On My Honor: The 103rd Anniversary of the Boy Scouts of America

The recent news that the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) has postponed its decision about whether to allow homosexual boys and men join their organization comes on the date of the organization’s 100th Anniversary.

The Boy Scouts of America was officially founded on Feb. 8, 1910 with Pres. William Howard Taft as honorary President of the Boy Scouts of America.   The BSA is one of the largest youth organizations in the United States, with 2.7 million youth members and over 1 million adult volunteers. Since its founding in 1910 as part of the international Scout Movement, more than 110 million Americans have been members of the BSA.

The BSA goal is to train youth in responsible citizenship, character development, and self-reliance through participation in a wide range of outdoor activities, educational programs, and, at older age levels, career-oriented programs in partnership with community organizations. For younger members, the Scout method is part of the program to inculcate typical Scouting values such as trustworthiness, good citizenship, and outdoors skills, through a variety of activities such as camping, aquatics, and hiking.

The BSA is a constituent member of the World Organization of the Scout Movement. The traditional Scouting divisions are Cub Scouting for boys ages 7 to 10½ years, Boy Scouting for boys ages 10½ to 18 and Venturing for young men and women ages 14 (or 13 and have completed the 8th grade) through 21.  Learning for Life is a non-traditional subsidiary that provides in-school and career education.  The BSA operates traditional Scouting by chartering local organizations, such as churches, clubs, civic associations, or educational organization, to implement the scouting program for youth within their communities. Units are led entirely by volunteers appointed by the chartering organization, who are supported by local councils using both paid Professional Scouters and volunteers. 

The BSA is one of the largest youth organizations in the United States, with 2.7 million youth members and over 1 million adult volunteers.  Since its founding in 1910 as part of the international Scout Movement, more than 110 million Americans have been members of the BSA.

The Progressive Movement in the United States was at its height during the early 20th century. With the migration of families from farms to cities, there were concerns among some people that young men were no longer learning patriotism and individualism. The YMCA was an early promoter of reforms for young men with a focus on social welfare and programs of mental, physical, social and religious development.  In 1896, years before the Scouting movement was founded, British Gen. Robert Baden-Powell met the American-born Chief of Scouts in British Africa, Frederick Russell Burnham (, and learned from him the fundamentals of scouting, inspiring him and giving him the plan for the program and the code of honor of Scouting for Boys, and thus restoring the old traditions of American Youth.

The BSA had two notable predecessors in the United States: the Woodcraft Indians started by Ernest Thompson Seton (he would later serve on the Executive Committee of the Boy Scouts of America in the capacity of Chief Scout) in 1902 and the Sons of Daniel Boone founded by Daniel Carter Beard (also a member of the Executive Board and National Council of the BSA) in 1905 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  In 1907, Baden-Powell founded the Scouting movement in England using elements of Seton’s works among other influences.  Several small local Scouting programs for boys started independently in the U.S., soon after, many of these programs merged with the BSA.

In 1909, Chicago publisher W.D. Boyce was visiting London, where he encountered a boy who came to be known as the Unknown Scout.  Boyce was lost on a foggy street when an unknown Scout came to his aid, guiding him to his destination. The boy then refused Boyce’s tip, explaining that he was a Boy Scout and was merely doing his daily good turn. Interested in the Scouting program, Boyce met with General Baden-Powell, who was Chief Scout at the time. Upon his return to the U.S., Boyce incorporated the Boy Scouts of America on Feb. 8, 1910.  Edgar M. Robinson and Lee F. Hammer became interested in the nascent BSA movement and convinced Boyce to turn the program over to the YMCA for development in April 1910. Robinson enlisted Seton, Beard, Charles Eastmen and other prominent leaders in the early youth movements. In January 1911, Robinson turned the movement over to James E. West who became the first Chief Scout Executive and Scouting began to expand in the U.S.

The BSA’s stated purpose at its incorporation in 1910 was “to teach [boys] patriotism, courage, self-reliance, and kindred values.”  Later, in 1937, Deputy Chief Scout Executive George J. Fisher expressed the BSA’s mission:  “Each generation as it comes to maturity has no more important duty than that of teaching high ideals and proper behavior to the generation which follows.”   The current mission statement of the BSA is “to prepare young people to make ethical and moral choices over their lifetimes by instilling in them the values of the Scout Oath and Law.”  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was the first partner to sponsor Scouting in the United States, adopting the program in 1913 as part of its Mutual Improvement Association program for young men.

Baden-Powell published a book in 1908 in England called “Scouting for Boys.”  When we think of Boy Scouts today, we think of their hiking and camping activities.  Scouting in 1908 comprehended much more of a role for the Boy Scout, with the emphasis on scout.  Scouting was intended to prepare boys for service, mentally, physically, and morally, for war and for peaceful civil service as well.

Scouting is just what it sounds like:  tracking, whether it be enemy soldiers, criminals, or game for food.  Baden-Powell and others studied the craft of primitive tribes, the way to study whatever one tracked.  Boy Scouts learn to study the tracks of men and animals, to be keenly observant and aware of their surroundings, whether in service of their country, the public, or survival.

Baden-Powell writes, “A scout…is generally a soldier who is chosen for his cleverness and pluck to go out in front of an army in war to find out where the enemy are, and report to the commander all about them.”

Baden-Powell cites Rudyard Kipling’s novel, “Kim,” as a source of lessons in scouting.  A good memory of details was essential.  In his training, Kimball O’Hara would be shown a tray of objects, which would then be covered with a cloth.  Kim was expected to then name all the items that were on the tray.

Scouts were also expected to Be Prepared for anything, whether to save a life, discover a criminal, react calmly in an emergency, or treat an injury.  Scouts were expected to know how to save a drowning person and build an emergency shelter.  Baden-Powell also cites the trappers of North America, hunters of Central Africa, and pioneers, explorers and missionaries, and even the Knights of Camelot as peace-time scouts.

Then there was the moral code of honor.  A Scout who lied would be permanently thrown out of his troop.  He was expected to do a good turn, with recompense or acknowledgement of any kind, every day.  This is the reason Scouts neckerchiefs are tied in a knot – to remind them of their daily duty.

Baden-Powell uses the example of the young Scouts at the siege of Mafeking in India beginning in 1899.  The military knew how to shoot and so did the older men.  But the young adults in the town were clerks and shopkeepers; they’d never fired a gun in their lives.  An impending attack where their lives were at stake was a fine time to have to learn. 

“Every boy ought to learn how to shoot and to obey orders,” he wrote, “else he is no more good when a war breaks out than an old woman, and merely gets killed like a squealing rabbit, being unable to defend himself.”

Altogether, the settlement had only about 1,000 men, 600 women and children, and about 7,000 natives.  As the men were killed Lord Edward Cecil, the chief staff officer, formed the boys into a cadet corps to carry orders and messages, keep a look-out, and serve as orderlies.  This released able-bodied men to go into battle.  The boys went about on bicycles, with the bullets flying past their heads.  But according to Baden-Powell, they didn’t seem to mind.  The boys received medals for their courage and a postage stamp in their honor.

“These boys didn’t seem to mind the bullets one bit; they were always ready to carry out orders thought it mean risk to their lives every time?  Would any of you do that?  If an enemy was firing down this street and I were to tell one of you to take a message across the street to a house on the other side, would you do it?”

Baden-Powell gives his readers credit for their willingness but notes that they would want to prepare themselves beforehand.  That, he said, is what the Boy Scout training is about.  Baden-Powell and others also noted that the times were changing.  Men were losing their ability to live independently, to defend themselves, and to help others without the direction of some higher mortal authority.

The English Scouting for Boys, published in 1908, and The Boy Scouts Handbook, written for American Boy Scouts is an adventure in reading, courage, and morality.  If it reads like some ancient text from a long-lost civilization, perhaps we need to learn the art of “tracking” to find our way back home.


Published in: on February 11, 2013 at 8:41 am  Comments (1)  

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