The Skeleton Army

Opposition. Violence. Persecution.

The Skeleton Army

When Christianity begins to actually take hold – to decisively win the hearts of ordinary men and women – there is usually a violent backlash. Persecution is not something sensible Christians seek, but even the briefest glimpse of those times when the church has been very successful evangelistically will reveal the presence of a cultural kick-back.

The violent persecutions of the church by Diocletian in the early 4th Century, the martyrs before, during and after the Reformation period, the mobs that attacked Whitefield and Wesley, the persecution today of churches forced ‘underground’, are all examples of this phenomena. When the main body of a population begin to embrace Christianity in significant numbers there’s a reaction.

The same is true in the history of the Salvation Army. At first there were a few individuals throwing eggs and disrupting open air meetings, but soon there was an organised effort against the evangelists. The dreaded Skeleton Army, so called, violently attacked the Salvationists in order to stop them preaching the gospel. The assaults were persistent and extremely violent as the following accounts illustrate:

Arnold Begbie: ‘Perhaps the worst of the riots was that which occurred at Sheffield…when a Procession led by General and Mrs Booth was attacked by a numerous and savage multitude armed with sticks and stones. The procession arrived at its destination with bruised and bleeding faces, with ton and mud-bespattered garments, cheering the General who had passed unscathed through the rabble.
‘Now’s the time,’ he said, regarding his ragged, wounded and excited followers, ‘to get your photographs taken.’
Riots occurred at Bath, Guildford, Arbroath, Forfar, and many other places. In twelve months, it is recorded, 669 Salvationists, of whom 251 were women, were ‘knocked down, kicked, or brutally assaulted.’ Fifty-six buildings of The Army were stormed and partially wrecked. Eighty-six Salvationists, fifteen of them women, were thrown into prison. From one end of the kingdom to the other, this effort to break up The Army was carried on in a most shameless fashion under the very eyes of the law, the mob attacking the Salvationists, the police arresting the Salvationists, the magistrates sentencing the Salvationists.’[i]

Richard Collier: ‘But molestation wasn’t confined to the streets…At Plymouth, Devon, forty men armed with brimming chamber pots stormed the hall to drench James Dowdle, “The Saved Railway Guard,” with urine. Time and again meetings were closed down in wild confusion…Even 1,500 police doing extra duty every Sunday seemed powerless to protect Booth’s troops.
Neither age nor sex proved a barrier, for the mobs were out for blood. In Northampton, one blackguard tried to knife a passing lassie; Wolverhampton thugs flung lime in a Salvationist child’s eyes. At Hastings, Mrs. Susannah Beaty, one of Booth’s first converts on Mile End Waste, became  The Army’s first martyr…Reeling under a fire of rocks and putrid fish, she was kicked deliberately in the womb and left for dead in a dark alley of the Old Town. [ii]

Humphrey Wallis:No Salvationist defended himself or herself by physical force. Knocked down, kicked, struck, reviled, reported guilty of bestial behaviour, accused of blasphemy and unprintable acts in their Meetings, they took refuge in the reply, ‘God bless you,’ and in prayer for their assailants. Elijah [Cadman], who had been so ‘handy with the gloves,’ and experienced such rough handling that a few of his brother-Officers hinted he liked persecution, had never raised a finger for himself or Army protection. More than his share of mud, stones, dead rats, and cats found their billets on or around him. He led a march in the slums waving a stik with one hand, and carrying a dead rat by its tail in the other; he had caught the rat as it flew to its aim…A live cat was thrown at him. ‘The live one was worse than all the dead ones; for the live one, poor thing, hung on. People wondered why we carried those dead rats and cats with us. It did seem silly. But, don’t you see, if we had left ‘em where they fell the mob would have had ‘em again, and thrown ‘em at us again, and one swat in the eye per one dead rat is enough,’ said he.’ [iii]

Roy Hattersley: ‘Throughout England opposition to the Salvation Army was growing fast. The Skeleton Armies – founded in Exeter and Weston-super-Mare for the specific purpose of breaking up Salvation Army meetings – began to set up branches throughout the south of England. Although the Armies had no formal structure or high command, the groups that came together had four common features – the backing of the breweries, the sympathy of the magistrates, the conservative attitude of the local population and the relatively small size of the towns in which the ‘skeletons’ operated.
Without the breweries the Skeleton Armies would have been nothing. In one of his many angry memoranda to the Home Secretary, William Booth wrote:
In nearly every town where there has been any opposition we have been able to trace it more or less to the direct instigation and often the open leadership of either Brewers or Publicans or their EMPLOYEES. The plan adopted is by treating or otherwise inciting gangs of roughs.’ [iv]

[i] Harold Begbie, Life of William Booth: The Founder of the Salvation Army (2 vols. London: MacMillan, 1920) 2:2
[ii] Richard Collier, The General Next to God (Glasgow: Fontana/Collins 1965) p.94
[iii] Humphrey Wallis, The Happy Warrior (London: Salvationist Publishing, 1928), p.90
[iv] Roy Hattersley, Blood and Fire (London: Abacus, 2000), p.273

©2017 Lex Loizides – Church History Review

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