Like the plot in one of his best-selling novels, the life of John Buchan was full of improbable adventures and prodigious achievements. He was one of the most accomplished men of the twentieth century-he was by turns a successful barrister, a respected scholar, a popular journalist, a trusted diplomat, a prolific author, an efficient colonial administrator, an innovative publisher, a progressive politician, a relentless reformer, and an active churchman. Best known for his historical romances and thrilling spy novels--he practically invented the genre with books like The Thirty Nine Steps, Greenmantle, and Mr. Standfast--he was also the author of more than a hundred non-fiction works, including an authoritative multi-volume history of the First World War and biographies of Oliver Cromwell, Caesar Augustus, Lord Montrose, and Walter Scott.
He was born in Scotland on August 26, 1875, the eldest son of a minister in the Presbyterian Free Church. He was of regal Scottish stock--a Countess of Buchan had crowned Robert the Bruce, an Earl of Buchan had avenged Joan of Arc as Constable of France, a Buchan of Auchmacoy had fallen at Flodden beside the King, and another had led the Jacobite remnant after the death of Dundee--but it was his early years in the strict Calvinistic manse that would shape his worldview and stimulate his imagination for the rest of his life. Following a brilliant academic career at the University of Glasgow he transferred to Oxford.
It was there that he first met Tommie Nelson. The young Nelson was an impressive fellow-Scot, scion of the great Edinburgh publishing enterprise founded by his grandfather. By all accounts he was a man destined for great things. According to Buchan's autobiography, Nelson was a remarkable man and a remarkable friend: “It is not easy to draw on a little canvas the man whose nature is large and central and human, without cranks or oddities. The very simplicity and wholesomeness of such souls defy an easy summary, for they are as spacious in their effect as daylight or summer. Often we remember friends by a gesture, or a trick of expression, or by a favorite phrase, or some nicety of manner. These were trivial things in our friendship, but they spring first to the mind in the act of recollection. But with Tommie Nelson I do not find myself thinking of such idiosyncrasies. I can recall many mannerisms of his, but it is only by an effort of thought, for they do not run to meet the memory. His presence warmed and lit up so big a region of life that in thinking of him one is overwhelmed by the multitude of things that he made better by simply existing among them. If you remove a fire from a hearth, you will remember the look, not so much of the blaze itself as of the whole room in its pleasant glow.”
Nelson was the captain of the Oxford rugby team, president of the Scottish academic club, and like Buchan, a prolific reader and writer. He was an avid sportsman, again like Buchan, and a brilliant student. His piety, grace, and rugged good humor made him “the most popular man in the university.”
Following their four years together at Oxford, the two men went their separate ways--Nelson back to Edinburgh to join the family publishing business and Buchan to a varied career in journalism and civic affairs. Nevertheless, the two men often found opportunities to renew their intimate friendship--they vacationed together, wrote frequently, and whenever both were in London, whiled away many hours together in conversation and fellowship. The called their little fellowship the "Standfast Fraternity."
Always interested in politics, Buchan accepted an invitation to join the staff of Lord Milner, High Commissioner of South Africa following the Boer War. His efficient administrative reforms earned him a trusted place in His Majesty's court and his foreign dispatches earned him renown as one of the British Empire's finest correspondents.
Following his tenure in the foreign service he was offered lucrative posts at both the Nelson family firm and of the international news service Reuters. He naturally chose to go to work with his old friend. Later he would assert that those were the happiest years of his life. It was then that Buchan began his writing career in earnest, publishing several highly acclaimed novels and historical studies.
When war broke out in Europe those halcyon days came to an end. Both men set aside their wide-ranging pursuits to enter the military--Buchan joined British Intelligence Corps as a department director; Nelson Joined the tank corps. They were able to see each other several times during the course of the war, and each time afforded them immeasurable encouragement and refreshment. Alas, those happy times were cut off when on the last day of the fierce Battle of Arras Nelson was killed by a long-range shell across the German lines.
All of Scotland was grief-stricken. As his beloved friend would later recall: “His death made a bigger hole in the life of Scotland than that of any other man of his years. He was a rare being because he was so superbly normal, so wholly in tune with ordinary humanity, and therefore fitted to help in the difficult but not desperate life of man. In the case of others we might regret the premature loss of some peculiar talent; with Tommie we mourned especially the loss of a talent for living worthily and helping others to do likewise. It is the kind of great loss least easy to forget, and yet one which soon comes to be contemplated without pain, for he had succeeded most fully in life.”
In the years that followed, Buchan would continue to be inspired--and even spurred on to greater accomplishment--by the memory of his dear friend who he described as “the Christian statesman extraordinaire.”
After the First World War he was elected to Parliament representing the Scottish Universities, a position he held until 1935. Meanwhile he resumed his flourishing literary career--between 1922 and 1936 he averaged five books a year. For much of that time he was ranked among the world's best-selling authors alongside his friends and acquaintances Rudyard Kipling, Virginia Wolfe, G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, and Hugh Walpole. Several of his books, including The Thirty-Nine Steps, Prester John, Huntingtower, and John McNab were even made into full-length motion pictures by the likes of Alfred Hitchcock and Arthur Lammis. Though his work was popular, it often explored serious theological themes and profound human dilemmas. Indeed, according to T.E. Lawrence, he was “the greatest romancer of our blind and undeserving generation.”
Buchan even consented to try to fill the void created by the loss of his friend by serving as an editorial consultant for Thomas Nelson in Edinburgh. It was Buchan who convinced the publications board to begin a hardback reprint series of Western literary and Christian devotional classics. He launched several imprint lines as well--including two series of books on contemporary issues and controversies (Falkirk Press and Arberoth Books were named for two of the most famous battles for liberty in Western Civilization).
Throughout the busy activity of his career Buchan maintained a vital interest in both his family and his faith. He was married in 1907 to Susan Grosvenor and together they had a daughter and three sons. Though always maintaining a busy schedule he made certain that his children remained a priority in their lives. Likewise, he was a faithful member of the Presbyterian Church, serving his congregation as a Bible study leader and elder for most of his adult life.
His political, cultural, and spiritual prominence made him an appropriate choice as the king's Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland for several years beginning in 1933. The post enabled him to promote the vital relationship between the dynamics of the Christian life and the preservation of Western Civilization--a relationship he believed was threatened by the hubris of modern secularism. It was a theme that resonated throughout all his work. “Our enemies are attacking more than our system of Christian morals on which our civilization is founded” he lamented. “They are attacking Christianity itself, and they are succeeding. Our great achievements in perfecting the scientific apparatus of life have tended to produce a mood of self-confidence and pride. We have too often become gross materialists in our outlook on life.”
Despite this obvious twentieth century cultural retrogression, Buchan remained confident. “I believe that the challenge with which we are faced may restore us to that manly humility in the presence of the Unseen which alone gives power, “ he said. “It may bring us back to God. In that case our victory is assured. The church of Christ is an anvil which has worn out many hammers. Our opponents may boast of their strength, but they do not realize what they have challenged.”
His tireless activities on behalf of Christ and Crown brought him greater and greater prominence and despite deteriorating health he served as Curator of Oxford University Chest, Trustee of the National Library of Scotland, President of the Scottish Historical Society, and Chancellor of Edinburgh University.
In 1935 King George V ennobled him as the 1st Lord Tweedsmuir of Elsfield and--at the behest of Prime Minister Mackenzie King--was appointed the fifteenth Governor-General of Canada. Despite recurring ill-health Buchan threw himself into these new proconsular duties with especial fervor. Moving to Ottawa, he quickly fell in love with the great beauty and diversity of Canada--a land he called “God's manifestation of grace among the nations.”
Always an avid outdoorsman, he toured every province and explored every aspect of Canadian life and culture. He lectured widely across the land, making strong pleas for vigilant national unity, keen historical awareness, and unflinching spiritual integrity. He constantly promoted Canadian arts and sciences-acting as an advocate for the nation's universities and establishing the Governor-General's Literary Awards. In the tumultuous days during the advent of the Second World War, he became a beloved symbol of faith, stability, and constancy in the face of great evil.
Thoughout all these crowded hours of life, his memory of his friend was never far from him. He would later lament that his drive to accomplish so much was “a poor attempt to compensate” a world which “had lost so great a talent in Tommie Nelson.”
Buchan's sudden death on February 12, 1940 was caused by a freak injury following a fall in his official Ottawa residence, Rideau Hall. The sad news made front page headlines around the world from South Africa and Australia to Britain and the United States--but nowhere was he mourned as sincerely as in his adopted home. As the historian G.M. Trevelyan commented in the Globe and Mail, “I don't think I remember anyone who has died during my lifetime whose death ever had a more enviable outburst of sorrow and love and admiration, public and private. He was the Christian statesman extraordinaire.”
It was an interesting choice of words--the very phrase that Buchan had used to describe his long lost friend. It was perhaps the most fitting tribute of all.