Reading biographies is so good for the soul. Knowing the stories of the Christian soldiers who have come before us can inspire us and encourage us to live faithfully in our day.
The following is an abbreviated biography of William Borden that changed my life when I was in college. It is a quick tour of his life but one that I pray will stir your commitment to the Great Commission.
In 1904 William Borden graduated from a Chicago high school. As heir to the Borden Dairy estate, he was already a millionaire. For his high school graduation present, his parents gave him a trip around the world. Traveling through Asia, the Middle East, and Europe, Borden felt a growing burden for the world’s hurting people. Finally, he wrote home to say, “I’m going to give my life to prepare for the mission field.” After making this decision, William Borden wrote two words in the back of his Bible:
Borden arrived at Yale University (Connecticut) in 1905 as just one more freshman. Very quickly, however, Borden’s classmates noticed something unusual about him. One of them wrote:
“He came to college far ahead, spiritually, of any of us. He had already given his heart in full surrender to Christ and had really done it. We who were his classmates learned to lean on him and find in him a strength that was solid as a rock, just because of this settled purpose and consecration.”
Borden’s first disappointment was hearing Yale’s president speak on the students’ need of “having a fixed purpose.” After that speech Borden wrote: “He neglected to say what our purpose should be, and where we should get the ability to persevere and the strength to resist temptations.” As Borden looked around him at Yale, he lamented the results of this empty philosophy: moral weakness and sin-ruined lives.
During his first semester at Yale, Borden started a movement that transformed the campus. A friend of described how it happened: “It was well on in the first term when Bill and I began to pray together in the morning before breakfast. I cannot say positively whose suggestion it was, but I feel sure it must have originated with Bill. We had been meeting only a short time when a third student joined us and soon after a fourth. The time was spent in prayer after a brief reading of Scripture. Bill’s handling of Scripture was helpful…he would read to us from the Bible, show us something that God had promised and then proceed to claim the promise with assurance.”
Borden’s group was the beginning of the daily groups of prayer that spread to every one of the college classes. By the end of his first year, 150 freshman were meeting for weekly Bible studies. By the time he was a senior, 1,000 out of Yale’s 1,300 students were meeting in such groups.
Borden made it his habit to choose the most “incorrigible” students and try to bring them to salvation. “In his sophomore year we organized Bible study groups and divided up the class of 300 or more, each man interested taking a certain number, so that all might, if possible, be reached. The names were gone over one by one, and the question asked, ‘Who will take this person or that?’ When it came to one who was a hard proposition, there would be an ominous pause. Nobody wanted the responsibility.
Then Bill’s voice would be heard, ‘Put him down to me.'”
Borden did not confine his ministry outreach to the Yale campus. He rescued drunks on the streets of New Haven. To rehabilitate the, he founded the Yale Hope Mission. “He might often be found in the lower parts of the city at night, on the street, in a cheap lodging house or some restaurant to which he had taken a poor hungry fellow to feed him, seeking to lead men to Christ.”
Borden’s missionary call came to focus on Muslims in China. From that goal Borden never wavered. He also inspired his classmates to consider missionary service. One of them said: “He certainly was one of the strongest characters I have ever known, and he put backbone into the rest of us at college. There was real iron in him, and I always felt he was of the stuff martyrs were made of, and heroic missionaries of more modern times.
“Although he was a millionaire, Bill seemed to realize always that he must be about his Father’s business, and not wasting time in the pursuit of amusement.”
Although Borden refused to join a fraternity, “he did more with his classmates in his senior year than ever before.” He presided over the huge student missionary conference held at Yale and served as president of the honor society Phi Beta Kappa.
Upon graduation from Yale, Borden turned down some high paying job offers. He also wrote two more words in his Bible:
He went on to graduate work at Princeton Seminary in New Jersey. When he finished his studies at Princeton, Borden sailed for China. Because he was hoping to work with Muslims, he stopped first in Egypt to study Arabic.
While there he came down with spinal meningitis. Within a month 25-year-old William Borden was dead.
“When the death of William Whiting Borden was cabled from Egypt, it seemed as though a wave of sorrow went round the world…Borden not only gave (away) his wealth, but himself, in a way so joyous and natural that it (seemed) a privilege rather than a sacrifice.”
A waste, you say? Not in God’s plan. Prior to his death Borden had written two more words in his Bible. Underneath the words “No Reserves” and “No Retreats,” he had written:
Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” -Luke 9:62
Travis Agnew serves as the Lead Pastor of Rocky Creek Church in Greenville, SC. His most recent book is Just (About) Married.
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