William Borden could be considered one of the greatest campus missionaries, one of the greatest Christian givers, or one of the greatest Christian ministers. Take your pick. He was an extraordinary example of each.
William was born in 1887 into the significant wealth of a Chicago attorney (not heir to the Borden Dairy fortune as is sometimes written). He became a Christian at an early age and first felt the call to be a missionary while on a round-the-world tour before entering Yale University.
Yale had experienced numerous spiritual awakenings since its founding in 1701. However, when Borden arrived in 1905, rationalism and religious skepticism had permeated the Yale University community from top to bottom.
A group of incoming freshmen led by Borden began a network of prayer meetings that turned into a campus revival. Despite opposition from Yale professors, by Borden’s senior year, 1,000 of the 1,300 students at Yale were meeting in Bible studies or prayer groups.
Despite opposition from Yale professors, by Borden’s senior year, 1,000 of the 1,300 students at Yale were meeting in Bible studies or prayer groups.
Borden and a few friends traveled to Nashville for the 1905 Student Volunteer Movement conference, held every fourth year. Dr. Samuel Zwemer, missionary to Egypt and expert on Islam, displayed a map that marked every mission station from China to West Africa, showing at the same time the vast areas with no Christian witness. Borden returned to Yale committed to being a missionary among the Muslims in Kansu, a remote region of China considered to be one of the most difficult assignments on earth.
While a student, he served on several mission boards, founded Yale Hope Mission in New Haven, and was always active there. He was an extraordinarily generous but typically anonymous giver.
After graduating from Princeton seminary, Borden spent three months speaking on over thirty campuses. According to the general secretary of the Student Volunteer Movement, “Those were the most fruitful three months of the movement.”
On December 12, 1912, William Borden sailed for language school in Egypt. Within the first two weeks in Cairo, he had organized seminary students to distribute the Khutbas (a booklet by a converted Muslim) to the entire city of 800,000 people. Within three months of his arrival, the young missionary contracted cerebral meningitis, and on April 15, at the age of 25, William Borden was dead. Scribbled on a piece of paper found under his pillow: No reserve; no retreat; no regrets!
There was scarcely a U.S. newspaper that did not publish a lengthy account of his short life. Memorial services were held all over the world, as well as, at the Yale Hope Mission and the African Methodist Episcopal Church where Borden taught Sunday school while in seminary.
A biographical sketch of Borden’s life for Muslim readers was published in five languages. Thirty-five thousand copies of the Chinese edition made their way into every province of China and even opened doors for mission stations in previously unreached areas. According to Dr. John R. Mott,
The story of William Borden at the 1913 SVM conference was the most powerful appeal for missionary service ever made by the Student Volunteer Movement.
Borden’s bequests to Christian causes almost doubled J.P. Morgan’s.
In the fall of 1913, the wills of two extraordinary men were probated — William Borden and J.P. Morgan. Both were devout believers. Morgan was worth over $100 million; Borden about $1 million ($2 billion and $20 million in 2010 dollars). Yet, Borden’s bequests to Christian causes almost doubled J.P. Morgan’s.
Who could have imagined William Borden’s impact in such a short time — seven years as a student, six years as a philanthropist, and four months as a missionary. Yale Professor Charles Erdman summed up the opinion of many: “Apart from Christ, there is no explanation for such a life.”
Walt Walker is the Editor of Every Nation North America’s News & Updates.