Happy 129th Birthday to the Boys’ Brigade

The anchor – the logo of The Boys’ Brigade (Taken from Hebrews 6:19 – “which hope we have as an Anchor of the soul, both Sure & Stedfast”. 129 years ago, in Glasgow, William Alexander Smith started the Boys’ Brigade.

The BB was founded in Glasgow, in 1883, by William Alexander Smith. Smith was a Sunday School teacher at North Woodside Free Church College, he was also a North Lanarkshire Rifles volunteer. “Lieutenant Smith was a disciplinarian, a good drill and stickler for correctness and smartness of uniform…..he understood that as slovenliness destroys self-respect, so smartness, correctness and cleanliness not only stimulate the right sort of pride in the individual, but also discipline, emulation and spirit de corps….The men of his company worshipped him” (Gibbon 1961:21)

Smith’s problem was unruly twelve year old Boys in his class. “The boys attended because they were sent there by parents, and their lack of interest was obvious…most of the boy’s classes in the school declined to be controlled, and had not even a nodding acquaintance with discipline” (Gibbon 1961:32). How was it that Smith could command great respect and drill hundreds of men on a Saturday, and yet be run ragged by small boys on a Sunday? “Can’t you make use of your volunteer methods in the Sunday School?” was the question asked by one of his friends, it was this that sparked the idea that started the Boys Brigade. “Discipline and espirit de corps” was the answer. (Gibbon 1961:32) With 2 of his friends from the volunteers, Smith launched the BB on 4th October, 1883, with a crew of 3 officers and 28 Boys.

William Alexander Smith

From the outset, Smith established that the “object of the Brigade shall be the advancement of Christ’s Kingdom among Boys, and the promotion of habits of Reverence, Discipline, Self-Respect and all that tends towards a true Christian Manliness” (Gibbon 1961:60). Note the capitalisation of the words Smith saw as important, including the word BOY, to remind officers that the Boys’ Brigade was about the Boys!

By 1886 there were 44 companies, 136 officers, 1999 Boys. 4 of these companies were in England, in Manchester, London and Penzance. In 1888 Smith had to give up his occupation and become full time secretary of the BB. Smith wanted to transform lives; his passion is seen clearly in a lecture (quoted beloew) where he describes Christ – “Christ is the ideal Man; Christ was the ideal boy; and if men and boys are not won for Christ there is surely something wrong in the way in which we present Him to them”

In the Sunday School Chronicle of the 11th May, 1888, there is a report of a speech he [William Alexander Smith] made at a Sunday School Union Conference, presided over my Mr Quintin Hogg, founder of the Polytechnic. After describing the beginning and growth of the Brigade, it’s object, aims and methods, Smith said:-

Christ is the ideal Man; Christ was the ideal boy; and if men and boys are not won for Christ there is surely something wrong in the way in which we present Him to them. It may be we have gone too much on the lines of seeking to commend Christianity to them by showing the boy only that side of it that would commend it to the gentler nature of the girl. All a boy’s aspirations are towards manliness, however mistaken his ideas may be as to what true manliness means. Our boys are full of earnest desire to be brave, true men, and if we want to make them brave, true Christian men we must direct this desire into the right channel, and show them that in the service of Christ they will find the truest, bravest life that a man can live. We laid the foundation of the B.B. on this idea, and determined to win the boys for Christ by presenting to them a view of Christianity to which we know their natures will most readily respond. It also seemed to us that by associating Christianity with all that is most noble and manly in a boy’s eyes, we might do much to disabuse his mind of the idea that there is anything weak or effeminate about Christianity—an idea that is far too widespread among boys. Our aim was to band the boys together and create an esprit de corps that would make them proud of their company, jealous of its honour, ashamed to do anything to disgrace it, and prepared to make any sacrifice rather than be dismissed from it. In the Brigade we try to realise not only that boys will be boys, but that boys ought to be boys, and it would be a thousand pities if they were anything else.”

“Through games, camps, clubrooms, ambulances, bands, and so on, we take the boy on every side of his nature, and surround him with a continual influence for good at that critical period of his life when his character is taking a mould that will affect his whole future. The Brigade gives the officer endless opportunities of coming into contact with his boys; and there is no better way of doing this than to ask them to spend an evening at his home—six or eight at a time—when the touch between the boys themselves gets very close, and they are drawn together as in no other way.”

“The Brigade makes a point of acknowledging God in everything, of putting Christ at the head of everything, and tries to do it in such a way that a boy will feel that the religious element in the work is a pleasure and not a bore. It breaks down the notion in a boy’s mind that religion is a thing for Sunday and Sunday School, and has nothing to do with his daily life during the rest of the week. We try to make him feel that there is no part of his life that is beyond the range of God’s love, and that everything he does should be done in God’s sight.”

The BB was the first organisation to take Boys away on residential holidays, with Smith taking the 1st Glasgow to Tighnabruaich in 1886. Smith being an innovator in many ways came across the reluctance of parents to take their Boys camping. Smith wrote to the parents assuring them that “every precaution will be taken to ensure health and safety“. (Gibbon 1961:66–67) Camp was not to be seen as an opportunity to “convert” the Boys, “officers should do their work thoroughly, earnestly and devotedly, and leave the issue in God’s hands. He insisted that officers and Boys should share in all the adventure, weather, sports, hardships and fun of camp, and that they must be together at meals.” (McFarlan 1982:44)

The BB still has a tremendous amount to offer and I am very proud to have been an officer for 26 years. This week, please pray for the BB, that we can find more adults to volunteer, so that more BB companies can be started.

Gibbon, F. (1961) William A. Smith of The Boys’ Brigade1961st ed., London: Wm. Collins Sons & Co.

McFarlan, D.M. (1982) First for boys : the story of the Boys’ Brigade, 1883-1983, Glasgow: Collins.

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