Lord and Lady Baden-Powell: character builders
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As the worldwide Boy Scout / Girl Guide movement celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, BCCN offers Ed Hird’s reflections on the organization’s faith-based foundation. 

FROM the very beginning, Lord and Lady Baden-Powell were committed to making a significant difference in the lives of young people.

They saw the effect of the 20th century’s industrialized, urbanized society: the deterioration of physical health, moral standards and self discipline.

Robert Baden-Powell – or B.P., as he is affectionately known – returned from South Africa in 1903 as a war hero. He had bravely defended the South African town of Mafeking, with only a small band of soldiers, for 217 days.

During the siege, he used the boys of the town to carry messages, offer first aid, and do other vital jobs. These boys, a prototype of the Boy Scouts, played a vital part in saving the beleaguered town.

The Boer War, as a whole, was a great embarrassment to the English nation. Their troops performed poorly and inefficiently. B.P.’s defence of Mafeking provided a bright spot in an otherwise dark period.

When B.P. returned to England, he was appalled at the deterioration he saw in English youth. He described “thousands of boys and young men  – pale, narrow chested, hunched up, miserable specimens, smoking endless cigarettes, numbers of them betting.”

He was also concerned about the rampant sexual immorality, resulting in disease, poverty and unwanted children. B.P. the war hero wanted to use his popularity to help rebuild the vitality and dynamism of young people.

The amazing popularity of his scouting movement probably surprised him as much as anyone else.

Within one year after he wrote the best selling Scouting for Boys, more than 100,000 boys had already enrolled as Scouts. The movement quickly crossed the seas to many countries around the world. King Edward VII was very interested in scouting, and suggested B.P. give up his army career and devote all his time to scouting worldwide.

He met the future Lady Baden-Powell on an ocean cruise in 1912; Robert and Olave Baden-Powell were married in a quiet church wedding that same year. The two formed a powerful alliance, which has unforgettably shaped the character of countless young people throughout the world.

At Robert’s request, Olave took on the leadership of the floundering Girl Guides. Under her capable direction, the guiding movement exploded with new energy and growth. Thanks to this remarkable husband / wife team, more than 17 million boys and eight million girls worldwide are now involved in the scouting and guiding movements.

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Some people mistake scouting and guiding as merely recreational diversions for rambunctious children. In fact, the Baden-Powells considered recreation merely one of many tools to build lasting character.

Robert saw scouting/guiding as “education in high ideals, in self reliance, in sense of duty, in fortitude, in self respect and regard for others –  in one word, in those Christian attributes that go to make character.”

Robert and Olave believed character could not be imposed from outside. Character and self-discipline had to come from within. Character building for the couple had a lot to do with trustworthiness, honesty, loyalty, duty, responsibility, friendliness, courtesy, thriftiness and moral purity.

They also believed the heart of character building came from loyalty to God and country. That is why, in the very first part of the Scout/Guide Promise, they  included “doing one’s duty to God.” They were both committed Christians.

Olave expressed her Christian commitment by serving as godmother to more than 40 baptized children – a responsibility she took very seriously. In her autobiography, she wrote: “If I have any message to leave, it is this: believe in God. He guides and protects you all through life.”

Robert, when dealing with conflicts within the scouting movement, recommended that people “ask themselves the simple question: ‘What would Christ have done under the circumstances?’ and be guided accordingly.”

Character building for Lord and Lady Baden-Powell was a very spiritual activity. They were also impressed by the impact of taking urban young people away from the city, and back to the great outdoors.

Robert saw camping as a golden chance to bring young people to God through the direct appeal of nature’s wonders. “Our aim,” he stated, “is to get hold of the boys and to open up their minds . . . to make them into good men for God and their country, to encourage them to be energetic workers and to be honourable, manly fellows with a brotherly feeling for one another.”

Olave was equally impressed with the beauty of God’s creation. She said: “1 am sure that God means us to be happy in this life. He has given us a world to live in that is full of beauty and wonders, and he has given us not only eyes to see them but minds to understand them  – if we only have the sense to look at them in that light.”

In this centenary year of their creation, may the inspiring example of the Baden-Powells encourage each of us to be more thankful for the beauty of God’s world.

Ed Hird is rector of St. Simon’s Anglican Church in North Vancouver, and author of Battle for the Soul of Canada.

November 2007