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    William Booth speaking to a crowd at Denby Dale

    The Salvation Army Then and Now

    How might it recover the militancy of its early days? Are there lessons here for other movements?

    By Sam Tomlin

    January 8, 2024
    • Bob Pounder

      I got involved with the Salvation Army in 1964. I was ten years old at the time. I went to the Sunday school because my friends went there. The following year, the Army celebrated its centenary. I was privileged to see and experience the passion and commitment of its older members. But this article only too accurately gives an assessment of the current spiritual health of the Salvation Army. I agree wholeheartedly with the author, everything he has said. He presents an authentic way forward for the church a way in which Christians can serve God and not be conformed to this world.

    • akemi kobayashi

      Hi, Thank you for your interesting reflection on the Salvation Army through the work as an officer in Liverpool. I'd like to ask Captain Sam to come down to Brisbane StreetLevel and North Brisbane Corp in Australia. My reflection is a bit different from him and I believe the spirit of William Booth is marching on.


      I liked both the artcle very much, and appreciated the comments of Ms. Baird. In our Episcopal Church there is much talk about the "Jesus Movement." Hovever, it is associated mostly with social issues (albeit deserving in themselves). But there's an emptyness at the heart of the Church and I think it shows in the declineing numbers that foresee the practical disappearnce of the ECA by 2060.

    • Megan Moretz

      I thoroughly enjoyed reading this, and as an officer in the USA, think this article is spot on in its analysis. Well done Sam.

    • Victoria Muhs

      Very interesting.My nephew and his wife are officers in the Salvation Army.His mother just retired.His sister and husband are also officers who are Christians through and through.They continue to bring the hope of the Savior to others.

    • Margaret Baird

      That’s a most challenging, thought provoking article, Sam Tomlin. I think it’s relevant to the whole church and not just the Salvation Army. We are called to be countercultural and not to conform to the values of the world, and yet so often we ‘fit in’. Preserving our reputation or not wanting to rock the boat is maybe our downfall, personally and as the church. Do we want the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, but not the clash with the culture or the raised eyebrows of our neighbours? Thank you.

    On December 27, 1879, the Salvation Army published the first issue of its War Cry magazine. This publication, which would become famous in the United Kingdom for being sold by uniformed Salvationists in pubs, carried a story about a Captain Josiah Taylor. “Boston [England] is a pretty quiet town. It does not like to be disturbed,” it began. “Captain Taylor,” however, “has disturbed it all.”

    William and Catherine Booth founded The Salvation Army in the slums of East London. In 1865, William was asked to preach at a revival meeting and exclaimed to his wife, “Darling, I have found my destiny!” Initially called the East London Christian Mission, and then the Christian Mission, its name became the Salvation Army in 1878. Drinking from the wells of Wesleyan revivalism and suspicious of the methods of mainstream, established churches, the Booths never intended to found another church, let alone a denomination, but imagined a parachurch mission to the unconverted. Yet with thousands from the lower rungs of society finding salvation through its ministry and not easily finding a home in the established churches, the Salvation Army established its “corps” – fellowships of believers that would eventually also be called churches.

    Captain Josiah Taylor was a prominent figure in the early Salvation Army. He would later pioneer the Salvation Army’s work in countries around the world and become one of the Booths’ most trusted leaders, but in 1879 he was placed (officers do not choose where they go, but are sent) in the small English town of Boston. Earlier in December, Mr. H. Bell, a local pub owner, appeared before the Boston magistrates’ court. Mr. Bell was recorded in the Stamford Mercury as complaining about the Army’s “religious service of a noisy character in the market place night after night and that people who use Mr. Pickwell’s house for the transaction of business were put to great inconvenience by the singing and shouting.” On one particular evening a crowd of between 150 and 200 people gathered, obstructing “the free passage of people” and generally causing disruption. A hotelier told the court when the case came to trial that the noise coming from the gatherings was “so great that people in his house could scarcely hear each other speak.” Taylor responded that it was not the Salvationists’ desire to cause obstruction but he could give no pledge to stop preaching, as he was under the command of the general of the Salvation Army, William Booth.

    William Booth speaking to a crowd at Denby Dale

    General William Booth, British Methodist preacher who founded The Salvation Army, speaking at Denby Dale. PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo.

    The magistrates found Captain Taylor guilty of causing an obstruction in the marketplace, and according to the Mercury (January 2, 1880) he was fined £1 and costs with the alternative of a month’s imprisonment for persisting “in holding religious services in the Marketplace, not only in violation of the bye-laws, but in open defiance of Magisterial orders.” Captain Taylor initially chose to go to prison, but later the fine was paid and he was met at the Boston railway station by a number of Salvationists who escorted him through the streets, singing hymns as they went.

    Such stories were common in the early decades of the Salvation Army. Whatever the Booths and their soldiers were, they were not content with a genteel and respectable Christianity that fit snugly into the cultural milieu of the day. William Booth once said, “The great curse of the church is respectability. Throw reputation and so-called respectability overboard.”  Despite using common and popular forms – such as the military metaphor and changing words of popular songs (“Why should the devil have all the best tunes?” Salvationists often asked) – the Army subverted expectations of what Christians should be and took much criticism. Pamela Walker, in Pulling the Devil’s Kingdom Down: The Salvation Army in Victorian Britain, notes how Salvationists were often denounced by the press and fellow Christians, being compared with Roman Catholics and exhibiting an “un-English spirit.” In Blood on the Flag, Nigel Bovey recounts in detail the disruption and consternation the Army caused in Britain toward the end of the nineteenth century. Pub owners were so angry about Salvationists drawing clients from the pubs to a life of teetotalism that they formed their own “Skeleton Army” that would take to the streets to oppose Salvationists in a way that would often turn violent – not unlike some of the accounts of Paul’s ministry in Acts.

    In Acts 19 a silversmith named Demetrius calls various craftsmen together and compels them to revolt against the Christians who have been disrupting their trade by turning people away from “gods made by human hands.” Paul’s companions are seized and thrust in front of a baying and rioting crowd. The worshippers of Artemis – exhibiting patriotic fervor as they chant for two hours – are as offended by the Christians disrupting the economic and social norms as the establishment would be in the late 1800s when the Salvation Army burst into public life in the United Kingdom.

    The movement quickly expanded beyond Britain. Eberhard Arnold, who would go on to establish the Bruderhof, recounts how he encountered the Salvation Army in Germany at the turn of the century. In his biography of Arnold, Markus Baum notes how impressed the young Arnold was with the simple and powerful witness of impoverished Salvationists in his hometown of Breslau. William Booth even wrote to him with an invitation to don the uniform as a Salvationist, a suggestion strongly countered by Arnold’s parents, members in the Lutheran state church who were seemingly horrified at the vulgar methods of the Army.

    Just as a young Eberhard Arnold was drawn to the witness of the Salvation Army, this history has captivated my imagination. I am drawn to Josiah Taylor not only because I am a Salvation Army officer, nor because Taylor became the divisional commander of the region I am currently placed in (Liverpool in England), but because Josiah Taylor is the maternal great-great-great grandfather of my three children.

    I grew up as an Anglican with knowledge of the Salvation Army not going much beyond the fictional Salvationist Harold Bishop in the Australian soap opera Neighbours. I thought it was a charity and had no idea it had regular fellowship gatherings that could be called church. Meeting my wife at university, I found out more of the history and her heritage in this small part of the worldwide church, and after worshipping with a Salvation Army corps for a few years we felt called to offer to become officers. This heritage has seeped into my bones and continues to inspire me – the early Salvation Army aligns in my mind with the early Christian witness.

    The heritage of the Salvation Army raises some interesting questions, not only for today’s Salvation Army but for all Christians. How should we relate to the wider society? What sort of reception or reaction do we expect? The witness of the early Salvationists was one of brazen confidence in the transforming and invasive power of the gospel, and one that frequently rubbed up against cultural norms and expectations. Salvationists were often accused of disturbing the peace – not that they particularly minded. Catherine Booth, the intellectual powerhouse behind the movement, once said that Christ came to save the world, not civilize it.

    Even the most ardent and defensive Salvationist would not deny that the Army has lost much of this fire, at least in the Western world. Perhaps this is natural for a movement born of “blood and fire” in the cauldron of Victorian Britain – social scientists tell us the second and third generation of movements will inevitably adapt and develop beyond their founders. The Army is still very active in Western countries, doing brilliant and inspiring work. In many ways, it still represents a challenge to individualistic and capitalistic arrangements of human life. But a worrying trend has developed in recent decades, whereby the social services wing of the Army continues to thrive but the corps, or church wing, declines at a rapid rate. Indeed, most officers of my generation are greatly concerned that in the next thirty years the corps will continue to decline while the charitable wing continues to expand, unaffected.

    The witness of the early Salvationists was one of brazen confidence in the transforming power of the gospel, and one that frequently rubbed up against cultural norms and expectations.

    Stanley Hauerwas states that the first task of the church is not to make the world more just, but to make the world the world. By this he means that the first task of the church is to do something that no other body can do: explicitly worship the God revealed in Jesus Christ. This is not, as it is often taken, a slight against nonchurch bodies or a desire to put a firm and impenetrable boundary around the church, but an acknowledgement that if Christians do not gather to worship Jesus Christ, no one will. And if we do not gather to worship Jesus Christ, how can the world know it needs saving? The Booths and the early Salvationists understood this and placed their social action firmly and unmistakably in the narrative of the gospel, even to the extent that it caused great offense. While some evangelicals today may like to cause offense for dubious reasons, on the other hand a church which wants to be “relevant” and receive accolades from the world forgets the true offense of a gospel that calls into question allegiance to anyone but Jesus.

    How did the Salvation Army move from a dynamic, persecuted, and oft-maligned group boldly proclaiming the lordship of Jesus in word and deed to effectively being culturally established in many nations around the world? In short, we fell for the same trap that the early Christians did in response to Constantine – the one that Jesus rejected in the wilderness in Luke 4 – namely, accepting worldly power and influence. In 1890 William Booth published In Darkest England and the Way Out, a book outlining an ambitious project to alleviate the poverty of the “submerged tenth,” the bottom 10 percent of society who had been abandoned by the Industrial Revolution and whose living conditions were horrendous. While the book is admirable and inspiring in many ways, some Salvationist historians cite this moment as the time when Booth began to move toward societal respectability to get the money he needed for his scheme. Indeed, instances of arrests like Josiah Taylor’s become less frequent in subsequent decades, and the marginalization the Army experienced begins to be replaced by acclamation and acceptance in the eyes of the establishment. Pamela Walker summarizes this well when she states that by the early twentieth century, the Army “moved from being a sensational, revivalist sect at odds with the Church, police, and local governments to being a religious organization with a social service wing that was often the more prominent part and with strong ties to other Christian and state-run agencies.”

    A Salvationist prophet, Samuel Logan Brengle, perceived this shift and warned fellow Salvationists in 1929 in a passage worth quoting at length:

    The Army is so thoroughly organized and disciplined, so wrought into the life of nations, so fortified with valuable properties, and on such a sound financial basis, that it is not likely to perish as an organization, but it will become a spiritually dead thing if love leaks out…. We may still house the homeless, dole out food to the hungry, punctiliously perform our routine work, but the mighty ministry of the Spirit will no longer be our glory. Our musicians will play meticulously, our Songsters will revel in the artistry of song that tickles the ear but leaves the heart cold and hard. Our Officers will make broad their phylacteries and hob-nob with mayors and councilmen and be greeted in the market-place, but God will not be among us…. We shall cease to be saviors of the lost sheep that have no shepherd.

    This trend has continued. The Salvation Army is well known and respected, but beyond the Christian values we represent, many are unaware that we are a body that actively worships Jesus Christ. This is precisely the problem with Christian values – they can easily be divorced from the body of people called to worship the risen Christ. As Nietzsche said, when Christians start talking about values you can be sure they do not take God seriously. Christian values can exist without the church – something we are arguably witnessing with the Salvation Army as the charitable wing endures while the church wing declines.

    Recent studies show that the churches that are growing in the United Kingdom are ones that are clearer about what they believe and make serious demands of their congregants, as opposed to churches that preach values almost indistinguishable from those of other mainstream societal institutions. As Alasdair McIntyre once put it, things will go badly if Christians offer atheists less and less in which to disbelieve. As researcher of church growth David Goodhew recently put it, “Those trimming faith to fit in with culture have tended to shrink, and those offering a ‘full-fat’ faith, vividly supernatural, have tended to grow. This is as true of the ultra-liturgical Orthodox as it is of the ultra-informal Pentecostals.”

    The problem that the Salvation Army perhaps represents most acutely, given our confusing status as a church and charity, is precisely this: trying to garner societal respect and income will almost inevitably lead to a “trimming” of faith, a downplaying of the more embarrassing aspects of the “vividly supernatural” in favor of a more palatable humanistic expression of faith found in values.

    Unsurprisingly, other denominations have stolen a march on the Salvation Army. Where I am based in Liverpool, a denomination called Victory Outreach is a much closer expression of the early Salvation Army than is the modern Salvation Army. Founded in 1967 in Los Angeles, it has a similar history to the early Salvation Army: revivalism in the context of poverty and addiction. Yet, as members of the congregation tell me proudly, their founder was once offered millions of government dollars to formalize their work and align it with statutory authorities, but they rejected this money and as a result do not have a significant gap between the “church” and “social” aspects of their ministry. I’ve heard ex-gang members and drug addicts sharing testimony of how they have been set free from their past through the power of the Holy Spirit in exactly the terms you read of in the early Salvation Army but rarely hear in modern Salvation Army centers, where most staff are not even confessing Christians and where most of the funding comes from government authorities.

    Søren Kierkegaard once said, “In the New Testament, Christianity is the deepest wound that can be dealt a person, designed to collide with everything on the most appalling scale.” Josiah Taylor understood this, and we forget it at our peril.

    Contributed By SamTomlin Sam Tomlin

    Captain Sam Tomlin is an officer in the Salvation Army.

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