The Forgotten Final Resting Place of William Borden

The most influential missionary of the early 20th century never made it to the mission field.

“Upon Borden’s death, the newspapers again covered his powerful life story. His will was probated to distribute his wealth to CIM, Moody Church, Nile Mission Press, and other Christian organizations. Memorial services mourned his passing throughout the world, even in the little AME church that only now learned their former intern was a millionaire.”

 

Tucked away in the northwest corner of the American cemetery in Cairo lies the neglected grave of William Borden, one of the most celebrated missionaries of the 20th century Student Volunteer Movement. Heir to a family fortune, the Yale graduate instead devoted his life to Christ, pledged in service to the Muslims of China.

But at age 25 Borden died in Egypt, having contracted spinal meningitis while studying Arabic in preparation. His will distributed nearly everything to mission groups and Christian ministries, leaving him only a cement slab as a gravestone. Engraved at the bottom were words uttered in memorium, “Apart from Christ, there is no explanation for such a life.”

That is, if anyone could read them. A recently erected wall in the poorly tended cemetery pressed square up against his plot. This meant that the gravestone now faced the wrong direction, requiring the rare pilgrim to slither in between the wall and the grave to read the inscription. It was an ill testament for one whose death was mourned from Chicago to New York to Cairo to China.

Even stranger is the fact that what Borden is perhaps most known for—the inspirational quote that he is reputed to have written into his personal Bible, “No reserves. No Retreats. No Regrets”—has not been found by historians or biographers.

Is the central anecdote of Borden’s life a case of hagiography? That it has not been found does not mean it is not true. But as with many Christian heroes, the reality is more inspiring than any potential fiction. As the church grows in China and the gospel labors in the Muslim world, Borden’s testimony is alive in the impact he made on the world.

No Reserves

Borden was born in Chicago on November 1, 1887, the third of four children of a wealthy silver magnate and landowner. His mother underwent a conversion experience in Chicago Avenue Church, the church made famous by evangelist D. L. Moody, and raised her children accordingly. At age six, Borden wrote with less than perfect spelling, “I what to be an oneast man when I grow up, and true and loveing and kind and faithful man.” At age seven, he stood for hours in church, decked out in his blue sailor’s suit, to dedicate his life to Christ.

The Borden gravesite before recent renovations.

Borden’s spelling improved sufficiently, and he was admitted to the prestigious Hill School in Pennsylvania, where he became chairman of the Missions Study Band. He graduated in 1904 at the age of 16, fourth in his class of 48 students. But before going to college at Yale his parents gave him that most modern of educational experiences—the gap year.

For 11 months Borden was under the tutelage of Walter Erdman, a recent graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, minister, and missionary. They toured the world, visiting sites and mission stations in Japan, China, India, Egypt, Syria, and Turkey. He wrote copious letters back home describing the wonders of the Orient and the curious but admirable customs of the natives. And from Kyoto he told his parents how his travels were fanning into flame a nascent desire.

“I have never thought very seriously about being a missionary,” he penned, “[…but] when I look ahead a few years it seems as though the only thing to do is prepare for the foreign field.”

He wrote nervously. In Rome, he received his father’s rebuff: Wait until you are 21 before making any life decisions. One friend in correspondence was blunt: Don’t throw your life away. But his travels were animating him in ways that his fortune did not, and he wrote a note in the leaf of his Bible, “No Reserves.”

No Retreats

Near the bottom of Borden’s tombstone was engraved the Great Commission mandate of Mark 16:15, but nearer the top was his personal life verse of Psalm 119:11, “Thy word have I hid in my heart, that I might not sin against thee” (KJV). As he went to Yale, this was what he wrote in his pocket New Testament, words which guided him faithfully the next four years.

Refusing to pledge to a fraternity despite his family heritage, Borden enthusiastically engaged himself in both sport and study. Voted president of Phi Beta Kappa his senior year, he also joined the boxing, yacht, and track and field teams. But his mind never wavered from his developing missions commitment.

During his freshman year in 1905, he went to Nashville to attend the Student Volunteer Movement conference. Samuel Zwemer, the famed missionary to Egypt who would go on to found The Muslim World journal in 1911, spoke of 15 million Chinese Muslims with no single missionary witness. “Of course it will cost life,” concluded Zwemer, not knowing how prophetic his words would be. “It is not an expedition of ease nor a picnic excursion.”

But it was a message tailored perfectly to Borden. He contacted China Inland Mission (CIM) his sophomore year and was told to wait. He tried again his senior year and was told to inquire also of other agencies. CIM would eventually accept him in 1912, after he had finished seminary and been officially ordained.

Thoughts of going abroad did not distract Borden from pursuing his mission with his classmates at Yale, however. In his freshman year, he gathered 150 classmates into weekly Bible studies. He made it a point to organize co-leaders to reach every student in invitation, taking responsibility himself for the most incorrigible. “He hunts the worst skunk,” one friend described.

By his senior year, 1,000 of 1,300 students at Yale were drawn in. But Borden also drew them out. As a sophomore, he established the first rescue mission in New Haven. As a seaport midway between New York and Boston, the city provided irregular work for an increasing population of hobos and riffraff. Saloons, gambling halls, and brothels were a temptation for many a student; Borden engaged them in the Yale Hope Mission instead. In one year, 14,000 men attended gospel meetings, 17,000 received a warm meal, and 8,000 found a place to sleep.

A visiting British theologian was asked what he found most impressive about America. “The sight of that young millionaire kneeling in prayer beside a bum at the Yale Hope Mission,” he replied. Not only did Borden support the work with his time, he also purchased the building used to house the chapel, hotel, and kitchen, and he was the main benefactor to its ongoing service.

All the while at Yale, Borden kept up with the news, regularly reading The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. He took an increasing share in family finances, and at this point the online sources are divided on the wording of Borden’s second imprint into his personal Bible.

Borden’s father died in 1906 near the end of his freshman year. Some say his father told him curtly he would never work in the family business if he continued his pursuit of missions. Others said at the end of his senior year Borden turned down a number of lucrative job offers. In any event his heart was set toward ministry, not wealth.

“No retreats,” he wrote in the margin of his Bible to encourage himself.

And so also has he encouraged generations of evangelical Yale students. Today there is a bronze image of Borden in Dwight Hall, joined to a memorial water fountain. It was here Borden held Christian meetings, where they continue to this day.

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