A new biography of Burns, Thomas appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Thomas Burns was born at Mossgiel, Ayrshire, on 10 April 1796, third son of Gilbert, brother of the poet. Burns received his early education at the parish school and at Wallace Hall Academy, Closeburn, Dumfriesshire, and, later, at the Grammar School at Haddington. In 1812 he entered the University of Edinburgh to study for the ministry of the Established Church of Scotland, meanwhile acting as tutor in the family of Sir John Dalrymple of Berwickshire. In 1823 Burns was licensed by the Presbytery of Haddington and, through the good offices of Sir John's brother, Sir Hugh, he was presented to the living at Ballantrae, to which he was inducted in April 1826. Early in 1830 he married Clementina, daughter of the Rev. James Francis Grant, Rector of Rodness, and Prebendary and Canon of Chichester Cathedral. Later in that year he accepted the presentation to the parish of Monkton, Ayrshire, a most lucrative living. Burns remained there until the Disruption of May 1843 when, together with some 400 ministers of the Established Church, he threw in his lot with the newly formed Free Church. For the next 18 months he remained at New Prestwick as Free Church Minister, but in mid-1844 he accepted a temporary appointment at nearby Maybole, meanwhile acting as evangelist to Free Church stations in various parishes under the general direction of the Home Mission Committee.
In the tense months immediately preceding the Disruption, Burns had been attracted by the New Edinburgh (Otago) plan of colonisation which George Rennie had outlined in August 1842. Rennie brought his project to the notice of the Acting Committee of the Colonial Schemes of the Free Church of Scotland, the upshot being the selection of Burns as minister for the new settlement. Burns was most enthusiastic and at this juncture worked in close association both with Rennie and with Captain William Cargill, the latter a Peninsular War veteran who was eager to emigrate. Despite their best efforts the scheme languished. Worse still, a rift developed between Rennie on the one hand and Burns and Cargill on the other. The point at issue was the extent to which the Free Church interests should control the settlement. Rennie, whose “liberalism” and religious convictions were regarded by Burns as “doubtful”, was all for a comprehensive Scottish scheme; Burns and Cargill would have none of it. Gradually Rennie was manoeuvred into the background and, in October 1845, he announced his withdrawal. “I cannot but trace the hand of a gracious Providence in all this purging of our unchristian leaven”, wrote Burns to his confidant, Cargill. Nevertheless, although the battle had been won for the Free Church, the situation was unpromising. The New Zealand Company which had been sponsoring the project through the Association of Lay Members of the Free Church of Scotland, was financially embarrassed, while in Scotland land sales were disappointing. On 25 June 1846, in a mood of despair, Burns accepted a call to the parish of Portobello, near Edinburgh, leaving Cargill to battle on as best he could, assisted by Dr Andrew Aldcorn (1792–1877), honorary secretary to the Glasgow committee, and John McGlashan, the salaried secretary of the Association at Edinburgh. Gradually prospects improved and, in October 1847, Burns's appointment as minister to the new settlement was reaffirmed. A small and, in some respects, unimpressive band of emigrants was got together and on 27 November the party sailed from Greenock in the Philip Laing. They reached Port Chalmers on 15 April 1848, some three weeks later than Cargill, who had arrived there in the John Wickliffe on 23 March.
Once at Otago, Burns gave evidence of practical leadership. He had a sound knowledge of farming from his boyhood days and his farm at Grants Braes, across the harbour from the little centre, Dunedin, vindicated his faith in the soil and climate of the district. He kept systematic meteorological records and, as he made his way throughout the Otago block, assessed the timber and mineral resources of the country. His encouraging reports did much to hearten the dispirited. He worked closely with Cargill, the New Zealand Company's agent, in planning the organisation of the community, especially on matters connected with the social, economic, and even political welfare of the emigrants. Above all, he never forgot his spiritual responsibilities to the people. For six years he toiled on unaided until 1854 when the Rev. William Bannerman and the Rev. William Will arrived to take over the Clutha and the Taieri charges respectively. Burns was now able to form the Presbytery of Otago, which was constituted in June 1854.
In the early years of settlement Burns appeared among his flock as a solemn and dignified figure. He wore a Geneva cap set above a grave face whose main features were the eyes, large and bright. To the community at large he was regarded as the personification of stern and uncompromising morality, and warrant, as it were, for its orthodoxy. From the very outset, says James Barr, he bore a patriarchal carriage and exercised a patriarchal influence, ever moving about and known to everyone. Like his colleague Cargill, over whom he exerted a strong influence, especially in matters spiritual, Burns lacked the saving grace of humour and saw in sinful humanity a subject mainly for censure. As a preacher Burns was strongly evangelical and his sermons, which were delivered in a rather stiff and dry manner, were directed towards the eradication of vices which flourished even in the Free Church theocracy. Burns's code was too rigid to placate the hostile minority – the “Little Enemy” – which had been present at Otago from the beginning, and his attitude did much to foster bitterness and dissension. With the ready support of Cargill he put an end to the first newspaper of the settlement, the Otago News, and it was he, through his mouthpiece Cargill, who cautioned the Rev. Chas. Creed the Methodist missionary at Waikouaiti, against trespassing on the Free Church preserves. Such cases – and there were many – were made much of by Burns's opponents both within and without the settlement and they were certainly an embarrassment to the Association's friends in London and Scotland. Part of the trouble sprang from Burns's inability to see that his predetermined pattern of “class” settlement was impracticable in a mixed community which from the outset was sharply divided on many issues, not least those of land purchase and religion. By the close of the fifties, however, events took a happier turn. Cargill's death in 1860 robbed Burns of a staunch ally, and the gold rushes of the early sixties, with their thousands of the “New Iniquity”, almost overwhelmed the “Old Identities” of the first decade.
Burns was now 65 and his great period of leadership had ended. With his physical and mental powers waning, he was content to devote himself to the ministry of the First Church of Otago, Dunedin. Despite his defects of leadership, Burns had worked steadily for an ideal and it was fitting that due recognition should come from his old University, Edinburgh, which in 1861 conferred upon him the honorary degree of Doctor of Divinity. A true Scot in his appreciation of the value of education within the framework of the province, Burns, like Macandrew, had constantly urged the Provincial Council to set aside land endowments for higher education. But secularisation he as zealously opposed, for that would be a moral breach of trust with the aims of the founders of the Association. When the University of Otago was constituted, none questioned Burns's right to the office of Chancellor; as such, he presided over the first meeting of the council on 10 November 1869. But the sands were fast running out and he did not live to see the inaugural ceremony of 5 July 1871. Early in that year he had had a sudden collapse, and he died at his home, “Bankton”, London Street, Dunedin, on 23 January 1871.
Burns was survived by his wife (died 19 July 1878), six daughters, and a son, Arthur John (1830–1901). The eldest daughter, Clementina, married A. J. Elles (Ellis), Captain of the Philip Laing, at Dunedin on 14 June 1848, shortly after their arrival at Otago. Elles settled at Invercargill in 1856, where he held a number of official appointments both there and at the Bluff. He died at Invercargill on 4 September 1886, aged 70. Arthur John Burns, the oldest of the family, came to Otago with his father in the Philip Laing and played a prominent part in provincial affairs, being a member of the Provincial Council from 1855 to 1859 and again from 1863 to 1870. He was a member of the House of Representatives on three occasions and vigorously opposed the abolition of the provinces. He was interested in developing secondary industries and founded the Mosgiel Woollen Co. in 1869.
by Alexander Hare McLintock, C.B.E., M.A., DIP.ED. (N.Z.), PH.D.(LOND.), Parliamentary Historian, Wellington.
- History of Otago, McLintock, A. H. (1949)
- A Great Coloniser – Rev. Dr Thomas Burns, Merrington, E. N. (1929)
- Otago Daily Times, 24 Jan 1871 (Obit).