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

The Secret History of the Salvation Army (part one)

Salvation Army matches (cover)
Salvation Army matches (cover)

I fell in love with the Salvation Army nearly thirty years ago.

My affection arose from two main causes. First, the whole body of that church movement were consistently committed to evangelism. Everyone was involved. Everyone was on mission. They believed they had found the key to transformation – the gospel of Jesus Christ. Because every person needs what Jesus Christ offers they were unrelentingly merciful.

Secondly, their commitment to alleviating the plight of the poor and their commitment to issues of social justice; whether clothing someone or launching a rival match making factory which didn’t poison the workers.

An ad for the phosphorous-free Salvation Army matches
An ad for the phosphorus-free Salvation Army matches

The unashamed combination of those two impulses was utterly inspiring (the match factory produced boxes of matches called ‘Lights in Darkest England’).

Salvation Army matches
Salvation Army matches

But beyond my admiration for the range of their engagements and their tenacity, a number of questions inevitably arose.
How did this Christian movement so effectively reach those that ‘normal’ churches were largely failing to reach?
How did they manage to draw the commitment of a myriad of volunteers and produce sustainable NGOs to meet such a variety of needs?
How were they able to go into cities, towns and even villages and preach with unswerving boldness, a raw, compassionate, come-to-Christ-now message, and see thousands converted?
And, in the face of bitter, violent opposition, what was the secret of their battlefield bravery?

Hallelujah wind-ups and glory fits
As I continued to read extensively, and particularly the early material, I found a few clues.
Have you ever heard of a ‘Hallelujah Wind-Up’? That was the name given to a moment in a meeting so charged with spiritual vitality that the spring almost breaks and catapults workers out into the harvest? No? Neither had I.
Shhh…let’s not speak too loudly of what Salvationists would affectionately refer to as ‘Glory fits.’
Hilarious and intriguing. Hallelujah wind-ups; glory fits. This quintessentially Victorian working-class movement developed wonderfully non-religious sounding names for their experiences in prayer.

In these next few posts, we’ll dust off the old books and visit the early days that were so full of power. And we’ll find a source of power that Bramwell Booth considered to be the very same dynamic  manifest on the day of Pentecost.[i]

Warning!
In reviving these stories, I’m not suggesting we imitate styles or phrases, nor are we looking for a formula. Terms and Conditions apply. However, if you are a Christian, you may experience a thirst for a new season of refreshing and empowering. May it carry us to the place of persistent prayer.

‘Summon your power, God; show us your strength, our God, as you have done before.’ Psalm 68:28

More next time…
For the first part 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