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--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 this day in 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.
Upon graduation, he joined the foreign service in South Africa. Afterward, he began a successful career in journalism and publishing. But the First World War interrupted his plans. He helped to establish the British spy network during the war and continued his prolific writing. Then after the war he was elected to Parliament representing the Scottish Universities, a position he held until 1935. Meanwhile he continued to write--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, G.K. Chesterton, and Hilaire Belloc. Several of his books, including The Thirty-Nine Steps were even made into full-length motion pictures by the likes of Alfred Hitchcock. Though his work was popular, it often explored serious theological themes and profound human dilemmas.
His great prominence made him an appropriate choice as the king’s High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland for several years. 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.”
Buchan’s sudden death was on February 12, 1940 at his official Ottawa residence, where he served as the Governor General. The sad news made front-page headlines around the world.