Every mother knows that at some point, in some way, she will have to surrender her children. While they are young, she is responsible for protecting and teaching and training them. But all the while, she will be preparing them for independence, preparing herself to release them to the world. Ultimately, she will be preparing herself to surrender them to the will of a sovereign God. In this entry in the series, “Christian Men and Their Godly Moms,” we encounter a mother who was called to surrender her son to a dangerous and uncertain future.
A Devoted Mother
William Borden was born on November 1, 1887, the third of four children. His mother, Mary, came from a long line of distinguished ancestors, including some who had come to America aboard the Mayflower. Even before coming to the New World, her ancestors had accumulated a long list of achievements and distinctions in the military, political, and religious spheres. Yet Mary took little pride in her lineage and rarely spoke of it, for she was far more concerned with the future of her family. On December 28, 1882, she married William Borden Sr., a prominent Chicago businessman who had become fantastically wealthy through real estate and silver mining. When it came time to bear children, all four were raised in remarkable privilege.
Though Mary had been religious all her life, she came to saving faith in 1894, at the age of 33. This conversion made an immediate and indelible mark on her life. An attentive mother, she had always been devoted to her children’s health and welfare. But now her foremost concern was their spiritual development. Longing for her children to consistently hear the preaching of the gospel, she began to attend Chicago Avenue Church (later renamed Moody Church), which at that time was pastored by R.A. Torrey.
It did not take long before little William heard, understood, and responded to the gospel. One Sunday, when he was 7, the church was preparing to distribute the Lord’s Supper. Mary whispered, “Is it not time that you were thinking about this yourself, William?” He responded, “I have been,” and when the elements were distributed, he took the bread and wine. This was not quite what Mary had meant! She spoke to Torrey after the service and he asked William to come and visit him the next day. Torrey was quickly convinced that William had genuinely come to know the Lord, and he was soon baptized and received into church membership.
William quickly showed unusual interest in spiritual matters and made exceptional progress in spiritual growth and maturity. Of his own accord, he made it a habit to engage in serious, daily Bible study and prayer. Every day before school, he and his mother would pray together on their knees, asking that William would experience Christ’s power in his life. They prayed that he would joyfully surrender to God’s will so that he might bring glory to God.
Mary responded to William’s zeal by putting even greater effort into teaching and training her son along with her other children. It became her habit to gather the children for Bible lessons. During one of these lessons, she asked them to write down what they would like to be when they grow up. William’s answer showed both childlike enthusiasm and remarkable maturity: “I want to be an honest man when I grow up, a true and loving and kind and faithful man.” God would bless and grant this desire.
From childhood, William was always particularly devoted to his mother. His father was also present, involved, and godly, but he and his mother had a special fondness for one another and developed a deep friendship. William’s most noteworthy biographer would later write, “He was more of a close friend than a son.” He constantly sought his mother’s prayer and counsel and relied on her wisdom. She was his ally, his confidant. She would ultimately be the one called upon to surrender her son to the will of God.
As part of his elite upbringing, William was given the opportunity to tour the world during his gap year. His parents hired Walter Erdman to accompany their son, choosing him primarily because of his upstanding Christian character. Together they traveled through Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. Along the way, they were exposed to the world’s spiritual deprivation and spent time with many missionaries. From Japan, William wrote his mother, “Your request that I pray to God for His very best plan for my life is not a hard thing to do, for I have been praying that very thing for a long time. Although I have never thought very seriously about being a missionary until lately, I was somewhat interested in that line as you know. I think this trip is going to be a great help in showing things to me in a new light.” Indeed, that trip would kindle a spark that would never burn out.
When William returned from his trip, he began to attend Yale and immediately pinned this verse to the wall of his room: “Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way? by taking heed thereto according to thy word” (Psalm 119:9). And on the leaf of his Bible, he wrote, “Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee” (Psalm 119:11). He would soon become known on campus for his financial generosity as well as his spiritual zeal and leadership. One of his peers would later write, “He came to college far ahead, spiritually, of any of us. He had already given his heart in full surrender to Christ and had really done it. We who were his classmates learned to lean on him and find in him a strength that was solid as a rock, just because of this settled purpose and consecration.” By the time he graduated, he was convinced God had called him to the mission field. Though some warned him this would be a waste of his privileged life, he simply responded, “You have never seen heathenism.” It was during this time that his father suddenly died, and William grew even closer to his mother, becoming her greatest source of human comfort. Longing to help her through her grief, he committed to writing to her every day.
Having completed his studies at Yale, William attended Princeton Seminary, where he studied under such noteworthy theologians as John Gresham Machen before graduating in 1912. On September 9, he was ordained to ministry in the Moody Church in Chicago, allowing him to begin work with the China Inland Mission. He had come to learn of an unreached Muslim people group in China and determined he would take the gospel to them. While his ordination was a moment of great joy to Mary, it was also mixed with sorrow, as it marked his sure departure. She had consecrated her son to the Lord’s service and now had to surrender him. William’s biographer says, “They stood together, and his strength had helped her no less than his tenderness. But the separation had until this time been prospective. Now it was coming near. His ordination meant, as Mrs. Borden realized, that they were committed to the sacrifice that seemed as if it might cost her very life.”
William spent his final Sunday in America worshipping with his mother and gathering with her prayer group. No sooner had William left than she wrote him of the comfort she had received that day. She quoted Luke 2:10, “Good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people,” and told how that verse had taken on a new depth of meaning as she had sat beside her missionary son. “I will never cease to be grateful for the rich blessing you have been to me, Dear, a comfort and a strength all your years to your devoted mother. What a rich New Year is unfolding before you! It was so beautiful having you with us in our little prayer-circle—just one more of the loving touches God has put to these last days.”
She would never again see her son. William arrived in Egypt in December 1912 to begin studies in Arabic. But only three months after arriving, he was taken ill with cerebral meningitis. Tragically, Mary could not be told of his illness, for she had embarked on a slow journey to Egypt to spend the summer with him. William lingered for a few weeks, often asking for his mother and often saying simply, “Poor Mother! Poor Mother!” When at last Mary arrived, she rushed to his side but was four hours too late. William died on April 9, 1913. He was just 25 years old.
Mary left Egypt with William’s Bible and saw the words “No reserves” written on the flyleaf. William had written this when he determined to pursue missions instead of a lucrative career in the family business. He later added to the flyleaf, “No retreat,” and finally, shortly before his death, “No regrets.” No reserves. No retreat. No regrets. Those words would come to outlive him and speak forever of his zeal, of his commitment, of his surrender. He was buried in an unadorned American cemetery in Cairo, where his headstone bears these simple words: “Apart from Christ, there is no explanation for such a life.”
All through William’s life, he and his mother had prayed that God’s will would be done. And somehow it was, though not in the way either one had anticipated. If you are a mother, you, too, are called to pray, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” You are to pray it on your behalf and on behalf of your son, to surrender him to the will of a faithful God. And as you pray, as you open your hands to him, you can trust that everything surrendered for Christ’s sake—your possessions, your life, your children—will be used for his eternal glory and our eternal good.
The information for this article was drawn primarily from Borden of Yale by Mrs. Howard Taylor and 50 People Every Christian Should Know by Warren Wiersbe. Also be sure to read “The Forgotten Final Resting Place of William Borden.”
More in Christian Men and their Godly Moms:
- Christian Men and their Godly Moms
- The Hidden Strength of a Weak Mother (Christian Men and Their Godly Moms)
- The Power of a Praying Mother (Christian Men and Their Godly Moms)
- The Unbreakable Bond of Training and Tenderness (Christian Men and Their Godly Moms)