William Borden’s example during his years as a student at Yale University (1905-1909) serves as a reminder that a young person whose life is fully dedicated to Christ Jesus can have a tremendous spiritual impact on others. May many consecrated Christian teens and young adults be encouraged in their own spiritual life and service by Borden’s outstanding example.
Borden’s years at Yale were active and well-rounded. As a sports enthusiast, he participated in football, baseball, wrestling, crew (rowing), and track. He excelled academically and as a senior was elected as president of Yale’s Phi Beta Kappa academic honor society. As an elected Class Deacon he was responsible for helping to encourage the spiritual wellbeing and service opportunities of his fellow classmen. His final year at Yale he was also a member of the Senior [Student Government] Council and served on the committee that produced the Class Book of the graduating class.
Borden was seventeen years old when he entered Yale as a freshman. One of his classmates wrote of him: “I first met Bill Borden in the fall of 1905, at the beginning of my freshman year in Yale. What struck me then and during my entire acquaintance with him, was the amazing maturity of his character. Though almost a year older than he was, I felt that in character, self-control, and measure of purpose, he was many years my senior. In many ways, I should say, he was the most mature man of his class.
“I do not mean to imply that he was ‘oldmannish’ in the least. He had a keen sense of humor, could let out a most uproarious war whoop of a laugh, and was a famous ‘rough-houser’.”
Another classmate of Borden’s testified of him: “He served on the committee in charge of the religious work of our class, and soon stamped himself as a leader in the Christian activities of the college. In spite of his younger age, he was far more mature in faith than many considerably older. His grasp of the essentials of faith was, even at this time, firm and assured.
“He had already decided to become a foreign missionary. A fixed purpose of this sort gives a man a great singleness of aim that steadies not only himself, but those he meets; and Bill’s character had a solidity about it, directly traceable to his surrender to Christ for a life of service. Interested as he was in football and many other activities, Bill let it be known that his heart was first in the service of the Savior, ever watching for opportunities for spreading the faith he believed so firmly himself.”
Shortly after arriving at Yale, Borden became involved with the university’s chapter of the Young Men’s Christian Association. At that time Yale’s YMCA enjoyed great importance and effectiveness on campus, promoting a high standard of scholarship and Christian endeavor. Often hundreds gathered for its Sunday evening services.
But many students did not attend the YMCA meetings, and Borden became burdened to reach them as well. As the first school term progressed, he and a likeminded friend began meeting each morning for prayer before going to breakfast. Soon two other students joined them.
One related: “The time was spent in prayer, after a brief reading of Scripture. Our object was to pray for the religious work of the class and college and also for those of our friends we were seeking to bring to Christ.
“I remember so well the stimulus Bill gave us in those meetings. His handling of Scripture was always helpful. From the very beginning of the years I knew him he would read to us from the Bible, show us something that God had promised, and then proceed to claim the promise with assurance.”
That freshman prayer group continued to grow and needed to divide into two groups during their sophomore year. It was further reported: “By the end of that year, there were similar groups in each of the classes. It was not passed down from the seniors to the juniors; it came up from the freshmen to the seniors. And very real blessing was given in answer to our prayers – quite a number were converted.”
Borden was also instrumental in the establishment of student-led Bible study groups. Beginning with the Gospel of John, they discussed one chapter of Scripture per meeting. The purpose of these groups was not only to build up believers in their Christian faith but also to point non-Christian students to the Savior. In time around 1,000 students were participating in the groups.
Borden’s father died in the spring of his freshman year, leaving an enormous fortune to him. Receiving this inheritance did not alter young Borden’s personal devotion to Jesus or his determination to serve Him with his life. Instead, in the years that followed, he began to use his wealth to support Christ’s Kingdom work in a number of substantial ways.
An early instance of that occurred during Borden’s sophomore year. On his nineteenth birthday – November 1, 1906 – he was approached by John Magee, the graduate Secretary of the YMCA. Magee had a vision for the founding of a Gospel Rescue Mission to minister to the spiritual and material needs of the considerable number of alcoholics, vagrants and ex-prisoners to be found in New Haven, Connecticut, the city in which Yale was located. The mission could minister to those needy individuals, while at the same time having a positive influence on the college community by providing a witness to the living, saving power of Christ to transform lives.
Borden immediately came to share Magee’s desire to see such a ministry established. When it was decided to proceed in doing so, Borden promptly donated $20,000 to singlehandedly purchase outright the Hotel Martin, a four-story building with twenty-eight rooms to be used as the Yale Hope Mission. (Some have estimated that $20,000 in 1907 would be worth $500,000 today.) The Hotel Martin directly adjoined the congregation room of the mission, where nightly preaching services were held.
The stated purposes of the mission were to provide food and lodging for the destitute men who came to the meetings, as well as a place where a man could stay and receive the moral support he needed until he could find employment and get back on his feet. The mission also had a well-outfitted workshop where men could work in upholstering and repairing furniture. Men were also sent out to do odd jobs in the community until they could find permanent employment.
By a conservative estimate some 10,000 people were helped at Yale Hope Mission each year. In 1909, the year Borden graduated from Yale: about 12,000 men heard the Gospel preached at the mission; 846 “made an open confession of sin by coming forward to prayer”; 3,848 were “sheltered and fed”; much clothing was given to the needy; employment was found “for a number who are today earning an honest living.” Yale Hope Mission continued to operate for at least four decades after it was established.
In addition to financially supporting the founding of the mission in a major way, Borden was actively involved in the carrying out of its ministry. He regularly took part in helping to conduct the Gospel services that were held at the mission. A foreign visitor at Yale said that what had impressed him the most during his time in New Haven was seeing “William, this wealthy undergraduate, with his arm around a ‘down-and-outer,’ kneeling with him as he sought forgiveness and prayed the prayer of the publican: ‘God be merciful to me, a sinner’.”
Many other Yale students participated in the mission’s ministry as well. Some of them traced their initial call to vocational Christian ministry back to their service at Yale Hope Mission.
# # #
The contents of this article were gleaned from Kevin Belmonte’s outstanding biography on Borden entitled Beacon-Light: The Life of William Borden (Christian Focus Publications, 2021). Belmonte’s work presents a detailed and attractive account of Borden’s life as well as his Christian service and influence.
Copyright 2023 by Vance E. Christie