Explore the BSA’s longtime partnerships with diverse religious faiths

To celebrate the BSA’s 100-year-long partnership with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we examine the fabric of relationships with religious faiths our movement has woven over the decades.

Robert Baden-Powell Every Scout Should Have a Religion

ASK R. CHIP TURNER, chairman of the BSA’s Religious Relationships Task Force, to talk about the importance of faith in Scouting, and he will point to both the past and the future.

Looking to the past, Turner notes that James E. West and other founders of the American Scouting movement added the word “Reverent” to the Scout Law, putting extra emphasis on Duty to God. (“A Scout is Reverent toward God. He is faithful in his religious duties. He respects the beliefs of others.”)

In addition, Turner points out that most of the earliest American Scouting units were chartered by faith-based organizations. “That shows the importance and centrality of faith,” Turner says. “There was a recognition from the very beginning that this spiritual part ought to be there.”

As for the present, Turner, a former national president of the Association of Baptists for Scouting, says that about 70 percent of BSA units are chartered by faith-based organizations. He adds that such units tend to last longer and their Scouts usually advance further. Put that together with Scouting’s Religious Emblems program—currently, more than 75 emblems representing more than 35 religious groups have been recognized—and it’s clear that faith is foundational to Scouting.

“It’s a huge part of Scouting in America, and the new use of the Scout Oath and Law in all the programs will make this faith element even clearer,” Turner says. “This will give us a more unified voice about the importance of Duty to God.”

Still, it’s important to remember that the BSA, in its charter and bylaws, is “absolutely nonsectarian”—in other words, there is no one official religion in Scouting. For more, visit bit.ly/charterandbylaws.

This year, Scouting celebrates the 100th anniversary of its partnership with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), the BSA’s largest religious affiliation. A national celebration of the LDS-BSA relationship will be held on Oct. 29 in Salt Lake City. Read more about the exhibit. In light of this important milestone, we visited with representatives of some of the BSA’s religious partners to hear their testimonies about the powerful synergy between Scouting and religious faiths.

Total units in 2012: 37,856
Total youth in 2012: 430,557

Larry Gibson, first counselor in the LDS’s Young Men General Presidency, likes to quote LDS President Thomas S. Monson: “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not in Scouting for the church. The church is in Scouting for the boys—all boys.” And the LDS church was involved in scouting—small-S, literal scouting—well before partnering with the BSA in 1913. As LDS settlers moved west, they sent young men and their fathers ahead to scout and identify the best trails to follow to the Salt Lake City valley. “They felt that they were already good scouters, so to some degree that was the basis for starting a scouting movement,” Gibson says.

In 1911, the LDS church formed its own scouting organization within their Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association called the “M.I.A. Scouts.” Then, two years later, after meetings with national Field Scout Commissioner Samuel Moffat, and corresponding with Chief Scout Executive James E. West, the church joined the Boy Scouts of America as one of the BSA’s first chartered organizations on May 21, 1913.  “We knew how to do certain things, but Boy Scouts had a whole program that would be valuable in building values and character traits,” Gibson says. “It fit well with what we were trying to do with our young men.”

Gibson, echoing Monson, says that Scouting answers to the deeply felt needs of young men. “Every single boy out there is looking for a brotherhood he can belong to, a group to feel a part of,” Gibson says. “He wants to have close relationships with peers and adults they can look up to. Many find that in the form of gangs and other groups. We’re looking for a brotherhood that will build the values that Scouting brings to society, rather than the other values we see developing in some other organizations.”

LDS Young Men General President David Beck recently wrote, “Scouting is more than camping and merit badges. Scouting is spirituality, duty, growth, and leadership.” To the EDGE teaching model (Explain, Demonstrate, Guide, Enable), Gibson adds an R for Reflection. “We feel that you go outdoors to have all those physical, temporal, emotional, and social experiences that help develop self-reliant skills in our young people, because ultimately that’s the foundation of spiritual self-reliance. Every activity should conclude with reflection, asking, ‘What have I learned from this experience to help me in serving and building the Kingdom of God on the earth?’”

Scouting also helps prepare young Mormon men to serve as missionaries, Gibson says. A large number of LDS young men and women spend 18 months to two years throughout the world spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ. “They need to be emotionally, physically, and socially prepared,” Gibson says. “So we love our young people to go out and have ‘away-from-home’ experiences in camps. Then, when they go out to serve, they know they can survive it.”

To illustrate the synergy of Scouting and spiritual growth, Gibson, the father of five Eagle Scouts, talks about a 50-20 hike—50 miles in 20 hours—that he took with two sons who had failed to complete the arduous trek a year before. After an 18-hour ordeal that “almost killed us,” Gibson says, he and his sons were about to go to sleep. “Dad, I’ll never do that again,” one boy said. Then he paused and added, “Unless my son wants me to.”

“That was connecting the dots,” Gibson says. “That’s the reflection I’m talking about, the connection to spiritual things. You recognize he’s going to be a great husband and father, but most of all, he’ll be about what Baden-Powell had as the foundation of the BSA, building the Kingdom of God.”

Gibson says the 100th anniversary celebration this October in Salt Lake City will be “a thank-you to the Boy Scouts of America, commemorating 100 years of a marvelous relationship and a blessing to the young men of the church.”

BSA Protestant Religious AwardPROTESTANT
Total units in 2012: 30,085 across all Protestant denominations
Total youth in 2012: 941,123 across all Protestant denominations

Gene Foley, president of the National Association of Presbyterian Scouters, laughingly says that Scouting’s Protestant chaplains are the “catch-all” chaplains of the organization. “Our chaplains recognize the vast variety of understandings of Jesus, so when we choose chaplains for national and local camps, we look, ideally, for ordained clergy who are willing to foster personal spiritual development rather than encourage a particular view,” Foley says.

As an illustration, Foley recalls the 2005 National Jamboree when a Scout identified himself as a member of Eckankar, a monotheistic religion founded in the U.S. in 1965. “That’s not a Christian tradition, but I worked through his religious materials with him and discussed his thoughts and questions about his tradition.”

Such encounters are not unusual for Protestant chaplains, Foley says. “Because we have such a broad range within the Protestant tradition, sometimes we reach out beyond the Christian church and encounter other beliefs.”

Turner, chairman of the BSA’s Religious Relationships Task Force, notes that a number of Protestant denominations have come to understand Scouting as an outreach to their communities—“not only for growing Scouting,” he says, “but for growing their churches as well.” At one point, Turner was a member of a church that had a Boy Scout troop and a Cub Scout pack. In less than five years, he says, some 300 new people became affiliated with the church because of the initial Scouting connection.

“That certainly gained the attention of the church staff,” Turner says. “The units don’t claim complete credit for those people joining the church, but obviously the first impression must have been a good one, and they must have felt included and welcomed. As we try to help ministers understand why they should either have a Scouting unit or keep and strengthen the one they have, this is an obvious benefit, the likelihood that they will increase their membership.”

Foley notes that traditions like Scout Sunday, observed in many churches, play a role in cementing ties between Scout units and religious partners. “Some churches assume that this is just a bunch of kids using the basement of the church, but our Religious Relationships committee works very hard locally and nationally to encourage the churches to see the Scouts as their own,” Foley says. “The churches own the charter and they participate in the program with the youth, giving the members of the unit an opportunity to be part of the congregation.”

Asked how Scouting’s values shape young lives, Foley offers his own story as a testimonial. By the time he was 10 years old, his family had broken apart. At 12, he joined Troop 233 of Willow Glen, Calif.

“By the age of 15 I was on the street, but I always had Scout leaders around to help me out,” Foley continues. Foley eventually earned his Eagle, went to college, and completed several graduate degrees, becoming a CPA and a college professor. “None of it would have happened without Scouting,” he says.

BSA Islamic Religious AwardISLAM
Total units in 2012: 78
Total youth in 2012: 2,222

The name of Syed E. Naqvi is synonymous with Islamic Scouting in America. Naqvi became a Scout at age 7 in his native Pakistan, but after coming to the United States in 1976 he realized that Scouting here was “very professional, very different from other countries.” At the time, though, the BSA had no specific outreach to Muslims. “I asked myself, ‘If Scouting was so fruitful for other faiths using it as a tool, why was the Muslim community not using it?’”

In 1979, Naqvi posed that question to Joe Kessler, then an adviser to the National Catholic Committee on Scouting, and got this reply: “Syed, you are the one who is going to start it.” Over the next few years, Naqvi did just that, founding the Islamic Council on Scouting of North America. “We followed in the footsteps of our sister organizations, the Jews, Catholics, Baptists, and others,” he says. “They were very helpful.”

Naqvi remains an energetic spokesman for Islamic Scouts today.

“When I speak about Scouting around the country, I tell them that building the mosque is not that important. Building the Islamic Center is not that important. Building the youth is important. If the youth get lost, you have no life. My aim from Day One is building the youth.”

To underscore the strong ties between Scouting’s values and those of Islam, Naqvi researched the Quran for teachings that parallel the Scout Law. A few examples:

A Scout is Trustworthy: “God commands you to give back the trusts to whom they are due and when you judge between people, judge with fairness.” (Quran 4:58)

A Scout is Helpful: “God loves those who do good deeds.” (Quran 5:93)

A Scout is Reverent: “Those who believe and do good deeds, establish prayers, and give charity, will have their reward with their Lord.” (Quran 2:277)

BSA Judaism Religious AwardJUDAISM
Total units in 2012: 156
Total youth in 2012: 3,738

Rabbi Peter Hyman, national chaplain of the National Jewish Committee on Scouting, says the history of the Boy Scouts has been, and continues to be, deeply intertwined with American Jewish history, going back to 1910 when Mortimer Schiff and other prominent New Yorkers each contributed $1,000 to help W.D. Boyce incorporate and fund the Scouting program. The following year, Schiff, Solomon Guggenheim, and others joined the first National Council of BSA. And, Hyman adds, the first known Eagle Scout badge awarded in New York City went to a Jewish Scout: Milton Lowenstein, in 1917.

“As a rabbi, here’s what I love and profoundly appreciate about Scouting,” Hyman says. “While we have God as an important part of our value system, Scouting has never dictated or demanded any particular avenue to theology. Scouting has always said that a Scout’s relationship to God must be through family and church, synagogue or mosque. There’s no single template. That’s a very powerful gift that has been appreciated within the Jewish community.”

Hyman says that many American Jews in the early 20th century saw Scouting as “the perfect vehicle” for acculturation into American society. “Judaism cherishes community, and Scouting creates community,” he says. “Not just within our own nation, either. Messengers of Peace [a global Scouting initiative to build a better world] creates community irrespective of borders. When you put on a Scout uniform it speaks volumes about who you are and how you are connected to the guy standing next to you. You may not know who that guy is, but you know by virtue of that uniform that he embraces similar values and is guided by the same set of words you are.”

BSA Catholic Religious AwardCATHOLIC CHURCH
Total units in 2012: 8,397
Total youth in 2012: 273,648

Catholic Scouts have been staunch members of BSA going back to the organization’s founding year of 1910, when Troop 1 from St. Paul, Minn., was chartered and became the first Catholic Boy Scout troop in the country. Retired Col. John J. Halloran Jr., past chairman of the National Catholic Committee on Scouting (NCCS), notes that early Catholic Scouting figures such as Brother Barnabas McDonald and Victor Ridder, a co-founder of the NCCS, were so successful in recruiting that the BSA hired them to create more Catholic units throughout the country.

Looking at the affinities between Scouting and Catholic teaching, Halloran applauds the ethical training developed by Scouting and the strong emphasis on service to others. “These are great concepts to carry forward into life, and training at the youth and adult levels can carry over to make great servant leaders in parishes and churches,” he says. “The values of the BSA correlate well with the values we want our young men and ladies to have.”

Scouting is also “a great recruiting tool,” for the church, Halloran says. “We hope programs like the religious emblems and Rosary and Saints patches will enhance the youth’s catechetical training,” he says. “In some cases that can awaken them to the fact that there is more out there, bringing them back to church. It’s always a plus when the Scouting programs can put the youth back into the pews, and the youth then bring their parents.”

Highly motivated Catholic Scouts and Venturers may be chosen for the biennial St. George Trek, the NCCS’s high adventure program at Philmont Scout Ranch. Every other summer, about 70 boys and girls are selected at the Archdiocese level for the two-week adventure. “It’s a well-balanced Catholic leadership youth program also aimed at those thinking about potential vocations in the clergy and religious life,” says Halloran. “We link them up with priests and seminarians for young men and two hiking nuns for the young women. They see them in action, having fun, so they see how faith and life relate. They know they can do both, if that is their calling.”


1910: William D. Boyce incorporates the Boy Scouts of America on Feb. 8, thanks to a good turn from an unknown English Scout.

The first Utah Scout unit is formed by Thomas G. Wood in the Waterloo Ward on Oct. 12, 1910.

1911: M.I.A. Scouts is formed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Nov. 29, following the format and activities found in Scout books of the day.

1913: The LDS church joins the Boy Scouts of America on May 21, 1913, as one of the BSA’s first chartered organizations.

1928: The Vanguard program is organized by the church for boys ages 15 and 16 to meet the needs of older boys. It gains BSA approval.

1935: In celebration of the BSA’s Silver Jubilee (25 years of Scouting) in February, 7,000 LDS Vanguards become Explorer Scouts in June 1935, as they merge with the BSA’s new program based on the LDS Vanguard program.

1951: The Church-Scouting Relationships Committee is announced on Oct. 24 by Church President David O. McKay. The position of LDS-BSA Relationships director is created.

1952: The LDS Primary Association sponsors Cub Scouting, and 11-year-old Scouts are renamed the Guide Patrol under Primary leadership.

1954: The Duty to God Award is created for boys 12 to 18; it correlates Scouting and priesthood responsibilities.

1963: The 50 Golden Years of Scouting in the Church celebration is held Feb. 1. Philmont Leadership Conferences for LDS begin June 5-11, 1963.

1969: LaVern Parmley, general primary president, becomes the first woman to serve on a national Scout committee. In 1976, she is the first woman to receive the Silver Buffalo Award.

1978: The Varsity program is developed by LDS leaders in Utah. The 1978 pilot program replaces the Church’s Venturing program (boys ages 14 and 15) in 1983 and becomes a national BSA program in 1984.

1988: The 75th anniversary of Scouting in the LDS church is celebrated with a special Baden-Powell patch.

2013: 100 Years of Scouting in the LDS church is celebrated with a display at the LDS Church History Museum in July and a grand commemoration on Oct. 29.

CHRIS TUCKER is a Dallas-based writer, teacher, and commentator for National Public Radio.


  1. Terrific, terrific article that briefly highlights Scouting under some BSA faith-based auspices from the very early days of Scouting that certainly are meaningful today. Bravo!

  2. Great article, Learning about your faith should be just as important as learning scout skills from your handbook. Wouldn’t it be great if all scouts tried to earn Eagle and the emblem of their faith? ( there are 75 of them ! ) They would all be in a very elite group ( 2-3% of all scouts ) and our communities , churches and our country would all benefit greatly.

  3. Have found 1935 BSA Americanization certificate. Signed by William Head, Elbert Fretwell, James West, David Beard, Gunner Berg, William Devine Franklin Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson?. several others. Roadway,Wyland Shower?. Any info how rare this paper is. any info? Thanks Thomas Contact at. Caryofilles@yahoo.com

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