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William Borden

William Whiting Borden (November 1, 1887 – April 9, 1913) was a philanthropist and millionaire Christian missionary candidate who died in Egypt before reaching his chosen field, Gansu province in China.[1]


Life and workEdit

Childhood and youthEdit

William Whiting Borden was born into a prominent and wealthy Chicago family, the third child of William and Mary DeGarmo Whiting Borden. Borden's father had made a fortune in Colorado silver mining, but the family was unrelated to the Borden Condensed Milk Company—an advantage for Borden since if asked about his wealth, he could honestly reply that his family was often mistaken for "the rich Condensed Milk firm that bears the name of Borden."[2] Borden had three siblings: John (1884-1961),[3] Joyce (1897-1971), and novelist and poet Mary Borden Spears (1886-1968).

After his mother converted to evangelical Christianity in 1894, she took Borden to Chicago Avenue Church, later Moody Church, where he responded to the gospel preaching of R. A. Torrey. From that juncture, prayer and Bible study became hallmarks of his life. After he graduated from The Hill School, Pottstown, Pennsylvania, at age 16, his parents gave him the gift of a chaperoned trip around the world, during which he first developed a desire to become a foreign missionary.[4] In London, once again under the preaching of Torrey who was holding meetings there, Borden surrendered his life for Christian service.[5]


Borden entered Yale University in 1905, and with the encouragement of young classics tutor Henry Burt Wright, Borden began daily prayer groups that within two years reached the entire university from the freshman class to the senior.[6] At a 1906 Student Volunteer Movement convention in Nashville, Samuel Marinus Zwemer, "a man with a map," impressed Borden with his emphasis on the open doors for evangelizing the Muslim world.[7]

Borden had a charismatic personality, was sociable, athletic, and fun loving but also was an intense and hardworking natural leader. At Yale, he was elected president of Phi Beta Kappa and was active in several collegiate sports, especially wrestling and crew. He also became the master of his own sailing yacht. Borden refused to join a fraternity fearing "it might set him apart from the body of the class," but he was elected to the Elihu society.[8] Though an opponent of liberal Christianity, Borden was ecumenical in spirit. With his own money, he funded a New Haven rescue mission and there did personal work himself. One well-traveled English visitor, when asked what had most impressed him about America, is said to have replied, "The sight of that young millionaire kneeling with his arm around a 'bum' in the Yale Hope Mission."[9]

Brief careerEdit

After graduating from Yale in 1909, Borden attended Princeton Theological Seminary before graduating in 1912. Professor Charles R. Erdman wrote that no other student had exerted a greater personal influence over him than Borden. "His judgment was so unerring and so mature that I always forgot there was such a difference in our ages. His complete consecration and devotion to Christ were a revelation to me, and his confidence in prayer a continual inspiration."[10] Meanwhile, Borden's reputation was such that he became a board member of the National Bible Institute in New York City and at one point temporarily took charge of the whole ministry, including office management, oversight of student practical training, and the operations of four rescue missions.[11] He also became a director of Moody Bible Institute and, at age 22, a member of the North American Council of the China Inland Mission. (He was asked to withdraw from the meeting when the Council officially passed on his own fitness to become a probationer of the Mission.)[12]

Borden's intention was to become a missionary to Uyghur Muslims in northwestern China, but he decided first to study Islam and Arabic in Cairo, boarding with a Syrian family there so that he would hear Arabic spoken as much as possible. He also spent time distributing on the streets Christian sermons written in a Koranic style.[13]

In March 1913, he contracted cerebral meningitis and died a few weeks later. He was 25. Ironically, his mother had just arrived from America to vacation with him in the mountains of Lebanon, and she was present for the simple funeral in which Samuel Zwemer participated. Borden is buried in the American Cemetery in Cairo. On his grave were inscribed words suggested by Charles Erdman: "Apart from faith in Christ, there is no explanation of such a life."[14] Memorial services were conducted for Borden at Princeton University and at a little African Methodist church where Borden had taught Sunday school for two years. Other services were held at Yale Hope Mission, at Moody Church, at Marble Collegiate Church in New York, and in Japan, Korea, India and South Africa.[15]

Borden bequeathed $800,000 to the China Inland Mission and other Christian agencies.[16] China Inland Mission named Borden Memorial Hospital in Lanzhou, China, in his memory. [17]

Apocryphal anecdoteEdit

According to an oft-repeated anecdote, following Borden's death, his mother found in his Bible the words "No Reserve" and a date suggesting it had been written shortly after he had renounced his fortune in favor of missions. Later he was said to have written "No Retreat," after his father supposedly told him that he would never hold a position in the family business. Finally, shortly before he died in Egypt, he is supposed to have added the phrase "No Regrets." There is no evidence for the historicity of this anecdote. If Borden ever wrote those words in a Bible, the Bible has not been discovered.[17][18]


  1. ^ Chicago Tribune, April 4, 1906, 4
  2. ^ Mary Geraldine Guinness (Mrs. Howard) Taylor, Borden of Yale '09 (Philadelphia: China Inland Mission, 1927), 256. Borden's mother was born in Detroit on August 31, 1861, to John Talman Whiting and Mary Sophia Hill. His father was born in August 1850, and his parents were married on December 28, 1882.
  3. ^ Fort Scott Tribune, July 29, 1961. John Borden, a lawyer and businessman, became the father-in-law of presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson.
  4. ^ Taylor, 35, 47, 70, 75-76. Borden visited Japan, China (where he survived typhoid fever), India, Egypt, Palestine, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Switzerland (where he developed a love of mountain climbing), France, and England.
  5. ^ Taylor, 82.
  6. ^ Taylor, 97-98. Borden noted that one voluntary meeting, held in Dwight Hall in 1906, perhaps 500 students, some of them standing, heard a sermon by Robert Elliott Speer, who was secretary of the American Presbyterian Mission and an authority on world missions.
  7. ^ Taylor, 106-08.
  8. ^ Taylor, 143, 145, 148-49, 157.
  9. ^ Taylor, 223.
  10. ^ Taylor, 177.
  11. ^ Taylor, 196.
  12. ^ Taylor, 180-81.
  13. ^ Taylor, 241-42.
  14. ^ Taylor, 275. Borden's full epitaph reads: "A man in Christ/He arose and forsook all and followed Him,/Kindly affectioned with brotherly love,/Fervent in spirit serving the Lord,/Rejoicing in hope,/Patient in tribulation,/Instant in prayer,/Communicating to the necessity of saints,/In honour preferring others./Apart from faith in Christ,/There is no explanation for such a life."
  15. ^ Taylor, 266-72.
  16. ^ "$800,000 for Church Work,"New York Times, April 26, 1913, 11.
  17. ^ a b Jayson Casper, "The Forgotten Final Resting Place of William Borden," Christianity Today, February 24, 2017
  18. ^ The origin of this story is uncertain, but it was featured in the popular devotional Our Daily Bread on December 31, 1988.

Further readingEdit

  • Campbell, Charles Soutter, William Whiting Borden: A Short Life Complete In Christ, 1909
  • Borden of Yale '09: "The Life that Counts", Mrs. Howard Taylor; China Inland Mission, 1913
  • Erdman, C. R. (Charles Rosenbury), An ideal missionary volunteer : a sketch of the life and character of William Whiting Borden, London: South Africa General Mission, (c.1913?)
  • Hudson Taylor & China’s Open Century Volume Seven: It Is Not Death To Die; Alfred James Broomhall; Hodder and Stoughton and Overseas Missionary Fellowship, 1989

External linksEdit