A Missionary First, Last, and All the Time
The overgrown American Cemetery in Cairo, Egypt, contains a tombstone that reads, “William Borden, 1887–1913.” Up the road, in the Valley of the Kings, lies a monument of a different type: the opulent tomb of Tutankhamen (c. 1341–1323 B.C.), known to the world as King Tut.
Both were born into privilege, wealth, education, and opportunity. When King Tut died at around age 18, he was entombed with all his worldly possessions, valued today at between $100 million and $200 million. William Borden died at age 25 and was buried with nothing. He had given his life and his resources to missions and stored up his treasure in heaven through wholehearted devotion and service to Jesus Christ.
Born to William and Mary Whiting Borden on November 1, 1887, Bill Borden attended school in Chicago where his father was immensely wealthy and prominent, having made a fortune in silver mining in Colorado with Chicago merchant Marshall Field.1 One of his professors would later write,
From his father he inherited business qualities of a high order, executive ability, exactness, fairness of mind, facility in reading character, promptness, decision, and a rare kindliness of judgment which made him absolutely silent as to the faults and failings of others. To his mother he was indebted for the influences which, in early boyhood, resulted in definite religious convictions, in a public confession of faith in Christ, in habits of Bible study, and in the daily prayer “that the will of God might be wrought out in his life.”2
Mary took her son to Moody Church in Chicago in 1894 where he heard R. A. Torrey preach. Bill was born again at age seven, dedicated his life to Christ, and never turned back.
After graduating from high school, he toured the world for a year with the Rev. Walter Erdman, an experienced traveler who later became a missionary to Korea. Wrote Charles Erdman, Walter’s brother:
They saw the great and indescribable need of the world for the Gospel. To one who was convinced of the unique power of Christ to meet that need, the call to service was definite and clear….He had not been in mission lands eight weeks when he wrote home that he wished to become a foreign missionary. Later, when he was asked by a wondering friend why he planned to throw his life away among the heathen, he replied significantly: “You have never seen heathenism.”3
Bill Borden then wrote in his Bible, No Reserve. At his father’s urging, he spent four years at Yale in New Haven, Connecticut, where he excelled in academics and sports and blossomed as a discipler of men. Appalled at the lack of interest there in spiritual things, he began meeting for prayer in his room with one classmate, Charlie Campbell, in the middle of his first semester.
By the end of his first year, 150 fresh-men were meeting regularly for Bible study and prayer. By the time he was a senior, 1,000 of Yale’s 1,300 students were meeting in such groups. Whenever the student leaders met to review names of students to be contacted, Bill Borden always took those perceived to be the most difficult. While chasing them down, he realized how desperately New Haven needed Christ:
New Haven…seemed to gather every sordid sort of riff-raff and vagrant, tramp and hobo. Saloons, gambling halls, and brothels sprang up in abundance to accommodate the burgeoning vice. Not one rescue mission existed to bring relief and the Gospel to the down and out. Borden felt something needed to be done so he gathered his friends to pray, rented a room in a dive on the strip, and began to hold evangelistic meetings. Thus was born the Yale Hope Mission. As the work grew, Bill, unostentatiously wealthy, bought the entire building for a halfway house. Many a shattered life was reclaimed for Christ in that place.4
Wrote Jon Hinkson in the Yale Standard, “One of Bill’s first ‘reclamations’ later reminisced: ‘Not till the books of heaven are opened will you know what Bill Borden done by opening Yale Hope Mission.’”5 Yale Professor Henry B. Wright testified, “It is my firm conviction that Yale Hope Mission has done more to convince all classes of men at Yale of the power and practicability of Christianity to regenerate individuals and communities than any other force in the university.”6
When a Student Volunteer Movement conference in Nashville, Tennessee, stirred his heart about the need to reach Muslims in China, Bill felt called to go there. Because he also studied Arabic, he graduated from Yale with the equivalent of a master’s degree in 1909. Determined to fulfill God’s call to serve as a missionary, Bill rejected lucrative job offers, including the opportunity to take over the multimillion-dollar family business. Again he opened his Bible to the flyleaf and wrote two more words: No Retreat.
He immediately entered Princeton Seminary to prepare for missionary service to the Muslim Kansu people of China. Despite his rigorous studies, Borden maintained a heavy personal schedule of ministry, usually traveling at his own expense to speak to college and church groups about missions. After graduating in 1912, he did evangelistic work in New York City and then was ordained to the ministry in the Moody Church.
On December 17, 1912, William Borden sailed for Cairo. He was determined to perfect his Arabic to pave the way for mastering Chinese. On March 21, a mere three months after his arrival, Bill contracted spinal meningitis. He refused to sail for home where he could have had the finest medical attention. Instead, he sent word to his family and underwent treatment in Cairo.
His mother and younger sister, Joyce, had already sailed for Egypt, planning to visit him before he left for China. Sadly, they arrived just hours after his death and were taken immediately to see his body. Wrote Erdman:
His body was laid to rest in the American Mission Cemetery at Cairo, in a land of the very Moslems for whose redemption he had given his life. Impressive memorial services were held not only in Cairo, but in Chicago, in Princeton, in Philadelphia, in New Haven, and in New York. The daily papers in every part of the world printed more or less extended accounts of the life in which a universal interest was awakened by its high promise and tragic end.7
In Borden’s will he left his estate of $1 million (approximately $50 million today) to a host of Christian works. Wrote Erdman:
It [the will] is an extraordinary document, not only in view of the actual bequests which it provides, but also because of the spirit it manifests of loyalty to Christ and devotion to the work of world evangelization. It is in itself a missionary appeal. Its largest provision is for the China Inland Mission, in connection with which the donor had expected to serve and on whose council he held a place.8
“Borden of Yale,” as he became known, never made it to China; but God used his life to impact hundreds of thousands. A classmate once said of him, “He is a missionary, first, last, and all the time.”9 His friend Charlie Campbell, with whom the amazing years at Yale began, received Borden’s Bible after his death. When he opened it to read the words No Reserve and No Retreat in the flyleaf, he found two more words penned days before William’s death: No Regrets.
King Tut was buried with his treasure. William Borden enjoys his today in the presence of the almighty God whom he served with full devotion. Someone once said, “If God calls you to be a missionary, don’t stoop to be a king.” If your life were to end tomorrow, what would mark your legacy? Your grave or your gratuity?
- Warren W. Wiersbe, 50 People Every Christian Should Know (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2009), 341.
- Charles R. Erdman, “An Ideal Missionary Volunteer,” The Missionary Review of the World, August 1913, <tinyurl.com/2fqyxu8>.
- Jon Hinkson, “Bill Borden: Challenge to a Consecrated Life,” Yale Standard <yalestandard.com/billborden.aspx>.