Marching to a Different Drummer

By Robert Peterson
Illustration by Joel Snyder

Another youth organization, the Boys' Brigade, was flourishing when the first official troops of the Boy Scouts of America appeared in 1910.

In 1910, when the Boy Scouts of America was born, an American boy had plenty of chances to join a club, especially if his family belonged to a Protestant church. There were, for example, the Epworth League, Christian Endeavor, and the Baptist Young People's Union. There were also groups with more colorful names like the Circle of Ten, Knights of King Arthur, Brotherhood of St. Andrew, and the Young Crusaders of the Church Temperance League.

For boys who loved the outdoors there were the Woodcraft Indians of Ernest Thompson Seton and the Sons of Daniel Boone, headed by Daniel Carter Beard. Seton and Beard became national leaders in the BSA.

Another group with some similarities to Boy Scouting was The Boys' Brigade, an import from Great Britain that offered a curious mix of military drill and Bible studies.

Membership statistics are somewhat elusive, but by 1910 there were probably about 14,000 boys of middle school and high-school age in 200 B.B. "companies" across the country.

Welcome discipline

The Boys' Brigade predated the Boy Scouting movement by a quarter century. It was started in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1883 by William A. Smith, a 28-year-old businessman and Sunday school teacher who had been an officer in the lst Lanarkshire Rifle Volunteers, a reserve unit for the British Army.

Smith found that it was hard to keep order in a Sunday school class of young teenagers, who tended to drop out before they were eligible to join the YMCA or church young men's society at age 17. He reasoned that the boys might welcome some discipline.

So in October 1883 he invited boys age 12 and older to form a church-sponsored brigade that would do military drills and study the Bible. The object, Smith said, was "the advancement of Christ's Kingdom among Boys and the promotion of habits of Reverence, Discipline, Self-Respect, and all that tends toward a true Christian Manliness."

The motto would be "Sure and Stedfast" (he kept the biblical spelling), taken from the King James version of Hebrews 6:19: "Hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and stedfast."

Fifty-nine boys signed up, and Smith found that he guessed correctly that boys did not mind strict rules and discipline as long as they were fair. All of the early members were in Sunday school at a mission of the College Free Church in Glasgow.

Before long, companies (continued on page 48) were formed in other churches in Glasgow, Edinburgh, and elsewhere in the British Isles.

The boys' uniforms consisted of forage (pillbox) caps cocked jauntily over the right ear, a white linen haversack that was more ornamental than useful, and a leather belt with a buckle showing the B.B. anchor symbol.

At first, company activities centered on military drill, often with dummy rifles, and Bible study. Later, outdoor activities, including camping, soccer, and basketball, were added.

B-P pays a visit

By the turn of the 20th century, The Boys' Brigade boasted 54,000 members in Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Canada, Asia, and Africa.

On April 30, 1904, British Army Maj. Gen. Robert S.S. Baden-Powell, a hero of the war against the Boers in South Africa (1899-1902), was invited to review drills by nearly 7,000 boys in Glasgow. He was impressed with their obvious enthusiasm for the brigade.

But, he told founder William Smith, after 21 years the brigade should have more than 54,000 members "if the work really appealed to the boys." (Today there are nearly 500,000 members in 60 countries around the world.)

Slightly annoyed, Smith asked what Baden-Powell could suggest. The general offered his ideas on scouting, by which he meant the military reconnaissance skills he had described in a little book called Aids to Scouting, which became a best-seller in England while he was still stationed in South Africa. Aids to Scouting was used by boys and youth groups as a primer for outdoor adventures.

General Baden-Powell later rewrote the manual for youth, titling it Scouting for Boys. The book was published in 1908 and launched the Scouting movement. By the time the Boy Scouts of America was incorporated on Feb. 8, 1910, Boys' Brigades were active in churches in the Northeast, parts of the Midwest, and California.

A rivalry between the two organizations was natural. An example of shifting loyalties was the B.B. company at the Baptist Church in Barre, Vt., in 1908. It was led by William Milne, a Scottish stonecutter. Many years later, a member, Wallace Watt, recalled, "We did marching mostly, and Bible study."

In 1909, William Milne visited Britain and heard about Scouting. When he came back, Watt said, "he told us what he had learned and asked if we would like to change from Boys' Brigade to Boy Scouts. His descriptions entranced us, and we said yes." So the Boys' Brigade company became Troop 1 of Barre. The same scenario was repeated in other towns.

The Brigade today

Today there are about 2,000 members of units in the Boys' and Girls' Brigades of America (BGBA), according to executive director Joseph Southoff. Units are in Baltimore, Boston, Pensacola, the Houston and Dallas areas, and Pomona, Calif. Sponsored by individual churches, units may be coed or single-sex, depending on the sponsoring church's preference.

"Bible lessons are still part of the program," Southoff said. "The rest of it is pretty much like Boy Scouting. We have merit badges and camping and field trips."

There have been Catholic and Jewish Boys' Brigades, and today some churches sponsor related programs called Christian Service Brigades. There are also a handful of Boys' and Girls' Brigades that do not belong to Southoff's BGBA but follow the Boys' Brigade plan.

Most notable among them is the Boys' and Girls' Brigade of Neenah-Menasha, Wis. It has 720 youth members and 325 adult volunteers, according to executive director Tom Hoare, an Eagle Scout. It was born as a Boys' Brigade in 1900 and added girls in 1979.

The Neenah-Menasha Brigade has its own building, with a gymnasium, hall, and hobby rooms, as well as a six-and-a-half-acre camp. It is community-based, not parish-based, but members must produce a church service card every month showing that they attended services at their own church.

Contributing editor Robert Peterson is the author of The Boy Scouts: An American Adventure.

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