BURNS, ALEXANDER, Methodist minister and educator; b. 12 Aug. 1834 in Castlewellan (Northern Ireland), son of James Burns, carpenter, and Elizabeth McAdam; d. 22 May 1900 in Toronto.
Alexander Burns attended school in Ireland until 1847, when his parents emigrated to British North America. The family initially resided at Quebec but in 1850 they settled in Toronto where they remained. Although raised a Presbyterian, Burns was converted to Methodism and became a member of the Wesleyan Methodist Church in 1851, after he attended revival services held by the Reverend James Caughey in Toronto. He learned wood-turning in order to finance his further education, and in 1855 he was able to enrol in the Methodist-run Victoria College in Cobourg. He proved to be an excellent and industrious student, winning the Prince of Wales gold medal and serving as valedictorian for his graduation class in 1861. Burns entered the Methodist ministry the next year and was placed on probation at Stratford and Drayton. On 15 June 1863 he married Sarah Andrews, daughter of Cobourg miller Thomas Andrews; he was ordained in 1864.
Burns had by 1865 gained a reputation as a rising Methodist academician. That year he was offered the vice-presidency of Mount Allison Wesleyan College in New Brunswick, but refused it in order to accept a position as vice-president and professor of mathematics and astronomy at Iowa Wesleyan College. In 1868 he assumed the presidency of Simpson College in Iowa, a position he held until 1878. During these years in the United States, Burns was much in demand as a public speaker on college and church occasions; in 1876 he was also a delegate from the Iowa conference to the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore, Md.
In 1878 Burns returned to Ontario to succeed Samuel Dwight Rice* as governor and principal of the Wesleyan Female (later Wesleyan Ladies’) College in Hamilton, also becoming its professor of mental and moral science, logic, evidences, and higher English literature. He was now a figure of some eminence in academic circles. He had received an honorary dd from Indiana University in 1869 and added an honorary lld from Victoria College in the year of his return to Ontario. Soon he was also elected a senator of the University of Toronto and a member of the board of trustees and the senate at Victoria.
By 1880 Burns was a man not only of academic and clerical substance but also of decidedly liberal views on a wide range of subjects. Whether because of his early education under Samuel Sobieski Nelles* at Victoria College, his experience in the United States at a time of social ferment, or his wide reading, he had become an advocate, as journalist and historian John Charles Dent* put it in 1880, of “the supremacy of reason in matters theological, as well as in the ordinary affairs of life,” and believed “that whatever is repugnant to reason should be eliminated from modern theology.” Dent concluded, “He is a foe to infidelity, but believes in combating infidelity by arguments drawn from human knowledge and experience, rather than by the suppression of free and honest inquiry.”
Given Burns’s reputation, it is understandable that some members of the Methodist Church of Canada viewed his commitment to critical inquiry as a threat to evangelical orthodoxy. At the church’s London conference in 1882 he was accused of heterodoxy by the Reverend David C. Clappison of the Brussels circuit. Clappison, whose ministry had begun in 1844, charged Burns with deviating from Methodist doctrinal standards on three major points, “the Equal Inspiration of the Canonical Scriptures,” “the Substitution Theory of the Atonement,” and “the Doctrine of Eternal Conscious Torment and the possibility of a Post-mortem Probation.” After much debate over two days, the conference concluded that “having heard Dr. Burns’ explanations we accept them as being substantially in agreement with our standards on the Inspiration of the Scriptures.”
Burns continued, however, to be outspoken on matters religious and political. He firmly believed that neither churches nor governments should support privilege. He championed free trade as well as free thought; supported public rather than separate schools; followed the single-tax ideas of American economic reformer Henry George “as far as practicable”; opposed the existence of the Senate; and advocated Home Rule for Ireland. He spoke widely on all these issues, ran in Hamilton as a Liberal candidate in the federal election of 1887 (but lost by 169 votes), and was nominated as a delegate to the Irish Race Convention, held in Dublin in 1896. A strong believer in higher education for women, he led an unsuccessful movement to establish a university for women in Hamilton. Possibly because of his failure to garner sufficient support for this cause, he ended his association with Wesleyan Ladies’ College in 1897 and retired to Toronto. Although no longer holding a regular charge, he continued to preach in various churches and was active in support of the Muskoka Cottage Sanatorium in Gravenhurst, a centre for the treatment of victims of tuberculosis. Burns died at his home in Toronto on 22 May 1900 of what was described as “inflammatory rheumatism.”
UCC-C, Biog. files. Methodist Church of Canada, London Conference, Journal of proc. (Toronto), 1882. Evening News (Toronto), 23 May 1900. Globe, 23 May 1900. Canadian men and women of the time (Morgan; 1898). Commemorative biog. record, county York. Dent, Canadian portrait gallery.