No Reserves. No Retreat. No Regrets.


I didn’t write this story of William Borden.  It’s used with permission… and I hope it challenges you.

In 1904 William Borden graduated from a Chicago high school. As heir to the Borden family fortune, he was already a millionaire. For his high school graduation present, his parents gave 16-year-old Borden a trip around the world. As the young man traveled through Asia, the Middle East, and Europe, he felt a growing burden for the world’s hurting people. Finally, Bill Borden wrote home about his “desire to be a missionary.”1

One friend expressed surprise that he was “throwing himself away as a missionary.”

In response, Bill wrote two words in the back of his Bible: “No reserves.”
Even though young Borden was wealthy, he arrived on the campus of Yale University in 1905 trying to look like just one more freshman. Very quickly, however, Borden’s classmates noticed something unusual about him and it wasn’t his money. One of them wrote: “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.”2

During his college years, Bill Borden made one entry in his personal journal that defined what his classmates were seeing in him. That entry said simply: “Say ‘no’ to self and ‘yes’ to Jesus every time.”3

Borden’s first disappointment at Yale came when the university president spoke on the students’ need of “having a fixed purpose.” After hearing that speech, Borden wrote: “He neglected to say what our purpose should be, and where we should get the ability to persevere and the strength to resist temptations.”4 Surveying the Yale faculty and much of the student body, Borden lamented what he saw as the end result of this empty philosophy: moral weakness and sin-ruined lives.

During his first semester at Yale, Borden started something that would transform campus life. One of his friends described how it happened: “It was well on in the first term when Bill and I began to pray together in the morning before breakfast. I cannot say positively whose suggestion it was, but I feel sure it must have originated with Bill. We had been meeting only a short time when a third student joined us and soon after a fourth. The time was spent in prayer after a brief reading of Scripture. Bill’s handling of Scripture was helpful. . . . He would read to us from the Bible, show us something that God had promised and then proceed to claim the promise with assurance.”5

Borden’s small morning prayer group gave birth to a movement that spread across the campus. By the end of his first year, 150 freshman were meeting for weekly Bible study and prayer. By the time Bill Borden was a senior, one thousand of Yale’s 1,300 students were meeting in such groups.

Borden made it his habit to seek out the most “incorrigible” students and try to bring them to salvation. “In his sophomore year we organized Bible study groups and divided up the class of 300 or more, each man interested taking a certain number, so that all might, if possible, be reached. The names were gone over one by one, and the question asked, ‘Who will take this person?’ When it came to someone thought to be a hard proposition, there would be an ominous pause. Nobody wanted the responsibility. Then Bill’s voice would be heard, ‘Put him down to me.'”6

Borden’s outreach ministry was not confined to the Yale campus. He cared about widows and orphans and cripples. He rescued drunks from the streets of New Haven. To rehabilitate them, he founded the Yale Hope Mission. One of his friends wrote that he “might often be found in the lower parts of the city at night, on the street, in a cheap lodging house or some restaurant to which he had taken a poor hungry fellow to feed him, seeking to lead men to Christ.”7

Borden’s missionary call narrowed to the Muslim Kansu people in China. Once that goal was in sight, Borden never wavered. He also inspired his classmates to consider missionary service. One of them said: “He certainly was one of the strongest characters I have ever known, and he put backbone into the rest of us at college. There was real iron in him, and I always felt he was of the stuff martyrs were made of, and heroic missionaries of more modern times.”8

Although he was a millionaire, Bill seemed to “realize always that he must be about his Father’s business, and not wasting time in the pursuit of amusement.”9 Although Borden refused to join a fraternity, “he did more with his classmates in his senior year than ever before.” He presided over the huge student missionary conference held at Yale and served as president of the honor society Phi Beta Kappa.

Upon graduation from Yale, Borden turned down some high paying job offers. In his Bible, he wrote two more words: “No retreats.”

William Borden went on to graduate work at Princeton Seminary in New Jersey. When he finished his studies at Princeton, he sailed for China. Because he was hoping to work with Muslims, he stopped first in Egypt to study Arabic. While there, he contracted spinal meningitis. Within a month, 25-year-old William Borden was dead.

When news William Whiting Borden’s death was cabled back to the U.S., the story was carried by nearly every American newspaper. “A wave of sorrow went round the world . . . Borden not only gave (away) his wealth, but himself, in a way so joyous and natural that it (seemed) a privilege rather than a sacrifice” wrote Mary Taylor in her introduction to his biography.10

Was Borden’s untimely death a waste? Not in God’s plan. Prior to his death, Borden had written two more words in his Bible. Underneath the words “No reserves” and “No retreats,” he had written: “No regrets.”


Portions reprinted from Daily Bread, December 31, 1988, and The Yale Standard, Fall 1970 edition.

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5 thoughts on “No Reserves. No Retreat. No Regrets.

  1. Bill…

    I think you have identified what are the upcoming topics of your summer teaching… i.e., that the just will live by faith.

    On several occasions during the last six months you have posted other commentaries on stalwarts of faith of recent past…

    What I hear MaxGrace saying is the same refrain: The just will live by faith. As you know, that phrase comes from Habakkuk 2:4, and is the “thesis” of the Book of Romans (see Rom 1:17).

    You know that the great encouragement text of the New Testament is the Book of Hebrews, which, again, goes back to “The just will live by faith” (see Heb 10:38), which verse immediately precedes the great chapter of Old Testament faith stalwarts (Ch. 11). What I like about this particular chapter is that the author says, “And what more shall I say? Time will fail me if I tell of…” In other words, the examples of faith in the O.T. are quite extensive, if you look carefully.

    In the New Testament, if you look at the rewards that Christians receive (crowns) and you look at the first four chapters of Revelation (at the same or similar rewards or lack of them), there appears a nexus to joint heirship with the “seed” and to his future kingdom, or promise.

    (We as believers today are that seed of Abraham [Rom 9:7ff]. To put it another way, we are joint heirs of these promises (not just to Abraham) but also joint heirs with THE seed, Jesus [Eph 3:6]. He is THE object of the covenant with Abraham and with the covenant with David.)

    In the story you provided above, William Borden apparently believed that “God is, and that He is a rewarder of those that seek him” (Heb 11:6). The “God is” part is not just believing that God exists (i.e., “God is”), but is a play on the Hebrew word YHWH, which, as you know, was the term to remember (name of God was a “memorial” term given to Moses for the Israelites) that God would resurrect those — who like Abraham — were justified by faith.

    We know this because Jesus correlated this YHWH verse to Moses (Exodus 3:15) with the particular emphasis that YHWH is alive, and therefore, is the basis of the promise of resurrection (see Luke 20:37-38). That is, the “God is” part (of the literal meaning of YHWH) means that He is the living God, who, by association with Abraham, et al., will fulfill the promises to Abraham for the future kingdom in the Promised Land. Jesus surprised his listeners (Sadducees) by this insight, because to “see” this principle in Ex 3:15, you had to correlate — by faith — that the memorial implication of the name of YHWH implied that he was the living God, who HAD to resurrect Abraham, et al., if He identified himself with them, though they were “dead.” Thus YHWH is not a God of the dead, but of the living (see Luke 20:37-38).

    What am I saying?

    You can develop several summer sermons along these lines. We have a living hope, and therefore this world system is just a gig. We have to bite our lip, and trust, “hope-against-hope” (Rom 4:18), that YHWH is who he says he is, which means that he will deliver what he promised — i.e., our glorification (resurrection) in His Son (as joint heirs), who will inherit the blessings of the Abrahamic, Davidic, and New Covenants (future glory). You can tweak these themes, based on the spiritual maturity level of your listeners (e.g., youth group, men’s group, etc.)… BOTTOM LINE: Our self-identities and daily life experiences should reflect this hope (faith), which is supposed to be “real” in our minds and hearts.

    I am sure that William Borden would not have disagreed: indeed the just will live by faith. There is no way to get around this truth as a daily principle of daily Christian living — you MUST live by faith. You cannot please God otherwise! (Heb 11:6).


  2. I am seeing again and again how often white hot evangelism always includes acts of justice and mercy, and Borden’s life is no different.

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