This edited article about the Salvation Army originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 899 published on 14 April 1979.
In the middle of the 19th century, people in London’s East End fought a grim battle against poverty. With jobs ill-paid and hard to come by, it was generally a losing battle, and one in which they lacked any leadership. Yet a leader was at hand.
Many poor Londoners made regular visits to the pawnbrokers, to deposit an article of clothing or some other possession as security for a small loan. In one of these shops, in Southwark, worked a young man named William Booth. It was an unlikely job for the man who was to become the champion of the poor and unfortunate.
Booth had been born in Nottingham on 10th April, 1829. His father had apprenticed him to a pawnbroker, and this brought him into contact with poverty, and all the misery it can cause. To him it seemed that the only solution was to be found in practical Christianity, and he became a lay preacher.
His apprenticeship over, he did not at first abandon pawnbroking, but obtained a post in London. He continued to practise as a lay preacher, and joined a break-away branch of the Methodist Church. In 1858 he became a minister.
He now began his campaign which was to occupy him for the rest of his life. Supported by his wife Catherine, herself an effective preacher, he toured Britain, holding open-air meetings in various parts of the country. Soon he gave up his official ministry to devote himself to his own brand of evangelism.
Establishing himself once more in London, he set out to spread the gospel among the East Enders. Through religion, he was convinced, they could be won over from drunkenness and crime.
At an early stage Booth had compared his campaign to warfare, with his followers as “Christ’s soldiers”. In 1878 he formed them into the blue-uniformed organisation which we know as the Salvation Army.
William Booth, the first “General” of the Salvation Army, knew the popular appeal of pageantry and music. So military-style parades, and bands playing stirring tunes, became a familiar part of the Army’s activities.
To begin with, Salvationists had to face up to ridicule, and even brutal violence. At one time the police even arrested them for “provoking breaches of the peace”. But gradually their dedicated work won them universal approval.
By the time General Booth died in 1912, his organisation had long since spread to North America and other lands. The Salvation Army has since gone from strength to strength, its soldiers always on the march against sin and misfortune.
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