At the young age of 25, American millionaire and philanthropist William Borden died in Egypt on April 9, 1913. Despite never making it to the mission field in China, Christianity Today once called him “the most influential missionary of the early 20th century.” Borden’s story has inspired Christians and missionaries ever since.
As an heir to his family’s fortune from silver mining, William Borden had many opportunities in life, yet shortly after high school he became interested in missionary work. Some said he was “throwing himself away,” but while a student at Yale, he quickly gained a reputation for his sense of purpose and dedication to Jesus. He established a Bible study and prayer group that eventually included about 1,000 of Yale’s 1,300 students. Off campus, he funded the Yale Hope Mission in New Haven with his own money and was often seen with widows, orphans, homeless people, and drunks, providing for their needs, and telling them about Jesus. It looked like God was preparing him for a fruitful future as a missionary.
After graduating Yale, Borden turned down attractive job offers, choosing instead to study at Princeton Seminary, intending to minister to Uighur Muslims in China. He finalized his plans and set sail, stopping in Egypt to study Islam and Arabic in preparation. However, he contracted cerebral meningitis in March 1913 and died a few weeks later on April 9. Did God take him too soon, before his work was done? Borden didn’t seem to think so.
After his death, family reported that in his Bible were written the words “no reserve”, referring to his willingness to put everything aside for Christ, then later “no retreat”, after turning down job offers upon graduating Yale, and finally “no regrets”, apparently written shortly before his death.
Skeptics deny this note exists, citing “no evidence.” However, friends and family claim to have found the note, and testimony is evidence. Even if the note doesn’t exist, he still made the choices he made, living a life which declared that the salvation given through Jesus Christ was worth more than all the earthly benefits a young millionaire could have.
Skeptics may also say Borden, and God, failed because Borden’s life didn’t go according to his plans. What was the point? But as they say, the LORD works in mysterious ways and His plans are not always our plans. Borden impacted many during his days at Yale before leaving for Egypt, and by events he couldn’t control, he may have become a better witness for Christ by death than from living as a missionary. In his will, he left his fortune to several Christian agencies, including China Inland Mission, which named Borden Memorial Hospital in Lanzhou, China, in his memory. Seized by the government in 1951, the hospital is now the Lanzhou Second People’s Hospital, but locals know its history.
During his short life, William Borden lived with a dedication to Christ that continues to inspire believers over a century later. Even though he never made it to China, his testimony made it there and provides hope for persecuted groups and those who Christ calls to serve them.
Having all this world could offer, he chose to live for the next world. Engraved on his gravestone in Egypt are the words “Apart from Christ, there is no explanation for such a life.” Even if the note is just a legend, “No reserve, no retreat, and no regrets” summarizes the life of William Borden well.
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