He entered heaven’s gates at twenty–five, before he journeyed to the mission field in China that he intended for his life’s work; yet his name was one known, and mourned, around the world. This points to something rare, and inspiring, in the annals of Christian history. His place in the hearts of those who knew him sprang not from any thought of what might have been, but rather, and tellingly, from who he had been.
So, to mark his birthday on 1 November, we look to the life of William Borden.
A Rich Life
History knows him today as “Borden of Yale,” the subject of a now–classic book published in 1926 by Geraldine Guinness Taylor, the daughter–in–law of missionary pioneer Hudson Taylor.
Born in 1887, and a graduate of Yale in the Class of 1909, Borden left his mark there as a scholar–athlete. He played freshman football in 1905, the year Yale won a National Championship. He also rowed for his Class Crew, which won first place among the class crews in the fall of 1907. Most prominently, he was a Christian leader among his fellow students. He formed many lasting friendships, so much so, that he lives today in their recollections. One such friend, Dr. Kenneth Latourette, later became an eminent church historian, serving as Sterling Professor of Missions, and Fellow of Berkley College at Yale. He recalled:
A potent influence in 1909 was William Whiting Borden. He was from a wealthy Chicago family…He entered Yale purposing to be a missionary. He planned to go to a real frontier, the Moslems in West China, and to seek appointment under the China Inland Mission. He was an able student, president of Phi Beta Kappa in his senior year. He was athletic, of great energy, handsome, and a born leader of men…Outstanding, he had a profound influence on the members of his class, and I feel sure that his missionary vision was a major factor in [Yale’s] record of 1909 in missions. After Yale, he entered Princeton Theological Seminary and graduated. Then he went to Egypt to study Arabic, planning to go from there to China for the Chinese language. While in Cairo, he was taken with spinal meningitis and died. His biography, Borden of Yale, ‘09, written by Mrs. Howard Taylor at his mother’s request, has had a profound influence on successive generations of students.
Dr. Latourette’s tribute is Borden’s life in brief. As such, it’s a very helpful summary. I’ve drawn on it, in talks, when asked to speak about my new biography. But of all that Latourette has said about William Borden, I return most often to these words: “William Borden was one of my dearest friends…I look back on his friendship as one of the richest I have known.”
One Good Boy
Friendship. Of all the things born of William Borden’s deep Christian faith, and there were many, this facet of his life has always stood out. Guided by the Holy Spirit, his gift for friendship was a catalyst in the many instances we know of when he led someone to faith in Christ.
Would that I’d time to speak of many such moments, but one example speaks powerfully of who William Borden was. After he’d given the princely sum of $20,000 in 1907 to purchase the four–storey building near his college campus that became Yale Hope Mission, some $500,000 in today’s money, he went there two to three nights a week for the remainder of his college days to take part in the work of helping destitute and homeless men, many of them alcoholics, find faith and begin re–building their lives.
This rescue mission, so near to the halls of an ivy–league university, became famous in America, alongside stories of the exploits of The Wright Brothers. Tales of the men who found redemption at Yale Hope Mission, and how it was founded, captured the public’s eye.
Guided by the Holy Spirit, his gift for friendship was a catalyst in the many instances we know of when he led someone to faith in Christ.
One such man was Jack Clark, a symbol of all that Borden’s work at Yale Hope Mission stood for. Homeless, destitute, his life ravaged by alcoholism, he could neither read, nor write. His recollections, his tribute to William Borden, had to be taken down, and transcribed.
No, he couldn’t write his thoughts down; but he could speak, with great depth of feeling, of what he knew. Here is what he wished people to know about William Borden:
I came in here on the twenty–seventh of March, 1908. I was on a drunk and hadn’t much use for religion. I’m not going to tell the worst part of my life, but I was a rambler all right: a down–and–out bum… I had heard of the Mission, same as a good many of them do. I knew it was the only thing that would save me from booze. Well, I went out [and left the building], that first night. [But] I had a Christian mother, and I got thinking of her, and I came back. That was the twenty–ninth of March, and that night Bill was there, and he spoke to me.
Bill was a great personal worker. He always believed in getting right down and talking to a man. If Bill had anything to say he gave it right out. I know the gist of what he said to me that night: ‘What are you going to do about it? Can’t you see where you’ve missed the road?’ He would tell you to hope again; tell you of the God who’d made the universe and held you in the hollow of His hand, and could help you, if you’d only ask.
That’s the way he talked.
He was one good boy. I could never forget him as long as I breathe—no, I never forget him. And he barely twenty that night when I first knew him!
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—never felt like it—from that twenty–ninth of March to this—and before that, I was drunk most of the time…
Well, after I was converted, I come every night—didn’t miss a night after that for seven weeks. It’s all fresh in my mind yet…
About two years after I was converted, I was re–married right in this building, right up–stairs. [Bill] knew I was going to be married. He met my wife and family—seemed tickled to death too to meet ‘em. We’ve got a home now in Yalesville, Connecticut, and a big garden, plenty of land, lots of chickens, and a piano in the house—makes quite a change from when I first came to the Mission drunk, with no prospects but whiskey…
If Bill hadn’t opened up this Mission, I’d be dead…
Not till the books of heaven are opened will you know what Bill Borden done by opening Yale Hope Mission… I never knew a feller just like Bill. I’d like to get a hold of one of his pictures. Seems to me, if I saw one, I’d almost try to steal it…
He could talk to anyone, didn’t matter who they was… Never knowed his like in this world. I know he must have done for hundreds what he done for me. He was always trying to study into the lives of men, to see how they’d work out, and how he could help ‘em.
No, William Borden never made it to the China mission field that was his cherished hope. But during his time at university, he did what he could to show the light of Christian hope to others in need—whether fellow–students or the homeless. More than one hundred years on, we remember and celebrate his legacy of faith.
It shone wherever he was, for all the time he was given.