Crazy Evangelism

The first Salvation Army Brass Band.
The first Salvation Army Brass Band.

How will they hear without a preacher?
Paul’s stirring exhortation to evangelism in Romans 10[i] was deeply woven into every aspect of the early Salvation Army.

William Booth and Elijah Cadman aimed to build an evangelistically vigorous organisation. Their approach wasn’t based on the ‘openness’ of the non-believers they felt called to serve. And Booth wasn’t sympathetic to his leaders’ complaints about this or that town being a ‘hard place’. Rather, they should use every possible means to reach people with the gospel.

Why should the devil have all the good tunes?
The development of decent musical bands was a key to their success. Rather than just ‘giving out a hymn’ a cappella as the older Methodists would do, the Salvationists developed bands that could quickly draw a crowd.

The music was modern, and the musicians often shamelessly (and humorously) replaced the words of popular music-hall and pub songs with Christian lyrics.

A famous example was ‘Storm the Forts of Darkness, Bring them Down’ which had replaced the well-known, ‘Here’s to Good Old Whisky, Knock it Down!’ (See below if you’re interested in the songs) [ii]

Today there’d be questions about copyright infringement, but when Booth discovered what his musicians were doing, he asked, ‘Why should the devil have all the best tunes?’

By the early 1880s there were 400 Salvation Army bands seeking to gain attention for the evangelistic preaching that would follow.

Getting the attention of the uninterested masses
But the evangelists didn’t rely on music – they would try just about anything to get a hearing.

Richard Collier in his classic biography of Booth, The General Next to God, lists just some Salvation Army strategies.[iii] In considering these we mustn’t miss the underlying determination of this missional movement to reach those who would never come to church.

Having said that, a ‘Do not try this at home’ notice is probably advisable. Sometimes ‘Dodgy’ was the order of the day.

First up, something that shocked Booth: the announcement to come and watch ‘The Hallelujah Lasses’. Collier writes, ‘No building on Tyneside could contain the crowds flocking to hear “The Hallelujah Lasses.” Miners and dock-workers, used to calling their own wives “lassie” were moved to hear more about this strange new religion.’

Lieutenant Theodore Kitching rode into Scarborough on a crimson-draped donkey while ringing the school bell to get a crowd. Sometimes he attended the open-air meetings disguised, and in full make-up, as a drunk to create a scene.

Jumping off the Pier!
Captain John Lawley dived – mid-sermon – into the sea from a pier, in order to illustrate the ‘boundless ocean of God’s love’. He carried on preaching from the sea.

James Dowdle, the six-foot ‘Saved Railway Guard’, slammed his violin case down on a busy sidewalk and shouted, ‘Stand back! It might go off!’ Then as people gathered he opened it slowly, took out the violin and played. [NOT recommended today in almost any context anywhere in the world!]

One Salvationist toured the streets dressed as John the Baptist; bearded, robed, bare-footed and all. Today we’d just think he was a hipster going to get his morning Latte.

One former violent criminal, dressed again in his prison clothes and preached in the street.

The Lingerie Lasses!
Not to be outdone, the Hallelujah Lasses ‘drew record crowds parading the streets wearing their nightgowns over their uniforms’. Collier says Booth suggested it.[iv] That’s an odd one.

In Leicester, Captain William Corbridge handed out realistic-looking railway tickets which read, ‘Hallelujah Railway – Leicester to Heaven’.

One led a live calf through the street, some beat frying pans with rolling-pins. One nutcase spent a week of winter evening lying silently in the snow, and, at the end of the week, when a large crowd had gathered around him jumped up to and preached the gospel.

Raising the Dead!
Some carried a coffin through the town. Once they had gained a sympathetic crowd they then scared the life out of them by having the man inside the coffin suddenly throw open the lid, sit up and preach the resurrection to them.

This sounds crazy, but one genuinely huge Victorian celebrity was a Salvation Army leader called Eliza, a ‘factory girl’ from Nottingham, who would ride through the streets with streamers trailing from her hair and clothes and proclaiming ‘I am Happy Eliza!’ There were even sweets named after her. But maybe more about her later.

These determined evangelists rented huge billboards to advertise their meetings, and also spoke one-on-one to thousands.

We may not imitate their methods but surely, Pastors, in a day when apathy is the norm, we ought to imitate their faith?[v]

More next time.

For the first post in this series on the Salvation Army click here


© 2016 Lex Loizides / Church History Review

[i] Rom 10:14
[ii] For a new version of the old Salvation Army song see: https://soundcloud.com/lex-loizides/save-the-lost-ccli-song-no
For a rendering of the original whisky song see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=92iaBztkfjM
[iii] Richard Collier, The General Next to God (Glasgow: Fontana/Collins 1965) p.66f
[iv] ibid p.67
[v] Most of the above adapted from Collier p.66-68

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