Founded in 1910, the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) is among the world's most prominent scouting groups and one of the largest and best-known youth organizations in U.S. history. While the Boy Scouts claimed 6.5 million members at the height of its popularity, only about 2.5 million members remain today. More than 110 million Americans have passed through the ranks of the Boy Scouts over the course of the organization's century-plus history,
Long a symbol of traditional U.S. culture, the Boy Scouts endured two world wars, social upheaval, culture conflicts, lawsuits, and seismic demographic shifts in the U.S. population. Originally conceived to promote self-reliance, outdoor skills, character, and morality among the boys who would grow up to be the nation’s men, the group evolved into a unique blend that was at the same time both secular and religious, private, and government sponsored.
As U.S. opinions changed on sensitive issues such as gender, sexuality, and religion, the Boy Scouts—like so many traditional organizations—were forced to evolve. The last decade has embroiled the Scouts in a whirlwind of controversy and unwanted publicity, from which it has recently emerged as a more inclusive organization. Here's a look at the 30 moments that shaped Boy Scout history.
At the turn of the 20th century, British military hero, writer, and educator Gen. Robert Baden-Powell began teaching the principles of military scouting to boys in a non-military setting, so they would be able to live off the land, track, observe, and conceal their movements in case of an invasion or a similar crisis. In 1908, Baden-Powell published "Scouting For Boys," which was based on a military field manual he developed for soldiers during his career in the British service. Modified specifically for boys during times of peace, the book, which also dealt heavily with character and morality, became an instant sensation and triggered the emergence of the youth scouting movement.
According to a long-held Boy Scouts legend, a U.S. millionaire businessman and newspaper magnate named W.D. Boyce was traveling in London when he became disoriented and lost in the city's dense fog. A boy affiliated with the new scouting movement guided Boyce through the fog, showed him his way and—when offered—refused to accept a tip on the notion that he was compelled by honor, not money, to help a stranger in need.
The legend of the Unknown Scout is murky, but what is certain is that W.D. Boyce returned to the U.S. and on Feb. 8, 1910, he founded the Boy Scouts of America (BSA). Boyce's encounters with the burgeoning scouting movement in England convinced him that character development, outdoor recreation, and survival training were critical if boys were going to grow into worthwhile men, particularly those who grew up in cities.
Later in 1910, the BSA made 200 Fifth Ave. in New York City its first national headquarters. Less than a year after its founding, the BSA was already on the radar of the nation’s most influential leaders. That same year, both John D. Rockefeller and Theodore Roosevelt honored Robert Baden-Powell with a dinner at the Waldorf Astoria.
Although the BSA's first CEO, James West, claimed that the Boy Scouts would not become an exclusively Christian organization, he established the concept of the BSA Religious Declaration from the organization's earliest days. It reads, in part, "The Boy Scouts of America maintains that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God and, therefore, recognizes the religious element in the training of the member, but it is absolutely nonsectarian in its attitude toward that religious training." While the organization has historically encouraged diversity among faiths, atheists and agnostics would remain excluded from both leadership and membership from 1911 through the current day.
When 17-year-old Troop 1 Scout Arthur A. Eldred appeared for his mandatory rank review to become the world's first Eagle Scout, the board that reviewed him consisted of a who's who of scouting. Among those who evaluated him were CEO James West, Red Cross rescue pioneer Wilbert E. Longfellow, and Chief Scout Ernest Thompson Seton. At the time, only 50 Scouts in the U.S. had earned even a single merit badge, and Eldred earned his Eagle rank with 21 merit badges. For his proficiency in—among other things—chemistry, poultry farming, pathfinding, swimming, electricity, cooking, horsemanship, and bicycling, Eldred received the highest honor in scouting in 1912.
In 1912, women were not allowed to vote, but the progressive era and women's rights movement was already starting to take shape. That year, an activist named Juliette Gordon Low met Gen. Robert Baden-Powell, who convinced her to start a scouting organization that would instill in girls the same principles of self-reliance, honor, and character that the Boy Scouts sought to instill in Boys. Gordon Low launched the Girl Scouts—which is not affiliated with the BSA—and in 1965, nearly 100 years after she was born, her home was designated a National Historic Landmark.
In 1913, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints officially declared an affiliation with the BSA, which would become the activity arm of the church's Mutual Improvement Association (MIA) for young men. The church was the first nationally chartered religious institution to make the Boy Scouts its official youth program.
In 1913, roughly 1,500 Boy Scouts were invited to assist first responders at the inauguration of President Woodrow Wilson. Boy Scouts have played a role at every single presidential inauguration in the more than 100 years that have followed.
In 1915, former President Theodore Roosevelt wrote a letter to a Philadelphia Scout leader applauding the organization's "unquestioned value to our country" and its focus on "manliness in its most vigorous form." Roosevelt became heavily involved with the BSA, serving as a committeeman for Troop 39 and a commissioner of the Nassau County Council, while also entertaining Scouts, awarding them medals, and participating in their scrap drives during World War I. Roosevelt was honored as the first BSA honorary vice president, and he remains the only person ever to have been honored with the title of Chief Scout Citizen.
On June 15, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed a unanimously approved Congressional charter that granted federal recognition to the BSA. The charter was part of Title 36, which recognizes "patriotic and national organizations." Wilson stated that he signed the charter because "every nation depends for its future upon the proper training and development of its youth," according to Time.
In 1918, Rotary International became the very first service club to sponsor BSA troops. A little more than a century later, the Rotary Club continues to sponsor the Scouts.
The first World Scout Jamboree was held in London in 1920. BSA boys were among the 8,000 scouts from 34 countries that participated in the inaugural global scouting event.
Scouts with disabilities have participated in BSA activities since the organization's founding in 1910. In 1923, the BSA created a special award for Scouts with disabilities or who were unable to meet certain requirements.
Robert Baden-Powell had long maintained a scouting program for younger boys called Wolf Cubs in Great Britain. By 1930, the BSA was so big that it was able to spin off an affiliated organization for younger boys while allowing the BSA to focus exclusively on older boys. From that moment on, Cub Scouts would be ages 7 to 11 and Boy Scouts would be 12 to 17.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the first president in history to have served as a scout leader, thanks to his role as president of the Greater New York Council of the Boy Scouts of America. In 1934, hundreds of thousands of Boy Scouts heard and heeded President Roosevelt’s call to help those harmed by the Depression, collecting 2 million articles of clothing and other necessities for needy families.
Famed songwriter Irving Berlin fled oppression in Russia to come to the United States with his family when he was just 5 years old. Raised in poverty in New York City, the Jewish immigrant would go on to write classics such as "White Christmas" and "God Bless America," the latter of which forever enshrined him in Boy Scout lore. Refusing to accept money earned from the patriotic tune, Berlin donated all earnings for the song—more than $10 million to date—to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, with most going to troops in disadvantaged neighborhoods.
Thanks to the post-World War II baby boom, and the arrival and rapid expansion of the suburbs, the BSA enjoyed a massive boost in membership during the 1950s. In 1948, about 2.5 million Boy Scouts claimed membership in the BSA. By 1960, that number had more than doubled to just over 5 million.
The election of John F. Kennedy in 1960 was unprecedented on several levels. JFK was the first Catholic president, the youngest president ever elected, and he defeated his opponent, Richard Nixon, in one of the closest elections in American history. To Boy Scouts across the country, however, Kennedy will always be known as the first Scout to serve as president and commander in chief—JFK was a member of Troop 2 in Bronxville, N.Y. and later served as leader on the Boston Council.
In 1972, nearly 1 in 3 U.S. boys between the ages of 10 to 19, a full 6.5 million, were involved in scouting—it was the peak of the organization's popularity and the beginning of a rapid decline. While the BSA's clean-cut, religious, civic-minded, and patriotic image reflected mainstream 1950s ideology, much of the country’s youth viewed the organization as dated and out of touch as the Vietnam era was coming to a close.
Although churches had long sponsored the BSA, starting with the Mormons in 1913, the arrival of the 1980s—and the so-called culture wars that raged during the Reagan years—witnessed a shift in BSA culture. By that time, churches—particularly the Catholic and Mormon churches—were the single biggest sponsors of Boy Scout troops. The BSA was widely viewed less as a secular youth organization and more as an arm of the churches that sponsored it. In the 1980s, just 2% of the country’s population were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, but 1 in 5 Boy Scouts were Mormon.
The 1990s saw the Boy Scouts embroiled in controversy and lawsuits pertaining to the so-called "three Gs": God, gays, and girls. The Boy Scouts are a federally chartered organization that enjoys unique access to government resources, and by the 1990s, public sentiment had begun to shift in terms of dogma espoused by the Catholic Church, Mormon Church, and other top BSA religious sponsors. The public began to sour on the BSA's exclusion in both membership and leadership of girls, atheists, and LGBTQ people.
In 2000, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the BSA and against a well-liked and accomplished assistant Scoutmaster named James Dale, who was terminated when the Boy Scouts learned he was gay. The court ruled that as a private organization, the BSA was exempt from state anti-discrimination laws like the kind designed to protect LGBTQ people.
In 2002, Irving, Texas, became the host of a museum dedicated to the long and storied history of the Boy Scouts. The Scouting Museum opened that year, and the facility continues to provide both exhibits and hands-on activities that educate visitors and encourage them to explore the Boy Scouts impact on U.S. history.
After enduring a long period of intense external pressure and internal debate, the Boy Scouts in 2013 voted by a margin of 60-40 to end the longstanding ban on welcoming gay boys as members. The action "was widely seen as a milestone for the Boy Scouts, a symbol of traditional America," The New York Times reported at the time. While the Catholic Church, Mormon Church, and Southern Baptist Convention vocally opposed the move, organizations like the National Jewish Committee on Scouting, the Metropolitan Community Church, the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Episcopal Church, and the United Church of Christ had campaigned for the repeal and welcomed the change.
In 2014, little more than a century after Arthur A. Eldred became the first Eagle Scout in history, a new Eagle Scout made headlines for a different reason. That year, just nine months after the BSA lifted its ban on gay membership, Pascal Tessier became the first openly gay Boy Scout to earn the organization's highest honor. Since the BSA's two-tiered policy still excluded gay adults, Pascal's older brother, who is also gay, was forbidden from participating in Scout activities.
Just one year after the Scouts began welcoming gay youth members, the organization's two-tiered system collapsed when the BSA again made history, this time by repealing the ban, with some limitations, on openly gay adult men as Scout Leaders. Although the country's opinions on LGBTQ rights had changed dramatically by 2015, the move was still highly controversial. That year, more than 70% of the country's 100,000 Scout units were still sponsored by religious groups.
In 2017, the Boy Scouts became even more inclusive when the BSA announced that for the first time, girls would be allowed to join as Cub Scouts and pursue the coveted rank of Eagle Scout, just as boys had always done. The board of directors voted unanimously to approve the change, which it said reflected the shift in popular American culture and attitudes.
In 2018, the Girl Scouts announced a lawsuit when the Boy Scouts decided to change its name, which had always served as a differentiator between the two groups. When the Boy Scouts decided to welcome girls, it announced it would from then on be known as Scouts BSA. The Girl Scouts alleged the name change was part of a larger attempt by the Boy Scouts to pilfer members from its ranks.
In 2019, the changing nature of the Boy Scouts proved too much for the BSA's first and most significant benefactor: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. That year, the Mormon Church announced it was cutting ties with the Boy Scouts and replacing it with a church-based youth program for the children of its adherents. More than 105 years of history between the Boy Scouts and the LDS Church were exactly that—history.