Frank William Boreham 1871-1959

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

Monday, March 10, 2008

Boreham on the ABC

The following Boreham essay/sermon or a variation of it was included in a book entitled: Ian Macpherson (ed.), Sermons I Should Have Preached (London: The Epworth Press, 1964), 30-37.

I know a pastor who each year preaches a series of sermons entitled, ‘Sermons I would love to have written’. (This is a good idea especially over a holiday period or when the pastor needs to crib a little more time for other tasks). This collection is in a similar vein.

This sermon is an example of Boreham’s rich creativity and it is planned to be included in the forthcoming, ‘The Best Essays and Sermons of F. W. Boreham’. It is posted here by request.


We had a birthday at our house today, and among the presents was a beautiful box of blocks. Each block represented one of the letters of the alphabet. As I saw them being arranged and rearranged upon the table, I fell a-thinking. For the alphabet has, in our time, come to its own. We go through life muttering an interminable and incomprehensible jargon of initials. We tack initials on to our names—fore and aft—and we like to see every one of them in its place. As soon as I open my eyes in the morning, the postman hands me a medley of circulars, postcards, and letters. One of them bids me attend the annual meeting of the S.P.C.A.; another reminds me of the monthly committee meeting of the M.C.M.; a third asks me to deliver an address at the P.S.A. In the afternoon I rush from an appointment at the Y.M.C.A. to speak on behalf of the W.C.T.U.; and then, having dropped in to pay my insurance premium at the A.M.P., I take the tram at the G.P.O., and ask the conductor to drop me at the A.B.C. I have accepted an invitation to a pleasant little function there—an invitation that is clearly marked R.S.V.P. And so on. There is no end to it. Life may be defined as a small amount of activity entirely surrounded by the letters of the alphabet.

Now the alphabet has a symbolism of its own. The man who coined the phrase 'as simple as A.B.C.' went mad; he went mad before he coined it. There are, it is true, a few simplicities sprinkled among the intricacies of this old world of ours; but the alphabet is not one of them. I protest that it is most unfair to call the alphabet simple. Nobody likes to be thought simple nowadays; see how frantically we preachers struggle to avoid any suspicion of the kind! Any person living would rather be called a sinner—or even a saint—than a simpleton. Why, then, affront the alphabet, which, as we have seen, is working a prodigious amount of overtime in our service, by applying to it so very opprobrious an epithet?

'As simple as A.B.C.,' indeed! Macaulay's schoolboy may not have been as omniscient as the historian would lead us to believe but he at least knew that there is nothing simple about the A.B.C. The alphabet is the hardest lesson that a child is called upon to learn. Latin roots, algebraic equations, and the Pons Asinorum are mere nothings in comparison. Grown-ups have short memories. They forget the stupendous difficulties that they surmounted in their earliest infancy; and their forgetfulness renders them pitiless and unsympathetic. Few of us recognize the strain in which a child's brain is involved when, for the first time, he confronts the alphabet. The whole thing is so arbitrary; there is no clue. In his noble essay on The Evolution of Language, Professor Henry Drummond shows that the alphabet is really a picture-gallery. 'First,' he says, `there was the onomatopoetic writing, the ideograph, the imitation of the actual object. This is the form we find in the Egyptian hieroglyphic. For a man a man is drawn, for a camel a camel, for a hut a hut. Then, to save time, the objects were drawn in shorthand—a couple of dashes for the limbs and one across, as in the Chinese, for a man; a square in the same language for a field; two strokes at an obtuse angle, suggesting the roof, for a house. To express further qualities, these abbreviated pictures were next compounded in ingenious ways. A man and a field together conveyed the idea of wealth; a roof and a woman represented home; and so on.' And thus, little by little, our letters were evolved. But the pictures have become so truncated, abbreviated, and emasculated, in the course of this evolutionary process, that a child, though notoriously fond of pictures, sees nothing fascinating in the letters of the alphabet. There is absolutely nothing about the first to suggest the sound A; nothing about the second to suggest the sound B. The whole thing is so incomprehensible; how can he ever hope to master it? An adult brain, introduced to such a conglomeration for the first time, would reel and stagger; is it any wonder that these childish cheeks get flushed or that the curly head turns at times very feverishly upon the pillow?

The sequence, too, is as baffling as the symbols. There is every reason why two should come between one and three; and that reason is so obvious that the tiniest tot in the class can appreciate it. But why must B come between A and C? There is no natural advance, as in the case of the numerals. The letter B is not a little more than the letter A, nor a little less than the letter C. Except through the operation of the law of association, which only weaves its spell with the passing of the years, there is nothing about A to suggest B, and nothing about B to suggest C. The combination is a rope of sand. Robert Moffat only realized the insuperable character of this difficulty when he attempted to teach the natives of Bechuanaland the English alphabet. Each of his dusky pupils brought to the task an observation that had been trained in the wilds, a brain that had been developed by the years, and an intelligence that had been matured by experience. They were not babies. Yet the alphabet proved too much for them. Why should A be A? and why should B be B? and why should the one follow the other? Mr. Moffat was on the point of abandoning his educational enterprise as hopeless, when one thick-lipped and woolly-headed genius suggested that he should teach them to sing it! At first blush the notion seemed preposterous. There are some things which, like Magna Charta and minute-books, cannot be set to music. Robert Moffat, however, was a Scotsman. The tune most familiar to his childhood came singing itself over and over in his brain; by the most freakish and fantastic conjunction of ideas it associated itself with the problem that was baffling him; and, before that day's sun had set, he had his Bechuana pupils roaring the alphabet to the tune of Auld Lang Syne!


The rhyme and metre fitted perfectly. The natives were so delighted that they strolled about the village shouting the new song at the tops of their voices; and Mr. Moffat declares that daylight was stealing through his bedroom window before the weird unearthly yells at last subsided. I have often wondered whether, in a more civilized environment, any attempt has been made to impress the letters upon the mind in the same way.

The symbolism of the alphabet rises to a sudden grandeur, however, when it is enlisted in the service of revelation. Long, long ago a startled shepherd was ordered to visit the court of the mightiest of earthly potentates, and to address him on matters of state in the name of the Most High. ` And the Lord said unto Moses, Come now, therefore, and I will send thee unto Pharaoh, and I will send thee also unto the children of Israel. And Moses said unto God, Behold, when I am come unto them and shall say, The God of your fathers bath sent me unto you, and they shall say, What is His name? what shall I say unto them? And God said unto Moses, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you!'
`I am—!'
`I am'—what?

For centuries and centuries that question stood unanswered; that sentence remained incomplete. It was a magnificent fragment. It stood like a monument that the sculptor had never lived to finish; like a poem that the poet, dying with his music in him, had left with its closing stanzas unsung. But the sculptor of that fragment was not dead; the singer of that song had not perished. For, behold, He liveth for evermore! And, in the fullness of time, He reappeared and filled in the gap that had so long stood blank.
`I am—!'
`I am'—what?
`I am—the Bread of Life!’ ‘I am—the Light of the World!' ‘I am—the Door!’ ‘I am—the True Vine!' 'I am—the Good Shepherd!' `I am—the Way, the Truth, and the Life!' `I am—the Resurrection and the Life!'

And when I come to the end of the Bible, to the last book of all, I find the series supplemented and completed.
`I am—Alpha and Omega!' `I am—A and Z!' `I am—the Alphabet!' The symbolism of which I have spoken can rise to no greater height than that. What, I wonder, can such symbolism symbolize? I take these birthday blocks that came to our house today and strew the letters on my study floor. So far as any spiritual significance is concerned, they seem as dead as the dry bones in Ezekiel's Valley. And yet `I am the Alphabet!' `Come,' I cry, with the prophet of the captivity, 'come from the Four Winds, O Breath, and breathe upon these slain that they may live! 'And the prayer has scarcely escaped my lips when lo, all the letters of the alphabet shine with a wondrous lustre and glow with a profound significance.

For see, the North Wind breathes upon these letters on the floor, and I see at once that they are symbols of the Inexhaustibility of Jesus! `I am Alpha and Omega!' `I am the Alphabet!' I have sometimes stood in one of our great public libraries. I have surveyed with astonishment the serried ranks of English literature. I have looked up, and, in tier above tier, gallery above gallery, shelf above shelf, the books climbed to the very roof, whilst, looking before me and behind me, they stretched as far as I could see. The catalogue containing the bare names of the books ran into several volumes. And yet the whole of this literature consists of these twenty-six letters on the floor arranged and rearranged in kaleidoscopic variety of juxtaposition. Which, I ask myself, is the greater—the literature or the alphabet? And I see at once that the alphabet is the greater because it is so inexhaustible. Literature is in its infancy. We shall produce greater poets than Shakespeare, greater novelists than Dickens, greater philosophers, historians, and humorists than any who have yet written. But they will draw upon the alphabet for every letter of every syllable of every word that they write. They may multiply our literature a million-million-fold; yet the alphabet will be as far from exhaustion when the last page is finished as it was before the first writer seized a pen.

`I am-the Alphabet!' He says. He means that He cannot be exhausted.

For the love of God is broader
Than the measures of Man's mind;
And the heart of the Eternal
Is most wonderfully kind.

The ages may draw upon His grace; the people of every nation and kindred and people and tongue—a multitude that no statistician can number—may kneel in contrition at His feet; His love is as great as His power and knows neither measure nor end. He is inexhaustible.

And when the South Wind breathes upon these letters on the floor, I see at once that they are symbols of the Indispensability of Jesus. Literature, with all its hoarded wealth, is as inaccessible as the diamonds of the moon until I have mastered the alphabet. The alphabet is the golden key that unlocks to me all its treasures of knowledge, poetry, and romance.

`I am the Alphabet!' He says; and He says it three separate times. For the words occur thrice in the Apocalypse. In the first case they refer to the unfolding of the divine revelation ; in the second they refer to the interpretation of historic experience; and in the third they refer to the unveiled drama of the future. As the disciples discovered on the road to Emmaus, I cannot understand my Bible unless I take Him as being the key to it all; I cannot understand the processes of historical development until I have given Him the central place; I cannot anticipate with equanimity the unfoldings of the days to come until I have seen the keys of the eternities swinging at His girdle.

The alphabet is, essentially, an individual affair. In order to read a single sentence, I must learn it for myself. My father's intimacy with the alphabet does not help me to enjoy the volumes on my shelves. The alphabet is indispensable to me; and so is He! There is something very pathetic and very instructive about the story that Legh Richmond tells of The Young Cottager. 'The rays of the morning star,' Mr. Richmond says, `were not so beautiful in my sight as the spiritual lustre of this young Christian's character.' She was very ill when he visited her for the last time. `There was animation in her look—there was more—something like a foretaste of heaven seemed to be felt, and gave an inexpressible character of spiritual beauty, even in death.'

'Where is your hope, my child?' Mr. Richmond asked, in the course of that last conversation.

`Lifting up her finger,' he says, 'she pointed to heaven, and then directed the same finger downward to her own heart, saying successively as she did so, "Christ there!" and "Christ here!" These words, accompanied by the action, spoke her meaning more solemnly than can easily be conceived.'
In life and in death He is our one indispensability. In relation to this world, and in relation to the world that is to come, He stands to the soul as the alphabet stands in relation to literature.

And when the East Wind breathes upon these letters on the floor, I see at once that they are symbols of the Invincibility of Jesus. `I am—A and Z!' He is at the beginning, that is to say, and He goes right through to the end. There is nothing in the alphabet before A; there is nothing after Z. However far back your evolutionary interpretation of the universe may place the beginning of things, you will find Him there. However remote your interpretation of prophecy may make the end of things, you will find Him there. He goes right through. The story of the ages—past, present, and future—may be told in a sentence `Christ first, Christ last, and nought between but Christ.' Having begun, He completes. He is the Author and Finisher of our faith. He sets His face like a flint. Nothing daunts, deters, or dismays Him. `I am confident,' Paul says, `of this very thing, that He which hath begun a good work in you will perform it unto the end.' He never halts at H or L or P or X; He goes right through to Z. He never gives up.

But the greatest comfort of all comes to me on the Wings, of the West Wind. For, when the West Wind breathes upon these letters on the floor, I see at once that they are symbols of the Adaptability of Jesus. The lover takes these twenty-six letters and makes them the vehicle for the expression of his passion; the poet transforms them into a song that shall be sung for centuries; the judge turns them into a sentence of death. In the hands of each they mould themselves to his necessity. The alphabet is the most fluid, the most accommodating, the most plastic, the most adaptable contrivance on the planet. Just because, in common with every person breathing, I possess a distinctive individuality, I sometimes feel as no person ever felt before, and I express myself in language such as no person ever used. And the beauty of the alphabet is that it adapts itself to my individual need. And that is precisely the beauty of Jesus. `I am—the Alphabet!' I may not have sinned more than others; but I have sinned differently. The experiences of others never sound convincing; they do not quite reflect my case. But, like the alphabet, He adapts Himself to every case. He is the very Saviour I need.

F W Boreham, ‘A Box of Blocks’, Rubble and Roseleaves (London: The Epworth Press, 1923), 236-248.