DCB/DBC Mobile beta


New Biographies

Minor Corrections

Biography of the Day

KOYAH – Volume IV (1771-1800)

probably d. 21 June 1795


Responsible Government

Sir John A. Macdonald

From the Red River Settlement to Manitoba (1812–70)

Sir Wilfrid Laurier

Sir George-Étienne Cartier


The Fenians

Women in the DCB/DBC

The Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences of 1864

Introductory Essays of the DCB/DBC

The Acadians

For Educators

The War of 1812 

Canada’s Wartime Prime Ministers

The First World War

BURNS, ROBERT, Presbyterian minister, educator, author, and secretary of the Glasgow Colonial Society; b. 13 Feb. 1789 at Barrowstowness (Bo’ness), West Lothian, Scotland, one of eight sons and at least one daughter of John Burns and Grizzell Ferrier; m. first Janet Orr (d. 1841), by whom he had three surviving children, and secondly in 1844 Elizabeth Bell Bonar; d. 19 Aug. 1869 in Toronto, Ont.

Robert Burns came from a middle class commercial background. The strong evangelical Presbyterian faith of his father, a merchant and later a customs officer and factor, profoundly influenced the children, four of whom became Church of Scotland ministers. Burns attended a parochial school at Barrowstowness from 1795 to 1801 when he entered the University of Edinburgh; he began his theological training in November 1805. He was licensed to preach by the presbytery of Edinburgh on 28 March 1810, and ordained on 19 July 1811. His first permanent appointment was to Laigh Kirk (St George’s) of Paisley, where he remained until May 1843 when he led part of his congregation out of the Church of Scotland in the disruption. He ministered to St George’s (Free Church) until March 1845.

An indefatigable and well-received pamphleteer and author, Burns figured prominently in many contemporary Scottish controversies, supporting reform politics and the radical wing of the Church of Scotland. Between 1838 and 1840 he was the last editor of the once-powerful Edinburgh Christian Instructor and Colonial Religious Register which he used to further both the evangelical cause and interest in colonial missions. Acutely concerned with urban poverty, and striving to extend the role of the church, like his contemporary Thomas Chalmers, he organized Sabbath schools and tract and Bible societies and laboured on behalf of charity schools and infirmaries. He was especially concerned with getting relief for the weavers of Paisley who were hard hit by the depression which followed the Napoleonic wars. Although from one point of view anti-intellectual, believing as he did that the uncontrolled pursuit of scientific knowledge without regard to the teachings of the church could only lead to error, Burns was a member of various philosophical and literary societies. The University of Glasgow had awarded him a dd in 1828 in recognition of his literary and philanthropic endeavours.

Throughout his life Burns was vehemently anti-Roman Catholic and considered it his duty to preach against those “systems of priestcraft which are based on allegiance to a foreign power, and are in their tendency inimical to the rights of local subjects and the interests of public morals and of public safety.” It was this anti-Catholicism, coupled with his fascination with the colonies, that prompted him to champion the French Canadian Missionary Society founded in Montreal in 1839. Through speaking tours, committee work, and fund-raising, he supported its efforts to evangelize French Canadian Catholics.

Burns’ interest in North America had been awakened at university, which had a large group of students from America, and strengthened by his brother George’s pastorship in Saint John, New Brunswick. Horrified by the widespread unemployment and crushing poverty in Paisley, he encouraged his parishioners to emigrate to North America. In 1825 he took a leading role in the formation of what was to be commonly known as the Glasgow Colonial Society, which ministered to the religious needs of emigrant Scots. As the society’s principal secretary until its merger with the Colonial Committee of the Church of Scotland in 1840, he selected and dispatched over 40 missionaries, made innumerable fund-raising tours, and lobbied the British government and the church’s general assembly on behalf of the colonial church. The society linked emigrant Scots to their homeland and strengthened the Presbyterian Church in British North America in its initial period of development. Realizing that Scotland could not supply all the missionaries required, Burns also encouraged the establishment and expansion of Presbyterian colleges such as Dalhousie in Halifax, Queen’s in Kingston, and Knox in Toronto, to educate local men for the ministry.

Shortly after the disruption in 1843, the Free Church sent five of its members, including Burns, on a highly successful three-month tour of the eastern United States to solicit funds and vindicate its stand. In April 1844, in response to repeated calls from a group in Montreal headed by John Redpath, Burns began a triumphal two-month tour from Niagara to Halifax in which he eloquently presented the Free Church position. He argued that the church’s influence in society should be extended and that clerical control over church affairs should be increased. He expounded the traditional doctrine that while church and state were separate and equal, the state should admit the universal sovereignty of God by endowing the Church of Scotland and legislating in accordance with scriptural teachings as interpreted by its ministers. Many Canadian Presbyterians supported the principles upheld by the seceders, but problems of conscience, the acceptance of state aid, the nature of various church unions, and other local concerns complicated the decision to take action. Burns’ tour did not cause the disruption in British North America, but it certainly helped consolidate the already vocal secessionist sentiment which led to the formation in 1844 of the Synod of the Presbyterian Church of Canada (Free Church) in Canada West and Free Church synods in the Maritime provinces.

Within a few months of his return to Scotland in 1844 Burns received calls from Redpath, James Court, and James Orr in Montreal and from Isaac Buchanan*, Peter Brown, and George Brown* of Knox Church, Toronto. The latter offer included an interim appointment as professor of divinity at the newly established Knox College. Although Burns felt that he would be of greater service in Canada, it was the lure of a chair, long denied him in Scotland, that settled the issue. Even before the Colonial Committee of the Church of Scotland (Free) urged that he go, Burns had decided to accept the Toronto offer. He taught divinity until 1847.

He was inducted into Knox Church on 23 May 1845. He soon became enmeshed in controversy; at that evening’s banquet he sided with the proponents of total abstinence and signed the pledge, an unpopular stand in Presbyterian circles. By this gesture Burns hoped to encourage the lower classes to avoid alcohol which he felt to be especially harmful in a new society. For the next 11 years Burns proved a faithful and dynamic pastor, striving to enlarge his congregation and to involve them in church affairs. He established Bible classes, young men’s associations, and mutual improvement circles, and sought to persuade his elders to take a more active part in church government.

This same energy and enthusiasm catapulted him into the affairs of the church in general. He was unanimously elected moderator of the Canadian Free Church for the 1845–46 session, both out of gratitude for his previous labours on behalf of the colonies and as a visible symbol of the bond between Scotland and Canada. He was, however, too volatile and opinionated to preside successfully over the synod; in 1845 he drafted a note to the general assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States in which he spoke in inflammatory language of the evils of slavery. The Canadian synod had to take the unusual step of revising his note. Characteristically, Burns had taken an immovable stand based upon his own long-standing convictions; his disruptive and argumentative approach was often to alienate people who might otherwise have supported him. He continued to be an influential member of the synod, struggling to preserve the original evangelical fervour of the church. To this end he established and served on a variety of committees to fight the desecration of the Sabbath, establish an active programme for distribution of Bibles and tracts, and conduct pastoral visitations. He helped found in 1847 and was a member until 1856 of the Home Mission Committee which controlled both the internal and the external missionary work of the Free Church in Canada. In 1850–51 he was successful in persuading the Reverend John Black* to become its first missionary in Rupert’s Land and in the same year obtained church funding for the Buxton Mission among blacks in western Upper Canada. In 1854 Burns encouraged the church towards greater independence and world responsibility by directing its preliminary attempts to enter the foreign mission field, especially India.

In the 1840s and 1850s Burns also undertook repeated missionary tours, for personal reasons or at the request of the synod, to “survey the religious state of the British provinces of North America.” He met great numbers of laymen and clergy, preached the evangelical gospel, and helped consolidate the church’s membership in settled areas and expand it into new ones. He visited the United States, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia in 1847, raising money for the erection of churches and collecting books for the Dalhousie library. He visited the Maritimes in 1849 and again in 1858, when he also toured Newfoundland. In addition, almost every year he went on a summer or a winter tour of some area of the Province of Canada or the northern United States. He also made numerous trips to Great Britain on behalf of a variety of causes, including abolition of slavery. The zeal and geniality he displayed on these tours made him one of the most widely known and respected figures within the Free Church.

Burns was never interested in expansion of the church at the expense of its doctrine, however. To him its purity was vital to the success of its mission. He battled against the increasingly popular voluntarist stand taken by such people as the Reverend Andrew Ferrier of Brantford, who maintained that the church should not accept any state funds. Burns believed that the state had an obligation to support one or more established churches, and argued as well for a strong, centralized organization capable of maintaining discipline and unity of purpose. In the synod and in the pages of the Toronto Banner from 1846 to 1848 he vigorously opposed the proposals for union with the United Presbyterian Church in Canada. Burns always claimed he was not opposed to union provided that the United Presbyterians renounced their key doctrine of voluntaryism and accepted all the principles of the Free Church.

Curiously, Burns’ anti-voluntaryism and his belief in the “Headship of Christ” over the state did not stop him from becoming a founding and prominent member, along with Adam Fergusson and George Brown, of the Anti-Clergy Reserves Association, established in 1850. He maintained that since the clergy reserves were used almost exclusively for the benefit of the established Church of Scotland and the Church of England they were a divisive factor detrimental to a new society where many denominations and sects coexisted. They should, as a consequence, be abolished and the proceeds used to support both common schools and academies where “the Word of God shall be distinctly recognized as the basis, and as the guardian of education.” There is strong suspicion that Burns argued out of pique at seeing his church cut off from state funds, and out of hatred for the “Residuals,” who had remained within the established Church of Scotland, and the Anglicans, whom he deemed little better than Roman Catholics.

In Burns’ estimation, the clergy were duty-bound to take an active role in guiding the affairs of the community. Thus his concern for the poor and disadvantaged, aroused in Scotland, continued in Canada. He aided in 1846 the Irish and in 1847 the Highland famine relief committees, and he was also prominent in the anti-slavery and Negro missionary cause for many years. Once settled in Toronto Burns became an officer of the Anti-Slavery Society of Canada and helped formulate the Free Church’s strong stand on the issue. He was a moving force behind the Elgin Association established in 1849 to aid communities of fugitive slaves in Canada, and worked to secure financial backing for it; in 1860, for example, he joined the Reverend William King* in a fund-raising tour of Great Britain.

On his arrival in Canada West in 1845, Burns had been appalled by the dearth of public schooling. Primarily to improve the quality of the students entering Knox College to study theology, he founded in 1845 the Toronto Academy to teach English, Latin, philosophy, and rhetoric; he also served as chairman of its board of directors. He advocated a non-sectarian, state-supported educational system extending from elementary school to university, but he did not fear that such a system would result in “non-Christian” education because the state which would run the schools would be controlled by a Christian society. In 1848 the Banner published a report he had written on the Toronto elementary schools which deplored the minor role of the churches in education, the quality of instruction, and the poor qualifications of teachers. From 1846 to 1849, in a series of newspaper articles, he argued for a single non-sectarian, state-run university, free of religious tests, which was achieved in 1849 with the establishment of the University of Toronto. Burns was not, however, averse to private schools. In 1853, for example, he urged the establishment of seminaries for girls to serve the wealthy Presbyterian families who were sending their daughters to Anglican and Roman Catholic schools.

Burns’ relations with his congregation were not always easy, as his many activities might suggest. His frequent and prolonged missionary tours caused his congregation to feel neglected. As early as 1847 he had been brought before the presbytery on a charge of absenting himself from his pulpit without authorization. The case was dismissed but the acrimony remained. His application in 1852 for the chair of history at the University of Toronto did not ease matters. Burns’ passionate temperament also increased his problems. Between 1851 and 1853 he repeatedly condemned as fraudulent the American Society for Meliorating the Condition of the Jews which, with the support of many Protestant clergy, was collecting funds in Toronto. Although he was vindicated in the end, his impetuous handling of the unsavoury case alienated many former supporters in his congregation and, more important, some of his fellow ministers, including Michael Willis*, professor of divinity at Knox College. A bitter, protracted quarrel with G. A. Piper, superintendent of the Knox Church Sunday School, grew worse in 1855 when Piper and one of his supporters, J. M. Campbell, were elected elders. Burns felt that Piper had repeatedly defied his authority as pastor and declared the two elders unfit to serve. Although Burns had often argued for greater involvement of laymen in church government, his nature did not allow him to let any area of church polity escape from his direct control. The quarrel seriously split the Knox congregation.

Burns had also run into conflict at Knox College. When he had accepted the combination of pulpit and teaching post in 1845 he had put aside his evangelical criticism of dual offices: it was a necessity when few qualified persons were available. He had given himself wholeheartedly to the college, teaching first theology and then church history; he had also personally collected between 2,000 and 3,000 volumes for its library. By 1847, however, his thorny nature and evangelical zeal were causing discord among the staff and students. The synod, citing the problem of plurality of office, requested Burns’ resignation from the college in 1847, and later that year appointed Michael Willis professor of divinity. Willis considered Burns a man “prone to rash statements and hasty decisions on character,” and relations between them were never cordial. Nevertheless, between 1847 and 1856 Burns maintained his ties with the college, giving guest lectures, helping prepare new students, and working for the financial well-being of its members.

In 1856 a reconciliation was arranged between Burns and Willis, soon to become principal of Knox College, which enabled the synod to appoint Burns professor of church history and evidences at the college. Burns, whose position at Knox Church had become intolerable because of conflicts with some parishioners, resigned his pastorship and returned to his first love and chief concern throughout his years in Canada – the education of a native clergy. He taught until 1864 when advancing age forced him to retire. He was made emeritus professor and continued to play an active role in college affairs until his death.

Although he mellowed considerably in his later years, Burns in 1862 wisely refused the moderator’s post in the united synod formed by the Free Church and the United Presbyterians in 1861. He became revered for his once-fiery struggle for doctrinal purity, for his role in the disruption of 1843, and for his lifelong dedication to the expansion of the Presbyterian Church in North America and Asia. He represented the Canada Presbyterian Church at the Scottish General Assembly of 1868 and 1869, where he was able to fulfil his ambition of seeing the Canadian church recognized as the leading overseas affiliate of the Free Church of Scotland.

H. J. Bridgman

[Robert Burns periodically burnt his correspondence, with the result that the Burns papers at UCA contain primarily sermon, lecture, and study notes, some of which are in shorthand. Other useful sources in Canada are Glasgow Colonial Soc., correspondence and Reports, 1825–35; Can. Presbyterian Church, Minutes of the Synod (Toronto), 1861–69; Presbyterian Church of Canada, Minutes of the Synod (Toronto), 1844–61; all found at UCA. Also used were PAC, MG 24, D16 and J14; and QUA, William Morris papers. Sources in Scotland include Scottish Record Office (Edinburgh), Church of Scotland records; and GD.45, sect.3, p.481 (mfm. at UCA); and at the National Library of Scotland (Edinburgh), mss 3430–49 (Lee papers). Newspaper sources include Edinburgh Christian Instructor and Colonial Religious Register, 1810–40; Banner (Toronto), 1843–48; and Globe, 1844–69.

The most comprehensive listings of Burns’ published works are to be found in British Museum general catalogue and National union catalog. The autobiographical sections in The life and times of the RevRobert Burns . . . including an unfinished autobiography, ed. R. F. Burns (Toronto, 1872) are accurate, but the rest is less reliable. Notman and Taylor, Portraits of British Americans, II, contains a short biographical sketch and a photograph of Burns in later life. William Gregg, History of the Presbyterian Church in the dominion of Canada . . . (Toronto, 1885), although dated, is still the most comprehensive account of the Presbyterian Church prior to 1875. I. S. Rennie, “The Free Church and the relations of church and state in Canada, 1844–54” (unpublished ma thesis, University of Toronto, 1954), and Moir, Church and state in Canada West, add much to an understanding of the general background for clerical affairs in Canada, while J. H. S. Burleigh, A church history of Scotland (London and Toronto, 1960), provides a good introduction to the Scottish heritage.  h.j.b.]

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

H. J. Bridgman, “BURNS, ROBERT,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 21, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/burns_robert_9E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/burns_robert_9E.html
Author of Article:   H. J. Bridgman
Title of Article:   BURNS, ROBERT
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1976
Year of revision:   1976
Access Date:   June 21, 2024