William Borden: Serving Christ and Christ Alone

4 min

The sixteen-year-old boy stood in amazement as he beheld a large temple in Kyoto, Japan. The edifice was acclaimed to be the “temple of 33,333 gods.” Row upon row were carved, gilded images set in niches in the walls. Never had he seen anything like it before.

The teenager was William Borden, the son of a wealthy American businessman. William had graduated with high honors from a prestigious high school in Chicago, Illinois. Before he advanced to Yale University, his parents gave him the opportunity to take a trip around the world, from California westward to Japan, China, India, Egypt, Palestine, through Europe and the British Isles, and back to the eastern seaboard of the United States.

William Borden was already a devoted Christian by the age of sixteen. He was a descendant of William Bradford the Pilgrim, was reared with a Christian heritage, and attended Moody Church where Dr. R. A. Torrey was pastor. Under Pastor Torrey’s faithful ministry and under the Godly influence of his own mother, William had trusted Christ as Savior early in his life and was seeking daily to follow Him as Lord. The young man’s favorite hymn was “O Love That Will Not Let Me Go.”

The trip around the world opened his youthful eyes to the realities of heathenism. William saw the ornate garden temples of Japan. He witnessed the blind subjection of the devotees of Buddhism in China. He stood at the banks of the Ganges River in India and watched as countless numbers of men, women, and children sought ritual cleansing in the filthy waters. He viewed human bodies burned as an offering to the gods. He observed men and women spreading the dung of the “sacred cow” on their faces. These images stamped a lasting impression upon his mind and heart.

Traveling through the Middle East, William witnessed the grip of Islam upon the hearts of millions of captive souls. Swearing monotheism, they affirmed indeed the truth of one god—but it was the wrong one! He saw that superstition and blind fear kept nations in the grip of darkness.

William Borden returned to the United States with a desire to give his life as a missionary of the Gospel. While a student at Yale, William was respected by all as a young man with a fixed purpose in life. He refused to join one of the secret college fraternities, affirming that his allegiance was to God and God alone. He started a prayer group with a few friends who met together before breakfast for Scripture reading and prayer. By the time William graduated from Yale, the group had reached over 1,000 students!

He studied hard, played hard, prayed hard, and prospered in all that he did. William was a brilliant scholar, a generous friend, and a faithful witness of the Gospel. He loved fishing and mountain climbing, and he enjoyed manly sports such as wrestling. However, this active, intelligent academician always carefully kept Christ at the center of his life. On weekends, while many Yale students were partying with friends, William Borden often could be found with his arm around the shoulder of a city drunk, pointing out the way of salvation to one desperately in need.

Few people knew that William Borden was a millionaire. When William was eighteen years old and his father died suddenly, he became the manager of a large portion of the family wealth. As the manager of much wealth, he still chose to dress nicely but simply. When a friend who knew of Borden’s millions once asked him why he did not buy himself a car, he answered sincerely, “I cannot afford it.” When asked about money, he would often smile and say that his family was wrongly identified with the successful Borden condensed milk company. This answer was entirely true, for his family was not the dairy Bordens. William’s family had acquired their millions in other ways. Meanwhile, he quietly wrote checks to Bible societies and mission works that amounted to thousands of dollars, but his gifts were always given in secret.

William Borden fixed his eyes upon a particular people group—the Kansu people in western China. Centuries ago, the Kansu had been converted to Islam. They remained in spiritual darkness with no Christian witness. Numbering in the millions, they were an unreached people group within China. To go to the Kansu, William had to learn Arabic as well as Chinese, but the challenging language, obscure location, and their conversion to Isam did not deter him.

He graduated from Yale in 1909. Turning down prestigious opportunities to become rich and famous, William instead entered Princeton Seminary. There, in addition to seminary courses, he began an intensive study of Arabic in preparation to reach the Muslims of China. Many who knew him feared that he was “throwing away his life” by going to the other side of the world, but William had no regrets about his chosen course. He had seen the darkness of heathenism, and he had resolved to shine the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a dark corner of the globe where there was not even a candle of Gospel witness burning.

After his graduation from Princeton Seminary in 1912, William Borden said goodbye to friends and family and boarded a ship bound for Europe. He first spent a few weeks in Europe, then he traveled on to Cairo, where he intended to immerse himself in the Arabic language before journeying onward to China.

In March of 1913, William Borden contracted spinal meningitis, a life-threatening inflammation of the tissues around the brain and spinal cord. After struggling many days with a high fever, William died in Egypt at the age of twenty-five, never to reach the mission field. 

The news of the young millionaire’s death was flashed by cable around the world. Memorial services were held in Princeton, at Yale, and at Moody Church in Chicago. While few scorners called his life “wasted,” those who knew William Borden best knew that such a life is never lived in vain. 

Before sailing for the East, William had executed a will. When his will was opened, the Reverend Charles Erdman of Princeton Seminary revealed that William had bequeathed $250,000 for China Inland Mission. He also left $100,000 to the Moody Bible Institute and like amounts to two other Christian ministries. He gave $50,000 to Princeton Theological Seminary and $25,000 each to the American Bible Society, the Chicago Tract Society, and to the Africa Inland Mission (Taylor, 1926, p. 213).

More than his money, William had given his life for Christ, proving his allegiance to Christ and Christ alone. Inspired by his example of wholehearted devotion to Christ, a generation of young men and women rose up to take his place on the foreign field. Many more took the place of this fallen soldier who inspired wider mission work through countless young people surrendering their lives to serve Jesus Christ around the world. The life and legacy of William Borden continues to bear fruit today for God’s Kingdom.

Portrait courtesy of Moody Church Media 

Source for Further Reference:

  • Taylor, Mrs. Howard. Borden of Yale ‘09. London: The China Inland Mission, 1926.

This article is from our Matters of Life & Death teaching series.

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