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Scout Books

Site Contents

The Mystic of Wood Badge

By Rick Seymour

In 1919, Scoutmasters completed Baden-Powell's first course at the new training ground called Gilwell Park. As a token of having finished their training camp, he presented each of them with two wooden beads tied to a leather thong. According to tradition, the beads had been taken from the Zulu Chief Dinizulu by Baden-Powell when he put down Dinizulu's insurrection against English rule in 1888.

Actually, it is doubtful that the beads ever belonged to Dinizulu.  B-P's letters and diaries of the time record him removing beads from a dead African girl, with no mention of Dinizulu [Jeal, page 134]. Over time, the so-called "history" of the beads has changed to suit the intended audience.

After the Second World War the origins of the 'Wood Badge' started to cause embarrassment. To have stolen a Zulu ruler's property was thought underhanded and unpleasant, as was the idea of the founder of a worldwide multiracial brotherhood fighting against Africans. So it became policy within the Movement to claim that Baden-Powell had been given the necklace by Dinizulu. 'This Change,' wrote the Deputy Chief Scout in 1959, 'was made first in The Gilwell Book and gradually in all our literature' [Jeal, p. 134].

Other "official" biographers of Baden-Powell, such as William Hillcourt, repeat uncritically B-P's 1919 story (in which Hillcourt only implies that the beads "must" have been Dinizulu's),

In one of the captured forts Baden-Powell found a number of weapons and trinkets left behind, among them a long string of quaintly carved wooden beads such as only a chief would have worn. There was no doubt in his mind that this had been Dinizulu's own hide-out [Hillcourt, p. 83].

Tim Jeal appears to be the only writer who hints that the Dinizulu incident may have led to a spiritual rebirth in Baden-Powell that would find its expression in the camping aspects of military scouting ten years before his invention of Boy Scouts.

Given the troubled history of B-P with organized religion, and Scouting's troubled history with history in general, independent thinkers might find Jeal's biography of B-P most interesting.

Baden-Powell's father died facing charges from the Bishop of London for heretical preaching in regards to his myth-shattering science and history theological work. B-P grew up suffering the sting of the public's condemnation of his father for being the first cleric in England to publish theology that reflected the implications that Darwinism would have for the pre-scientific historical claims of the Bible, and his suggestion that the time had come to separate these claims forever from the notion of provable "truth" and concentrate instead on the Bible's deeper role in personal revelation:

In The Order of Nature he finally abandoned his earlier attempts to find satisfactory rational proof of the validity of Christian belief. Instead he now stressed the personal spiritual appeal of Jesus' teaching, claiming that the only 'proof' Christianity required was contained in the moral truth of the Gospels. Such arguments placed him far closer to the Unitarians and to radical theologians like Blanco White and Francis Newman than to his old colleagues in the Anglican Church.

During the 1850s, many clerics explained away evolutionary theories by arguing that the gaps in the fossil record and the apparent suddenness of changes in species could only be explained by God's decision to create anew every time conditions became unfavorable for existing species. In The Order of Nature Baden Powell poured scorn on such last-ditch arguments. In the October issue of the influential Quarterly Review his book was savaged by the Archbishop of Dublin and others. Far from recanting, Professor Powell sent off a still more trenchant essay--in which he demolished the historical authenticity of the miracles--for inclusion in a collection provisionally entitled Essays and Reviews

Benjamin Jowett, of Balliol, was another contributor and wrote of their intentions: 'We are determined not to submit to this abominable system of terrorism, which prevents the statement of the plainest facts, and makes true theology or theological education impossible.' Baden Powell had just been reported to the Bishop of London for heretical preaching, so he knew what Jowett meant.

When Essays and Reviews was published in late March 1860, Baden Powell was suffering from breathlessness and chest pains, and his health grew suddenly worse in mid-April. This was cruelly frustrating for him. The British Association would be meeting in Oxford in June and Darwin's theory had been scheduled for debate. With theological conservatives like 'Soapy' Sam Wilberforce, the Bishop of Oxford, now declaring against Darwin, an historic confrontation was inevitable. Baden Powell supported Darwin, and Darwin admired Powell's writings as he indicated very clearly in his introduction to the third edition of The Origin of Species. Professor Powell thus seemed set to play a decisive part in the proceedings at Oxford, as the first eminent cleric to declare publicly for Darwin. Nor could he hope for a better forum in which to outmaneuver his Anglican traducers.

But he did not get better. Professor Powell died on 11 June 1860 with Henrietta Grace and three of his sons at his side. Several of his enemies were callous enough to suggest that his death was an example of that divine intervention in human affairs which he had so often ridiculed.

At 3, Stephe [Baden-Powell] was too young to understand the finality of death but, brought up in a close-knit family in which his father was idolized by his mother and had often been available to him, he must have found the loss very distressing. Augustus had adored his father, and Stephe was upset by his favorite brother's grief Professor Powell died just too soon to see Essays and Reviews become one of the most famous books of the nineteenth century. Along with two other contributors he would have been prosecuted in the church courts for the heretical contents of his essay. When, ten years later, Canon Pusey crowed over his death as 'his removal to a higher tribunal' and publicly suggested that he had died without the consolation of religious faith, Stephe was old enough to understand the attack. He grew up with a distrust of clergymen and theology which he would never lose [Jeal, page 11, emphasis added].

Dinizulu did not die in a confrontation with B-P as is commonly believed, but eluded him in order to surrender instead to the daughters of the late Bishop of Natal. The Bishop had been a close friend of B-P's father and "had shared his moral courage, being ready to risk ostracism by subjecting the Bible to historical analysis" [Jeal, page 137]. In an equally unpopular stand, the Bishop had also been an unswerving supporter of Dinuzulu's father (Chief Cetewayo) in his brave resistance to the White land-grabs of Zululand.

The Bishop's daughters Harriette and Frances Colenso were outraged that Baden-Powell could betray his father's ideals. Harriette sailed to England to petition Parliament on behalf of Dinizulu, and it turned out that B-P was returning home on the same ship! There is no record of what was said when they met on board, but "six months later he wrote to his mother, asking her to send him some of his father's theological works. One of these was The Order of Nature, which Stephe [Baden-Powell] would pronounce 'the most remarkable book he had ever read' [Jeal, p. 138]." 

In Baden-Powell's book, Matabele Campaign, (which predates his invention of Boy Scouting by ten years), the influence of The Order of Nature on B-P first becomes evident:

In the summer of 1898 Baden-Powell took a trip to Kashmir which convinced him that the outdoor life, enjoyed purely for its own sake without any military objective, was immensely valuable. Before setting out, he paid considerable attention to his equipment.…On this trip he adopted clothes that he would occasionally claim as the inspiration for the Boy Scout uniform; these included the Stetson he had worn in Rhodesia and a flannel shirt, but not the famous shorts. Yet in spite of all the planning, Baden-Powell viewed camping and walking in wild places as an experience which transcended practical considerations.

Going over these immense hills - especially when alone - and looking almost sheer down into the deep valleys between - one feels like a parasite on the shoulders of the world. There is such a bigness about it all, that opens and freshens up the mind. It's as good as a cold tub for the soul.

With a collapsible bath in this luggage, Stephe was equipped to cleanse his body as well as his soul. His father's pantheistic book, The Order of Nature was a significant influence upon him, as a sub-heading in Rovering to Success makes plain 'Nature Knowledge as a Step Towards Realizing God'. Baden-Powell also used to quote Bacon's aphorism: 'The study of the Book of Nature is the true key to that of Revelation.' In a bizarre way he managed to combine camping equipment, adventure, and religious sensations in a remarkable synthesis. In his published Matabele Campaign he described his camping impedimenta as his 'toys' and then went on: 'May it not be that our toys are the various media adapted to individual tastes through which men may know their God?' Quite literally Stephe worshipped what he called the 'flannel shirt life' and everything that went with it. 'Not being able to go to my usual church (the jungle) on Sunday, I went to the garrison church instead,' he wrote to Ellen Turner, more in earnest than tongue in cheek [Jeal, page 203].

Later, B-P would try to bring to Scouting this same spiritual practice, and the controversy might remind us of John Lennon's problems with a quote similar to that of Alan Chapman's, below:

Katharine Furse described [B-P] with more than a hint of tongue-in-cheek as 'the inspired mystic of Scouting', but this was actually how he was seen by millions. This image owed much to his growing tendency to represent Scouting as a form of religion. 'Scouting is nothing less than applied Christianity,' he had written in the introduction to a pamphlet entitled "Scouting and Christianity" in 1917. In 1921, he wrote an article entitled 'The Religion of the Woods', in which he argued that observing the beauties of nature was the best way in which to apprehend God and that no one religion held a monopoly of truth. This made him very unpopular with churchmen. A cleric who overheard Alan Chapman at Gilwell describing the Scout Movement as 'a bigger thing than Christianity' told Baden-Powell that, if he himself thought so, he would destroy the Movement as a national institution. Bishop Joseph Butt, auxiliary bishop to the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, accused Baden-Powell of 'sweeping with one magnificent gesture the Christian Revelation, Mohammedanism, and all the rest, into a heap of private opinions which do not matter much.' In the next edition of the Headquarters' Gazette, Baden-Powell obliged his horrified Committee by assuring readers that it was 'not his intention to attack Revealed Religion or to suggest a substitute for it'. But he never regretted what he had said, nor that he had invited Muslims and Buddhists to recite prayers at Gilwell. He quoted Carlyle as saying: 'The religion of a man is not the creed he professes but his life--what he acts upon, and knows of life, and his duty in it. A bad man who believes in a creed is no more religious than the good man who does not.' Baden-Powell's public refusal to countenance the exclusive claims of any one religion was accompanied by increasingly fervent references to 'God' in his speeches.

For all his anti-clericalism, there was a lot of the spoiled priest in him. He was more his father's son than a superficial view of his opinions might lead one to suppose [Jeal, pg. 515].

 References:

Jeal, Tim; Baden-Powell

The only biography that explores in depth all of the complexity of the genius who inventing Scouting.   When you purchase the book using the above link, a small referral fee is returned to The Inquiry Net to help defer the expense of keeping us online.  Thank you for your consideration!

 

Hillcourt, William; Baden-Powell: Two Lives of a Hero

 

 

 

Books & Essays By & About Professor Baden Powell, Father of Lord Baden-Powell

 

 

 

   

 

 


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