The Boys’ Brigade in Singapore was started on 12th January 1930 right here in our church. As we celebrate BB Day today, we give thanks to the vision of Sir William Alexander Smith when he founded the BB movement in Glasgow, Scotland in 1883. May the BB continue to be a blessing to the world as we seek to “advance Christ’s kingdom among Boys” and bring them to “true Christian manliness”. Amen
Below is a book review I wrote on “William Alexander Smith of The Boys' Brigade” by F. P. Gibbon when I attended the Basic Officers’ Training Course in 2002.
The Object of the Boys’ Brigade
The Object of The Boys’ Brigade shall be the advancement of Christ’s Kingdom among Boys and the promotion of habits of Obedience, Reverence, Discipline, Self-respect and all that tends towards a true Christian manliness.
The Boys’ Brigade was in a way born out of frustration…..the frustration of our founder, Sir William Alexander Smith, in wasting too much time securing order and attention in order to teach his Sunday School class. He pondered on the situation and wondered why one could control a hundred soldiers in the military (he was a volunteer in the 1st Lanarkshire Rifle Volunteers) by a mere word of command and yet could not control a handful of boys and get them to listen to him teach the Bible. The answer that came to him was “Discipline and esprit de corps”. Thus the Boys’ Brigade was founded on these twin pillars – Religion and Discipline.
Sir William A. Smith was a man greatly used by God. In everything, he prayed so that his plans were submitted to the Almighty, to be blessed and used according to His ways. Not only that, he got the people he worked with to pray together with him. If our Brigade and Companies and ourselves are to be used by God in the same way as our Founder intended, then our officers and everyone involved in the work of the Boys Brigade should also be mindful of our need and dependence on God and regularly bring our plans, our activities and our Boys before the Lord in prayer. Better still, pray together.
Sir William A. Smith was a man who understood boys. In his days, he held the unorthodox view that it was a good thing for boys to be alive, to be ‘brimming over with high spirits’ and do fun things. He understood that boys would be boys and they will be mischievous and naughty and would get into trouble from time to time. His method was that instead of stopping the boys from letting out these youthful energies, he thought of creative ways to control these activities and direct them into the right channels, so that “the boys will enjoy themselves far more than just running wild (meaninglessly)”, that instead of becoming hooligans and loafers, they will “gain manliness”. More than that, he wanted them to be “led to the service of their Master”. Same as now, we need officers and ‘helpers’ who understand Boys and will go the extra mile to reach out to them in order that we may demonstrate the love of Christ in practical and loving ways in order to win them over to Christ and that they may also be “led to the service of their Master”.
So The Boys’ Brigade started on 4th October 1883 in the Free College Church Mission, Glasgow. Boys came to join, some for the fun, others for the new experience and still others to cause ‘trouble’ to whatever was new. But in Sir William A. Smith, they were up against a man who knew and understood their ways and antics and yet showed no signs of being impatient or annoyed with them. Through his excellent example and dominant personality, Sir William A. Smith soon turned these Boys into some of the keenest members of the Brigade. Boys, whether they know it or not, need and even prefer “strictness to slackness”, if the strictness is blended with justice, understanding and sympathy. Boys want to do the right things, want to be taught the right things, want to follow the right examples and leaders, to use their energy and enthusiasm in constructive and creative ways.
Boys today are no different, and the onus is on the officers to discipline with fairness, understand them and treat them with love and compassion. BB officers are to be examples of Christ-likeness to them, that they may see and follow, and ultimately, to imitate Christ. The Boys’ Brigade in Singapore must be different from the other uniform groups in the way we treat and love our Boys. This must be our winning formula.
Our founder, though a “very humble man”, has an air of natural dignity. His appearance was always remarkably neat and his manners, impeccable. He had the gift of ‘grasping the essentials’, and was always very clear on what needed to be done. He had the gift of encouragement and would always use this God given gift to the great benefit of all those around him. He could always encourage them to do better, to go further, to overcome seemingly insurmountable tasks, try things they thought they could not do, and the wonderful thing was that he was able to make them put in the effort wholeheartedly. What a great encourager!
Another great asset of the founder was – his wife! Amelia Pearson Sutherland shared her husband’s love for the Boys and his enthusiasm for the Brigade. Mrs Smith was absolutely unselfish, and would throw herself, heart and soul, into her husband’s plans and hopes, and would help and encourage him in all difficulties and perplexities. Sir William A. Smith would, taking turns, invite each squad to his home for a dinner-party. At these “At Homes”, as they were called, Ms Amelia would prepare a good meal for them, showed interest in each Boy and took pains to make each one feel at home. She would also sing and entertain them, so much so that these were wonderful evenings that the Boys always remembered fondly. For Boys who came from less than well to do families, these ‘At Homes’ were really an innovation in social work.
By God’s grace, the Brigade began to grow and multiply. What Sir William A. Smith started as a means of teaching his Sunday School boys discipline and self-control, as channel to use their boundless energy became an international movement of “Work among Boys”.
The Boys’ Brigade is attractive because its ideal comes from Christ….. Christ as the ideal man, Christ as the ideal Boy. Sir William A. Smith believed that Christianity is mistakenly seen as a “weak or effeminate” religion among boys. Boys, wanting to be ‘macho’, will shy away from it. Surely something is wrong if the gospel and Christianity is seen in this light. Something is wrong in the way Christ is presented to the boys. In Sir William A. Smith’s words - “A Boys’ aspirations are towards manliness. Our Boys are full of earnest desire to be brave, true men, true Christian men…….show them that in the service of Christ they will find the truest, bravest life that a man can live. We laid the foundation of the BB on this idea.” The founder’s vision is that through the BB, every Boy will learn that Christianity is practical and in fact needed for daily living, that no part of his life is beyond the range of God’s love. “The Brigade makes a point of acknowledging God in everything, of putting Christ at the head of everything, and tries to do it in such a way that a Boy will feel that the religious element in the work is a pleasure and not a bore. It breaks down the notion in a Boy’s mind that religion is a thing for Sunday and Sunday School, and has nothing to do with his daily life during the rest of the week. We try to make him feel that there is no part of his life that is beyond the range of God’s love, and that everything he does should be done in God’s sight.” The BB movement today will do well to encourage its members from time to time of the founder’s vision – that Boys be brought up to true Christian manliness, to be of service in Christ’s kingdom.
Sir William A. Smith died on 10 May 1914, after he had collapsed in his chair during a full executive meeting in London on 7 May 1914. The cause of death being cerebral haemorrhage, but the real cause was ‘overwork’. He carried the heavy burden of responsibility of the Brigade to his death bed. The words of the Apostle Paul come to mind – “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day – and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” (2 Timothy 4:7-8)