The Secret History of the Salvation Army (part two)

Blood and Fire!

Blood and Fire on a centenary British postage stamp
The Blood and Fire flag on a centenary British postage stamp

The Salvation Army were a passionate, experience-focussed, transformative force in the Victorian world.

Ever wondered why the motto was ‘Blood and Fire’? Was that just because those are battle-sounding words and would suggest a military style resolve?

That was partly true. But actually they were carefully chosen for theological reasons.

The blood referred to the centrality of the death of Christ on the cross. This was to be preached always and everywhere. The blood of Jesus was able to cleanse the worst sinner from their sin. Most modern-day Christians would probably guess that connection without knowing the history.

But what’s the fire? And why is it side by side with the blood?

The fire referred to the Holy Spirit appearing ‘as tongues of fire’ upon the early believers on the day of Pentecost. This fire was a current reality, to be received and experienced then and there by Salvationists or anyone who was seeking God in their meetings.

Understandably, among the Victorian church leaders, it was the fire that caused more problems. Mainstream leaders could just about tolerate working class people preaching about the cross and even hell, but the prospect of people attending meetings where they might act (or possibly be encouraged to act) in an undignified way was unacceptable.

What was going on?
There’s no soft approach into the descriptions of these meetings. Harold Begbie, in his two-volume biography of William Booth, interviewed Bramwell (Booth’s son and successor) about this business of ‘the fire’.

From an early date, some Salvation Army meetings were characterised by people having dramatic spiritual experiences. It is worth noting that neither William nor Bramwell tried to shut these meetings down, or restrict the possibility of these things happening. In fact, they became part of the movement across Britain.

The Booths didn’t encourage a free-for-all, but within the highly structured context of their organisation they believed people were truly meeting with God.

Bramwell Booth with his father William
Bramwell Booth with his father William. They were bearded men.

Begbie writes,

[Bramwell] describes how men and women would suddenly fall flat upon the ground, and remain in a swoon or trance for many hours, rising at last so transformed by joy that they could do nothing but shout and sing in an ecstasy of bliss…

He saw bad men and women stricken suddenly with an overmastering despair, flinging up their arms, uttering the most terrible cries, and falling backward, as if dead–supernaturally convinced of their sinful condition.

The floor would sometimes be crowded with men and women smitten down by a sense of overwhelming spiritual reality, and the workers of the Mission would lift their fallen bodies and carry them to other rooms, so that the Meetings might continue without distraction. Doctors were often present at these gatherings.

Conversions took place in great numbers; the evangelists of the Mission derived strength and inspiration for their difficult work; and the opposition of the world only deepened the feeling of the more enthusiastic that God was powerfully working in their midst.[i]

And there’s more. But let’s ease into these startling phenomena one step at a time…

More next time.

For the first instalment of the Salvation Army Story click here

©2016 Lex Loizides / Church History Review

[i] Harold Begbie, Life of William Booth: The Founder of the Salvation Army (2 vols. London: MacMillan, 1920) 1:343

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