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A Salvation Army of just 88 soldiers went into battle in 1878

Posted in Bible, Historical articles, History, London, Philanthropy on Wednesday, 29 February 2012

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This edited article about the Salvation Army originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 655 published on 3 August 1974.

Salvation Army mission, picture, image, illustration

Booth’s People’s Mission Hall at 272 Whitechapel Road (top) was a refuge for those trying to escape from poor society’s rampant alchohlism which Booth rightly recognised as a disease. Pictures by Pat Nicolle

Twelve hard, gruelling months had passed since that hot summer’s day in 1865 when William Booth had taken charge of the Christian Tent Mission in the East End of London.

Night after night he had staggered home, often with his clothes torn and nursing a cut in the head where mud, stones or a firework had struck, hurled by a jeering mob.

With a wife and six children to support, Booth was himself facing poverty. Only his passionate desire to help the destitute and degraded, and the loyal, encouraging support of his wife, Catherine, had kept him going during these months of hardship. Sometimes, even Booth found his ardent faith flagging under such burdensome struggles. With only sixty supporters standing beside him after one year of work at the Tent Mission, his moments of near-despair were understandable. A few men and women had left him to follow their destinies. One of these was a young medical student called Thomas Barnado who had helped Booth at many of his meetings. He left the mission to concentrate on the rescue of London’s orphan boys, and to found an organisation which was to become famous throughout the world. Booth had seen an inspired faith and determination in this young man, and when he wished his friend goodbye, he added, with great foresight: “You look after the children, and I will look after the adults. Then, together, we will convert the world.”

But many of those who left Booth during that year were men and women who had found the dangerous atmosphere of the East End intolerable. Their attitude was forgivable. At almost every meeting, a violent incident would take place, and Booth himself needed a private bodyguard to protect him from aggressive roughs and urchins.

Soon, however, Booth’s movement, which became known as the Christian Mission, began to spread beyond the East End to the suburbs of Bromley and Croydon.

During this time, Booth did not know that the mission he had started would begin another Christian denomination, and develop into a world-wide organisation. Like John Wesley, his hero, Booth thought that his task was to be the link between the unchurched and churched. Having converted the sinner and the pauper, he would send them to church. But, as John Wesley had found out, it never worked out like that, for the simple reason that the converts would not go to church, and the churches did not want them, anyway. It was a third reason, however, which really determined the fate of Booth’s mission. He wanted at least some of his converts to help him save others of their kind. Booth had realised the importance of this third factor one night at Whitechapel when, facing an unresponsive audience of 1,200 people, he asked an old gypsy hawker who had been recently converted, to address the congregation.

As soon as the old man had begun to speak in his simple, fumbling manner, a strange hush fell upon the meeting. Booth saw at once that the words of a poor, uneducated working man could have an effect which he, in his respectable black frock-coat, could never achieve.

Thomas Heywood, a 25-year-old alcoholic; Billy Ferris, a limehouse navvy; and ‘Mother’ Moore, a drunken Whitechapel charwoman, were soon followed by more and more converts to Booth’s faith and they, in turn, would become William Booth’s most loyal and ardent soldiers. It was the best, most logical way of helping new converts to sustain their faith. By helping to convert others, they could win back their self-respect, their sense of honour, and at the same time reap the priceless reward found in the satisfaction of helping others.

It was not long before William Booth found that he had an army of hard-working soldiers. In two years he had set up his headquarters in the Eastern Star public house, with living accommodation for 80 missioners, seating space for 300 people, a reading room, and a penny bank. His appeal to wealthy philanthropists was generously answered, and with the courage and tenacity of his small band of missioners, Booth’s Christian Mission began to grow. Outings, tea parties, suppers were all mixed with prayers, hymns and Bible readings. They were always noisy, rowdy affairs and they shocked many refined Victorians who thought religion a thing to be observed only on Sundays in the quiet, formal gatherings at their church. But the poor, the people for whom they were intended, enjoyed these gatherings, which Booth called ‘Jam and Glory Meetings’.

Many of Booth’s early converts were victims of alcoholism. There were 100,000 pubs in London at that time, and in the East of London alone, every fifth shop was a gin shop, where penny glasses of gin were on sale specially for children. Years before most people gave any thought to the problem of alcoholism, Booth recognised it for the disease that it is. The crave for a drink made mothers neglect their children, go without food and clothes, and drove many to crime. Booth and his wife Catherine had soon begun an all-out attack on publicans in the East End, and even at the start of their mission’s battle against drink, the trade which was worth ¬£100 million a year received a severe blow.

By 1877, the Mission had established 26 successful stations. The movement was growing more rapidly than even Booth had thought possible. Ten years after he had delivered his first sermon down the Mile End, Booth’s followers had spread the word throughout England. The name given to the movement was chosen purely by chance. In 1878 a missioner who had styled himself Captain Cadman, showed Booth a handbill for a meeting which he had written out, announcing Booth as “The General of the Hallelujah Army” which was “A Volunteer Army.” “No,” said Booth, picking up the piece of paper, “we are not volunteers, we are always on duty.” He then crossed out the word “volunteer” and wrote in “Salvation.”

As yet, however, the Salvation Army was only 88 strong. The soldiers had already done much valuable work in saving men and women in London. Over the years, that army would develop in strength and number, marching across the world. Its soldiers would meet with bitter and, often, bloody opposition in the many hard years of war ahead.

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