Frank William Boreham 1871-1959

Frank William Boreham 1871-1959
A photo F W Boreham took of himself in 1911

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Boreham on The Powder Magazine

I have a special fondness for explosive people. I can never persuade myself that dynamite got into the world by accident. I intolerantly scout the theory that the devil built all the volcanoes, and that his minions feed their furious fires. I have admired an indescribable grandeur in the hurricane. I have felt the cyclone to be splendid, and the tornado to be next door to sublimity. Even the earthquake has a glory of its own. And how a thunderstorm clears the air! How deliciously sweet my garden smells when the riven clouds have passed, and the glittering drops are still clinging like pendant gems to the drooping petals and the bright green leaves! And, in the same way, I have discovered something terribly sublime in those stormy elements that sweep the realm within.

There was a time when my eyes were closed to this side of the glory of God's world. I used to think it a dreadful thing for Paul to be cross with Barnabas. I thought it shocking if Barnabas spoke sharply to Paul. For Barnabas was `a good man and full of the Holy Ghost.' And Paul was `a good man and full of the Holy Ghost.' And I thought that so lovely and tranquil a little world had no room for dynamite. Till, one day, a thing happened that made me feel as though a volcano had burst into eruption at my feet! I was thunderstruck! The circumstances are briefly told. Paul and Barnabas had just completed one adventurous, triumphant, and historic campaign together. Together they had crossed the tumbling seas in crazy little vessels that would scarcely now be permitted to cruise about a river. Together they had trudged, singing as they went, along the lonely forest trail through the lowlands of Pamphylia. Together they had climbed the great pass over the mountains of Pisidia. Together they had felt the exhilaration of the heights as they surveyed, shading their eyes with their hands, the lands that they had come to conquer. Together, at the risk of their lives, they had forded streams in full tumultuous flood; together they had known hunger and thirst; together they had shared unspeakable hardships; together they had faced the most terrible privations. Together they had been deified one day, and together they had been stoned the next. Together they had made known the love of Christ in the great capitals; together they had rejoiced over their converts; and then, together, they had made that never-to-be-forgotten return journey. I have often tried to imagine their emotions, as, on the homeward way, they came in sight of one city after another that they had visited in coming. In coming, those cities were heathen capitals and nothing more. In returning, there were churches there and fond familiar faces! And what meetings those must have been in each city when the members again welcomed Paul and Barnabas; when the two scarred heroes told the thrilling tale of their experiences elsewhere; and when, in each church, ministers and officers were appointed! And, leaving a chain of thoroughly organized churches behind them across the land, as a ship leaves her foaming wake across the waters, the two valiant and dauntless companions returned home. How all this had welded these two noble souls together! They are knit, each to each, like the souls of David and Jonathan.

And now a second campaign is suggested. Barnabas proposes that they should take with them Mark. Mark, who was the nephew of Barnabas had started with them on their former journey; but, at the first brush of persecution, he had hastily scampered home. Paul instantly vetoes the proposal. He will not hear of it. He will not have a coward at any price. His soul loathes a traitor. Barnabas insists, but Paul remains adamant. `And the contention was so sharp between them that they departed asunder the one from the other,' and, probably, never met again. If I had not been actually present and witnessed this amazing explosion with my own eyes, I fancy my faith would have staggered. As it is, the surprising spectacle only taught me that God has left room for dynamite in a world like this; and, much as I admired both Paul and Barnabas before the outburst, I loved them still more when the storm was overpast.

I have said that I saw this astonishing outburst with my own eyes. That is so, or at least so I fancied. For it seemed to me that I was honoured with a seat on a committee of which both Paul and Barnabas were valued and revered members. We all loved them, and treasured every gracious word that fell from their lips. For `Barnabas was a good man and full of the Holy Ghost.' And 'Paul was a good man and full of the Holy Ghost.' Now Mark had applied to the committee for engagement as a missionary. And Barnabas rose to move his appointment. I shall never forget the charm and grace with which he did it. I could see at a glance that the good man was speaking under deep feeling. His voice reflected his strong emotion. He reminded us that Mark was his relative, and he felt a certain heavy responsibility for his nephew's spiritual well-being. He trembled, he said, lest he should be condemned as one who risked his life for the heathen over the seas, but who displayed no serious solicitude concerning his own kith and kin. He had wept in secret over his young kinsman's former treachery. But it had made him the more eager to win his soul in spite of everything. He was alarmed lest the rejection of his relative should lead to his utter humiliation, total exclusion, and final loss. He admitted with shame and grief all that could be alleged against him. He had been weighed in the balances and found wanting. He had turned his back in the hour of peril. But what of that? Had we not all our faults and failures? I remember that, as he said this, Barnabas glanced round the council-table, and looked inquiringly into each face. There was moisture in his own bright eyes, and each man hung his head beneath that searching glance.

And then, he went on, surely there was something admirable in Mark's original venture. He had nothing to gain by going. It was his enthusiasm for the cause of Christ that prompted him to go. It proved that his heart was in the right place. And the very fact that he was anxious to set out again, with a full knowledge of the perils before him, proved indisputably that he had sincerely repented of his earlier unfaithfulness, and was eager for an opportunity of redeeming his name from contempt. How could we ourselves hope for forgiveness unless we were prepared to show mercy in a case like this? Once more those searchlights swept the faces round the table. And then, with wonderful tenderness, Barnabas reminded us of the bruised reed that must not be broken and of the smoking flax that must not be quenched. And, in the name of Him who, after His resurrection, found a special place for Peter, the disciple who had thrice denied his Lord, Barnabas implored us to favour his nephew's application. There was a hush in the room when the gracious speech was finished. We all felt that Barnabas was a good man and full of the Holy Ghost.

Then Paul rose. One could see at a glance that his whole soul rebelled against having to oppose the partner of so many providential escapes, the comrade of so many gallant fights. The affection of these two for each other was very beautiful. Paul admitted frankly that he had been deeply touched by the gracious words that had fallen from the lips of Barnabas. His heart leaped up to greet every one of those appeals. Each argument met with its echo and response in every fibre of his being. For old friendship's sake he would dearly like to accede to the request of Barnabas. Was it not through the influence of Barnabas, and in face of strong opposition, that he himself was admitted to the sacred service? And because Mark was his old friend's nephew he would especially wish to entertain the proposal. But we were gathered together, he reminded us, in the sacred interests of the kingdom of Christ. And for the sake of the honour of that kingdom we must be prepared to set aside considerations of friendship, and even to ignore the tender claims of kinship. The friendship of Barnabas was one of earth's most precious treasures; but he could not allow even that to influence him in a matter in which he felt that the integrity of the cause of Christ was at stake. The relatives of Barnabas were as dear to him as his own kith and kin; but there were higher considerations than domestic considerations. Mark had once—perhaps twice—proved himself unequal to the claims of this perilous undertaking. He might render excellent and valuable service in some other capacity. But for this particular enterprise, which required, as well as a warm heart, a cool head and a steady nerve, Mark was clearly unfitted. He became terror-stricken in the hour of danger. They could not afford to run such risks. A defection in their own party gave the enemy cause to blaspheme. It exposed them to ridicule and contempt. The heathen cried out that these men were prepared to follow Christ so long as Christ never went near a cross. The Jews, who had themselves suffered for their faith, laughed at a new doctrine from which its very teachers might be scared and intimidated. And the young converts would find it immensely more difficult to endure persecution for the gospel's sake if they beheld one of the missionaries turn his back in the hour of peril. He had long ago forgiven Mark, he said, for his former failure. Indeed, he scarcely recognized any need for forgiveness. He felt sorry for his young friend at the time, and he felt sorry for him still. Mark was a gentle spirit, not made for riots and tumults; and, in the shock of opposition, he was easily frightened. His love for Christ, and his zeal for service, were very admirable; and they all loved him for his simplicity and sincerity and enthusiasm. But, knowing his peculiar frailty, they must not expose either him or the cause to needless risk. The welfare of Mark, and the reputation of the Cross, were very dear to him; and he would on no account whatever agree to submit the delicate soul of Mark to a strain that it had already proved itself unable to bear, or the gospel to an unnecessary risk of being brought into disfavour and contempt. He implored the committee to deal wisely and considerately with the subtle and delicate and complex character of his young friend, and to prize above everything else the honour of the gospel. Personally he was quite determined that it would be a wicked and unjust and unkind thing to expose the soul of Mark to such imminent peril, and the Cross of Christ to such grave risk of further scandal. He would on no account take Mark. The speech was so tempered with tenderness, as well as with firmness and wisdom, that it created a profound impression. We all felt that Paul was a good man and full of the Holy Ghost.

Neither would yield. How could they? Each had heard a voice that was higher and more imperative than the voice of sentiment or of friendship. It is ridiculous to say that they should have `made it up' for old sake's sake, or for the gospel's sake, or for any other sake. Barnabas believed, in the very soul of him, that it would be wrong to leave Mark behind. And Paul believed, in the very soul of him, that it would be wrong to take Mark with them. You cannot bridge a gulf like that. Each tried to convince the other. The contention became sharp but futile. And they parted. And I, for one, honour them. They could not, as `good men and full of the Holy Ghost,' have done anything else. I do not pretend to understand why God has made room in the world for earthquakes and volcanoes. I see them tear up the valleys and hurl down the mountains; and I stand bewildered and astonished. But there they are! I do not pretend to understand these other explosive forces. But there they are! And I, for one, love both Paul and Barnabas the more that they will neither of them sacrifice, even for friendship's sweet sake, the interests of the cause of Christ.

In my New Zealand days I knew two men, almost aged. I have told the story in detail in Mushrooms on the Moor. These two men had been bosom friends. Time after time, year after year, they had walked up to the house of God in company. In the days of grey hairs they came to differ on important religious questions, and could no longer conscientiously worship beneath the same roof. They met; they tried to discuss the debatable doctrine; but their hearts were too full. Side by side they walked for miles along lonely roads on a clear, frosty, moonlight night, in the hope that presently a discussion would be possible. I walked in reverent silence some distance ahead of them. But speech never came. Grief had completely paralysed the vocal powers, and the eyes were streaming with another eloquence. They wrung each other's hands at length, and parted without even a `Good-night.' They still differ; they still occasionally meet; they still love. They even admire each other for being willing to sacrifice old fellowship for conscience sake. There is something here with which the more flippant advocates of church union do not reckon. Paul and Barnabas are good men, both of them, and full of the Holy Ghost. But they cannot agree. Face to face, the contention becomes very sharp. They wisely part. As I say, I do not pretend to understand why God left so many explosive forces lying about His world; but there they are!

It all turned out wonderfully well, as it was bound to do. Barnabas, whatever became of him, made a hero of Mark. He became perfectly lion-hearted. `Bring Mark with thee,' wrote Paul to Timothy, when he himself was awaiting his martyr-death at Rome. 'Bring Mark with thee, for he is profitable to me for my ministry.' And I like to think that when Peter felt that the time had come to put on permanent record the holy memories of earlier Galilean days, he employed Mark to pen the precious pamphlet for him. Peter and Mark understood each other. And as they worked together on that second `gospel,' they had many a tearful talk of the way in which, long before, they had each played the coward's part, and had each been greatly forgiven and graciously restored. To those of us who look up to Paul and Barnabas as to a terrific height above us, it is splendid to know that there is room for Peter and for Mark in the heart that loves and in the service that ennobles.

F W Boreham, ‘The Powder Magazine’, The Other Side of the Hill (London: Charles H Kelly, 1917), 253-264.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: “I can never persuade myself that dynamite got into the world by accident.”

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Boreham on The Signal Box

When I was a small boy in my Kentish home, I was occasionally missing—even at meal-times. As the years wore on, the alarm created by these mysterious disappearances of mine gradually subsided, not by reason of any dwindling value or importance attached to my person, but simply because a very shrewd conjecture could be formed as to my whereabouts. For at the foot of our garden, separated from it by a high bank, which was itself a romantic wilderness of blackberries, ran the railway. And just beside the railway line, not more than a hundred yards from the bottom of the garden, was the signal-box. Few things delighted me more than to spend an hour in that old signal-box. It was close to the mouth of the tunnel. I loved to hear the bell go ring-a-ting-ting when the train entered the tunnel on the far side, and to watch for its emergence on our side. It seemed to me positively uncanny that the signalman could tell by all these clanging tokens just where all the trains were. I liked to see him swing the great levers backwards and forwards, pulling the signals up and down, and at night-time causing the green and red lights to shine from the tall signal-posts. As I sat beside his great, roaring fire on winter evenings, and saw him stop the trains or let them pass, just as he pleased, I thought he must surely be one of the most important men in the country. I could scarcely imagine that the Prime Minister had greater authority or responsibility. And I remember, as clearly as though it were yesterday, that I used to sit on the stool beside that fire—face in hands and elbows on knees—wondering if I might hope, one great day, to attain to the glory of being a signalman. And, surely enough, I have.

For I have come to see, as the days have gone by, that we humans are expert and inveterate signalmen. We have a perfect genius for concocting mysterious codes; we revel in flashing out cryptic heliograms; we glory in receiving occult messages. We even communicate in this abstruse and recondite fashion with our own selves. A man will twist a piece of string round his finger, or tie a knot in the corner of his pocket-handkerchief, or stick a scrap of stamp-paper on the face of his watch, to remind him of something that has nothing whatever to do with string or handkerchief or stamp-paper. It is his secret code, and in the terms of that code this inveterate signalman is signalling to himself, that is all!

Moreover, we not only signal to ourselves, but we are fascinated by the spectacle of other people signalling to themselves. A novel becomes invested with a new interest when its plot suddenly turns upon the weird phenomena of a witch's cavern or the mysterious ritual of a gipsy camp. By means of her viper, her owl, her toad, her cauldron, her tripod, her herbs, and all the rest of it, the withered crone in the dimly lighted cave is signaling to herself from morning to night; by means of the crossed sticks where the roads fork the gipsies leave tokens for themselves and each other. Many a man will wear a charm hanging round his neck, or suspended to his watch-chain, of which nobody knows the significance but himself. Luther went down to his grave without revealing even to his wife the meaning of the five mystic initials that he had carved over the portal of his house. They are, he explained, the initials of five German words; but what those words were he alone knew. The signals stand to this day over the portal; the code was locked up in the great reformer's breast, and, deposited there, it descended with him to his tomb.

Henrik Ibsen, too, the great Norwegian dramatist, kept on his writing-table a small ivory tray containing a number of grotesque figures, a wooden bear, a tiny devil, two or three cats—one of them playing a fiddle—and some rabbits. `I never write a single line of any of any dramas,' Ibsen used to say, `without having that tray and its occupants before me on my table. I could not write without them. But why I use them and how, this is my own secret.' Here was a great and brilliant thinker happy in being able to flash covert messages to himself by a code which no one but himself ever knew! I instance these—the witch's cavern, the gipsy's ritual, the reformer's portal, and the dramatist's tray—to show that our passion for signalling is so ingrained and deep-seated that, if we cannot satisfy it in cryptic communication with others, we atone for the deficiency by signalling to ourselves.

After all, there is but one really universal language. It was spoken in the world's first morning, and people will still be speaking it when they are startled by the shocks of doom. It was the language of the Stone Age, and it will be the language of the golden Age. It is spoken all the world over by people of all kinds, classes, colours, and conditions; and if either Mars or the moon is really inhabited, it is spoken there too. The little child speaks it before he is able to lisp one single word of our clumsier dictionary speech; and the aged spear it long after the palsied lip has lost its utterance. It is equally intelligible to the English merchant on the London market, to the Indian trapper in the Western forests, to the Chinese mandarin in the far interior of Asia, to the South Sea Islander basking in the rays of an equatorial sun, and to the Eskimo in his frozen hut amidst the blinding whiteness of the icy North. It is known even to the beasts of the field and the birds of the air; they understand it, and sometimes even speak it. The universal language is the language of gesture. The shrug of the shoulders; the flash of the eye; the knitting of the brows; the curling of the lip; the stamping of the foot; the clenching of the fist; the nodding of the head; the pointing of the hand,—here is a language which is known to everyone. It has no alphabet, no grammar, and no syntax; but the simplest can understand it. Indeed, the simplest understand it best. The savage is a master of gesture. He speaks with every nerve and muscle. And the little child is no less eloquent. Playing with her doll on the floor behind my chair is a small scrap of humanity who has as yet uttered no word that a lexicographer would recognize. And yet it would be absurd to say that she has not spoken. Her pushings and pullings, her beckonings and pointings, her smilings and poutings, are as expressive as anything in any of your vocabularies. She has found a speech for which the builders of Babel sighed in vain—a speech that can be understood by men and women of every nation under heaven. It is the language of signals.

We are living in a universe that is constantly trying to talk. It does not understand any of your artificial or manufactured languages—your Hebrew or Greek or Latin; your English or German or French—but it understands the universal language, the language of gestures, the language of signals. ‘The air,’ says Emerson, ‘is full of sounds, the sky of tokens; the ground is all memoranda and signatures; and every object is covered over with hints which speak to the intelligent.' The stars above my head are signalling; the astronomer masters the code and reads the secrets of the universe. The stones that I tread beneath my feet are signaling; the geologist unravels the code and interprets the romance of ages.

All Nature is one intricate system of signals as any naturalist will tell you. Let Richard Jefferies speak for them all. In discussing the birds that shelter in the ivy under his gable, he says that often a robin or a wren will pounce upon a caterpillar whilst the grub is still concealed among the grass. How is it done? It is all a matter of signals. `The bird's eyes, ever on the watch for food, learn to detect the slightest indication of its presence. Slugs, caterpillars, and such creatures, in moving among the grass, cause a slight agitation of the grass blades; they lift up a leaf by crawling under it, or depress it with their weight by getting on it. This enables the bird to detect their presence, even when quite hidden by the herbage, experience having taught it that, when grass is moved by the wind, broad patches sway simultaneously, whilst, when an insect or caterpillar is the agent, only a single leaf or blade is stirred.' The birds learn the code and readily interpret the signals. Those who live near to Nature soon acquire the same habit. The poetry of the countryside abounds with rhymes and couplets that are, after all, only expositions of Nature’s signals.

When elm leaves are as big as a shilling,
You may sow French beans if you be willing.

What is this but the interpretation of the code? The whispering elm leaves are the farmer's signal-flags. The universe, like the baby on my study floor, is always pathetically trying to talk to me; and the pity of it is that I am so slow to understand.

The language of signals is, I have shown, the one universal language. That is why, when man has something really great to say, he says it, not audibly, but visibly. The lover abandons the dictionary; he can say what he wishes to say so much more expressively by means of signals. A look; a pressure of the hand; a ring; a kiss,—what vocabulary could compare with a code like this? And it is a code that is comprehended in every nation under heaven. Or what man could express in so many words all that he feels when, for example, he waves his country's flag? ‘Have not I,’ Carlyle makes Herr Teufelsdrockh inquire, ‘have not I myself known five hundred living soldiers sabred into crow’s meat for a piece of glazed cotton which they call their Flag; which, had you sold it at any market-cross, would not have brought above three grochen? Did not the whole Hungarian nation rise, like some tumultuous moon-stirred Atlantic, when Kaiser
Joseph pocketed their Iron Crown, an implement, as was sagaciously observed, in size and commercial value little differing from a horseshoe? It is in and through symbols that man, consciously or unconsciously, lives, works, and has his being; those ages, moreover, are accounted the noblest which can the best recognize symbolic worth and prize it the highest. For is not a symbol ever, to him who has eyes for it, some dimmer or clearer revelation of the Godlike?' When, that is to say, man has something really great to say he says it by some mute sign or silent symbol. Similarly, when God has something to say to the Jew alone, he may perhaps cause His messenger to say it in the Hebrew tongue; but when He has something to say to all people everywhere, He always speaks the universal language, the language of gesture and symbol and sign. He speaks to the universal heart by means of the Ark, the Scapegoat, the Passover, the Mercy Seat, the Serpent in the Wilderness, the Cities of Refuge. Such signs need no translation; they speak to people of every clime and time. In the New Testament the same principle holds true.

He talked of lilies, vines, and corn,
The sparrow and the raven,
And tales so natural, yet so wise,
Were on men’s hearts engraven.
And yeast and bread and flax and cloth,
And eggs and fish and candles;
See, how the familiar world
He most divinely handles.

When God has something really vital to say to people, God says it in a language that requires no translation or interpretation. God says it in a way that all people can comprehend. 'The veil of the temple was torn in two from the top to the bottom.' All people everywhere can see the awful and profound significance of such a signal. A person may be unable to grasp the doctrine of the Atonement; but where is the heart that does not respond to the Vision of the Cross?

We are inveterate signalmen. We begin to make signals as soon as we crawl from our cradles; we are still making them when tottering down to our graves.
`It may be, master,' said Richard Bannatyne, John Knox's faithful serving-man, 'it may be that you will still he able to recognize my voice after you have become oblivious to every other sight and sound. When you are apparently unconscious, I shall bend over you and ask if you have still the hope of glory. Will you promise if you are able to give me some signal, that you will do so?

The old reformer made the promise, and, a few days later, turned into his room to die.

Grim in his deep death-anguish the stern old champion lay,
And the locks upon his pillow were floating thin and grey,
And, visionless and voiceless with quick and labouring breath,
He waited for his exit through life’s portal, death.

‘Hast thou the hope of glory?’ They bowed to catch the thrill
"That through some languid token might be responsive still,
Nor watched they long nor waited for some obscure reply,
He raised a clay-cold finger and pointed to the sky.

So the death-angel found him, what time his brow he bent,
To give the struggling spirit a sweet enfranchisement.
So the death-angel left him, what time earth's bonds were riven,
The cold, stark, stiffening finger still pointing up to heaven.

It is a great thing when the signalman's last signals are as unequivocal as that.

F W Boreham, ‘The Signal-Box’, The Uttermost Star (London: The Epworth Press, 1919), 9-18.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Romsey Signal Box