n.d.): 13–14, 23–24, 26. S. F. Wise, “Sermon literature and Canadian intellectual history,” UCC, Committee on Arch., Bull. (Toronto), 18 (1965): 3–18.