This edited article about the Salvation Army originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 658 published on 24 August 1974.
“How wide is the girth of the world?” roared General Booth. The crowd of Salvationists that milled around him cried back, “Twenty-five thousand miles.” “Then,” bellowed Booth, triumphantly, “We must grow till our arms get right round about it!”
Within months, Booth had mobilised his Army, and the troops were setting off to war across the seas, ready to take the nations of the world by storm.
On March 10th, 1880, Commissioner Scott Railton and his soldiers landed in the United States of America. The siege of New York had begun. Two months after his first service, which was held in what one appalled minister had called “The most disreputable den in the United States,” Railton was able to report back to headquarters in London the figures for his American recruits: 16 officers, 40 cadets, 412 privates. One year later the number of converts topped 1,500. Railton travelled across the sprawling land mass of America, setting up headquarters north, south, east and west of the great continent.
Meanwhile, 23-year-old Kate, Booth’s eldest daughter, had opened fire in France. In Australia, two men from England had set out by themselves to take up the Salvationist cause.
In the summer of 1882, the man who was to become part-creator of Salvationist strategy for conquest abroad, had set out for India. Frederick St. George Lautour Tucker was a Greek scholar, and knew Hindustani, Urdu and Sanskrit.
When he arrived in Bombay, a huge police force came to meet him. The authorities in India, hearing that the Salvation Army was about to ‘capture’ India, believed that this meant invasion by thousands of troops. They were relieved to find that the thousand strong army they had expected was only made up of three men and a girl but they could not have known then that Tucker and his three assistants were to create more havoc than an army of one thousand could have done.
Almost at once, a very real state of war existed between the Army and Bombay’s Governor. The British in India still maintained a strictly rigid caste system and they saw the Army as a serious threat to the white man’s prestige in the jewel of their Empire.
They saw Tucker and his soldiers dispense with their English boots and walk bare-foot. They saw them without chairs, tables and beds, and other European luxuries. They saw them sitting cross-legged to eat their simple meals of curry and water, cleaning their teeth with charcoal, and like all peasants did, washing from a brass bowl. They saw them abandon every ‘civilised’ English custom, and adopt the ways of the Indian peasant. And to the British in India this was tantamount to a serious crime.
Like all the Army’s soldiers setting off for war abroad, Tucker and his tiny force had to be prepared to face the life of a volunteer which Booth had described to them before they sailed to India:
“You must make up your minds to leave entirely forever and behind you all your English ideas and habits.” They had also to remember the words used by Booth at the passing-out parades of all new recruits:
“I sentence you all to hard labour, for the rest of your natural lives.”
Of all the military tactics used by the Army abroad, it was this ability to live as one with the people of the country they were capturing that helped them most to conquer the world.
But while Tucker’s troops were gaining victories in India, and other soldiers were marching triumphantly over Australia, France, Switzerland, Sweden, Germany, China and Africa, General Booth and his son, Bramwell, were facing a cruel enemy in the shape of poverty. The Army’s debts were mounting rapidly. Then, in 1886, the Army launched the first of its brilliant campaigns for money-raising.
The first Self-Denial Week, held in the United Kingdom, raised ¬£4,820, most of which, to Booth’s delight, came in pennies and halfpennies. Then, as now, the Army knew that these small copper coins had meant more sacrifice than precious gold given by wealthy patrons.
Wherever the Army went, Booth’s soldiers held no distinction between colour, class or race. As Bramwell had once said: “We are the servants of all,” and this meant that they were servants of all those whom the world had passed by.
Disaster relief work, social reform and medical care were only a few of the many facets of the Army’s war.
When disaster struck, the Army’s soldiers were always there, ready with food, shelter, boots and clothes. They have seen front-line service in the two World Wars, in Cuba, in Algeria and in the Congo. In the 1960 Chilean earthquake, according to one news reporter, they went ‘to places the Devil himself would have been afraid to enter.’
The soldiers have helped the sick, the wounded, the criminal, and the leper. They have gone out into the world to search for the outcasts of society; the alcoholic, the thief, and even the murderer, have all come under their practical care.
One of their greatest victories was the success of their crusade to close down Devil’s Island, an infamous penal colony in French Guinea, once described as a ‘living grave for 10,000 men.’ It was a crusade which was to take twenty-five years before victory could be declared.
Today, sixty years after the death of William Booth, the Salvation Army continues to carry out a war which has been raging for more than one hundred years. It is a war fought in 71 countries of the world by a two-million strong global army, and as long as there are people in the world neglected by civilisation, the Salvation Army can never declare a final Victory Day.
As William Booth had cried in his last public speech: “While women weep as they do now, I’ll fight; while little children go hungry as they do now, I’ll fight; while men go to prison, in and out, in and out, I’ll fight; while there yet remains one dark soul without the light of God, I’ll fight – I’ll fight to the very end!”
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