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.
The unashamed combination of those two impulses was utterly inspiring (the match factory produced boxes of matches called ‘Lights in Darkest England’).
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
In 1880 William Booth, Founder of the Salvation Army, was invited to speak at the Wesleyan Methodist Conference in the UK.
This was a generous invitation since it was well known that he had left Methodism to begin a more rigorous evangelistic ministry. Although he had been operating independently for several years, his organisation had only formally adopted the name The Salvation Army three years earlier.
During his message to the conference he explained the impulse that created his evangelism and church-planting movement and gave four keys to their continued success.
A Gospel emphasis that drew non-believers and leaders to the work ‘I was told that ninety-five in every hundred of the population of our larger towns and cities never crossed the threshold of any place of worship, and I thought, ‘Cannot something be done to reach these people with the Gospel?’
Fifteen years ago I thus fell in love with the great crowds of people who seemed to be out of the pale of all Christian Churches. It seemed to me that if we could get them to think about Hell they would be certain to want to turn from it. If we could get them to think about Heaven they would want to go there. If we could get them to think about Christ they would want to rush to His open arms.
I resolved to try, and ‘The Salvation Army’ is the outcome of that resolution. In August, 1877, we had 26 Stations. We have now, in 1880, 162. In 1877, we had 35 Evangelists. We have now 285 Evangelists, or, as we now call them, Officers, and in many instances they have the largest audiences in the towns where they are at work.
We have got all those Officers without any promise or guarantee of salary, and without any assurance that when they reach the railway station to which they book they will find anybody in the town to sympathise with them. The bulk would cheerfully and gladly go anywhere.’
Key #1 The Gospel to the needy ‘If asked to explain our methods, I would say: Firstly, we do not fish in other people’s waters, or try to set up a rival sect. Out of the gutters we pick up our converts, and if there be one man worse than another our Officers rejoice the most over the case of that man.
When a man gets saved, no matter how low he is, he rises immediately. His wife gets his coat from the pawn-shop, and if she cannot get him a shirt she buys him a paper front, and he gets his head up, and is soon unable to see the hole of the pit from which he has been digged, and would like to convert our rough [meeting place] into a chapel, and make things respectable. That is not our plan. We are moral scavengers, netting the very sewers. We want all we can get, but we want the lowest of the low.’
Key #2 Contextualisation and flexibility ‘Secondly. We get at these people by adapting our measures.
There is a most bitter prejudice, amongst the lower classes, against churches and chapels. I am sorry for this; I did not create it, but it is the fact. They will not go into a church or chapel; but they will go into a theatre or warehouse, and therefore we use these places.
In one of our villages we use the pawnshop, and they gave it the name of ‘The Salvation Pawnshop,’ and many souls were saved there.
Let me say that I am not the inventor of all the strange terms that are used in The Army. I did not invent the term ‘Hallelujah Lassies.’ When I first heard of it I was somewhat shocked; but telegram after telegram brought me word that no buildings would contain the people who came to hear the Hallelujah Lassies. Rough, uncouth fellows liked the term. One had a lassie at home, another went to hear them because he used to call his wife ‘Lassie’ before he was married. My end was gained, and I was satisfied.’
Key #3 Getting new believers involved immediately in evangelism ‘Thirdly. We set the converts to work.
As soon as a man gets saved we put him up to say so, and in this testimony lies much of the power of our work.
One of our lassies was holding a meeting in a large town the other day when a conceited fellow came up to her saying, ‘What does an ignorant girl like you know about religion? I know more than you do. I can say the Lord’s Prayer in Latin.’ ‘Oh, but,’ she replied, ‘I can say more than that. I can say the Lord has saved my soul in English.”
[This comment caused loud laughter and cheering in the meeting]
Key #4 Hard work ‘Lastly, we succeed by dint of hard work. I tell my people that hard work and holiness will succeed anywhere.’[i]
Booth as a multi-site church leader If Booth’s Salvation Army ‘stations’ in London alone were considered congregations of a multi-site church we would be celebrating him as the pastor of the largest protestant church in the 19th century.
That, of course, wasn’t his goal. He was determined to see more stations planted and more of those outside the orbit of the church’s influence coming into a relationship with God and a transformed life.
Getting the gospel to those who need it; being flexible in our strategies; including new converts in evangelism; working hard to keep moving forward into the mission.
Of course, more than these four principles were necessary to form a church-planting movement. And more than these are necessary for growing a healthy church. But how are you applying these four in your setting?
The Salvation Army in Canada Before long, the Salvationists were spreading. If they were determined enough to try the zaniest ideas on British audiences, they were willing to travel long distances to take their message elsewhere.
I read this short account of the work of Abbie Thompson in 1883. She was a 19yr old Salvation Army Captain who sought to bring the gospel to Kingston, Ontario, Canada. I’ll let the statement stand on its own, except to give a brief introduction by quoting from two contemporary sources, both of which are hilarious.
The Salvation Army had already ‘opened fire’ in Canada, and were not altogether well received. Their youthful working-class roots were difficult to conceal and some didn’t like it. After all, the two founding officers were still teenagers.
On November 8th 1882, the Toronto Globe recorded,
Rev Mr.Bray of Montreal, is opposed to The Salvation Army and its methods. The Reverend gentleman particularly objects to the hymnology of the Army, portions of which contain, in his opinion, very little of religious fervour. Certainly it is hardly possible to escape the conclusion that there is something irreverent in the hymn, "Elijah was a jolly old man, and was carried off to heaven in a fiery van." Yet its intent is good. It is designed to convey to the untutored mind a biblical truth in language suited to the capacities of the persons on whose behalf The Salvation Army labours.
Abbie Thompson made her first appearance in 1883. The Toronto Mail actually made reference to her arrival:
(Kingston) This morning a trunk arrived from the Cape upon which were written the words ”Captain Abbie Thompson” “Hallelujah” “Fire”. The Customs officer eyed it suspiciously, and thought of dynamite, infernal machines, and fenians. He refused to search it, and ordered its removal to the warehouse to await its owner.[i]
12,000 attending each night! Richard Collier puts this early work in Canada in a condensed but baffling paragraph:
And Canada, where two like-minded pioneers had begun on their own initiative, needed organisers too. From May, 1882, when Jack Addie, an eighteen-year-old dry goods salesman and Joe Ludgate, a clothes presser, paraded the streets of London, Ontario, in blue tunics and helmets like British bobbies, The Army’s cause spread like fire under a leaning wind. At Bowmanville, where every leading citizen became a local officer, new ordinances soon forbade men swearing in the streets. At Guelph, one-ninth of the entire population were Salvationists. When Captain “Hallelujah Abbie” Thompson, a vivacious nineteen-year-old brunette, began drawing crowds of 12,000 a night, a sharp-witted Kingston, Ontario, cosmetics manufacturer was quick to cash in. Swiftly he launched a new line in toiletries – “Hallelujah Abbie Soap.”[ii]
Booth seemed entirely confident in his young, energetic, working-class leaders. And their ability to attract large crowds is almost baffling. Perhaps we are too keen to polish up our new leaders or wait a little too long. Perhaps we could learn a little from history and release more of that youthful energy into ministry (just wait ‘til we get to Spurgeon).
More next time….
For the first post in this series on the Salvation Army click here
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
Names In 1865 Booth and his team set up headquarters in Whitechapel, London. But they had difficulty deciding on a suitable name.
Here are the early variations they used:
‘The East London Christian Revival Society’ (it’s quite an accomplishment to create a name from which even the most diligent can’t force some kind of acronym).
This soon became ‘The East London Christian Mission’. This was definitely better but, as George Railton tells us[i], they had to drop ‘East London’ because the work was so successful they opened mission sites outside London. ‘East London’ was now only one sphere of their activity.
Finally, ‘The Christian Mission’ remained.
And they kept it for a while but there was an obvious problem with this name. Theirs was one among many good and definitely ‘Christian’ missions operating in England and, by defining their mission as the Christian one, the name seemed to imply haughtiness on their part and a snub towards the others.
So for six years[ii] they were in a kind of awkward limbo. A dynamic work with a not very helpful name. Another interesting intermediary link in the evolution of the Salvation Army’s name was that Booth was then called the General Superintendent. When they became The Salvation Army the shift to General was easy.
Not a Church but an Army! William Booth recalls,
After a while the work began to spread and show wonderful promise, and then, when everything was looking like progress a new trouble arose…Some of the evangelists whom I had engaged to assist me rose up and wanted to convert our Mission into a regular Church…They wanted to settle down in quietness. I wanted to go forward at all costs…so I called them together and said, ‘My comrades, the formation of another Church is not my aim. There are plenty of churches. I want to make an Army.’
He then offered to help those who wanted to leave to find work amongst the churches, but all decided to stay.
By 1878 (13 years from the formation of the London Mission) they had grown to 80 mission sites, which they didn’t name as churches but Stations, and then later – in keeping with army-sounding designations – ‘corps’.
The growth was phenomenal. By 1880, they had 162 Stations. They weren’t just fussing over names – there was such growth behind them that the name had to encapsulate the spirit of what was quickly being recognised as a missionary movement. Remember, their appeal was not to Christians who were restless and unhappy in their churches – their first aim, and the primary pool from which they gained members, was to reach the unbelieving working classes who had no interest in church-going.
A Volunteer Army? Richard Collier writes,
Early one morning in May 1878…Bramwell and Railton were summoned to Booth’s bedroom for the day’s instructions. As Booth, who was recovering from flu, paced the floor in a long yellow dressing gown and felt slippers, Railton scanned the proofs of the pink eight-page folder which was the Mission’s annual report.
It’s preliminary was bold and succinct:
THE CHRISTIAN MISSION
Under the superintendence
of the Rev. William Booth
A VOLUNTEER ARMY
Recruited from amongst the multitudes who are without God and without hope in the world…
At this time the Volunteers, a part-time citizens’ Army … were a favourite butt of cartoonists. Bramwell, aged twenty-two, was stung by the imputation.
‘Volunteer!’ he exclaimed … ‘Here, I’m not a volunteer. I’m a regular or nothing!’
Booth stopped dead in his tracks … Abruptly, he crossed to where Railton sat, taking the pen out of his hand. He struck decisively through the word ‘volunteer’ and substituted the word ‘Salvation.’ Simultaneously, they scarecely knew why, Bramwell and Railton leapt from their chairs, crying, ‘Thank God for that!’[iii]
The Salvation Army it is then…
More next time
For the first post in this series on the Salvation Army click here
Rapid conversions When William and Catherine Booth moved into the east end of London in 1865 their goal was to preach the Christian message and bring people to faith in Christ.
The plan was that any converts would join existing churches. But it didn’t really work out like that.
Booth’s preaching was dynamic and urgent. Many, who would never go to church, heard him and many hundreds were converted. But after their conversion they still wouldn’t go to the churches and, if they did, the churches didn’t seem to want them.
Booth began to look for meeting halls and somewhere to create a headquarters for the London mission. But he needed funds.
One minister, writing for a Christian magazine, describes a meeting he attended with William Booth one Sunday afternoon. I’ve edited down his article but it gives us a flavour of the amazing power of the Holy Spirit working in a context of consistent evangelism.
The structure of the meeting was that, after an introduction, several people would briefly tell of their experience of conversion or of adventures in evangelism and then a hymn would be sung, followed by yet more testimonies. At the end Booth preached and prayed.
As you read through this abbreviated account of the meeting, maybe you could pray for similar evangelistic zeal to characterise your life and the life of your church, and that God would similarly begin to bring large numbers of people to a personal and life-changing faith in Christ.
Here we see personal boldness in evangelism, conversations happening in homes, and in the streets. There are several references to the effective use of tracts (short, easy to read leaflets or brochures which explain the gospel) as well as public preaching. Perhaps one of the reasons the churches used to ‘reap’ more was that, quite simply, they ‘sowed’ more. Enjoy!
The Experience Meeting ‘On the afternoon of Sunday, January 31st, I was able to see some of the results of William Booth’s work in the East of London, by attending his Experience Meeting, held in the East London Theatre. About 2 o’clock some of his helpers and Converts went out from the Mission Hall, where they had been praying together, and held an Open-Air Meeting in front of a large brewery opposite the Hall. The ground was damp and the wind high, but they secured an audience, and then sang hymns along the road, till they came to the theatre, taking in any who chose to follow them. Probably about five hundred were present, though many came in late.
The Meeting commenced at three, and lasted one hour and a half. During this period fifty-three persons gave their experience, parts of eight hymns were sung, and prayer was offered by four persons.
After singing Philip Philips’ beautiful hymn, ‘I will sing for Jesus,’ prayer was offered up by Mr. Booth and two others.
A young man rose and told of his conversion a year ago, thanking God that he had been kept through the year.
A negro, of the name of Burton, interested the Meeting much by telling of his first Open-Air Service, which he had held during the past week in Ratcliff Highway, one of the worst places in London. He said, when the people saw him kneel in the gutter, engaged in prayer for them, they thought he was mad.
A middle-aged man, a sailor, told how he was brought to Christ during his passage home from Colombo. One of the tracts, entitled, ‘John’s Difficulty,’ was the means of his conversion.
A cabman said he used to be in the public-houses constantly; but he thanked God he ever heard William Booth, for it led to his conversion.
Three young men then spoke. The first, who comes five miles to these Meetings, told how he was lost through the drink, and restored by the Gospel; the second said he was unspeakably happy; the third said he would go to the stake for Christ.
A sister spoke of her husband’s conversion, and how they were both now rejoicing in God.
A young man testified to the Lord having pardoned his sins in the theatre on the previous Sunday.
Two sailors followed. The first spoke of his conversion through reading a tract while on his way to the Indies four months ago. The other said he was going to sea next week, and was going to take some Bibles, hymns, and tracts with him, to see what could be done for Christ on board.
A young man of the name of John, sometimes called ‘Young Hallelujah,’ told of his trials while selling fish in the streets; but he comforted himself by saying, ”Tis better ‘an before.’ He had been drawn out in prayer at midnight on the previous night, and had dreamed all night that he was in a Prayer Meeting.
A converted thief told how he was ‘picked up’ and of his persecutions daily while working with twenty unconverted men.
A man who had been a great drunkard, said, ‘What a miserable wretch I was till the Lord met with me! I used to think I could not do without my pint, but the Lord pulled me right bang out of a public-house into a place of worship.’
A young woman said: ‘I well remember the night I first heard Mr. Booth preach here. I had a heavy load of sin upon my shoulders. But I was invited to come up the stage. I did so, and was pointed to Jesus, and I obtained peace.’
Another told of his conversion by a tract, four years ago, on his passage to Sydney. ‘To my sorrow,’ he said, ‘I became a backslider. But I thank God He ever brought me here. That blessed man, Mr. Booth, preached, and I gave my heart to God afresh. I now take tracts to sea regularly. I have only eighteen shillings a week, but I save my tobacco and beer money to buy tracts.’
A stout man, a navvy, who said he had been one of the biggest drunkards in London, having briefly spoken, was followed by one known as ‘Jemmy the butcher,’ who keeps a stall in the Whitechapel Road. Some one had cruelly robbed him, but he found consolation by attending the Mission Hall Prayer Meeting.
Two young lads, recently converted, having given their experience, a dock labourer, converted seventeen months ago, asked the prayers of the Meeting for his wife, yet unconverted.
A young woman gave her experience very intelligently. It was a year and a half since she gave her heart to the Saviour; but her husband does not yet come with her.
The experience of an old man, who next spoke, was striking. Mr. Booth had announced his intention, some time back, of preaching a sermon on ‘The Derby,’ at the time of the race that goes by that name. This man was attracted by curiosity, and when listening compared himself to a broken-down horse. This sermon was the means of his conversion.
A young man told how his sins were taken away. He worked in the city and, through a young man talking to him in the street, he was able to see the way of Salvation, and rejoice in it. He used to fall asleep generally under preaching. ‘But here,’ he said, ‘under Mr. Booth, I can’t sleep.’
A blind girl, whom I had noticed earlier singing heartily in the street, told of her conversion.
Then Mr. Booth offered a few concluding observations and prayed. The Meeting closed by singing. Such is a brief outline of this most interesting Meeting, held Sunday after Sunday.
I could not but wonder at the change which had come over the people. The majority of those present, probably nearly five hundred, owed their conversion to the preaching of Mr Booth and his helpers.
In the evening I preached in the Oriental Music Hall, High Street, Poplar, where five or six hundred persons were assembled. This is one of the more recent branches of Mr. Booth’s work, and appears to be in a very prosperous condition. I found two groups of the helpers singing and preaching in the streets, who were only driven in by the rain just before the Meeting commenced inside. This is how the people are laid hold of.
Shall this good work be hindered for the want of a few hundred pounds?’i
More next time.
For the first part of the Salvation Army story click here
i. George Railton, General Booth (London: Hodder and Stoughton 1912) 59-64
After a year working in East London, Booth had managed to gather about 60 people. This was a ‘mission’ rather than a church, the focus being on evangelism and not on Christian worship as such.
Booth and Barnardo One of Booth’s early partners in the East End of London was soon to leave him: Thomas Barnardo, then a medical student, but who soon founded the impressive Barnardo’s charity, which opened schools and orphanges for abandoned children and is still operating today.
Generously, Booth said, ‘You look after the children and I’ll look after the adults – and together we’ll convert the world.’[i]
Early skirmishes and victories One of Booth’s earliest converts became his first bodyguard. Peter Monk, an Irish prizefighter, was an imposing figure and accompanied Booth to evangelistic meetings.
But one bodyguard is apparently not always enough. Richard Collier records that disturbances were frequent at Booth’s early London meetings. Mrs Eliza Trotman narrowly escaped death when some yobs fired a train of gunpowder at her, causing her clothes to catch fire.
Peter Monk, the ‘General’s Boxer’, would walk up and down the meeting place staring menacingly at trouble-makers to keep them quiet while Booth was preaching.
Booth’s operation gradually became successful. The famous evangelist Gypsy Smith was converted and trained for ministry by Booth when he was only seventeen. Smith was one of numerous young, poor, uneducated men who became the chief evangelists in London. While others were wowing crowds with oratory, these unschooled, rough, preachers were somehow able to reach those who would never approach church or chapel.
Young people released into leadership It may seem crazy to us, but Booth had little choice. He worked with those God gave him – and they were often young. Very young. Gypsy Smith was rejected when he was sent by Booth to Chatham in Kent. Even the other new converts thought a seventeen-year-old way too young to be a leader.
Smith’s answer? ‘If you let me stop here awhile I shall get older. [And] if I haven’t any more whiskers than a gooseberry I have got a wife.’[ii]
Booth began to send these young preachers to different locations across London and beyond. Careful not to call them ‘churches’, in the early days they were known simply as ‘mission stations.’ They were led – overwhelmingly – by those in their twenties, or younger (more of that in a later post).
Booth was clear: he did not want settled congregations enjoying their favourite preacher: He wanted evangelists on a mission to reach their cities – ‘Godly go-ahead dare-devils.’[iii]
We could probably do with a few more of them today.
1865 is a landmark year for historians, friends and members of the Salvation Army.
It was in July, 1865, that William and Catherine Booth finally moved to the capital city of England and of the British Empire. Catherine had already ministered effectively at an outreach to prostitutes. William was eager to preach the Christian message among those who seemed most resistant to it: the working classes.
The decision was made but the strategy wasn’t yet clear.
Darling, I’ve found my destiny! Richard Collier, in his superb biography of Booth, The General Next to God, paints Booth’s turning point skilfully:
He came up the Mile End Road, East London … Outside the drab red-brick façade of The Blind Beggar tavern he halted. From beneath his arm he drew a book and … gave out the verse of a hymn.
In an instant faces were glued to the pub’s glass windows; a ragged unwashed throng pressed curiously about the stranger …
‘There is a heaven in East London for everyone,’ they heard him cry, ‘for everyone who will stop and think and look to Christ as a personal Saviour.’
From the pub there came only a spattering volley of jeers and oaths … Then from the rear a rotten egg came whizzing to find its mark and the subtle spell was broken. With the yolk trickling slowly down his pallid cheek the stranger paused, and prayed. Then, pulling his hat over his eyes, he walked rapidly westwards …
Towards midnight, as Catherine later recalled, a key grated abruptly in the lock and Booth, his eyes shining, strode into the living-room.
‘Darling,’ were the first words that burst from his lips, ‘I’ve found my destiny!’[i]
Booth was deeply concerned for the unchurched. Evangelical churches in the city seemed to be doing well, but there was a vast multitude of those who were utterly apathetic about God, faith, or Christian ethics.
More than two-thirds of the working classes never come to church Booth could see the poverty and the bitterness that went along with it:
The moral degradation and spiritual destitution of the teeming population of the East of London are subjects with which the Christians of the metropolis are perfectly conversant. More than two-thirds of the working-classes never cross the threshold of church or chapel, but loiter away the Sabbath in idleness, spending it in pleasure-seeking or some kind of money-making traffic. Consequently, tens of thousands are totally ignorant of the Gospel; and, as they will not attend the means ordinarily used for making known the love of God towards them, it is evident that if they are to be reached extraordinary methods must be employed.[ii]
Both William and Catherine were extraordinarily hard-working. They rarely seemed to rest. And so, with no regular form of income, William set about organising campaigns, tent missions, evangelistic outreaches – irrespective of the likelihood of a positive response.
A passionate determination for mission His passion and urgency to communicate the love of God to ‘dying men’ became the driving force of the remainder of his life, and of the organisation that would soon come to birth: The Salvation Army.
He later wrote,
When I saw those masses of poor people, so many of them evidently without God or hope in the world, and found that they so readily and eagerly listened to me, following from Open-Air Meeting to tent, and accepting, in many instances, my invitation to kneel at the Saviour’s feet there and then, my whole heart went out to them. I walked back to our West-End home and said to my wife:
‘O Kate, I have found my destiny! These are the people for whose Salvation I have been longing all these years. As I passed by the doors of the flaming gin-palaces to-night (sic) I seemed to hear a voice sounding in my ears, “Where can you go and find such heathen as these, and where is there so great a need for your labours?”
And there and then in my soul I offered myself and you and the children up to this great work. Those people shall be our people, and they shall have our God for their God.’[iii]
Is there such a passion for those who are so indifferent to the Christian message today?
Is there such a longing, such a willingness to sacrifice, to work, to pray, to preach, in order to see lives turn to Christ in our day?
As churches organise for mission in the great cities of the world, may we not take early discouragements to heart. May the great churches in our cities not only focus on those who are already open to our message; may they find a resolve to reach those who have already written Christianity off.
A rotten egg smacked Booth on the side of his face. As he walked home at midnight a conviction was born in his heart – the Gospel must be preached – ‘That night,’ he later declared, ‘The Salvation Army was born.’[iv]
More next time…
To read the whole William Booth story beginhere
[i] Richard Collier, The General Next to God (Glasgow: Fontana/Collins 1965) 15,19 [ii] Harold Begbie, Life of William Booth: The Founder of the Salvation Army (2 vols. London: MacMillan, 1920) 1:302 [iii] George Railton, General Booth (London: Hodder and Stoughton 1912) 56 [iv] ibid
Evangelistic Success By 1863 the William and Catherine Booth had spent 18 months in Cornwall. William had been preaching persuasively among the churches and became known as a ‘Revivalist’ (the Primitive Methodists at the time warned against them). But 7000 people had been added to the churches as a direct result of Booth’s evangelistic preaching in that short time![i]
From Cornwall the Booths travelled to Cardiff and, finding that some of the larger churches were unwilling to offer their facilities, Booth adopted a strategy which later became the norm in the Salvation Army, they used non-religious buildings. His evangelistic campaign in Cardiff took place in a circus.[ii]
The need to ‘settle’ Although he continued to see some success evangelistically he also began battling depression. He needed to settle. His wife was battling sickness. Their children were growing. Their future was still uncertain.
Catherine, writing from Leeds to her mother, describes their frustration:
‘Well, we must labour and wait a little longer, it may be the clouds will break and surround us with sunshine. Anyway, God lives above the clouds, and He will direct our path. If the present effort disappoints us I shall feel quite tired of tugging with the churches, and shall insist on William taking a hall or theatre somewhere. I believe the Lord will thrust him into that sphere yet. We can’t get at the masses in the chapels…I think I shall come and try in London before long.’[iii]
The Midnight Movement In 1865 Catherine was invited to take part in a mission in London itself. Hosted by the ‘Midnight Movement’, it was an outreach to prostitutes in the South East but was open to all (the adverts included, ‘Come and hear a Woman preach’).
The needs of the ‘fallen women’, and of the poor generally, ‘made an instant and overwhelming appeal to her heart.’[iv]
The Wesleyan Times reported on the meetings, commenting that Booth ‘identified herself with [the prostitutes] as a fellow sinner, showing that if they supposed her better than themselves it was a mistake, since all had sinned against God. This, she explained, was the main point, and not the particular sin of which they might be guilty. Then the Saviour was exhibited as waiting to save all alike, and the speaker urged all of them, by a variety of reasons, to immediate decision.’
The Sex Trade as Slavery Catherine Booth was not only committed to bringing these individual women to life-change through faith in Christ, but she began agitating against the evil of sexual slavery in London.
One commentator writes, ‘Her indignation knew no bounds that public opinion should wink at such cruel slavery, while professing to be shocked at the scarcely more inhuman brutality that bore the name in other lands.
The paltriness of the efforts put forth to minimize the evil staggered her, and the gross inequality with which society meted out its punishments to the weaker sex, allowing the participators in the vice to escape with impunity, incurred her scathing denunciations.’[v]
This mission trip, provoking, as it did, the passion of Catherine Booth was enough to help bring the Booths to a decision as to where they should settle next.
With no backing, little money, but a conviction that the gospel could transform the lives of those who found themselves in the most desperate of situations, in 1865 they moved to the Empire’s capital city, London.
For the first post in the series on the Salvation Army click here
[i] Harold Begbie, Life of William Booth: The Founder of the Salvation Army (2 vols. London: MacMillan, 1920) 1:258 [ii] ibid 1:259 [iii] ibid 1:270 [iv] ibid 1:270 [v] Commissioner Booth-Tucker, ibid 1:272
They left. William and Catherine Booth had endured enough shenanigans at the hands of jealous and controlling leaders. They felt they had to get out.
So in 1861 they stepped into the unknown. William was sure of one thing – that he must preach the gospel in England.
He didn’t wait long. A friend within the Methodist New Connexion invited him to conduct a series of evangelistic meetings in the South West. So William and Catherine left their temporary digs in Brixton and travelled, at their own expense, to Cornwall.
The ‘Penitent Form’ There was controversy surrounding his decision to call those who were responding to the gospel to the front of the meeting hall.
Those in need were identifying themselves publicly. This appeared to be the only response option he offered and didn’t seem to respect peoples’ privacy.
Booth called for a ‘right now’ kind of response, which to some seemed rough and sudden. Surely people needed time to think over these things.
But he was adamant that his method was useful in both identifying those whom his message had impacted and helping the respondent understand their both their need and ability to respond.
This whole process he called the ‘penitent form’. That’s an almost incomprehensible term now, but basically it followed a school-room idea of forms (classes/years) sitting on certain benches in rows. The ‘penitent form’, then, was a vacant bench at the front of the meeting where those who wanted to repent of their sins and turn to Christ could identify themselves and receive prayer.
This method of publicly calling for a response to the evangelistic message was already popular amongst Methodists in both England and America, and was adopted by the American preacher Charles Finney.
‘The people crowded around’ The key issue for us, however, is not really the method but the gospel that produced such an amazing response. Booth writes of one meeting,
‘We had the greatest difficulty to clear sufficient space for a penitent-form, and when we had, the people crowded up and around, and the prayers of those in distress, the shouts of those who had obtained deliverance, and the sympathetic exhortations and exultations and congratulations of those who stood round, all united made the most confounding medley I ever listened to. Again and again I endeavoured to secure order, but it was of no avail, and at length I concluded to let it go for the evening, doing as well as we could.’[i]
The invitations for Booth to preach began to come in quickly and soon more and more chapels were hosting evangelistic meetings where similar scenes were taking place.
In fact, Booth soon found himself in the midst of a hugely successful work. Why then, did he suddenly, in the midst of success, find himself depressed and in difficulties, and hungry for more?
This passionate exhortation by William Booth has often been misquoted. At least certain punchy phrases have been lifted out of context.
In one sense he hasn’t helped himself by referring to all gospel-sharing as ‘preaching’. But it’s clear that he is differentiating between the general call on every Christian to witness to those who don’t know Christ and the specific call which some experience and which tends to lead them into and confirm them as public preachers and teachers of the Bible.
He is exasperated by the silence of ordinary, good Christians when it comes to evangelism.
While some phrases are certainly clumsy, let’s not miss the passion:
– We need to become aware of those who don’t yet realise that Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life (John 14:6).
– We need to have an appropriate understanding of eternal realities and the eternal consequences of someone’s rejection of Christ.
– We need to become ‘unselfish’ and start serving people evangelistically.
– If the gospel is true, love should compel us to initiate contact, communication, relationships.
– While there is a special call to vocational ‘ministry’ for some, we are all called to ‘preach’ the gospel. For some, even if they haven’t been specially ‘called to ministry’ they can still seek God for it (Booth was always looking for more leaders).
You may not be a Salvationist. You may not like aspects of Booth’s theology. But every Christian should feel stirred and sharpened by Booth’s words:
How can anybody with spiritual eyesight talk of having no call? ‘How can anybody with spiritual eyesight talk of having no call, when there are such multitudes around them who never hear a word about God, and never intend to; who can never hear, indeed, without the sort of preacher who will force himself upon them?
Are you spiritually healthy if you have no compassion? ‘Can a man keep right in his own soul, who can see all that, and yet stand waiting for a ‘call’ to preach? Would they wait so for a ‘call’ to help anyone escape from a burning building, or to snatch a sinking child from a watery grave?
Does not growth in grace, or even ordinary growth of intelligence, necessarily bring with it that deepened sense of eternal truths which must intensify the conviction of duty to the perishing world?
Does not an unselfish love, the love that goes out towards the unloving, demand of a truly loving soul immediate action for the salvation of the unloved?
And are there not persons who know that they possess special gifts, such as robust health, natural eloquence or power of voice, which specially make them responsible for doing something for souls?
If you’ve been called by God obey Him! ‘And yet I do not at all forget, that above and beyond all these things, there does come to some a special and direct call which it is particularly fatal to disregard, and peculiarly strengthening to enjoy and act upon.
I believe that there have been many eminently holy and useful men who never had such a call; but that does not at all prevent anyone from asking God for it, or blessing Him for His special kindness when He gives it.’[i]
More next time…
For the first post in this series on the Salvation Army click here
When William Booth taught his fellow ‘soldiers’ in the Salvation Army certain key principles, one of those he emphasized continually was the importance of being able to genuinely influence people towards faith in Christ.
So far so good. Most Christian leaders would agree. We’re only playing if we’re only publishing.
CH Spurgeon, while coming from a different theological viewpoint from Booth, was also unapologetic about the need for results. Souls need to be saved.
And so Booth includes in his own story the fact that, certainly in the mid-19th Century, formal theological training didn’t help equip him in his evangelistic Mission.
Booth moves to the Methodist New Connexion After Booth arrived in London in 1849 he joined a Methodist church and began preaching with some success.
Discouraged by the lack of missional intentionality, he joined the Methodist New Connexion, and was encouraged to seek ordination.
Booth at this time was sent to preach for churches that were losing numbers, and for whom it was felt little could be done. He’d go for two weeks at a time, preaching each evening with much success, sometimes drawing the positive attention of the local press.
There was no doubt that he was a gifted evangelist, but he had no formal training for ministry. He had not even completed High School let alone received a University education.
Booth was self-conscious about this deficiency and asked if he might study under a theologian within the New Methodist Connexion denomination. Surely theological training would help him in the mission.
Give me a chance His prayer was, ‘Give me a chance of acquiring information, and of learning how more successfully to conduct this all important business of saving men to which Thou hast called me, and which lies so near my heart.’[i]
Disarmingly, Booth writes, ‘But instead of better qualifying me for the work of saving men, by imparting to me the knowledge necessary for this task I was set to study Latin, Greek, various sciences, and other subjects, which, as I saw at a glance, could little help me in the all-important work that lay before me…’[ii]
Nevertheless he kept studying until the day finally came when his tutor would hear and assess his preaching. Booth knew he would be evaluated on theological content and not necessarily evangelistic impact.
The occasion was a regular evening service in a church. And there were non-believers there. It was soon clear that this could be no practice run. In his mind the mission always trumps any ‘in-house’ priority, which in this instance, was his own future prospects.
Booth: ‘I saw him seated…at the end of the church…I realized that my future standing in his estimation, as well as my position would very much depend on the judgement he formed of me on that occasion…
I knew that my simple, practical style was altogether different from his own, and of the overwhelming majority of the preachers he was accustomed to approve…
I saw dying souls before me… [But] I saw dying souls before me, the gates of Heaven wide open on the one hand, and the gates of Hell open on the other, while I saw Jesus Christ with His arms open between the two, crying out to all to come and be saved.
My whole soul was in favour of doing what it could to second the invitation of my Lord, and doing it that very night.
I cannot now remember much about the service, except the sight of my Professor, with his family around him, a proud, worldly daughter sitting at his side.
I can remember, however, that in my desire to impress the people with the fact that they could have Salvation there and then, if they would seek it, and, to illustrate their condition, I described a wreck on the ocean, with the affrighted people clinging to the masts between life and death, waving a flag of distress to those on shore, and, in response, the life-boat going off to the rescue.
And then I can remember how I reminded my hearers that they had suffered shipwreck on the ocean of time through their sins and rebellion; that they were sinking down to destruction, but that if they would only hoist the signal of distress Jesus Christ would send off the life-boat to their rescue.
Then, jumping on the seat at the back of the pulpit, I waved my pocket-handkerchief round and round my head to represent the signal of distress I wanted them to hoist, and closed with an appeal to those who wanted to be rescued to come at once, and in the presence of the audience, to the front of the auditorium. That night twenty-four knelt at the Saviour’s feet, and one of them was the proud daughter of my Professor.’[iii]
The brief but happy review The next day Booth met with his tutor for the review.
‘My dear Sir,’ the tutor said, ‘I have only one thing to say to you, and that is, go on in the way you have begun, and God will bless you.’
Booth didn’t complete his studies with the New Methodist Connexion. He writes, ‘I had hardly settled down to my studies before I got into a red-hot Revival in a small London church where a remarkable work was done. In an account of this effort my name appeared in the church’s Magazine, and I was invited to conduct special efforts in other parts of the country.
This, I must confess, completely upset my plans once more, and I have not been able to find heart or time for either Greek or Latin from that day to this.’[iv]
Neither Booth, nor the Salvation Army were anti-education, but in terms of equipping men and women for evangelistic effectiveness, he was adamant that men and women should be appropriately equipped for effective ministry. And that meant a blend of standard education as well as specific equipping to bring people to faith in Christ.
An old Pentecostal preacher is quoted as saying, ‘In all yer learnin’, get the fire!’ Sound advice. Get the learning but get the skills too. And Booth would agree: Get the fire!
To read Booth’s impassioned plea for all Christians to witness click here
For the first post in the Salvation Army story click here
At 19 William Booth moved to London. It was 1849. Like many others from the rural areas, he needed to find work.
His sister and her family lived in London, but her drunken husband would not allow Booth to stay with them for any length of time.
‘He arrived in London as a seeker of work, the son of a poor and struggling mother in the provinces, with no influence, with no money, and with no friends.’ [i]
He was alone in a very crowded city, where poverty and sickness were on every side. As had been the case in Nottingham, his own experiences of personal need combined with his compassionate observation of the needs of others, would shape his future ministry.
Booth’s biographer, Harold Begbie gives us a description of London that is both vivid and powerful.
And before we press on too much further with the story of The Salvation Army and how they began to actually sought to solve some of these problems, let’s read Begbie’s account with our own cities in mind.
While there clearly are differences, aren’t his descriptions of mid-nineteenth century London unnervingly familiar to those of us living in the great cities of the world today?
And don’t we need some present-day William and Catherine Booths to rise up? Don’t we need many more modern-day Salvation Armys to get to work and engage with the pressing issues of the major cities of the world?
London in 1849
‘It is difficult for the modern mind to conceive truly of the England of that period. Humanitarianism, which has become with us, if not a passion and a religion, at least good manners, was then regarded as the misguided hobby of a few fussy and mischief-making philanthropists…
Little concern was shown by the churches or the chapels for the bodies of men. No shame was felt for such a term as ‘Ragged Schools.’ There was no system of national education, factory legislation permitted children to work for ten hours a day, there was no real inspection of these insanitary places, no idea of housing reform, no provision for poverty but the execrable Poor-House.
Few agencies existed for ministering to the physical needs of the poor, the mental needs of the uneducated, the spiritual needs of the sunken masses, the most elemental needs of perishing children…
The phrase ‘social conscience’ had not been invented; men were satisfied with, accepted as a God ordained system of human government, a state of individualism which trod millions underfoot for the enrichment of tens.’ [ii]
Booth’s response began with the somewhat awkward method of simply standing up and preaching to crowds, if he could gather them. Although our specific methodology may differ according to our context, as followers of Christ, the passionate proclamation of the gospel of Christ must also be central – as central as it was for Booth and the early Salvation Army.
But I jump ahead. For now, take a closer look at your city, your town. How can you reach the majority of the residents there with the gospel?
What initiatives are in place in your city to tackle poverty, vice, greed, homelessness, violence?
Let us know!
To read Booth on the balance between Education and Evangelism click here
For the first post in the Salvation Army series click here
[i] Harold Begbie, Life of William Booth: The Founder of the Salvation Army (2 vols. London: MacMillan, 1920) 1:77
William Booth, Founder of the Salvation Army, was first and foremost an Evangelist; a preacher of the gospel.
He was famous for his untiring zeal. He described himself as red-hot and he wanted to reproduce red-hot evangelists, preaching the gospel and winning thousands to Christ. And it was this passion for evangelism that sustained his mission to serve the poor effectively (but more of that later).
Saved to Save! Sarah Osborne (nee Butler), a close friend of the Booth family, gives this amazing description of him:
‘He was the most earnest and enthusiastic man I ever knew – he was really burning, really on fire to save souls. He used to say that we were saved to save. He could not stand people who said their souls were saved and who did nothing to save other people.’[i]
As a relatively new convert, he was determined to reach others with the good news he had found and began preaching in the streets and at small ‘cottage meetings’ in peoples homes.
Not Satisfied with a Few Responses and Positive Feedback These early efforts did get some fruit but he was not satisfied.
‘Oh, the stagnation into which I had settled down, the contentment of my mind with the love offered me at every turn by the people! I still aimed at the Salvation of the unconverted and the spiritual advance of my people, and still fought for these results. Indeed, I never fell below that.
And yet if the After-Meeting was well attended, and if one or two Penitents responded, I was content, and satisfied myself with that hackneyed excuse for so much unfruitful work, that I had ‘sown the seed.’ Having cast my bread on the waters, I persuaded myself that I must hope for its being found by and by.
But I heard of a Rev. Richard Poole who was moving about the country, and the stories told me of the results attending his services had aroused in me memories of the years gone by, when I thought little and cared less about the acceptability of my own performances, so long as I could drag the people from the jaws of Hell.
I resolved to go and hear him…When I had heard him preach from the text, ‘Said I not unto thee, that if thou wouldst believe, thou shouldst see the salvation of God,’ and had observed the blessed results, I went to my own chamber – I remember that it was over a baker’s shop – and resolved that, regardless of man’s opinions, and my own gain or position, I would ever seek the one thing.
Whilst kneeling in that room, there came into my soul a fresh realisation of the greatness of the opportunity before me of leading men and women out of their miseries and their sin, and of my responsibility to go in for that with all my might.
In obedience to the heavenly vision, I made a consecration of the present and future, of all I had, and hoped to have, to the fulfilment of this mission, and I believe God accepted the offering.’[ii]
To read Booth’s description of 19th city-life (and similarities with the poor in cities today) click here
For the first post in the Booth/Salvation Army series click here
Although William Booth’s conversion experience was relatively undramatic the results were not.
During a message to young Salvation Army officers Booth stirred them to action by describing his own early adventures in evangelism:
Surprising Success ‘God…led me out to work for Him, after a fashion which, considering my youth and inexperience, must be pronounced remarkable. While recovering from [an] illness, which left me far from strong, I received a note from a companion, Will Sansom, asking me to make haste and get well again, and help him in a Mission he had started in a slum part of the town. No sooner was I able to get about than I gladly joined him.
The Meetings we held were very remarkable for those days. We used to take out a chair into the street, and one of us mounting it would give out a hymn, which we then sang with the help of, at the most, three or four people. Then I would talk to the people, and invite them to come with us to a Meeting in one of the houses.
Hard Work as a Volunteer How I worked in those days! Remember that I was only an apprentice lad of fifteen or sixteen. I used to leave [work] at 7 o’clock, or soon after, and go visiting the sick, then these street Meetings, and afterwards to some Meeting in a cottage, where we would often get some one saved.
After the Meeting I would often go to see some dying person, arriving home about midnight to rest all I could before rising next morning in time to reach my place of business at 7 A.M. That was sharp exercise!
Mobile devotionals How I can remember rushing along the streets during my forty minutes’ dinner-time, reading the Bible or C. G. Finney’sLectures on Revivals of Religion as I went, careful, too, not to be a minute late.
And at this time I was far from strong physically; but full of difficulties as those days were, they were nevertheless wonderful seasons of blessing, and left pleasant memories that endure to this hour.
‘Slow down, young man!’ The leading men of the church to which I belonged were afraid I was going too fast, and gave me plenty of cautions, quaking and fearing at my every new departure; but none gave me a word of encouragement.
And yet the Society of which for those six apprentice years I was a faithful member, was literally my heaven on earth. Truly, I thought then there was one God, that John Wesley was His prophet, and that the Methodists were His special people.
The church was at the time, I believe, one thousand members strong. Much as I loved them, however, I mingled but little with them, and had time for but few of their great gatherings, having chosen the Meadow Platts as my parish, because my heart then as now went out after the poorest of the poor.
My conversion made me into a Preacher of the Gospel Thus my conversion made me, in a moment, a preacher of the Gospel. The idea never dawned on me that any line was to be drawn between one who had nothing else to do but preach and a saved apprentice lad who only wanted ‘to spread through all the earth abroad,’…the fame of our Saviour.
No professionals – we are all soldiers in Christ’s mission I have lived, thank God, to witness the separation between layman and cleric become more and more obscured, and to see Jesus Christ’s idea of changing in a moment ignorant fishermen into fishers of men nearer and nearer realisation.
But I had to battle for ten of the best years of my youth against the barriers the Churches set up to prevent this natural following of the Lamb wherever He leads.
Resisting clerical pretence At that time they all but compelled those who wished to minister to the souls of men to speak in unnatural language and tones, and adopt habits of mind and life which so completely separated them from the crowd as to make them into a sort of princely caste, whom the masses of every clime outwardly reverenced and inwardly despised.
Lad though I was, a group of new Converts and other earnest souls soon gathered around me, and greater things seemed to be ahead…’[i]
For the next post, on William Booth’s amazing zeal click here
William Booth’s Conversion and the Church’s resistance to the Poor
While Booth was working in the ‘bondage of slavery’ as a pawnbroker’s apprentice in Nottingham, he gave his life to Christ.
Although many very dramatic conversions followed his preaching, Booth’s own conversion was fairly straightforward: sudden conviction of sin, repentance and faith in Christ, all in the space of an evening.
He had begun attending some Methodist meetings and, at about 11pm, walking home, he suddenly realised that he must surrender to the Christ the Methodists had been preaching so earnestly about.
The first evidence of his conversion was a confrontation with his stingy employer, Francis Eames. Eames, who sounds like a character right out of a Dickens novel, continued working his apprentices after midnight on Saturday into the early hours of Sunday morning (they were supposed to close at midnight).
The new convert immediately felt this was breaking the Sabbath and refused to work. He was sacked. However, Eames relented and soon restored his most reliable employee. But it was pitiable work.
First attempts at preaching Booth now began to emulate his new-found hero, John Wesley. ‘There is one God’, he was later to say, tongue in cheek, ‘and John Wesley is His prophet!’ He knew instinctively that the gospel must be communicated urgently with those around him. He and a friend began preaching in the open air. He would stand on a barrel and preach to the two or three people who might listen, urging them to attend a nearby meeting.
Seeing a gang of men on their way to the pub, Booth called out to them, urging them to repent and stop wasting money on drink while their wives were waiting at home for them to bring food.
But he wasn’t merely scolding people for irresponsible behaviour, he was preaching Christ too. And when he began to get some converts from amongst the poor he found it difficult to convince them to come to church.
Finally, one Sunday, he would be resisted no longer and ushered a reluctant group of ragged-trousered followers into Broad Street Methodist Church. The effect was…well, awkward. The pastors may have had a commitment to evangelistic preaching, but they clearly weren’t ready to cross any cultural bridges to reach those around them who were poor.
Booth was called to a Deacon’s meeting at which he was told not to do that again. This probably wasn’t a huge surprise to him. He knew what Wesley could never have imagined: that the once revivalistic Methodist church in Nottingham had become respectable.[i]
For the next post in this series, on William Booth’s own early experiences in evangelism, click here
To read the first post in this series on The Salvation Army click here
[i] Much of the material here is found in Richard Collier’s excellent book, The General Next to God (Glasgow: Fontana, 1968)
It could have gone so well. His father, Samuel Booth, had made some money, quite a lot of money, and then lost some money, quite a lot of money.
His business ventures and investments (as a nail manufacturer and then builder) rose and fell and then, early into his second marriage, they crashed beyond recovery.
Samuel and his first wife, Sarah, had enjoyed some prosperity, living in a large house in a village outside Nottingham. But it didn’t last. After Sarah’s death, and the death of their only child five years later, Booth Sr. had to scale down.
But first he remarried. It doesn’t appear to have been a happy match. He was already sliding steadily downhill towards hardship. William describes his father as obsessed with making money. His mother, Mary, the daughter of a well-to-do farmer, was 16 years younger than Samuel and was 33 when they married.
The inevitable happened. They left the big house and moved to a relatively poor suburb of Nottingham, where William was born in April 1829.
William Booth was the only (surviving) boy of the family with one older sister and two younger sisters.
Their situation went from downsizing to considerable losses to outright ruin. Booth wrote, ‘bad times set in, heavy losses followed one on the heels of the other, making the early days a season of mortification and misery.’[i]
It would seem that both parents were somewhat ashamed of their situation, with few friends and few visitors to the family home.
There were brief moments of relief but Samuel was never able to lift his family to financial stability.
Out to work at 13
Although William had attended a good school, at the age of thirteen his father was no longer able to afford the school fees and he was sent to work as an apprentice to a pawnbroker. This experience of badly paid work, and particularly of seeing his employer profiting from the vulnerability of the poor had a profound effect on Booth.
‘I had scarcely any income as an apprentice, and was so hard up when my father died, that I could do next to nothing to assist my dear mother and sisters, which was the cause of no little humiliation and grief.’
‘The system of apprenticeship in those days generally bound a lad for six or seven years. During this time he received little or no wages, and was required to slave from early morning to late evening upon the supposition that he was ‘being taught’ the business, which, if he had a good master, was probably true.
It was a severe but useful time of learning. My master was a Unitiarian – that is, he did not believe Christ was the Son of God and the Saviour of the world, but only the best of teachers; yet so little had he learned of Him that his heaven consisted in making money, strutting around with his gay wife, and regaling himself with worldly amusements.
At nineteen, the weary years of my apprenticeship came to an end. I had done my six years’ service, and was heartily glad to be free from the humiliating bondage they had proved.
I tried hard to find some kind of labour that would give me more liberty to carry out the aggressive ideas which I had by this time come to entertain as to saving the lost; but I failed. For twelve months I waited. Those months were among the most desolate of my life. No one took the slightest interest in me.
Failing to find employment in Nottingham, I had to move away.’[ii]
For the next post, on Booth’s conversion and the church’s resistance to his early converts click here
For the first part in this series on The Salvation Army click here
Today we see them, usually around Christmas, ringing a bell and calling for cash donations into red buckets.
In the US they’re a not-for-profit we trust. They’re doing good. Serving those in need.
In the UK they’re held in affection as a kind of mix between the St. John’s Ambulance men and a village fete brass band playing the kind of tunes we imagine were popular in the 1940s. They’re faithful, and part of us.
Kindly people all. They don’t seem to be at war.
It’s amazing how words can lose their meaning through familiarity. Because those two words Salvation and Army were a perfect description for one of the most committed and self-sacrificing forces of evangelisation in the late 19th century. And their influence continues.
In this upcoming series of posts your faith is going to be stirred, your compassion aroused and your desire to do something about poverty in your city will resolve itself, I hope, into action.
– how the passion of the leading Evangelist of the Methodist churches in Britain led to thousands of conversions
– how a commitment to evangelism led to the formation of a church planting movement
– how the power of the Holy Spirit lifted people from poverty to leadership in their communities
– how those who were largely unreached by the established churches were gathered and mobilized for global mission
– how unemployment, starvation and disease were tackled head-on by Christians refusing to accept the status quo
– how the latest technologies and musical innovations were harnessed for gospel proclamation
– how tough, unbelieving communities were reached through creative, sometimes downright crazy, attention-getting gospel initiatives
– how persecution from both rich and poor that led to violence and even martyrdom couldn’t stop the relentless love of a genuinely missional community
– how a movement that began among a few drunks and no-hopers who mocked the message and threw rotten eggs at the messenger spread right across the globe
This is the story of Christ amongst the poor. This is the story of mercy triumphing over judgement. This is the story of blood and fire.
We’ve all been appalled by the news footage of looting and theft in London and other cities in the UK.
We’ve seen cars burning, shops being broken into, buildings on fire, violence. We’ve seen who are doing these things – largely young people who clearly don’t have an internal restraint.
Groups of hundreds have been moving up and down local high streets, smashing windows and stealing whatever they can.
Obviously pastors and elders all across London will be evaluating both the measure of their impact amongst young people as well as what they could or should be doing in the future.
Many churches have worked hard to create respectful, relevant community engagement. Kings Church, Catford and Jubilee Church Enfield (both in boroughs where looting took place) are just two examples of vibrant, growing, multi-racial churches with strong youth groups. So this post is not intended to be a corrective to those churches who are making a difference. See here for a statement by Tope Koleoso, Pastor at Jubilee, Enfield.
Some may be questioning whether a concert-and-motivational-talk type of ministry is really penetrating London’s population – and whether a far more robust ministry both on Sundays and in the midst of the communities is now more obviously necessary. Time to serve.
And it seems that as the British media, and the culture generally, has pushed evangelical Christianity into a corner, and as the church has submitted to this marginal role in modern British life, something of a beast has been growing in its place – and we’re seeing something of the fruit of that in the behaviour of the young people involved in these looting sprees. Why would we expect a Christian ethic to be in place when we’ve repeatedly displaced the Christian message?
[Added later]: Former London Mayor, Ken Livingstone was interviewed on Sky News (evening, August 9th) and, comparing the mischief his contemporaries got up to as youngsters, said: ‘Something’s changed in the last thirty years. We’ve got to find out what it is, and then tackle it!’ (Sky News Live Broadcast)
No God – no authority
The logic seems to be: ‘If there’s no God, there’s no ultimate authority, there’s no real basis for any other form of authority – therefore, we can take the moment and go for it! Why not?’
So how has the church actually grappled with these issues in the past? One obvious example that comes to mind sprang up in London itself – through William and Catherine Booth and the movement of unashamed evangelism they created: The Salvation Army.
Your view of the Salvation Army today may be of something that is very tame – closer to the St John’s Ambulance volunteers than the SAS.
A Return to Unashamed Evangelism and Social Engagement
I want to suggest that church leaders and believers looking on at this problem today could do well to learn from the London-based Salvation Army of yesterday.
They were crystal clear on preaching the gospel, not just from ‘the pulpit’ but actually in the communities they were reaching, and their ranks were filled with self-sacrificing Christians who were determined to meet the needs of the disenfranchised and marginalised. Many of the early full time officers were younger than 23.
So, I hope you’ll excuse me by putting a link here to a pretty thorough overview of their early methods and successes. It is based on years of research and is a message I brought at a Newfrontiers conference in the UK, in 2010.
My hope is that as you hear what the Booths and others did, the Holy Spirit will strengthen your resolve to actually make a difference in our cities. If you want to skip past Booth’s formative years, jump in at around 20 minutes.
Brilliant New Song-Writing
In terms of the great hymns of the Christian Faith, the Methodist movement was a source of unparalleled treasures…and also some hidden ones!
And it’s the hidden treasures that we will enjoy together! But first, we’ll look at possible reasons why they’re still hidden.
How can you spot a movement on the wane?
It seems an observable reality that the beginning of the end of a great movement in church history is accompanied by certain features.
One of these – perhaps the most damaging – is a disproportionate desire for respectability. We might suggest a prevalence to preserve or promote Christianity as a respectable middle class religion.
Of course, I’m not advocating that our leaders should be anything less than truly respected in their own communities, nor that they should be deliberately rough.
I am certainly not criticising a hunger to improve in knowledge. We should all should aim to be good learners and students throughout life. It’s vital to gain theological insight. Ignorance is not good.
The true nature of Christian influence
But we must guard against snobbery. The twelve men that Jesus hand-picked to follow Him were not the most sophisticated or best educated. The point is that He took them to be with Him, He trained them and He was the source of their learning and their influence.
Paul, who had some rabbinical education, had to be broken utterly and come to the point of considering all he inherited as ‘rubbish’ for the sake of knowing Christ (Phil 3:8).
Christianity promotes knowledge
But the Christian Faith uplifts people. It changes us! And essentially because Jesus came teaching and healing, Christians have gone into the world and built universities and medical facilities.
Christian expansion at its best has been marked by educational (and scientific) endeavour and compassionate service to the suffering. It’s because of Jesus.
In a very real way, God takes hold of us and improves us! Therefore, may God protect you from automatically distancing yourself from anyone you consider ‘below’ you, in some way. How vile! How unlike Jesus Christ!
The first generation of leaders should, like William Booth of the Salvation Army, carefully gauge the influence on ordinary people of the leaders who are emerging (Elijah Cadman, a former prize fighter, became Booth’s right hand man).
Don’t overlook ‘unschooled, ordinary men’
We mustn’t overlook those who have been transformed into leaders by ‘grace and grit’, and who like Peter and the other apostles, might be considered ‘unlearned men’, or ‘unschooled, ordinary men’, as the NIV puts it (see Acts 4:13). We might be missing some ‘mighty men’.
We would have to put aside John Bunyan, Howell Harris, William Carey, DL Moody, Elijah Cadman, CH Spurgeon (perhaps the most remarkable example of self-education in a Christian leader), and a host of others – in fact, we might question God as to why He made His Son an apprentice labourer rather than a college lecturer!
Reaching the ‘working class’ is a key to transforming a culture
The point is this – that when Christianity really breaks into a culture, it breaks through to those who, in Europe at least, are usually called ‘working class’.
Christianity’s ability to lastingly change the culture has been when the working people, the ordinary backbone of the population, have embraced the faith as theirs.
This is partly why we’ve spent so long examining the incredible suffering and persecution that took place amongst the 18th century Methodists. Before conversion the ordinary people of Britain rejected the gospel – but the preachers wouldn’t give up, and in the end, the gospel won through.
Songs of the People!
As we will later see with the breathtaking story of the Salvation Army in the 19th Century, when ordinary folk take Christ to themselves, we get some great new songs and sayings. The whole church is enriched and refreshed – not by mere novelty, but by the cultural strengths of every grouping in our culture.
Well now, all of that was really an introduction to some wonderful, informal and hilarious segments from hymns of the Methodists from the 18th and 19th Century. To check out the hymns click here