Frank William Boreham 1871-1959

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

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Boreham and Controversy

While Boreham’s decision to distance himself increasingly from the issues of his time weakened the prophetic dimension of his editorial writing, his fear of controversy further diminished his ability to address the difficult issues of his day.

Fresh and Fearless
The first eight years of Boreham’s ministry in New Zealand were characterised by a fearless outspokenness on theological doctrine and issues of national and international importance. Within six months of arriving in Mosgiel Boreham preached a sermon in which he launched a stinging attack on a Presbyterian minister, the Rev McKerrow. In this sermon (later published in the local newspaper and subsequently printed as a booklet), Boreham condemned the Presbyterian practice of infant baptism and drew on the insights of biblical scholars to set forth the case for believers’ baptism.[1]

Boreham advocated the reading of the Bible in New Zealand schools,[2] led a vigorous temperance campaign,[3] attacked city leaders whose policy led to a desecration of the Sabbath[4] and advocated compulsory military training.[5] During the Boer War, he slammed those of the anti-militarist school and countered their influence by writing, “The nervous politicians of the present day who nurse this nightmare [the tendency towards militarism] should be able to estimate the real difference between the military necessity of a great empire and the foundation of that empire itself”.[6] On the enemy itself, Boreham wrote, “When the deluded Boers come to discern that life is more tolerable under the British rule than under the corrupt Boer oligarchy, they will very soon become fit to participate in self-government”.[7] In this early phase of Boreham’s career, he exhibited courage and engaged in a range of public questions with apparent effectiveness.

Once Bitten
In a letter to the Otago Daily Times, Boreham was criticised for a statement that he had made in his capacity as President of the Baptist Union. The criticism, made by the Rev J T Hinton, a friend and retired Baptist minister, concerned the exact wording and extent of the support for a motion considered by the Baptist Union at its previous assembly on the subject of Bible reading and “ethical and religious instruction” in schools.[8] For the next week Boreham and Hinton exchanged letters through the paper, at first pleasantly until Boreham called Hinton’s misrepresentation of him “criminal”.[9] When after a week the matter had not been resolved, a reader William Hutchinson wrote to the paper about this feud between “two of our reverend gentlemen” saying, “What can ordinary folks think when the minister of the gospel writes of another that he has convicted him of ‘gross misrepresentation of vital and fundamental facts, in order to mislead public opinion on a grave moral issue at an important crisis daring to contribute the utterly, admittedly and unpardonably false assertion?”[10] He then concluded, “The Bible is sometimes as conspicuous by its absence from the pulpit as from the public school”.

Reflecting on this “bitter experience which left its mark upon the whole of my ministry”, Boreham acknowledged how his attack had “mortally offended” this senior minister and had resulted in a breakdown of their friendship.[11] Eventually reconciliation was made but Boreham said, “I secretly vowed that I would never again allow myself to become entangled in public controversy. During the years, I have often listened to animated debates in which I longed to intervene, and have followed newspaper discussions into which my pen itched to plunge”.[12] Boreham was not always faithful to his vow. He was vociferous in denouncing George Bernard Shaw and his disciples who were critical of the British involvement in the First World War,[13] he was filled with anti-German sentiment during the Great War[14] and he was scathing in his criticism of the proposals by “workers” and unionists to get a “higher education”.[15] On only one other occasion did Boreham become embroiled in a public feud, when in 1915, he attacked the Roman Catholic church in its bid to gain State aid for Roman Catholic schools.[16]

Controversy Within Limits
In writing about controversy, Boreham recognised the spirit of conflict as “a sign of health” and he encouraged people not to denounce controversy as an unqualified evil but “to define the limits within which it might be utilized to national ends”.[17] He stated that reformers “often fail us because they rely too exclusively on the negative approach ... they attack this; they condemn that; they denounce the other”. Many times Boreham was to summarise his approach to criticism and controversy by saying, “The best way of showing that a stick is crooked is by laying a straight one beside it”.[18]

Peace at all Costs
Boreham was praised in many quarters for his irenic spirit and was well known as “the friend of all and the enemy of none”.[19] J J North acknowledged that Boreham “clashed with the Presbyterians in his callow days [but] we have not seen his name associated with a controversy since. With Fundamentalist and Modernist, with High Church and Low, with Catholic and Protestant, he has no discernible quarrel”.[20] Boreham’s positive and diplomatic style marked his editorial writing to such an extent that only a handful of published letters to the editor regarding his articles were written, most of which were letters of appreciation[21] with only two questioning Boreham’s interpretation of literary figures.[22]

Through the pages of the Mercury and the Age, Boreham was not critical of the government nor did he provoke theological controversy as contemporary editorialist, Edward Kiek, did through the pages of the Advertiser.[23] Boreham lacked the provocative, pugnacious style of the Rev Alan Walker who, in a later era, wrote editorials for the Sydney Morning Herald and whose active campaigns against apartheid, the Vietnam War, nuclear weapons, alcohol and gambling embroiled him in regular controversy.[24] Boreham’s personality was of a more peaceful kind and earned him enormous public respect across all parties. However, his decision in 1902 to avoid controversy and write benign editorials severely limited his effectiveness as an interpreter of public issues, a public theologian and a conscience to his constituency. Boreham knew this, for reflecting on this decision thirty-three years later he wrote, “I think I have been wrong. I think ... I may have shirked my duty”.[25]

Geoff Pound

Image: Mosgiel Train Station. A photo of a postcard in FWB’s memorabilia.

[1] Frank W Boreham, Christian baptism (Dunedin : H H Driver, 1895).
[2] Boreham, Otago Daily Times, 5 July 1899.
[3] Boreham, Otago Daily Times, 30 August 1899.
[4] Boreham, Otago Daily Times, 30 August 1900; 12 April 1901.
[5] Boreham, Otago Daily Times, 18 March 1901.
[6] Boreham, Otago Daily Times, 7 September 1901.
[7] Boreham, Otago Daily Times, 29 October 1901.
[8] J T Hinton and F W Boreham, Otago Daily Times, 25 August 1902; 29 August 1902; 30 August 1902; 1 September 1902; 2 September 1902; 3 September 1902; 4 September 1902; 5 September 1902.
[9] Boreham, Otago Daily Times, 2 September 1902.
[10] Boreham, Otago Daily Times, 12 September 1902.
[11] Boreham, Ships of pearl, 154-155.
[12] Boreham, My pilgrimage, 171.
[13] Boreham, Mercury, 5 December 1914.
[14] Boreham, Mercury, 13 February 1915; 20 February 1915.
[15] Boreham, Mercury, 17 April 1915.
[16] Boreham, Mercury, 8 April 1915; 13 April 1915; 14 April 1915; 21 April 1915.
[17] Boreham, Mercury, 30 June 1934.
[18] Boreham, Mercury, 4 August 1956.
[19] Australian Baptist, 29 April 1941.
[20] Australian Baptist, 16 February 1926. It would appear that North’s mention of Boreham’s ‘clash with the Presbyterians’ is a reference to the baptismal controversy mentioned earlier.
[21] Letter to the editor by H R N, Mercury, 4 August 1934; Letter to the editor by J H R, Age, 26 October 1940. Letter to the editor by W J R, Mercury, 5 September 1949.
[22] Letter to the editor by J S D, Age, 6 July 1940. This relates to Boreham’s article on Richard Blackmore in the Age, 23 June 1940; Letter to the editor by ‘M L E’, Age, 28 September 1940. This relates to Boreham’s article on the Bronte sisters in the Age, 21 September 1940.
[23] Walter Phillips, Edward S Kiek: Liberal churchman his life and thought (Adelaide: Uniting Church Historical Society, 1981), 18. Phillips gives an example of Kiek’s criticism of the welfare state in Advertiser, April 1945.
[24] Don Wright, Alan Walker: Conscience of the nation (Adelaide: Open Book Publishers, 1997), 114, 134, 162, 163, 165. Walker wrote Christmas and Good Friday editorials for the Sydney Morning Herald from the early 1970s.
[25] Boreham, Ships of pearl, 160.