William Sidney Burney, son of Adam and Elizabeth Burney, was born March 4, 1801, in Abbeville District, South Carolina. His parents moved to Giles County, Tenn. In a short time his father and three other old Presbyterian elders united in the organization of a Cumberland Presbyterian Church, in March, 1810. The Rev. James B. Porter, son of Reese Porter, then a licensed preacher, held the election for elders in his father's house. These elders were Burney, Reese Porter, Berry (father of the Rev. John M. Berry), and the other not remembered.
This church is located six miles west of Pulaski, the county-seat of Giles County, and is no doubt the first in the body organized as a Cumberland Presbyterian Church. The writer was pastor of this Church from March, 1867, to the first of 1872, during which time he not only privately, but twice through the Banner of Peace, called for information, and no claim of priority was set up for any other Church. This Church deserves mention for the fact that it has furnished in all about twenty preachers to the Church. Among the first we mention W. S. Burney, Carson P. Reed, John M. Berry, and Le Roy Woods; later, the Rev. Farmer, H. H. Hill, Alfred Simpson, and D. G. Moore; and more recently, Gid. Anderson, Rob't Paisley, C. N. Wood, J. D. Braly, D. S. Bodenhamer, and John M. Paisley. Thus it is not only the first-born, but also the prolific mother of preachers and is still a large, vigorous, growing Church. Camp-meetings were held here regularly from its organization until about the middle of this century. It was at one of these W. S. Burney professed religion (September 1, 1816), and joined the Church, under the labors of the Rev. James B. Porter. A short time after this his father settled in Simms's Settlement, north of Athens, in Limestone County, Ala., where in a few years he and the father of the Rev. A. J. Steele were chosen elders at the organization of New Garden Church--the first established in that section.
W. S. Burney, A. J. Steele, Carson P. Reed, Albert G. Gibson, and John Molloy were received as candidates for the ministry by Elk Presbytery, at Meridian Church, Madison County, Ala., October 5, 1819. The members of the Presbytery present were: Ministers--Samuel King, Robert Bell, Robert Donnell, John Carnahan, and James Stewart; Elders--Rob't Reed, George Davis, John Dickey, Wesley Smith, Joseph Brown, John Molloy, James Orr, and Samuel Burney. Brown and Molloy both became preachers.
In this early day of frontier civilization educational facilities were meager, but fortunately for some of these young men the Rev. Wm. Moore, a ripe scholar and a man every way adapted to the work, proposed to give three months' time each summer, for several years, to teaching as many of the young men as could avail themselves of the opportunity. The Rev. A. G. Gibson's father, who lived on Cane Creek, six miles north of Fayetteville, Tenn., had a large barn in which was stowed a quantity of rye in the sheaf. He proposed to the students to put the rye in one end and use the vacant part for a school-room, and this was done. In this school--dubbed "Rye College"-- Burney, Reed, Steele, Gibson, and several others received nearly all of their literary training. These young men, while in this school, held prayer-meetings at night during the week, and on Sundays at various places in the neighborhood, at which there were many conversions.
At the meeting of Elk Presbytery, at Salem Church, in sight of the residence of the Rev. Robert Donnell, in Limestone County, Ala., in April, 1821, Burney and Gibson were licensed to preach the gospel. Burney was ordered to supply Duck River, and Gibson, Bedford Circuit. Each had more than thirty appointments per month. Their success was remarkable.
Brother Burney preached his first sermon at Cornersville (now in Marshall County, Tenn.) in the house of John Haynes. During the time he was engaged in this work he applied himself diligently to the studies assigned, and was ordained at the house of Samuel McCutchan, in Bedford County, Tenn., October 4, 1822. The Rev. James B. Porter preached the sermon and gave the charge. He was then sent to the same field of labor.
During the earlier days of his ministry Brother Burney spent about three months as a private student with the Rev. R. Donnell in Alabama, and about six months with the Rev. Finis Ewing in Missouri. He always felt that he was greatly benefited by the instructions of these holy men of God--mighty in the Scriptures and skilled in word and doctrine. In those days our Church had no theological schools, and young preachers often spent a time, as did Brother Burney, with some of the older ministers as private students.
Brother Burney was married on September 13, 1825, to Miss Sackarissa Hunter Williamson, daughter of a very pious widow, who lived about one mile southwest of Columbia, Maury County, Tenn., whose house was one of the most hospitable, pleasant homes the weary preachers could find.
Sister Burney was eminently pious, and fulfilled the responsibilities of a preacher's wife as but few could do. She was a devoted wife, a fond mother, and managed domestic matters well. She cheerfully aided her husband in his Master's work. Her labor done, she finished her pilgrimage August 14, 1873, rejoicing in her Saviour's love.
In the summer of 1827, as he went to an appointment at John Edmiston's, on the Perryville road, five miles west of the village of Mount Pleasant, Maury County, in about one mile of the appointment he saw in a grove a crowd of men, boys, and negroes at what was called a "shooting march." His heart was stirred with an ardent desire to hold a meeting at that place. Mr. Alex. Pickard, owner of the land, having heard of Mr. Burney's desire, said he should have the privilege. Preparations were made for a grove-meeting, logs split into puncheons for seats, and a rude pulpit erected at the root of a large oak. The meeting took place in August. I was there on Sunday. There was a large congregation for that section of country. The circumstances leading to the appointment had much to do in securing the crowd. Mr. Burney's text was, "Ye stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost; as your fathers did, so do ye." (Acts vii.51.)
This was, so far as I remember, the second time I ever heard a Cumberland Presbyterian preach. The sermon, in style and delivery, was such as I (then about twelve years old) had never heard, and its effects on the congregation such as I had never witnessed. I sat near two rather aged men. One was the noted "bully" of that part of the county. They were shaking as if they were suffering with a violent fit of ague, while great tears were profusely coursing down their brawny cheeks; and, as far as I could see, this was the general condition of that crowd of sinners, for there were few of any other sort there. I was alarmed. I did not comprehend the strange scene. I do not remember that Mr. Burney had any assistant minister, or that he gave an invitation to penitents to present themselves in any manner for prayer. Under this state of awful awakening he dismissed the congregation, and closed the meeting. Within a week or so a large number of those awakened on that day attended a camp-meeting, not less than twenty miles distant, at Snow Creek Camp-ground, where now the village of Santa Fe is located, and about twenty of them returned happy converts. Mr. Burney was at that meeting, and had the unspeakable joy of witnessing these fruits of that ever-memorable sermon, which he told me he thought the most successful he ever preached. These young converts returned home full of zeal for the cause of Christ. The proposition was made to have a camp-meeting where Mr. Burney held his recent meeting. In a short time a brush arbor and tents of rails were erected, and their preachers, with others to help, held a meeting there in the month of August or September, which resulted in a precious revival and a large number of conversions; also in the organization of Mount Joy Church, with nearly 100 members. A great many were heads of families, and nearly all of full-grown years. Seldom has such a reformation of a whole neighborhood occurred as this. His first meeting there was afterward called "Burney's Shooting Match." Among the preachers who assisted in this camp-meeting, I remember distinctly Robert D. King and James B. Porter. A few years since a large frame church was built to supersede the old log house, which the writer dedicated. He also followed Brother Burney in the pastoral care of that Church for fourteen years consecutively.
During the period of Brother Burney's residence in Tennessee, camp-meetings were annually held in many Churches, in which he was one of the most regular and efficient laborers. It was remarkable what powers of endurance he, as well as many of his yoke-fellows, had in these almost superhuman labors.
In 1833 the Rev. John P. Campbell had the pastoral charge of Mount Pleasant Church. I was then a boarding pupil in the village male academy. On the fifth Sunday of April he held a sacramental service at a Presbyterian Church one mile south of town, in order to accommodate the anticipated crowd, for the house was large. Brother Burney assisted him, and such was the effect of his sermon that day that the services were continued in town that night. The awakening was increased, and the meetings were continued with but little intermission until August, though moved sometimes to Mount Joy and back again; and once, or oftener, to a Methodist camp-ground near Mount Pleasant. The number of professions, as well as could be ascertained, was near 300.
It was during this revival, on Friday, June 12th, about 4 o'clock P.M., in Mount Pleasant, the writer, after several days of deep distress, obtained his hope in Christ. About two weeks afterward he was received by Brother Campbell (ever of precious memory) into the communion of that Church. To these two brethren he feels more indebted than to any others for his conversion.
As its session in November, 1834, Columbia Synod passed an order for the division of Elk Presbytery, and the organization of Richland (out of its western territory), which was constituted on April 8, 1835. Brother Burney was one of its organic members, and from it be obtained a letter of regular dismission in October, 1836, and in November moved to Mississippi, where he spent the rest of his life, except about four years, during which he lived in Memphis, Tenn. His first settlement in Mississippi was about ten miles west of Oxford, in La Fayette County. While here he organized a Church at Oxford and at Liberty--now called Pleasant Hill. He had the pastoral care of Oxford one-half of his time for twelve or thirteen years. The remainder of his time was occupied in preaching in various places in La Fayette and adjoining counties. He gave his whole time, as long as he was able, to his charges, and attending camp-meetings, the judicatories of the Church, and in organizing new Churches, of which we mention that at Coffeeville, Yalabusha County, to which he devoted a part of his labors until the services of J. C. Provine, D.D., of Nashville, Tenn., then just started in the ministry, were secured.
When Brother Burney settled in Oxford, in 1838, there was no church-house in the place. The different denominations held their services in the primitive log courthouse. Brother Burney, feeling the importance of a church edifice in order to add to the growth and permanence of his own Church, soon succeeded in having a brick house erected on South Street, which afforded a comfortable place for worship until the increase of the congregation, in the course of time, required a more commodious building. In 1840, not long after this first church was built, Brother Burney secured the assistance of Samuel Dennis, D.D., and the Rev. Reuben Burrow, jr., and held a meeting of some weeks' continuance. Forty or more persons were converted, a large proportion of whom were heads of families, one of whom was Hon. J. M. Howry, well known in the history of our General Assemblies for many years. All the Churches of the town were benefited by the religious services, and strengthened by accessions.
This meeting, perhaps, did more than any other to give type to the religious character of that people, the fruitage of which is there still. No Mississippi town has a better reputation for its commodious and neat churches, its literary schools of high grade, its refinement and morality, its church-going habits, its spirit of Christian enterprise, and devotion to the cause of Christ. And no individual did more in his sphere than Brother Burney in laying the foundation of, and in building up, this reputation, by his faithful gospel preaching, his earnest prayers and exhortations, his kind, benevolent spirit, and his private and public exemplification of the religion of Christ. His virtues are still cherished in many hearts, who remember him for what he has done.
About the year 1845 Brother Burney held a meeting in the eastern part of Panola County, at which a number of gentlemen expressed anxiety to have preaching in their neighborhood, about eight miles south-east from the town of Panola. Brother Burney proposed to them, as there was no church near them, that if they would prepare an arbor, he would hold them a meeting. There were twelve of them who met to consider the matter, ten of whom claimed to be sinners. These ten proposed that they should build a substantial board-roofed arbor, which accordingly in a short time was done, and Brother Burney, assisted by the Rev. Wm. A. Bryant, in due time held them a meeting, which resulted in the farmers around building tents, and Brother Burney, with others, held them a camp-meeting. Every one of the said ten professed religion, and the camp-ground, in honor of what they had done for the good of the neighborhood, was named, "The Sinner's Campground." Camp-meetings were held there annually for a number of years, with happy results. This incident illustrates how unconverted persons, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, may not only secure their own salvation, but be instrumental also in contributing to the salvation of others. As it is written, "Let him that heareth say, Come."
Brother Burney was physically large and fine-looking, had a well-balanced mind, and more than an average of mental and spiritual gifts for usefulness. And it may be truly said of him, "He was a good man and full of the Holy Ghost and of faith; and much people was added to the Lord."
On July 31, 1885, after a long and sore affliction, which he
endured with much patience, he passed over the river, where loved
ones were waiting and watching for his coming. His body rests
in Oxford Cemetery, with wife, children, and friends.
G. W. MITCHELL.
[Source: The Cumberland Presbyterian, November 26, 1885, page 2]