Frank William Boreham 1871-1959

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

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Boreham on Second Fiddles

On my web site This Day With F W Boreham, I have posted the editorial, ‘Boreham on Second Fiddles’. This was the editorial he had appointed for 14 May in his unfinished book in which he intended to have one article for every day of the year.

You can find it at the web address below.

I am in this posting presenting a published essay entitled ‘Second Fiddles’. This was a common theme (as FWB indicates in this piece) but both postings represent the different genre of editorial and essay. The editorial which appeared in the newspaper, the Hobart Mercury, had tight word restrictions. The essay was more extensive. The editorial was written for the general public. The essay, he knew, was written for a loyal readership who had a higher theological literacy, hence, there are more references to the bible, church history and the local congregation.

Enjoy both the editorial and this Boreham essay, entitled ‘Second Fiddles’:

ONCE in a blue moon it falls to the lot of a public man to read his own obituary notice. Mr. Charles Brookfield closes his Random Reminiscences by telling of an interesting experience of the kind. He was laid up at the Isle of Wight with a sharp attack of pleurisy; one afternoon it was rumoured that the malady had proved fatal; and the evening papers rushed out the usual sketches of his character and career. Mr. Brookfield had the satisfaction of lying in bed, propped up by snowy pillows, and reading these lachrymose lamentations and candid criticisms. The latter proved by far the more entertaining. But the climax of the sick man’s enjoyment was reached when, in the columns of a leading journal, he was told that, ‘though never a great actor, he was invaluable in small parts.’ Mr. Brookfield used to say that he regarded that phrase as one of the finest compliments ever paid him.

Some of the world’s best work is done by those who, by no means great actors, are nevertheless invaluable in small parts. They are essentially second fiddles. They have not the perspicacity to see exactly what needs doing, but, once it is pointed out to them, they will exhaust all their energies in the prosecution of the task. They are eager to help, anxious to serve, grateful to be commanded. They are conscious of their own limitations. They know that they can never hope to lead; but, when they find a leader who knows how to win their hearts, they will show their delight by following him through thick and through thin. ‘Dundas is no orator,’ Pitt once said; ‘he is not even a speaker; but he will go out with you in any weather!’ He was a second fiddle. So was Jamie Greenleaf, my old Mosgiel deacon. Jamie was no great actor, but in small parts he was invaluable. I never in my life heard him make a suggestion. He had no more initiative than the chair on which he sat. When a debate was in progress, he sat bewildered and confused. His ready sympathy led him to see the best on both sides; and I have even caught him voting both for the resolution and the amendment. In such an atmosphere he was like a fish out of water. But tell him that, at its last meeting, the Church had decided on such and such a policy, and that somebody would be needed to distribute handbills, or run a message, or visit a distant member, or drive the minister to an outlying township, and Jamie instantly volunteered his services. Sunday might bring with it a snowstorm or a tornado, you would always find Jamie at the church door distributing hymn-books. Was there to be a coffee supper or a social evening? You would always find Jamie preparing the tables and stoking the fire. At the Sunday School picnic it was always Jamie who pitched the tent, hung the swings, and kept things merry. If any special service was approaching—a wedding, a funeral, a mission, or an anniversary—Jamie always gave a ‘cry roon’ at the Manse the night before to see if there were any odd jobs that he could attend to. If you suggested that he should make a speech, he looked terrified; he could not initiate a policy to save his life; yet I doubt if any one in the Mosgiel Church was held in greater affection than was he. In every club, school, society, and congregation you will find men of this fine type. They are essentially second fiddles. Never great actors, they are simply invaluable in small parts.

The cynic will say with a sneer that a second fiddle is a second fiddle because it cannot be a first. It might just as truly—perhaps more truly—be said that a first fiddle is a first fiddle because it cannot be a second. The most striking illustration of this phenomenon occurs in the political history of the nineteenth century. During the memorable period to which I refer, Gladstone was the first fiddle of the Liberals and Disraeli was the first fiddle of the Conservatives. But, at the beginning, the two men were members of the same party. And, as you read Lord Morley’s stately chapters, or any other history of the mental evolution of the two men, you are unable to resist the conviction that they were driven into hostile camps by their utter lack of affinity. Each got on the other’s nerves; each felt an unconquerable animosity for the other. Had they continued in the same party, one would have had to be first fiddle and the other second. It was out of the question. Neither could be second fiddle to the other; the idea was preposterous, inconceivable, absurd. And so, beneath the commanding influence of their gigantic personalities, parties were remodelled; the one went to the one side of the House, and the other to the other; and they remained protagonists to the end of the chapter. They stand for all time as a classical exemplification of the fact that, whilst some men are second fiddles because they can’t be first, others are first fiddles because they can’t be second.

Some men, on the other hand, are shaped by destiny to be second fiddles. It is as second fiddles that they shine. They are second, not because they cannot force their way to a leading place, but because they recognize that they can do their best work in a subordinate role. It has been said that Nelson could never have won the battle of Trafalgar but for the assistance and support that he received from Cuthbert Collingwood. On the day that determined the destinies of Europe, Nelson himself was lost in admiration of the heroic part played by his second-in-command. Collingwood, on the Royal Sovereign, led the lee line of ships towards the enemy's fleet, and, first under fire, opened the historic engagement. ‘See,’ cried Nelson, pointing to his colleague's vessel as she steered straight for the enemy's line, ‘see how that noble fellow Collingwood carries his ship into action!’ Let us grant for the sake of argument that, without Collingwood, Nelson could not have destroyed Napoleon's fleet that day. But nobody will deny that, if Nelson had not been there, Collingwood would never have destroyed it. The day was decided by the dazzling genius of ‘the greatest sailor since the world began.’ As soon as the French and Spanish admirals saw the formation of the British lines, they knew that, notwithstanding the superior size, strength, and numbers of their own ships, the battle could end only in one way. They were defeated before a shot was fired. Grant, therefore, as everybody will grant, that Collingwood could not have won the battle without Nelson; and grant, for the sake of argument that Nelson could not have won the battle without Collingwood, and you have only proved that some men are essentially first fiddles, and others, just as essentially, second fiddles. Collingwood was equipped with every qualification for becoming a second fiddle. As a second fiddle he was literally invaluable; as a first fiddle he would have whelmed a continent in appalling disaster.

Or if, preferring to see the same principle at work in less warlike surroundings, the student cares to shift the scene, he will find an identically similar illustration in the cases of Martin Luther and Philip Melancthon. Luther could never have brought the reformation into being but for the work and influence of Philip Melancthon; and, most certainly, Melancthon could never have done it without Luther. Luther was a first fiddle; who can imagine him second? Melancthon was a second fiddle; he had neither the desire nor the ability to be a first.

Everything depends upon the correct arrangement of the first and second fiddles. When, as in the case of Bright and Cobden, the men fit into their right positions at the start, the cause they represent is given an incalculable advantage. When, as in the case of Burke and Wills, the Australian explorers, the second fiddle is given first place and the first second, the situation can only end tragically. Wills was a born leader; it was the one qualification that Burke lacked. Macaulay has shown that, when Sir James Mackintosh was first fiddle and Charles Fox second, the Whig cause lost ground every day; but when they changed places it swept the country. There are men who make excellent lieutenants but poor captains; they are admirable assistants but execrable leaders. They are sent into the world to be second fiddles.

We ministers are specially sensitive at this point. We are generally regarded as first fiddles. Our position involves us in a prominence that is out of all proportion to the value of our service. Every day of our lives we become increasingly conscious that the real glory belongs to the second fiddles. The secretaries, the treasurers, the office-bearers of our churches—the men who, year in and year out, cheerfully devote their time, their energy, their wealth, and their ability to the service of the sanctuary—the men who, in many cases, bore the burden of responsibility before we ministers appeared, and will continue to bear it after we have vanished—how could the Church exist without these? They are the pride and the comfort of every minister and of every congregation.

And what of the men who are quaintly termed ‘the local preachers’? Consult the records of any congregation in Australia or New Zealand, and, before you have turned many pages, you will find yourself reading the annals of a time when a few devout souls met in a barn or a kitchen and received gratefully the ministrations of earnest laymen whose hearts had been divinely touched and whose lips had been divinely opened. In the early history of every church there were the gravest difficulties to be encountered and the fiercest prejudices to be overcome. In the nature of things, there were no ministers on the scene, and the positions were bravely and cheerfully taken by busy men—farmers, smiths, clerks, shopkeepers—who, although deeply conscious of their scanty equipment and meagre qualifications, were of faith so fine and sense so sound that no discouragement ever damped their ardour and no opposition ever daunted their determination. When the Churches look proudly round at their prosperity, and joyously recount the mercies that have crowned past years, they do but advertise their base ingratitude if they omit an eloquent allusion to the priceless spirits of these valiant men.

I am very fond of Richard Jefferies. My old friend, J J Doke, who laid down his life pioneering in Rhodesia, once advised me to sell the clothes from my back, if need be, in order to possess myself of Field and Hedgerow and the other treasures that our great naturalist has left us. My only sorrow, as I have read these classics of the countryside, has been that Jefferies hated churches and ministers. He turned his back on a church whenever he caught sight of it, and loved to look out upon the sea because there, he said, he could be sure that the horizon would be disfigured by no steeple. Yet even Jefferies found it impossible to withhold his admiration from the local preacher. In his Wild Life in a Southern County, he describes the varied phenomena of a Sussex hamlet. And how can he honestly portray the moving panorama of village life without making some reference to the cottage meeting? He pictures the quaint little room—its old-fashioned furniture and odd assortment of books. There is a Bible among them. Hardly a cottager, Jefferies says, is without his Bible. And no man can interpret that cottage Bible like the local preacher. ‘The good man has been labouring in the hayfield from dawn till dusk; but at night he faces without any sign of weariness the devout folk who gather to hear him. He opens the Bible, and, though he can but slowly wade through the book, letter by letter, word by word, he has caught the manner of the ancient writer and expresses himself in an archaic style not without its effect. There is no mistaking the thorough earnestness of this cottage preacher; he believes what he says; no persuasion, rhetoric, or force could move him one jot. Men of this kind won Cromwell's victories; but to-day they are mainly conspicuous for upright and irreproachable moral character, mingled with some surly independence; such men are not paid, trained, or organized; they labour from good will in the cause.’ Thus Richard Jefferies, scorning the Churches, doffs his cap to the local preacher. I range myself, bare-headed, beside him, and am grateful to have found another point of kinship with a teacher to whom I owe so much.

I once preached a long series of sermons on Second Fiddles. I could not help it. Paul makes so much of them. At the end of his very greatest letter he devotes a whole chapter to Second Fiddles. ‘I commend unto you Phebe our sister,’ he says; and then he goes on to a long list of people who, none of them great actors, were all of them invaluable in small parts. Take Phebe herself. In days when travelling was particularly hazardous, when means of locomotion and postal services were unknown, she, a woman, carried Paul’s letter all the way from Corinth to Rome. Only a first fiddle could have written the Epistle to the Romans; but how would that epistle have benefited the people to whom it was addressed unless a second fiddle had risked her life to deliver it? ‘Paul had a multitude of noble qualities,’ says William Brock, ‘and he had one quality which great men do not always exhibit; he never forgot a kindness, and never forsook a friend.’ And everybody knows why. It was because Paul had sat at the feet and caught the spirit of One who takes good care that no cup of cold water given in His name misses its reward. To Him the players of small parts—the Second Fiddles—are precious beyond price.

F W Boreham

Image: First and second fiddle.

Boreham's editorial on The Second Fiddle can be found at: