William Borden (1887-1913) is unknown to most Christians today. But his untimely death at age twenty-five, before he could reach the mission field to which he had been preparing to go for eight years, was mourned by believers in several parts of the world when it occurred. In his short lifetime he blessed many by his inspiring, consecrated service of the Lord Jesus and did much to help advance Christ’s Kingdom work at home and abroad.
Kevin Belmonte has written an outstanding biography on Borden entitled Beacon-Light: The Life of William Borden (Christian Focus Publications, 2021). It presents a detailed and attractive account of Borden’s service and influence.
Here is the first of two or three feature articles I’d like to share about Borden, and which are summarized from Belmonte’s fine work. This first Perspective focuses on the important spiritual developments that took place in Borden’s boyhood years. They remind us to be mindful and encouraging of similar spiritual developments in the lives of our own children and other young people during their growing-up years.
William Borden was born into a wealthy family in Chicago, Illinois. He was not connected with the well-to-do family that produced Borden milk. Rather, his paternal grandfather became rich through investments he made in Chicago real estate after the Great Fire of 1871. William’s father was a successful attorney. The Bordens lived in an elaborate four-story castle-like house made of sizeable stone blocks and featuring prominent turrets and many large windows. It was one of the premiere homes in Chicago at the time.
William was the fourth of his parents’ five children. His father, after whom he was named, possessed a sterling character, a brilliant mind and “wonderful business capacity.” The senior William was a great reader and devoted much time to his children by helping them with their school lessons, playing after-dinner games with them and taking them on interesting outings.
William’s mother Mary was likewise deeply devoted to her children. It appears that hers was the strongest spiritual influence on young William. When he was around seven years old, she experienced a conversion to evangelical Christianity that brought her deep and abiding peace with God. She transferred her church membership to the Chicago Avenue Church, which had been founded by Dwight Moody and was now pastored by another prominent evangelist, Dr. R. A. Torrey. Mary began taking her children to that church with her.
William heard many sermons at the church about Jesus Christ’s love and death on the cross to redeem people from sin. One Sunday about a year after Mary and her children started attending the church, Dr. Torrey began to lead the congregation in a communion service. “Is it not time that you were thinking about this yourself, William?” Mrs. Borden whispered to her son.
The youngster surprised her by replying, “I have been.” He then participated in the communion service by partaking of the bread and the cup when they were distributed to the congregants.
The following day Torrey himself met with William to determine his level of understanding about the sacred ceremony in which he had taken part. It became clear that William understood that the bread and cup represented Christ’s body and blood sacrificed on the cross, and that he trusted in Jesus as his Savior from sin and its judgment.
Around that same time Torrey gave an invitation at the close of a Sunday service, in which he invited all who wished to dedicate their lives to the service of God to indicate their intention to do so by standing for prayer. Torrey urged them to take “a step of life-consecration,” thus affirming their wish to serve Christ and always follow the ways of Christian faith.
Again Mrs. Borden was surprised when eight-year-old William silently stood, and remained standing for several long moments until the invitation was concluded. She always treasured the sight of her young son standing to make that commitment. And though only a young boy at the time, William went on to fulfill that commitment in the years of his life to follow.
William received his early education at three of the finest schools in Chicago. Then at age fourteen he was enrolled at The Hill School, an elite college prep boys’ school in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. In addition to carrying out his demanding studies, William participated in football, debate team and meetings of the Young Men’s Christian Association. At graduation he ranked fourth in his class of forty-eight boys, being at age sixteen the youngest student in his class.
His parents then sent him on a year-long world tour to broaden his education. He was chaperoned throughout the trip by Walter Erdman, a scholarly graduate of both Princeton University and Princeton Theological Seminary. Erdman, ten years older than Borden, also possessed a “fine Christian character” and was “full of humor.”
Throughout the year they visited some of the world’s most notable sites in terms of natural beauty and historic significance. In addition, in a number of different places William met dedicated Christian missionaries and witnessed their fruitful work. His interaction with those earnest servants of Christ began to have a significant impact on his thinking.
Two days after his seventeenth birthday he wrote his mother from Kyoto, Japan: “I think this trip is going to be a great help in showing things to me in a new light. I met such pleasant young people on the steamer who were going out as missionaries, and meeting them influenced me. Walt [Erdman] has so many friends here, whom we meet in nearly every city, that I have seen a great deal of the [missionary] work that is being done. Talking with them, we learn of the work and the opportunities … so that I realize things as I never did before.”
“I look ahead, [and] it seems as though the only thing to do is to prepare for the foreign field. Of course, [I’ll need] a college course, [and] perhaps some medical study, and certainly Bible study—at Moody Institute perhaps.”
William and Mary Borden intended their son’s world tour to further his education. God also providentially used the tour as His missionary call in William’s life, a divine calling that Borden actively and faithfully pursued to the end of his abbreviated earthly journey. Copyright 2022 by Vance E. Christie