William Borden headlines in 1912 Chicago Tribune Newspaper

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.

William Borden

 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.

1912 Ford Model T Touring Car

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.

William Borden’s gravesite in Cairo, Egypt

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

William Borden

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.

Dwight Hall where YMCA met at Yale 1905

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.”

William Borden (2nd from right) and Fellow Students

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.

William Borden at Yale Hope Mission

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.

Yale Hope Mission

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.

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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

William Borden

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's boyhood home, Chicago
William Borden’s boyhood home, Chicago

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.

R. A. Torrey

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.

The Hill School, Pottstown, Pennsylvania

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