Spirit of Grace Ministries
Spirit of Grace Ministries
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William Borden

"No Regrets"

William Borden

by Dennis Pollock

Apart from Christ, there is no explanation for such a life.” Such was said of William Borden by Professor Charles Erdman of Princeton University, and he was not mistaken. It is sad that more Christians are not familiar with the amazing story of this man whose brief life and sudden death touched his generation in a powerful way, and left a testimony of total devotion to Christ that will stand through all generations.

Born in 1887, William Borden grew up a beloved son in one of the wealthiest families of Chicago. His father was a millionaire in the days when very few ever reached such a state and billionaires didn’t exist. Children of the very wealthy are notorious for being spoiled, selfish, and arrogant, but in Borden's case it never happened. When William was seven, his loving and devoted mother experienced Christ in a radical way. She quickly transferred her church membership to the strongly evangelical Moody Church, started studying her Bible, and became determined to pass on her faith to her children.

No doubt her other children were impacted by Momma's walk with Christ, but it was William that seemed to embrace his mother's new faith whole-heartedly. Within a short time he received Christ himself, and never looked back. The young lad seemed spiritually precocious. He read the Bible and prayed with his Mother before going to school. As he made his way through his teenage years there was no adolescent rebellion so typical of teens. He was about as close to the ideal child as was possible. He got good grades, had a likeable manner, was respectful to his parents, and enjoyed sports.

When he graduated from high school his parents gave him a present of a trip around the world, hiring a devout Christian young man to travel with him as his companion and guardian. While on this trip William met a number of Christian missionaries. Many of them were young people, idealistic, and enthusiastic in their desire to reach the nations for Christ, and they made a deep impression upon him. He wrote his mother, "When I look ahead a few years, it seems as though the only thing to do is prepare for the foreign field…" The young heir to the Borden fortune was beginning to sound more like a preacher than a rich kid.

William Borden clippingUpon returning home William entered Yale University, where he entered enthusiastically into his studies and the various social activities the bustling campus had to offer. But of greatest interest to William were those events associated with the Christian faith. Yale had been founded as a training center for ministers, but by the early 1900's the new "higher criticism" had made inroads into its evangelical foundations, and many of the students had little use for the evangelical flavor of Christianity that had been essential to Borden and his mother. He began meeting with a couple of friends for morning prayer and Bible study. Not content with merely satisfying his own need for fellowship and spiritual nourishment, he eagerly sought ways to motivate other students to join the Bible study groups. As their numbers grew they divided up the entire student body and assigned each believer certain ones to reach and attempt to enlist in the weekly prayer and Bible study groups. By the end of his first year 150 were meeting together, and by his fourth year at the university they had 1,000 out of the total of 1,300 Yale students attending these Bible studies. Borden seemed to thrive on reaching the toughest of the tough. As they were "assigning" students to be reached, sometimes a notoriously ungodly man would be named that nobody was eager to approach. After a lengthy pause revealed everyone's reluctance to attempt such a hard case, Borden would quietly say, "Put that one down for me."

Missionary Calling

During his early years at Yale Borden attended a missionary conference that was to change his thinking and his life. One of the speakers, Samuel Zwemer, made a passionate appeal for volunteers to reach the most unreachable people then on the planet (which is still true today). He spoke in passionate terms of the millions of Muslims who had been almost entirely ignored by the vast majority of missionary endeavors. He spoke of China, which had fifteen million Muslims with not a single missionary among them. He made no attempt to cover the high price that might be demanded, declaring, "Of course it will cost life. It is not an expedition of ease nor a picnic excursion to which we are called…"  William Borden was hooked. Ever on the lookout for a challenge he had found a challenge of the highest order. He began considering a ministry to the Muslims of northern China. In one of his notebooks he later wrote: "In every man's heart there is a throne and a cross… If Christ is on the throne self is on the cross… If Jesus is on the throne you will go where He wants you to go…"

Meanwhile William sought further opportunities for service while at college. He was instrumental in the founding of the Yale Hope Mission, an organization which provided food, shelter, and the gospel to the city's down and outers. One of William's friends noted that he "might often be found in the lower parts of the city at night, on the street, in a cheap lodging house or some restaurant to which he had taken a poor hungry fellow to feed him, seeking to lead men to Christ." One man came to the mission half drunk but was convicted during the service. He related: "I went forward and kneeled down and Bill came and kneeled down beside me, and he explained as much as he could the power of Jesus Christ, and how it was only Him who could help me. I never drank from that night to this – never felt like it…"

Yale Hope Mission

Yale Hope Mission

During Borden's freshman year his father died. He, along with his brother, were given access to the family fortune and William now assumed authority to write checks for thousands of dollars according to his own prerogative. Sometimes he would quietly write out a check for a large amount and entirely fund various ministry organizations he was involved with, but at other times he would spend hours praying with friends for needed funds, feeling like it wouldn't be honoring to God for him to simply support all Christ's work apart from prayer and faith. He was now a millionaire in his own right, but he certainly didn't act the part. During conferences he would sometimes don a waiter's apron and serve tables if the need was there. A friend noted, "A kindness he did in New York station is one of the things I have recalled repeatedly. We were going out to take a train when I noticed he had dropped behind, and turning I saw him helping a very poor immigrant woman who was struggling along with many bundles and a baby in her arms." When a much traveled visitor was asked what impressed him most while touring America, he replied, "The sight of that young millionaire kneeling with his arm around a bum in the Yale Hope Mission." One friend wrote, "No one would have known from Borden's life and talk that he was a millionaire, but no one could have helped knowing that he was a Christian…"

Borden's spiritual strength came from his walk with the Lord, his prayer life, and his commitment to the inerrancy and inspiration of the Scriptures. His was a time when it had become popular to doubt the Bible. Even seminary students and professors were joining with the "higher criticism" movement which suggested that the Bible may contain some beautiful thoughts but it was surely filled with errors and myths, and was not to be taken too literally or seriously. Borden would have none of this. In a letter Borden wrote: "… a broad spirit of tolerance is insisted upon, especially in matters of religion, and any and all are branded as narrow who dare think otherwise. That word "narrow" is one of Satan's deadliest weapons, it seems to me; for most people would apparently rather be shot than be called narrow…"

After graduating from Yale, William went on to Princeton Seminary, where he prepared for a life of ministry. His passion for missionary work among the Chinese never wavered. When a classmate asked him whether he planned to seek a wife any time soon, he replied, "It would be cruel for a man who was going into one of the most difficult of missionary fields to ask any girl to go with him, because the woman always fared the worst, often succumbing (to disease) when the man survived." Additionally he felt it would hinder him from peak effectiveness as a missionary. Upon Borden's graduation from seminary and ordination the local Chicago newspapers expressed amazement that the young millionaire was planning to enter the life of a lowly missionary in "the darkest and meanest section of the Orient", and declared it was beyond understanding. With William's striking good looks, wealth, attractive personality, sharp mind, and natural leadership qualities, he could have married whomever he wanted, succeeded at whatever he attempted, and possessed everything he desired. To people who failed to grasp the love of Christ, he was surely throwing his life away.

William Borden in EgyptAt last the time came for William to embark upon his great missionary endeavors. Rather than sailing directly to China, he first went to Egypt, wanting to gain skills in Arabic (which many of the Chinese Muslims spoke) and to learn more about how to effectively reach the Muslim people. While there he could not content himself with mere academic study. He had hardly been there two weeks when he began to organize the students of the theological school to engage in a city wide, house-to-house canvass where all 800,000 inhabitants of Cairo would be given Christian literature and hear the gospel. Borden took to the streets and started handing out evangelistic messages, written in the style of the Koranic teachings, that were popular among the Egyptians.

After just three months of study and evangelism, something happened to William that shocked the world. The passionate young missionary contracted spinal meningitis. He took the prescribed treatments but to no avail. Within another month William Borden was dead. He never reached his beloved China, although in one sense he had been functioning as a "missionary" for years, first at Yale, then at Princeton, and finally in his short stint in Egypt. Borden's death became international headlines. His short life, passion for Jesus and missions, and willingness to risk everything became the predominant sermon illustration whenever preachers talked about evangelism and missions. His life and death inspired countless believers to volunteer for missionary service and to dedicate themselves whole-heartedly to the cause of Christ.

No Retreats, No Reserves, No Regrets

To some his life seemed a great waste. How pleasant a life he might have had, had he only forgotten this foolish notion of reaching the unreached people for Christ! But most believers chose to embrace the sentiments of another missionary who wrote about Borden: "I have absolutely no feeling of a life cut short. A life abandoned to Christ cannot be cut short. 'Cut short' means not complete, interrupted, and we know that our Master does no half-way jobs…" The reality is that all those who were Borden's peers and contemporaries are now dead. Some may have lived to be eighty or ninety, but they are all gone. Yet how few have made the impact that young William Borden did, as he inspired his generation and the generations to come with a sterling example of a life lived as a flame of fire for the cause of Jesus Christ. When they looked into his Bible they found three powerful phrases written at different times in his life. While he was in school, having made his decision to forsake a comfortable life of wealth and ease in the U. S. he had written, "No reserves." After graduating from Yale, with many offers of important positions coming to him, he wrote, "No retreats." And below these two phrases, written shortly before he died, were the amazing words, "No regrets."

A long time ago there was a woman who was also considered wasteful. She broke an extremely expensive alabaster box of oil, worth nearly a year's wages, and poured it over the Master's head. When some objected to the "waste" our Lord refused to condemn her, saying that wherever the gospel was preached this woman's act of total devotion would be told as a memorial to her. William Borden was of the same spirit. The Lord Jesus, who gave His precious life and blood for us, deserves our best.

And it is never a waste when we give it.


Quotations in this article were taken from the excellent biography "Borden of Yale" by Mrs. Howard Taylor.

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