William Borden (1887-1913) had a privileged upbringing in a wealthy Chicago family. As a young boy he dedicated his life to serving Christ, and at age seventeen determined to pursue a career as a Christian missionary.
In Borden’s freshman year of college at Yale University, his father died, leaving an enormous inheritance of five million dollars (worth at least twenty-five times that amount by today’s standards) to his family. When Borden turned twenty-one years of age during his senior year at Yale, he received his personal inheritance of one million dollars.
Borden’s tremendous wealth did not deflect him in the least from his whole-hearted consecration to Jesus. Instead, he remained wholly devoted to serving Christ and His Kingdom with his time, talents, energy, intellect and treasure.
After graduating from Yale, Borden attended and graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary. During his three years at Princeton, though still only in his early twenties, he served as a Trustee of the Moody Bible Institute and a Director of the National Bible Institute (an evangelistic association that actively ministered to people who had no church affiliation). He also continued to help oversee the Yale Hope Mission ministry which had been established during his college years.
Borden’s service in those responsible positions often required him to be away from Princeton for board meetings and other ministry opportunities in Chicago, New York and New Haven. Despite those demands, he continued to energetically prosecute his seminary studies with distinction, earning the high regard of fellow students and professors alike.
When Borden, at twenty-two years of age, was first approached by D. O. Shelton about the fledgling National Bible Institute ministry, he listened intently to what Shelton had to share, then said quietly: “I want to help you in the work you are doing, and will send you $100 a month for the next year.” That day Borden wrote Shelton an initial check for twice that amount and, in the seven months that followed, continued to send him a check for $200. In eight months Borden gave $1,600 to Shelton’s ministry, equaling at least $40,000 today. Shelton later wrote: “I was learning to know Will Borden, one of whose characteristics was always to do better than promised—more, and not less, than he led you to expect.”
Borden did more than financially support the National Bible Institute and serve on its Board of Directors. He played an active role in the NBI’s summer street preaching meetings that reached thousands. During his senior year at Princeton he taught a weeknight course on the Epistle to the Galatians in the NBI’s School for Christian Workers.
Financially speaking, Borden contributed regularly and generously to the ministries he helped direct and other Christian endeavors he supported. However, he felt led of the Lord not to single-handedly bail out those ministries when they faced tight times, even though he possessed the resources to do so. Rather, he thought it important that together they earnestly seek God’s supply then fervently praise the Lord when He provided.
While Borden gave generously, he did so in the spirit of Matthew 6:3: “But when you give …, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” He always insisted that his identity be kept anonymous in connection with any donations he made. He did not even allow his initials to be used when his donation appeared in a list of donors.
One Sunday evening while in Princeton, Borden invited a friend, C. F. Vale, to walk home with him for dinner. A big touring car passed them as they walked along Stockton Street, and Vale asked, “Why don’t you get a car, Bill? You would never miss the money.”
Borden turned to Vale with a good-natured smile and said, “Get thee behind me, Satan. I settled that long ago. I cannot afford it—when the price of a car will build a hospital in China.”
Borden planned to minister to Muslims in northwest China after completing his seminary training then studying Arabic in Egypt for a year and medicine in London for a year. The standard price for a good, though not extravagant, touring car in Borden’s day was $5,000, a considerable sum back then. Though he was keenly interested in automobiles, he did not think that he could justify buying one when he could instead use the money to build an entire hospital on the mission field.
When the time drew near for Borden to depart for a year of language study in Egypt, he was widely heralded in American newspapers as “The Millionaire Missionary” who intended to give up promising financial and social prospects in his homeland to go serve as a missionary in China. One prominent newspaper quoted Borden as saying: “The rewards of missionary effort are incalculably greater than any rewards that can follow social achievements. I never had any craving to enter society. I prefer the missionary field.”
Kevin Belmonte’s outstanding biography Beacon-Light, The Life of William Borden contains many more uplifting instances of Borden’s generous financial support of various ministries. Belmonte’s work also details the noble and touching events that took place at the close of Borden’s life before it seemingly (from our limited human perspective) ended much too soon.
Following his death, newspapers and other publications across the U.S. and in different parts of the world announced Borden’s passing and the plans he had made for the distribution of his inheritance. Borden left only keepsake gifts for his family members whom, it will be remembered, had been abundantly provided for themselves through four million dollars from his father’s estate (not including the one-million-dollar inheritance William himself had received). Of the remainder of his own inheritance which he possessed at the end of his life, Borden left the entirety of it to Christian religious and missionary work.
The amounts he bequeathed to different ministries (with their equivalent worth today indicated in parentheses) were: The Moody Church and Moody Bible Institute, each $100,000 ($2,500,000 each); the National Bible Institute, $100,000 ($2,500,000); China Inland Mission, $250,000 ($6,250,000); the various departments of Presbyterian foreign missions, $150,000 ($3,750,000); Princeton Theological Seminary, $50,000 ($1,250,000); Chicago Hebrew Mission, $50,000 ($1,250,000); the Chicago Tract Society and the American Bible Society, each $25,000 ($625,000 each); African Inland Mission and the Nile Mission Press in Cairo, Egypt, each $25,000 ($625,000 each). Those bequests would total some $22,500,000 today.
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The contents of this article were gleaned from Kevin Belmonte’s fine biography Beacon-Light: The Life of William Borden (Christian Focus Publications, 2021). In case you missed them earlier, you may also be interested to read two other Perspectives I wrote on Borden: “William Borden’s Boyhood of Material Privilege and Spiritual Development” and “William Borden’s Impactful College Years for Christ.”
Copyright 2023 by Vance E. Christie