ONE SUMMER EVENING IN 1865 a tall, extremely energetic Methodist minister walked through London’s East End. He stopped to listen to a group of men who were preaching outside the Blind Beggar public house. Their teaching, their methods, their fervour gripped his interest and it showed on his face. He was invited to have a word. The preachers listened spellbound.
‘this is the man we want at the tent,’ they agreed.
After the nightly street meetings they would adjourn to an old tent in a disused burial ground. They needed a leader more able than themselves for these indoor gatherings, and so they invited the minister, William Booth, to take charge. A few days later, on Sunday 2 July, he conducted a service out of which grew the Salvation Army.
Pawnbroker to preacher
William Booth was born in Nottingham in 1829, the son of an unsuccessful builder. He had been a pawnbroker’s assistant in his native town and in Kennington, London. Since then he had been a full-time preacher for thirteen years, but that summer evening he was out of an appointment. Among the poor of Whitechapel he found his destiny.
Slowly he made converts and unintentionally built up a new Christian body. This at first he called The Christian Mission. By 1878, when the name of the organization was changed to The Salvation Army, he had eighty-eight paid helpers and operated fifty centres, from North Shields to Portsmouth as well as in Wales.
Following the alteration to the ‘Army’ title, William Booth became known as the General and his full-time helpers as Captains. Further military terms were introduced. A group of members became a corps, and their terms of commissioning became Articles of War. Even today a soldier, instead of paying a weekly contribution, fires a cartridge.
During the 1878 annual conference Captain Elijah Cadman jumped to his feet. He was a colourful character, a diminutive one-time chimney sweep and boxer.
‘I would like to wear a suit of clothes that would let everybody know I meant war to the teeth and salvation for the world’ he said.
Within days, Salvationists, as they were beginning to call themselves, were wearing some distinguishing mark or emblem. This soon developed into a standardized uniform.
That same year in Salisbury the Fry family of four brass instrumentalists offered to assist the local Captain in his street meetings. Some of the local toughs, who objected to the Army’s way of proclaiming the gospel, did their best to hinder their efforts. The Frys thought that their playing would help with the singing and have a sobering effect on the persecutors at the same time. When William Booth heard of this, he invited the musical family to accompany him as he toured the country. The Fry family became the first Army band, soon to be followed by a resident group in Consett, County Durham. Today over 41,000 men and women follow their example.
There has never been sex discrimination in the Salvation Army. One of its earliest decisions was that ‘godly women possessing the necessary gifts and qualification shall be employed as preachers .. . they shall be eligible for any office’ (1870). William Booth’s wife, Catherine, became one of the world’s most powerful preachers, at a lime when it was generally considered that a woman’s place was in the home and not in public life. Their own daughter Evangeline was the Army’s General from 1934 to 1939.
Neither did William Booth believe in class distinction. A farm labourer will play in a band by the side of a university lecturer, or a bank manager and a man with a title will march either side of a factory worker. There are members of parliament on Army rolls, who wear the same type of uniform as the pensioner with no other income. At the turn of the century, one Army officer was also a princess.
Prom the earliest days William Booth expected his followers to accept a simple form of belief, which he brought with him from his Methodist connection. The eleven short paragraphs still form the basis of Salvationist teaching. They are in line with the tenets of the main stream of the church, except that the Army does not observe the sacraments of baptism and communion.
A Salvationist, even in Christian Mission days, has always been encouraged to be a fighter. As soon as a man breaks from his sinful ways he is expected to witness to his new joy.
Many of the Army’s early converts left the old country for lands with better prospects. They took their religion with them and soon made themselves known to their friends. In 1879 a silk worker from Coventry went to Philadelphia in the USA. He took with him his wife and sixteen-year-old daughter Eliza. The girl, although still under parental control, was already a Lieutenant and together they began to hold meetings after the pattern of the Army in England. They made converts, a congregation was built up and Eliza Shirley wrote to William Booth asking him to accept their new work as a corps of the Salvation Army. She also asked for experienced leaders. In March 1880 George Scott Railton and seven women helpers arrived in New York to make an official opening of the Salvation Army in the United States of America. Today the number of centres in the first land outside the United Kingdom has reached nearly 1,500.
Later in the year, a builder and a railway worker met in Australia. They were attending a gospel meeting in Adelaide. One of them spoke of his evangelical conversion under William Booth; the other had enjoyed the same experience. After the service they joined forces, held a meeting in a local park, gathered converts and wrote to London for officers to lead them. This request was granted and today the Army in Australia is at work in a thousand centres.
The next year (1881) the Salvation Army took its first steps toward becoming a multilingual organization when three women, all under twenty-three years of age, arrived in Paris. They had little more than a schoolgirl knowledge of the French language and less of French customs and people. The leader was William Booth’s daughter Catherine. At first the pioneers were misunderstood and opposition was strong, but sheer determination and courage won through. For the first international congress in London, in 1886, France was represented by a group of uniformed Salvationists with a zeal second to none. Of one it was reported that she had previously ‘carried a knife with her to stop any who should molest her in mischief, and had been ‘a cause of frequent upsets at the Army meetings.’ The report continued: The fierce tiger is now, by the grace of God, a lamb.’
About this time William Booth’s interests began to spread into Asia. Frederick Tucker, a member of the Indian Civil Service, read of the Army’s work, sent a donation to London and asked for more information. He visited England to see the Army at work, and in 1882 returned to Bombay as an officer himself with a party of pioneers. He lived to see the Army flag flying throughout the whole land as well as in Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Burma.
Far back into Indian history a child born into a ‘criminal tribe’ was automatically labelled a criminal, and was gradually thrown into a life of robbery and lawlessness. In 1908 the Government of India’s United Province asked the Salvation Army to undertake some work of reformation. In special villages they taught the ‘criminals’ a better way of life and how to earn their keep. So successful was the experiment that gradually these ostracized people were integrated into society. Today the criminal tribes as such no longer exist.
During the 1880s, while the Army was spreading round the world, Salvationists began to experience bitter persecution. Some well-meaning people did not appreciate the Army’s robust form of street preaching; they preferred Sunday quietness. Because Salvationists have always been total abstainers (non-smoking was added to a soldier’s commitment in 1976), public house landlords lost many a good customer when the Army came to their town. Some publicans themselves organized opposition to those who had caused their loss of trade. Then again, many young toughs took to interfering with a Salvationist’s freedom of worship as a diversion from a life of boredom. Salvationists never retaliated, even in 1882 when nearly 700 were victims of brutal assault.
As in New Testament days, what was meant for evil turned into good. The soldiers’ courage was tried and strengthened by all the hostility. During the worst period of persecution (1881–85) a record number of people, a quarter of a million, made public commitments to serve God.
The work of the Army became more widely known, causing many neutral people to make their own enquiries and discover the truth. The example they set under trial inspired DrJ. B. Lightfoot, Bishop of Durham. He said: ‘The Salvation Army . . . whatever may be its faults, has at least recalled us to the lost ideal of the work of the church, the universal compulsion of the souls of men.’
From the earliest days the Salvation Army’s purpose has been to tell people that only Jesus Christ can really change their hearts, and to make the world a better place in which to live. And this has been done not only by beating the drum, playing the music, and speaking of the love of God in the streets and in halls, but by helping to supply people’s material needs.
In the Royal Albert Hall, London, during the Army’s Centenary celebrations in 1965, a congregation of 7,000, including Queen Elizabeth 11, heard an unalterable truth. Frederick Coutts, the Army’s eighth General, declared: ‘If we ourselves, for want of a better way of speaking, refer to our evangelical work and also to our social work, it is not that they are two distinct entities which could operate the one without the other. They arc but two activities of the one and the same salvation which is concerned with the total redemption of man.’
As early as 1868 William Booth was providing free Sunday morning breakfasts for the poor. In 1870, on the windows of his Whitechapel hall, there were advertisements offering such hunger-breakers as Australian sheep tongues for a penny or soup for the same price.
Man and the cab horse
In 1890 Booth wrote In Darkest England and the Way Out. In a month it sold 50,000 copies. Reprint followed reprint and in 1970 a sixth edition appeared as a textbook for late twentieth-century social workers.
In his research the Army’s Founder had discovered that a tenth of Britain’s population lived below the standard of the cab horse. For the horse, when he ‘falls down because of overwork and underfecding . . . everything is done to help him up ... and while he lives he has food, shelter and work . . . That, although a humble standard, is at present absolutely unattainable by millions — literally by millions — of our fellow men and women in this country.’ William Booth proposed a scheme to lift men and women higher than the cab horse, and to restore them to their lost dignity.
In the development of his ideas the Army’s General tackled many social problems, not only in Britain but wherever there was a need. He bought old factories and warehouses, cleaned them, warmed them and gave the destitute rest and food. Today, throughout the world there are nearly 500 hostels for homeless and transient workers, many purpose—built and fitted out to modern standards.
During the latter part of the nineteenth century many workers in the matchmaking industry suffered from necrosis, or phossyjaw. This disease was caused by contact with the poisonous material used for the match heads. It attacked the lips and caused incurable disfigurement. A new non-toxic substance had been discovered, but was being used only in small quantities.
In 1891 William Booth bought a derelict factory in Old Ford, London. He fitted it with large windows and wash-basins, installed machinery and set people to work making matches—but only of the safety, non-poisonous variety. The boxes carried the banner. Lights in Darkest England. He found agents all over the country. His matches were mentioned in a sermon in Westminster Abbey. He urged people everywhere to shun poisonous matches for the sake of the workers—and gradually necrosis was wiped out.
About this lime in Japan the people were becoming increasingly concerned with the horrors of prostitution, especially in the Yoshawara district of Tokyo. Christian leaders found a clause in the law of the land that allowed a girl to be freed from the brothels by making application to the police. Unfortunately, few knew of this until the young Salvation Army in Japan organized a ‘blitz.’
Headed by a flag and a drum, and armed with a supply of a special Army newspaper, a group of William Booth’s soldiers marched into the licensed area. They announced clearly offers of help to all the girls who wished to leave their calling.
The drum was smashed, the flag torn, the visitors badly assaulted. But three months later, in October 1900, the emperor signed a new, strengthened ordinance which helped to stamp out this national scourge. Within twelve months 12,000 young women had accepted their freedom.
Due to the work of the Salvation Army the age of consent to sexual intercourse was raised in Britain from thirteen to sixteen. Many Christians had been concerned at the immoral practices involving young girls unprotected by law. When William Booth set to work and organized a petition of 393,000 signatures demanding an improvement in legislation, the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 was the result. It remains on the statute-book to this day.
In the same year. Booth decided to set up a department to search for missing persons. Ever since, every Salvation Army officer throughout the world has been an agent in this work and 10,000 lost people are reunited with their families every year.
A fighter to the end
In May 1912, William Booth addressed a crowd which filled the Royal Albert Hall. He could scarcely see, his steps were uncertain, but his message was still dynamic. In what was to be his last public appearance, he gave a summary of his life’s work. He ended: ‘And now ... I must say goodbye. 1 am going into dry dock for repairs, but the Army will not be allowed to suffer . . . by my absence.’ His mind was on an eye operation he was to endure a few days later. Then the warrior spirit reasserted itself: ‘While women weep, as they do now,’ he shouted, ‘I’ll fight; while little children go hungry . . . while men go to prison . . . while there is a drunkard left, while there is a poor lost girl upon the streets, while there remains one dark soul without the light of God, I’ll fight—I’ll fight to the very end!'
The operation was not a success, but the warrior remained undaunted. ‘I have done what 1 could for God and for the people with my eyes,’ he told his son Bramwell. ‘Now I shall do what I can for God and for the people without my eyes.’
One of William Booth’s last charges, before he died on 20 August 1912, was to Bramwell, who succeeded him as General: ‘The homeless children. Oh, the children! Bramwell, look after the homeless. Promise me.’
William Booth had always loved the children. He had opened Sunday Schools and had written a catechism to ensure good Christian teaching. He had provided care for the homeless and day schools in lands without government education. He had delighted to sec boys playing in his bands and had taught them and the girls to be evangelists themselves.
In 1912 some people thought that the Army could not survive without William’s inspiring leadership. His soldiers, now fighting in fifty-eight countries and using thirty-four languages, would falter. But the critics were wrong. Today Salvationists speak in a hundred and eleven tongues and their flags fly in eighty-six lands.
By Cyril Barnes
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #9 in 1984]
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