The Salvation Army: A Missionary Crusade

WHEN WILLIAM BOOTH and his associates met in London in 1878 to transform their evangelistic organization, the East London Christian Mission, into The Salvation Army, they announced their reason in no uncertain terms: “The Christian Mission has met in Congress to make War. It has organized a Salvation Army to carry the blood of Christ and the fire of the Holy Ghost into every corner of the world.” The first issue of their new, more militant magazine, at first called The Salvationist, described the fledgling Army as the people of God joined together “after the fashion most effective and forcible to liberate a captive world.” The Salvation Army clearly saw itself from the beginning as a great missionary enterprise.

Vertical Mission

It is possible, however, to divide into two phases the process by which this zeal became truly universal. At first, the Army’s leaders saw their work as not so much to spread the gospel far and wide as to spread it, so to speak, up and down: they intended to reach those depressed portions of English society that Booth believed had been neglected by other Protestant churches. The Army’s mission was vertical rather than horizontal. In 1878 and 1879 when William and Catherine Booth and their close associates spoke of carrying “the Standard of the Cross into every part of the world” it was to the dark and dismal parts of the “world” of London and other great cities that they referred.

William Booth himself, and almost all of his pioneer associates (with the exception of his wife, who came from a prosperous family) had come to Army work from social backgrounds that ranged from the respectable working class, at best, to the ranks of the desperately poor. Their evangelical and social projects for the urban poor attracted the financial support of the occasional wealthy donor, and—much more rarely—a person from a good social background would actually join the Army. Frederick de Lautour Tucker, a high ranking colonial official who became an officer in the Army and later Booth’s son-in-law, is a notable example; George Scott Railton, an educated man whose father had been a minister, is another. With a handful of such exceptions, however, the Army’s early leaders had been poor. They knew poverty, its terror and futility, and they knew how little the light of the Christian gospel had penetrated the vast, dismal acres of city slums in which they had passed their lives. They now felt called to return there with the Good News that God and The Salvation Army loved all people alike.

Horizontal Mission

Soon, however, a marked change took place in the way Army leaders envisioned the dimensions within which they believed God was calling them to operate. Almost no sooner than General Booth and his officers had unfurled the Army banner in the backstreets of “Darkest England,” than they were confronted with invitations—demands in some cases—to “open fire” on “the lands across the seas.” In October 1879 Booth wrote to his officers that God was using the Army “to mightily shake this whole land and to gather out of it a multitude of people to serve Him in the still mightier task of shaking the nations of the earth.” This second phase of Army missionary work—geographic, rather than social—began in three ways.

Spontaneous growth. There was spontaneous growth outside Britain; the most notable example came in the United States. In 1879 the family of a Salvationist silk worker named Amos Shirly immigrated to Philadelphia and promptly began to hold Salvation Army services in the streets and in hired halls. These services were successful, and many converts joined the Shirlys’ little, unofficial movement. Eliza Shirly, the daughter, who had been an officer in England, formally petitioned the General to send official “reinforcements” to take over the family’s growing mission in the name of God and The Salvation Army. In response to this plea, General Booth dispatched George Scott Railton and seven “Hallelujah Lasses,” who landed in New York City in March 1880 to begin official Salvation Army work in the United States. The process by which the Army launched its activities in Australia later in 1880, in Canada in 1882, and in New Zealand in 1883, was remarkably similar; in each case Salvationist immigrants started informal, little missions and wrote to London to request official adoption.

Immigrant movement. A second pattern occurred when immigrants, converted to The Salvation Army on one mission field, returned home or moved elsewhere and commenced Army activities as official agents of Army headquarters. The Salvation Army was established in Sweden in 1882 and in Norway in 1888 through the energetic evangelism of Hanna Ouchterlony, a Swedish immigrant who had been converted to the Army in the United States. Another convert of the American field, Fritz Schaaf, returned to his native Germany to begin Army work there in 1886. The Salvation Army began work in Mozambique in 1916 when Salvationist immigrants, converted while working in South Africa, returned to their native land.

Traditional missionary activity. The third type of horizontal expansion took traditional form: Salvation Army headquarters selected a likely foreign shore upon which to plant the blood—and—fire flag, and sent out an official party to “open fire.” These pioneers did not have the advantage enjoyed by those sent in response to a local call; there was no local support, no advance body of friends and comrades to welcome them as they descended the gangplank. The case was often quite the contrary; some of the Army’s most stirring tales of heroism and sacrifice come from the experiences of these Victorian missionary pioneers. The General’s daughter Catherine began Army activities in France in March 1881 in the face of truly terrible persecution. The next year, a future son-in-law, Frederick Tucker, led the Army’s courageous pioneers in India, which was soon called the Army’s “oldest (official) mission field,” no doubt to preserve the national sensibilities of the three or four earlier Army conquests, which did not in the 1880s consider themselves “missionary fields.”

Worldwide Spread

The list of countries into which The Salvation Army spread quickly lengthened and continues to do so. In 1882 Canada, India, Switzerland, and Sweden were opened; in 1883 South Africa, New Zealand, the countries that are now known as Sri Lanka and Pakistan; then within a few years Newfoundland, Germany, Italy, Denmark, Jamaica, Norway, Belgium, Finland; Argentina and Uruguay in 1890; Japan in 1895; the West Indies by 1904. When the Army began work in a colonial territory, the reception it was given varied with the attitude of the European colonial power. The British colonial governments were friendly and receptive, as in Kenya (1921), Uganda (1923), and Tanzania (1933). The Belgians, rulers of the Congo in those years, were not so sympathetic, and the Army faced a long period of difficulty and confusion when it started work in 1934 in what is now Zaire.

In India, General Booth had commanded Major Frederick Tucker, the leader of the 1882 mission, to “Get into [the Indians’] skins,” and so the team lived and dressed like natives. This infuriated the governor of Bombay, who feared that blurring caste lines would endanger British rule. Open—air meetings were outlawed, Tucker was jailed, and, in the words of one writer, “for five months a state of virtual civil war existed between the government and the Army.”

The work of The Salvation Army in Asia is of particular interest. The Salvation Army began in Japan in 1895 and became so successful that it sent missionaries of its own to work among Japanese—Americans in California, a work which, sad to report, perished amid the prejudice and misunderstanding engendered by the Second World War.

The Army began its official activities in Korea in 1908, as a result of a survey of that country by the wide—ranging George S. Railton. The Salvation Army in Korea developed, in spite of many difficulties, into one of the largest (per capita), most energetic, and spiritually dynamic branches of the Army in the world.

The story in China is no less inspiring, if the results have been less spectacular in terms of numbers. Salvation Army missionaries held their first services in Shantung in 1916, and the work spread over northern China. By 1932 the Army had ninety centers in five northern provinces, in Shanghai, and in Hong Kong. In Peiping, the Boys’ Home had its own famous brass band. The Army’s work, however, was almost destroyed by the Second World War and the civil war in China. In 1948 expatriate missionaries were expelled from China. At the same time most Chinese officers, unpaid, cut off from outside support or guidance, their buildings wrecked or confiscated, their soldiers scattered, were driven out of the movement. A few, led by Major Yin Hungshun, remained loyal throughout the long years of adversity; these were triumphantly reunited with The Salvation Army in 1987 when retired General Arnold Brown, accompanied by the Dulwich Brass Band from Britain, visited Yin in China.

Setbacks and Successes

Not all of the stories of Salvation Army missionary zeal have happy endings. The Army has been forced to close its activities in several countries because of political changes that brought to power governments hostile to the Army’s presence. The Salvation Army began work in the Baltic republics and the new republics of central Europe after World War I, only to be forced out of these countries during or after World War II; the work survived in Yugoslavia until 1948, in Hungary until 1949, and in Czechoslovakia until 1950. The Salvation Army also operated centers in Egypt from 1936 to 1949.

But the forward progress of The Salvation Army was not much slowed. By September 1989, when The War Cry announced that El Salvador had joined the Salvation Army “Family of Nations,” General Booth’s evangelistic and social welfare crusade, born in the slums of East London, was operating in 91 countries and territories. The theme established by General Evangeline Booth in 1935—“The World for God!”—remains the Army’s motto today, when the movement has become one of the leading Protestant missionary organizations in the world. To this day, new recruits in The Salvation Army sign the “Articles of War,” which close with the ringing pledge to devote one’s “life to His service for the Salvation of the whole world.” CH

By E. H. McKinley

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #26 in 1990]

Dr. E. H. McKinley is chair of the social science division at Asbury College, Wilmore, Kentucky, and the author of several books on The Salvation Army, including Marching to Glory: The History of The Salvation Army in the United States, 1880–1980 (Harper & Row, 1980).
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