The Rev. William Payne presents Bibles to Scouts attending the Protestant Worship Service. Photo by Katy Mooney
By Dr. William P Payne
Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico is a place of high mountains and deep valleys. During a typical itinerary, Scouts push their bodies to their physical limits as they carry heavy packs over arduous trails. It is not for the faint of heart. A successful trek requires upwards of two years of training.
However, the rewards of hiking Philmont are worth the effort!
Besides the beautiful vistas, the daily adrenalin charges, the awesome programs in the backcountry camps, and the incredible sense of accomplishment that a crew experiences when it returns to base camp, there is another side to a Philmont adventure.
Honestly, most Scouts do not come to Philmont because they want to get closer to God. In fact, Philmont does not advertise spirituality. However, God is front and center at Philmont.
First, creation itself screams out His name. Everything about nature at Philmont testifies to God.
Second, because Scouts are separated from normal circumstances, lack creature comforts, and “feel” nature pushing upon them, they are in a place where they can sense God.
Additionally, every crew selects a chaplain’s aide. The aide is trained by a Philmont chaplain. The aide leads in grace, encourages daily devotions from Eagles Soaring High, focuses the crew on spiritual opportunities like watching a sunrise from a high peak, conducts conflict management, and models the Scout Law. Most importantly, he manages the Duty to God program, a program that puts meat on the twelfth point of the Scout Law (a Scout is reverent).
Bibles given at chapel services
Most Scouts come to chapel while in base camp either on their first or last night in camp. Many come to chapel on both nights. Chaplains also take chapel to the Scouts when they conduct back-country services.
This year, Protestant services were mostly packed. Additionally, Scouts could attend Roman Catholic Mass, a Jewish prayer service, or an LDS service. In all, eight chaplains attended to the spiritual, emotional, and physical needs of the Scouts and staff at Philmont.
Scouts who attended a Protestant service receive a Backpacker’s Bible complements of the United Methodist Men. The pocket-size Bible contains the New Testament, Psalms, and Proverbs. It also features the Philmont Arrowhead on the front cover.
Scouts who complete their trek receive the coveted arrowhead patch. For this reason, they are eager to get a personal copy of the Bible. I do not know how many actually used it. However, many who received one have no active relationship with God or a local church.
I encouraged the chaplain aides to make use of them when using the Eagles Soaring High devotional guide while on the trail.
Atheist finds God
Last time I served at Philmont a 16 year old Scout approached me after a chapel service and informed me that he was an atheist. He had attended the Protestant service with some friends. Life had convinced him that God did not exist. He believed in reason and naturalism. Still, he thanked me for the worship service and took one of our Bibles as a souvenir.
Twelve days later, the Scout attended another service before he boarded a bus for home.
After the service, the beaming youth told me a story I will never forget.
He and his crew took a side hike to Mount Baldy, a sheer climb to 12,441 feet. The mountain is called Baldy because it is above timberline. For that reason, one climbing Baldy may feel like he is walking up a high stairway with no rails. When the Scout and his crew reached the top of Baldy, a sudden storm came upon them reminiscent of the storm on the Sea of Galilee that almost drowned the hapless disciples.
Large hailstones and cold rain pelted them; strong winds buffeted them and lightening sparked around them. Terrified, the Scouts descended very quickly. Some slid out of control on the hailstones.
When confronted with his mortality and the awesome display of God’s creation, the atheist Scout began to pray. At first, he only prayed for help as he cried out in fear. When he reached the tree line and was out of imminent danger, he pulled out his Bible and began to read it. Two days later, he was still praying and reading the Bible.
He was no longer an atheist.
He found God at Philmont.
Truly, God followed this Scout to the far side of the world and guided him as he held him fast in His hand (Ps 139:10). Like the psalmist, he discovered that he could not run from a loving God who called to him through the storm. God also used a Backpacker Bible to speak more clearly to him while he was in a state of heightened receptivity.
I thank God for Philmont, for the support of the United Methodist Men, and for the opportunity to serve as a Philmont Chaplain.
The Rev. Dr. William P. Payne is the Harlan & Wilma Hollewell Professor of Evangelism and World Missions at Ashland Theological Seminary. A clergy member of the Florida Annual Conference, he is author of American Methodism, Past and Future Growth.
Support the Philmont Bible Project
It only takes $2 to provide a Scout with a New Testament. For $24 you can provide copies for an entire 12-member team. If you would like to ensure that this book will continue to be provided to Philmont Scouts, please send a check to the Philmont Bible Project, P.O. Box 340006, Nashville, TN 37203-0006. Call 615-340-7145 for additional information.