F. W. Boreham: An Appreciation
To read the essays of Frank Boreham is to know him intimately, for he has bravely and generously worn his heart on his sleeve. Like all writers of strong personality he has transfigured common, homely speech, and given us back our simple, familiar words impressed with his own rich experience. In his books you may trace his intellectual, artistic and spiritual development, though he writes without any trace of egotism.
He was born at Tunbridge Wells and spent his childhood there. Before his tiny hands had learnt to write, he gave some hint of what his great work was to be. An old gipsy stopped his nurse and, looking gravely at the little child, said, `Mercy! Go home and tell his mother to put a pen in his hand, and he'll never want for a living'. The prophecy was to be fulfilled, though not by his own deliberate choice.
For some years he went to the Grosvenor United School at Tunbridge Wells, and when he was sixteen he came up to London. A course at the Metropolitan College prepared him for life in a city office. The gipsy woman was surely wrong. He had chosen commerce!
But London is a lonely place. The ‘awful, surging crowd’ near St. Paul's was like a great unfriendly sea tossing a solitary leaf. The sights and sounds of London alternately attracted and repelled him. He was conscious of a dreadful fascination and fear. A great loneliness brought him perilously near a sense of desolation. He was approaching a spiritual crisis, and the hunger in his heart for ‘Someone outside him-self’ was his warning. ‘I can only believe at that critical juncture,’ he says, ‘Christ had laid His mighty hand upon me and made me His own.’
In a little hall at White Square, Clapham, he met Mr. A. L. Leighton of the London City Mission. The purpose of the simple services he attended was, to him, an amazing revelation of life's possibilities. A door was opened; he looked out upon a new world. He saw the crowd no longer as an angry, pitiless sea but rather as a company of weary, anxious folk who needed Christ. Soon he learned to lead them to Him. The ledger and the day-book were no longer the boundaries of his life. It had seemed that he chose commerce; it was now obvious that God had chosen him.
In 1890 he spent his holidays helping in a mission to hop-pickers in Kent. The motley crowd in the hop-fields looked forbidding enough. He saw them as men and women needing a Saviour. At night they crowded into the tent, and raised their raucous voices in song. The hymns they chose showed the need they vaguely felt. The boy, released from the bondage of the office, felt the challenge of this strange crowd. Out of their need his first sermon was born.
He was seventeen years old when he preached for the first time. It was a strange utterance. The text was ‘To-day if you will hear His voice harden not your hearts’. As he recalled it, after many years, Dr. Boreham said, ‘It had no exordium, no exegesis, no divisions, no anything.... It began with the application!’ Yet the man who has become a famous preacher to three continents looks back, wistfully, to that first sermon. It thrilled with passion, and it was the expression of an intense yearning for the little congregation to which it was delivered.
For some time he had been writing spasmodically, and there was a half-suppressed desire to become an author. On the other hand there was a call to preach, and he could not refuse. It seemed as though the old gipsy woman had only been guessing! From an office stool he went to a theological college to train for the ministry.
When his course at Spurgeon's College was ended, he was sent in I894 to Mosgiel, a little Scottish settlement in New Zealand. It was the great formative period in his life. The people were shrewd but kindly. He was their first minister; they were his first charge. They taught him many things, and learnt more surely from him, the ways of God. ‘I spent twelve happy years among those simple but sturdy folks,’ he says, ‘learning at their hands to be a minister of the everlasting Gospel.’
Many writers have said that Mosgiel made Boreham, but it would be equally true to say that Boreham made Mosgiel. He rescued the people of those lonely farms from oblivion, and made them messengers to the whole world. Their strangely varied experiences challenged him almost every day with some new problem. At one moment he was comforting a felon on the gallows—at the next he was conveying the proposal of a bashful lover to his beloved! Into the intimacy of this long apprenticeship he has admitted us in his books—not that we might see what a fine fellow he is, but that we may share, with him, the treasure God gave him in those loving, needy hearts. If Frank Borcham was fortunate in his first pastorate, the people of Mosgiel were thrice-blessed in his coming. He had eyes that saw, cars that heard, and a heart that loved them into newness of life.
When he first arrived they came to meet him—a crowd of ‘stern old grizzled stalwarts’ looking with penetrating eyes at the boy who stepped shyly down to greet them. They were no keener in discernment than he—‘I soon discovered that behind countenances that were like granite cliffs there lay a vast wealth of human tenderness. They pitied my loneliness, for had not each of them crossed the same wide seas in the days of long ago? And deep down in their hearts I think that each man felt I had come to bury him, and the thought brought a new softness into all their breasts.’
After twelve years at Mosgiel he went to Hobart, Tasmania, where he began his second ministry, which was to last ten years. It was while he was at Hobart that he began to write his books. In 1916 he went to his third pastorate at Armadale, Melbourne. He was no longer a local figure; the pulpits of the world were open to him. There was a sanity about his outlook which appealed to the man in the street. There was a sympathy in his approach which won for him an increasing audience everywhere he went. ‘People want helping,’ he said, ‘and you don't help them by scolding them.’
In all his ministry he has been strengthened by the understanding comradeship of his wife. In the early days of his first charge, Miss Stella Cottee, the daughter of John Cottee of Theydon Bois, came out to New Zealand to fulfil her promise to marry him. The gracious lady who became mistress of the little manse, set amongst the quiet farms and homesteads of Mosgiel, has endeared herself to her husband's vast circle of hearers and readers. She has been the guide to the philosopher, and the mother of his five children. All his service has been enriched by her radiant personality. ‘I want to scatter benedictions as thickly as autumn leaves,’ he said to a Sydney audience, and she has helped him towards his heart's desire.
For forty-three years in New Zealand, Tasmania and Australia he has preached the gospel, and almost every English-speaking land has heard his spoken word. Even so, it has been the ministry of his pen which has exerted the largest and most permanent influence. He was astonished to discover, when in Hobart, that he had not finally to abandon the writing of books because he had entered the Christian ministry. Indeed, in the exercise of that ministry—in preparation and intellectual discipline as well as in countless human contacts—he was being prepared for the new task. In twenty-five years he has written over thirty books, and maintained a consistent style and a freshness of outlook which is remarkable.
It is as an essayist that he is so widely known. Many people have described themselves by that term without considering its proper definition—‘An essay’, according to A. C. Benson, ‘is a thing which someone does himself; and the point of the essay is not the subject ... but the charm of personality.’ Whether one accepts Mr. Benson's view or not, it is certain that in Dr. Boreham's writing one is conscious of that charm. His reveries are personal—‘Says I to myself, says I’. At the same time one is conscious that this ‘thinking aloud’ is not accidental or aimless. He shares his experiences and emotions with his readers, and they are thrilled because their own experience has ready points of contact.
He is a spectator of life but he is never an unconcerned spectator. For Boreham, life is more than a pageant; it is a school and sometimes a battlefield.
He sees into the soul of things. For him there is always the element of romance in homespun.
The simple dignity of friendliness is in every approach. He is never pompous or overbearing.
His criticism is honest but kindly. The new humour with its biting cynicism does not appeal to him. There is often a smile upon his face as he watches life go by, but there is nothing ill-natured or arrogant in his description. He is never ‘the Superior Person’.
His work tells you that he is in love with life. It is all worth while and he is determined to help you to see it is lovable. That is why he finds many a diamond, glinting in the sun, as he walks a long, monotonous road. Such men are never bored, nor do they bore their readers.
He is a pilgrim, not a tramp—a homely philosopher with a passion for souls. In his search for truth he has ransacked the world of books, yet, as someone has wisely said, he remains a man of one Book. In so far as he is an anthologist he is original and purposeful. That is why he so often reveals in his use of quotation deeper truths than the writers themselves realized. All books arc commentaries on the central message of the Book.
If you meet him you will see a pair of kindly eyes—the eyes of an interpreter and critic—but you will find, in a moment, that he has been looking for the best in you, not the worst. That is why he discovers a great secret—that man may be taught to love beauty and truth and goodness, by being brought to look upon them. In this method Dr. Boreham is not to be classed with many modern essayists, who appear to take a morbid delight in cavalcades of ugliness. There are those who will argue that such parades are justifiable, yet more men are stirred to a crusade against ugliness, falsehood and evil by seeing the reality of their opposites. That was certainly the way of the Master, who showed men what they might be at their best, and left them suddenly conscious of the tremendous contrast.
The essayist who is content with reverie as an end in itself may reveal nothing more than himself, when the last page is written. In all Dr. Boreham's books there is one increasing purpose, so that at the end we are standing by his side before the Risen Lord.
During his ministry at Mosgiel he formed a lasting friendship with his neighbour, John Broadbanks, the minister of Silverstream. In his last book, he described the passing of John and reminds us of David Copperfield's wistful recollection of Agnes: ‘So may thy face be by me when I close my life indeed: so may I, when realities are melting from me like the shadows which I now dismiss, still find thee near me, pointing upward!’
That is how one feels as one reads the last page. It is a great achievement to have written thirty books which have all pointed upward. This kindly philosopher has trudged many a mile with countless readers, but he has helped every one to be a better pilgrim, and with him they have learned to climb.
Source: Leslie F Church, Day by Day with F W Boreham (London: The Epworth Press, 1937) 9-17.