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
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
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
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
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].
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!
William; Baden-Powell: Two Lives of a Hero