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BURNS, NELSON, teacher, Methodist minister, holiness preacher, author, and editor; b. 22 March 1834 in Niagara (Niagara-on-the-Lake), Upper Canada, son of John Burns and Deborah Huff; m. c. 1866 Eleanor Tyler in Erin, Upper Canada, and they had four children; d. 14 June 1904 in Toronto.

An outstanding student, Nelson Burns was educated at Niagara High School and University College in Toronto, where he held a scholarship in natural sciences and received a ba in 1857. He then taught school in Welland and later became principal of the high school in St Thomas. In 1863, having been drawn to the ministry, he was received on trial by the Wesleyan Methodist Church in Canada. He was subsequently posted to Holland Landing, Cookstown, and Erin. Ordained in 1866, he was obliged by ill health to become a supernumerary shortly thereafter. He returned to teaching, first at Port Dover and then at Milton. While in Milton he owned and edited the Georgetown Herald. After his school was closed, he took up a position at the high school in Thorold.

As a ministerial probationer Burns had been preoccupied with the need to bring others to the experience of holiness that he himself had undergone at age 14 as a result of reading Phoebe Palmer’s Faith and its effects. After his ordination, this aim virtually supplanted all other emphases in his ministry. He had made a systematic attempt to discover how a Christian can know the will of God and live by it daily. Each crisis in his life was handled in such a way as to achieve a sense of responding to the direct guidance of God. He developed the doctrine of “Divine guidance” as the means of conducting his life. “In accepting it,” he would later write, “I must also take the attitude to God of giving up myself absolutely to His personal control for the rest of my life, be the consequences what they may. . . . Should my obedience lead to any or all forms of erratic conduct, or even make shipwreck of my moral or religious character, still I must carry out all Divine instructions.” His theology was increasingly outside the mainstream of his church, and in 1878, after he had returned to preaching, he was forced to resign his post at Camlachie. For the next three years he ran “a private religious academy” at Georgetown. He was never again on the list of active Methodist ministers in Canada.

Burns elaborated on his doctrine in Divine guidance, or the holy guest (1889), defining it there as “some intimation to our consciousness by the Holy Spirit whereby we know that we are taking that course in all things . . . which is the best possible under the circumstances, and which is therefore pleasing to God, and satisfactory to ourselves.” The “manner” of such guidance, he explained, could be dreams, visions, voices, impressions, reasoning processes; intuitions, human helps, or Scripture passages. He also addressed the main objections of his critics, who held that his doctrine taught human infallibility. To Burns the concept of divine guidance was simply a “regulatory device for the true believer”; he admitted, however, that there were problems when persons who only thought they were so guided misused their assumed infallibility. Another complaint was that the doctrine depreciated the Bible and allowed for antinomianism. Burns argued that true believers do not need rules since they are always in tune with the divine guide. The Bible, he maintained, is only a testimony of God but the Holy Spirit is the individual’s guide. His concept did not destroy biblical authority but rather regulated it.

In 1879 Burns had been elected president of the Canada Holiness Association, formed that October at a convention held in Brussels, Ont. He would hold the position until his death. Although the organization was officially independent and interdenominational, it seems that most of its leaders were Methodists. The CHA’s public activity was twofold: the publication from 1882 of the monthly Expositor of Holiness (Toronto), of which Burns was editor, and the holding of annual conventions and camp-meetings. The Expositor was extremely important in promoting holiness sentiments, especially for the CHA’s adherents, and in publicizing the association’s official positions. In 1892 Burns published a special issue in which he attempted to summarize the association’s theological stance. “We believe,” he wrote, “that Jesus taught that when the Holy Ghost came on the day of Pentecost, He, although a Spirit, was to take the place of a personal Christ to every believer.” Members of the CHA, having put this teaching into practice, “do know and do the perfect will of God.”

The claim that CHA members had achieved a state of absolute perfection, the ultimate goal of all Christians, was most controversial. In 1893 Burns was charged by his church with heresy, for impugning Holy Scripture, holding Arian views, teaching divine guidance as the essential of the Gospel, and disregarding the leading Methodist doctrines. He declined to attend the trial, the charges were sustained, and in 1894 he was deposed from the ministry by the Guelph Conference. At two trials in 1893 similar charges had been sustained against his close associate the Reverend Albert Truax. For the Methodist Church of Canada the break with the holiness association was not a break with the emphasis on holiness but rather, as a contemporary noted, a result of “unholy contentions about holiness.”

There are virtually no sources for Burns’s subsequent life. His posthumous Autobiography indicates that the Expositor continued until 1901. By 1898 the CHA had apparently dissolved itself into the Christian Association and in that year Burns was serving as pastor of its church in Toronto. In 1905 the association was to erect its own church building, the First Church of the Christian Association; it would close for lack of membership in the early 1970s.

Burns died in 1904 at his home in Toronto. In an appendix to his Autobiography Truax reveals that, although the cause of death was angina, Burns had invoked the principle of divine guidance to claim the right to end his own life quickly and painlessly.

Ron Sawatsky

Nelson Burns’s Divine guidance, or the holy guest . . . was published at Brantford, Ont., in 1889. The Autobiography of the late RevNelson Burns, b.a. was issued at [Toronto] sometime after his death.

UCC-C, 13/5, files 52–53; 40/2, box 11, file 2; 3022, files 21c, 24a, 132. Univ. of Toronto Arch., P78-0158 (Univ. of Toronto, class and prize lists), 1853–57. Christian Guardian, 1879–95. Globe, 6 June 1893, 16 June 1904. G. F. Atter, “The third force”: a Pentecostal answer to the question so often asked by both our own young people and by members of other churches, “Who are the Pentecostals?” (Peterborough, Ont., 1962). S. D. Clark, Church and sect in Canada (Toronto, 1948). Cornish, Cyclopædia of MethodismExpositor of Holiness (Toronto), 1 (1882–83)–12 (1893–94). J. W. Grant, The church in the Canadian era: the first century of confederation (Toronto, 1972; [rev, ed.], Burlington, Ont., 1988). A guide to the study of the holiness movement, comp. C. E. Jones (Metuchen, N.J., 1974). C. E. Jones, Perfectionist persuasion: the holiness movement and American Methodism, 1867–1936 (Metuchen, 1974). [J. C. McLennan], “The Literary and Scientific Society – a fiftieth anniversary,” Univ. of Toronto Monthly, 4 (1903–4: 135–38. H. W. Pointen, “The Holiness Movement Church in Canada” (bd thesis, Univ. of Toronto, 1950). B. R. Ross, “Ralph Cecil Horner: a Methodist sectarian deposed, 1887–1895,” Canadian Church Hist. Soc., Journal (Sudbury, Ont.), 19 (1977)/UCC, Committee on Arch., Bull. (Toronto), no.26 (1977): 94–103. The so-called heresy case at Galt: containing the judicial record and history of the case before the courts of the Presbyterian Church in Canada . . . ([Toronto?], 1889).

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Cite This Article

Ron Sawatsky, “BURNS, NELSON,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed February 27, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/burns_nelson_13E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/burns_nelson_13E.html
Author of Article:   Ron Sawatsky
Title of Article:   BURNS, NELSON
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1994
Year of revision:   1994
Access Date:   February 27, 2024