A history of the Salvation Army
To mark its 150th anniversary, looks at the origins, development and far-reaching international impact of the Salvation Army
Preaching the gospel in a makeshift shelter in Spitalfields, East London, William Booth had to contend with the usual hecklers as well as vandals who cut the ropes to the tent. It was 2 July 1865 and this was the humble beginnings of the Salvation Army. A fortnight later, a violent storm blew the tent down but in those two weeks he had attracted between 400 and 500 people to hear him preach.
William Booth had been an itinerant Methodist preacher but became disillusioned with the church (see page 65). It was his wife Catherine’s suggestion that he become an independent preacher in London.
In the East End of London, William yearned “to do something for the masses of whom he was told that only five in 100 attended Chapel or Church; the district containing 1,000,000 souls”.
The original name for the organisation founded by William and Catherine was the East London Christian Revival Union. Before 1878, it had several different names including the East London Christian Mission, then the London Christian Mission as it spread across the capital, then simply the Christian Mission. By November 1870, 18 mission stations had been opened in the East End.
Instead of the traditional church set-up, the Booths took their evangelical message to the streets. They held meetings in the open air and in venues such as music halls and theatres. Anyone could attend and there was no need for ‘Sunday best’ clothes. The language that was used was easily understood because the speakers themselves were usually working-class converts. They told their personal stories of being ‘saved’ to encourage others to repent. The Salvationists firmly believed in the forgiveness of sins but repentance was a condition of salvation. Anyone who did not repent and was not ‘saved’ was condemned to hell to receive eternal punishment for their sins.
A new name
If there had not been a change of identity in 1878, the Salvation Army may not have become the internationally recognised charity we know today. When Charles Booth (no relation to William Booth) carried out his social investigations in London in the 1890s, he discovered in the poorer areas: “in almost every street there is a mission; they are more numerous than schools or churches, and only less numerous than public houses”.
In its guise as the Christian Mission, the Booths’ organisation was similar to many other revivalist missions including the
London City Mission, the Open Air Mission and Ranyard’s Bible-women.
The new name came about accidentally. When William Booth read through the 1878 Report of the Christian Mission, he saw the movement described as ‘a volunteer army’. This phrase resonated with him but his son Bramwell disagreed, insisting they were all regulars, not volunteers. William crossed out ‘volunteer’ and replaced it with ‘salvation’ – the Salvation Army was born.
This representation of the organisation as an army gradually led to a restructuring under a military rank system. William became known as ‘General’ and Catherine as ‘Army Mother’. The clergy were called ‘officers’ while the members were ‘soldiers’.
Every mission station was renamed a ‘corps’ and overseen by a ‘captain’, assisted by a ‘ lieutenant’.
The corps were divided into districts commanded by a ‘major’; and several districts made up a division led by a ‘colonel’.
The first Salvation Army flag in red, yellow and blue was presented to Coventry Corps by Catherine Booth in 1878. These colours were seen at every parade, rally and meeting, representing a call to arms in the war against evil. Red was for atonement, blue for purity and the yellow sun (later, a star) was the Holy Spirit.
The new Salvation Army crest was placed around the sun or star along with the motto ‘Blood and fire’ to signify Jesus’s blood and the fire of the Holy Spirit.
From about 1880, a standardised uniform was introduced, making the Army’s recruits instantly recognisable to the public. At the time, jingoism was very popular with the working classes so the new military-style organisation had great appeal for them.
Another aspect that struck a chord with the poor was the music played at events and meetings. William Booth famously asked, “Whyy should the devil have all the best tunes?” The Salvation Army cleverly took music hall and other popular secular songs which the working classes knew and changed the words to Christian lyrics. The first official Salvation Army brass band was recognised in 1879 and a year later, William Booth actively encouraged the founding of bands through the pages of War Cry, the Army’s weekly newspaper.
From its early beginnings, women played an important role in the Salvation Army. Catherine Booth was a gifted and inspirational preacher in her own right, even before the Christian Mission was founded. It was she who insisted that women be given equal opportunities within the organisation, which was extremely unusual for the time. William Booth decided to exploit this novelty and sent young girls off in pairs to take command of corps. These ‘Hallelujah Lasses’ were hugely successful in their preaching and conversions.
Attracting the masses
With their uniforms, flags, loud music, parades and inspirational meetings, the Salvation Army stood out from all the other churches, chapels and missions. This was deliberate. As William Booth told a newspaper reporter in 1886: “The first necessity of the movement… is TO ATTRACT ATTENTION. If the people are in danger of the damnation of Hell, and asleep in the danger, awaken them – ‘to open their eyes’.” The people he sought to reach were the degraded and the fallen who never attended places of worship and were unlikely ever to do so.
The converted, who acted as lay preachers at meetings telling their stories, were known by names related to their past professions. These included the ‘Hallelujah Fishmonger’, the ‘Saved Railway Guard’, ‘Happy Eliza’ and ‘Nancy Dickybird’. Nancy was a former drunkard, “the terror of the Manchester police”, and had served 173 terms of imprisonment.
In their advertisements,
A standardised uniform was introduced to make Army recruits instantly recognisable
the Salvation Army even copied the style of circuses and music halls to attract people to their meetings. One poster from 1880 proclaimed: “LOOK OUT! LOOK OUT! LOOK OUT! CAPTAIN MORRELL and SOLDIERS of the 37th Corps (Regulars) will challenge the DEVIL for War and make a SPECIAL ATTACK ON HIS TERRITORY on SUNDAY SEPT 19th... CAPTAIN MORRELL (Better known as the DEVIL DRIVER), from Leicester, letting the enemy have it right and left… A HOST OF DARE DEVILS!! Will repeat the firing on the Battle-field...”
Between 1878 and 1883, the Salvation Army expanded rapidly as an organisation. By the end of 1878, there were 57 corps across England and Wales. The number rose to 519 by the end of 1883, plus 37 in Scotland and 17 in Ireland.
During the 1880s, the charity started to make its mark internationally. The first Salvation Army officers arrived in the United States and Australia in 1880. Two years later, corps were established in India, Canada, Sweden and Switzerland; and in Zululand, Natal and New Zealand the following year. The Salvation Army also had a presence in Norway, Jamaica and Southern Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe) by 1891.
What were the Salvation Army meetings like in the late-19th century? A reporter from
The Graphic (30 September 1882) was present at the Dedication Meeting for the Salvation Army’s new headquarters in City Road. He wrote: “Whatever may be the virtues and failings of the Salvationists, they are not dull. Fifes and drums played between the paragraphs of the speeches, hymns were sung, such as And now we’ve got
the Eagle, to music hall airs, young girls beat their tambourines, a ‘converted’ trapezist leapt about on the platform, shouting ‘Glory!’... there were cheers, laughter and even hysterics...”
Opposition to the Salvation Army came from a number of different quarters. Religious leaders thought their use of music hall tunes was profane and their methods of using women as preachers and theatres as places of worship were vulgar. The owners of public houses and beer shops were also against the Salvationists because of their insistence that recruits give up alcohol.
An organisation called the Skeleton Army, with a flag featuring a skull and crossbones, was allegedly organised by publicans. Their members were intent on disrupting the Salvationists’ marches with verbal assaults, and regularly pelted the marchers with stones and dead rats. In 1882, 669 Salvationists were physically attacked across the UK in places such as Salisbury, Chester and Honiton.
In spite of the growth in the organisation, it became apparent that in Britain, the Salvation Army was not reaching and converting as many souls as it should have. By the 1880s, it was realised that poverty was a major barrier to the mission work. As one Hallelujah Lass put it: “We can’t go and talk to people about their souls while their bodies are starving.”
The ills of the poorest in society would have to be remedied before their spiritual well-being could be attended to. This was the beginning of the Salvation Army’s wide-ranging social work for which it has become well known.
The first such formal work was carried out by Elizabeth Cottrill, a soldier of Whitechapel Corps. She took into her home ‘ fallen’ girls who had been converted but had no place to go other than the brothel. Three years later, the work moved to a house in Hanbury Street, Whitechapel, which became the first Salvation Army rescue home. This led to the opening of maternity homes as some of the girls were pregnant, and to the founding of a maternity hospital in Hackney in 1888.
This was just the beginning. Soon there were Cheap Food Depots, night shelters for homeless men (the ‘Threepenny Doss’), and ‘Farthing Breakfasts’ for poor and hungry children. In 1885, the Salvation Army got involved in the Pall Mall Gazette’s campaign to expose the practice of trafficking young girls to be used for ‘ immoral purposes’. This brought about a change in the law, raising the age of consent from 13 to 16.
In the 1890s, the shelters for men were developed into ‘elevators’, providing work in salvage depots and teaching them new skills. The world’s first free labour exchanges were set up, as well as a matchbox factory paying fair wages and using only harmless red phosphorus; a missing persons’ bureau; a poor man’s bank; an emigration scheme; and initiatives in family tracing and adoption.
‘The submerged tenth’
In 1890, William Booth’s best-selling book, In Darkest England and the Way Out, was published. It highlighted the desperate plight of ‘the submerged tenth’: the three million men, women and children who were “imprisoned for life in a horrible dungeon of misery and despair”. The book set out his plan for tackling poverty in Britain, including dividing the needy into selfhelping, self-sustaining ‘colonies’.
William put his theories into practice when he opened the Hadleigh Farm Colony in Essex the same year. Here, there was accommodation and training for men who had worked their way through the shelters and elevators, with work provided in brick-fields. The colony was home to several hundred ‘colonists’ at a time.
Making a big difference
By 1899, the Salvation Army had provided 27 million cheap meals, given shelter to 11 million homeless people, found jobs for 90,000 unemployed, and traced 7,000 missing persons. It now had approximately 100,000 soldiers.
After William Booth’s death in 1912, his son Bramwell succeeded him as General and the work continued. This included vital work during the Boer War, as well as the two World Wars, providing everything from ambulances, food parcels and clothing through to mobile canteens and hostels for the servicemen.
Today, the Salvation Army is the largest provider of social care in the United Kingdom, after the Government. It is active in 126 countries worldwide, helping the poor and needy, including those without a home or a job, victims of trafficking and those who are lonely.
The Salvation Army continues to inspire hope through faith in Jesus Christ as William and Catherine Booth once did. Michelle Higgs is an author specialising in social history and genealogy
Music was a vital part of Salvation Army meetings – brass bands like this one from Southall were a regular sight
Catherine Mumford Booth, 1880
The Salvation Army’s ‘Blood and fire’ flag – red was for atonement, blue for purity and the yellow star represented the Holy Spirit
A 1918 Salvation Army poster as part of the United War Work Campaign in WW1
The Salvation Army marches down Oxford Street in London c1926