The story of The Salvation Army so far
A worshipping and inclusive Army is started
When William and Catherine Booth began the work in London that would grow to become The Salvation Army, few would have predicted their legacy: an organisation, part of the Christian Church, now working in more than 130 countries and with a history spanning more than 150 years. Throughout this time there have been millions of members, and people have been helped right across the world – but this movement had humble beginnings.
Today, statues of William and Catherine Booth stand in the area of London where The Salvation Army began
Born in 1829 in Nottingham, UK, William Booth found his Christian faith early on in life and became an active Methodist, preaching and helping the poor in his local area. After some time working as a pawnbroker, he moved with his wife Catherine Mumford to the east of London. The two of them began working with a group of Christian businessmen who were concerned for the poor and disadvantaged in their community. In June 1865, William Booth preached to crowds outside the Blind Beggar pub; a new organisation, The Christian Mission, was born.
Over the next few years, the movement flourished. Its focus on teaching people about the message of Jesus in a way they could relate to, meeting wherever they could – dance halls, bowling alleys and outdoors – as well as addressing some of their material needs, saw many people become Christians. Despite opposition from parts of the public who disliked some of the Booths’ methods and style, many joined.
Their focus on those who had been rejected by the traditional churches was key. All were welcome – including those impoverished and disadvantaged.
It was in 1878 that The Christian Mission got its present name. William Booth objected to a phrase contained in that year’s annual report: ‘The Christian Mission … is a Volunteer Army.’ By replacing the word ‘volunteer’, The Salvation Army had its new title and with it an inspired metaphor for its role in fighting the injustices of society and in bringing people to understand God. Over time, the organisation gained military-style titles (ministers are ‘officers’, for example) and even uniforms designed to publicly demonstrate a commitment to God.
Despite the differences between the Army of today and that of 1865, the organisation continues to be relevant to people and their situations. From weekly worship services, outdoor events, clubs and activities through to responding to disasters and providing practical support to those in need of help, the same spirit of putting the gospel into action as in those early days carries on.
The first brass band introduces music and the arts to the Army
Charles Fry and his family, who formed the first Salvation Army brass group in 1878
The Salvation Army is well-known for its music. Its bands and choirs can be found in many countries, with numerous other creative expressions like dance and drama springing from the movement.
A member of the Konverse dance group (Barking, UK) at the Mobilising Celebration, 2017
Songs were one of the tools of The Salvation Army right from its early days as the Christian Mission. Popular songs were rewritten with new lyrics which explained the Christian faith and used alongside well-known and contemporary hymns. Concertinas, tambourines and guitars were played at first, but it was not long before a style more suited to outdoor services was found – brass!
The first Salvation Army brass group was heard in 1878 when a Methodist preacher named Charles Fry, together with his three sons, played instruments to support the Army in open-air meetings in Salisbury, UK. They were soon travelling with Booth as he toured the UK, becoming a distinctive and effective feature of the Army’s style. Bands were also formed in areas such as Consett, Northwich, Whitechapel and Portsmouth. Over time, many gifted composers used their skills to write new music for Salvation Army groups to play, bringing glory to God. Today, brass groups remain an important way of attracting crowds and telling people about him.
There have been many other arts groups within the Army in its history. Between 1963 and 1968, Captain Joy Webb led The Joystrings in performing contemporary music, achieving chart success and capturing the attention of millions. Throughout the second half of the 20th century, Salvation Army officers John Gowans and John Larsson (both of whom would go on to become General) collaborated on a series of popular musicals to share the Gospel message, with titles including Take-over Bid, Spirit, Son of Man and The Meeting.
In most Army churches and centres, music, drama and dance play a central role in allowing people to become involved in publicly communicating the Bible.
The Army starts working overseas
It is remarkable to think that William Booth was initially unsure about whether to extend the work of The Salvation Army beyond Britain, given how widespread the organisation is nowadays.
The first such venture was in 1879, when Salvationist Amos Shirley travelled to Philadelphia, USA with his family and began working for the Army unofficially. Booth cautiously decided, upon learning of this, to send a small group to New York the following year to formally commence the Army’s work: George Scott Railton and seven others. Just as in the UK, street preaching and practical assistance was used to great effect. By late 1880, 1,500 people had come to have a Christian faith through the relationships built by these Salvation Army pioneers.
International expansion was quick. In the same year, the Army extended to Australia when John Gore and Edward Saunders held meetings in Adelaide and offered food to those who were hungry. The first meetings in Paris were held in 1881 by Catherine Booth-Clibborn – or la Maréchale (marshal’s wife) as she was known – eldest daughter of the Founders. 1882 saw work begin in Canada, Switzerland and Sweden, and 1883 saw Sri Lanka, South Africa and New Zealand added, amongst others, and on it continued.
The Salvation Army feeds children in Berlin, Germany (Library of Congress c.1915-1920)
Being part of the community
Wherever The Salvation Army has gone, it has been careful and try and work alongside people in a culturally-appropriate way, not to impose.
When Frederick Booth-Tucker started The Salvation Army’s activities in India in 1882 he and his group adopted Indian names, dressed as locals and worked amongst the outcasts of society.
In each country, the Army has developed programmes that are relevant to the local community. It has diverse expressions, whilst remaining true to one message of God and of salvation. By the time of William Booth’s death in 1912, the Army was working in 58 countries. Today the figure is more than 130.
All the World, reporting on the Army’s work globally, is published four times a year.
An Army fighting for justice
‘Soup, soap and salvation’ was a common saying amongst early Salvationists, and is still repeated today. It sums up the idea of the importance of offering practical as well as spiritual support. Soup kitchens and showers were offered alongside sermons and services.
In the 1880s, new types of social work began. In 1883 a prison-gate home was opened in Melbourne, Australia, to provide support for prisoners re-entering the community. The following year a women’s rescue home was opened in London. 1885 saw the age of consent in the UK raised following a campaign by the Army. In 1890 it opened its first labour exchange to help people in finding work. These and other actions paved the way for the publication, in October 1890, of William Booth’s famous work In Darkest England and the Way Out.
(Photo: International Heritage Centre)
This book acted as a blueprint for the Army’s efforts to address poverty and poor quality of life on a wider scale. It described the slum conditions, homelessness and starvation of much of Great Britain and laid out a way of improving it. Rescue homes, skills training and co-operatives were proposed, and donations flooded in from society’s wealthiest.
Help was designed to not simply be a one-off but as an opportunity for real change. In the same year as In Darkest England, the Booths opened a match factory in London. Its purpose was to challenge the industry use of white phosphorous in their production, which caused necrosis (‘phossy jaw’) and baldness in workers. The new matches, packaged in boxes labelled ‘Lights in Darkest England’, paved the way for universal adoption of safer red phosphorous.
Similar projects to bring about systematic change developed all around the world as the Army grew. The first Salvation Army hospital was in founded in 1897 in Nagercoil, India – there are now tens of hospitals worldwide, plus thousands of schools, health projects, sanitation programmes and other social services. The motivation remains the same: a love of God’s people and a desire to put our beliefs into action. Above all, the aim is to provide a ‘hand up, not a hand-out’ – just as that proposed by In Darkest England and the Way Out.
Salvation Army officers working in slums in the 1800s (photo: International Heritage Centre)
Young people's work organised
The Salvation Army has always worked with young people, recognising their worth and therefore the importance of being relevant to them.
Young people from Regent Hall Corps, UK, take part in the Mobilising Celebration (2017 - photo: Dave Bird)
Meetings and publications
In 1888, these activities were formalised and by 1897 the first national meetings for the age group were being held in the UK. In 1906, publications for young people were launched. In the 1910s, scouting groups were being created in Europe, Africa, Australasia and North America. With Scout, Cub, Brownie and Guide groups at Salvation Army centres around the world, this is still an important part of the organisation’s ministry.
In modern times, there are all kinds of young people’s activities. Junior bands, choirs and drama groups rehearse hard in many Army centres, alongside bible study and social groups. Young people also support The Salvation Army in other ways, from fundraising to volunteering themselves.
Developing young people
Youth clubs, social services and toddler groups provide practical support for families as well as introducing them to the Army. For many decades it has run summer camps all over the world, not only for those who regularly attend Army programmes throughout the year but also for those referred by municipal services or as a result of other Army work. A programme of sports, art and games sits alongside the development of young people’s spiritual life. Many adults refer to the Army’s involvement in their lives at a young age as being pivotal in their growing up.
The Army supports soldiers in the First World War
In some of the world’s most difficult and fragile environments, The Salvation Army can be found lending a hand.
Red Shield sign at an outpost in Papua New Guinea during WWII
In 1894, The Salvation Army Naval and Military League was established. It aimed to serve the needs of Salvationist sailors and soldiers, from the practical – refreshments and food parcels – to the emotional and spiritual – being a listening ear. 1899 saw the start of the Second Boer War, and Army services were sent to the battlefields.
Canadian Red Shield Services during the First World War
It was in the First World War, lasting from 1914 to 1918, that The Salvation Army’s role in conflicts really stepped up. Evangeline Booth, daughter of William and Catherine and commander of the Army in the US, created a National War Board to organise and raise funds for its efforts in helping military personnel at US bases. Before long, she decided that Salvationists too – aside from those serving in the regular forces – must go overseas to support those fighting. Motor ambulances, meals and chaplaincy services were all offered.
It was here that ‘Doughnut Girls’ first provided simple home comforts using the limited ingredients available locally – flour, sugar, lard and cinnamon. These proved essential in helping to combat the depression and homesickness experienced in the trenches. By the end of the war, The Salvation Army had earned widespread public approval and financial support for its role in helping with the morale of troops.
Evangeline Booth’s parting words to those serving were:
In every situation in which the Army has assisted – the Second World War, Vietnam War, Biafran War, Gulf War, and others – even where the methods have changed these principles have remained the same.
First election of a General
In planning for the future leadership of the organisation, William Booth had always envisaged a General choosing his or her own successor, and so it was in this way that his son Bramwell Booth became leader.
However, William also made provision for exceptional cases whereby a General could be removed from office, such as through illness. A group of senior officers, known as a High Council, could meet and discuss the issue, electing a new leader if necessary.
The first High Council
This procedure is exactly what happened in 1929. 63 officers met in London and concluded that Bramwell was unfit for office. The 73-year old had not been present at International Headquarters for some seven months owing to ill health, and it was felt that Commissioner Edward Higgins was the best choice to succeed Bramwell.
Following this, senior leadership in the Army decided that election of the General was in fact the most suitable method of choosing the holder of this important role. 1931 saw The Salvation Army Act come into being, meaning that the terms are office are now enshrined in UK law. All Generals must be elected by a High Council, and there are limits on the length of time they can hold the role.
Delegates take part in the Welcome Meeting for the 2013 High Council
Each General brings something different to the office of leader. The High Council process, in which each prospective General explains their vision for the organisation, ensures that the current feeling of the Army – in all of the areas in which it works – is reflected. The Army has, at different times, been led by Generals from Canada, Sweden, Finland, Australia, the US and elsewhere.
The General is not the only provider of leadership within the Army however. The international Army is divided up into territories and commands, made up of one or more countries, with are subdivided into divisions and then corps or centres. At each level leaders are given responsibility, supporting the General in running this global organisation.
It is particularly important in such a large and diverse organisation for good governance to be at the forefront. It is for this reason that the Accountability Movement was formally established in 2016, calling on each person in The Salvation Army to be ‘accountable for every aspect of our journey through life. We are pilgrims and accountability helps us keep going in the right direction.’
First female General
If William Booth is the father of The Salvation Army, his wife Catherine is seen as the Army Mother. Her contribution to the organisation was just as valuable, and was behind the Army’s views on many different issues.
In 1859, Catherine wrote a pamphlet entitled ‘Female Ministry: Woman’s Right to Preach the Gospel’ in which she argued powerfully for the right of women to preach the Christian message. Although she was not the only person saying these things, it was still ground-breaking at the time, in a world in which leadership and church ministry were usually reserved for men.
The importance of the role of women in The Salvation Army is reflected in its leadership. Evangeline Booth, previously Commander in the US, became the first female leader, elected the fourth General in 1934 – and other women have followed. In all areas of Salvation Army leadership – locally and nationally – women are represented.
Today, Women’s Ministries programmes and resources are available throughout the world aiming ‘to bring women into a knowledge of Jesus Christ; encourage their full potential in influencing family, friends and community; equip them for growth in personal understanding and life skills; address issues which affect women and their families in the world.’
Our international women’s magazine Revive is published several times a year.
Caring for older people
Just as the Army seeks to serve younger people, we believe in the dignity of older people and consider it a privilege to offer services to this particular age group.
In 1959, the first over-60s clubs were inaugurated. Building on the organisation’s previous work, these groups offered friendship and activities to a generation often more vulnerable to loneliness, particularly post-retirement, and are still run today.
Sometimes more intense support is called for, and the Army runs a number of residential homes where practical needs are taken care of. At lots of corps and centres, befriending schemes are run where volunteers take the time to regularly make contact – by phone or in person – with older people. Many describe this as incredibly rewarding. Elsewhere, home shopping schemes and day trips are organised.
Supporting those with addiction
For those in need, The Salvation Army runs a number of addiction rehabilitation programs. We believe in a holistic approach, not just helping the person to overcome their addiction, but attacking the roots of that addiction.
This goes right back to the early days of the organisation. As mentioned earlier, many churches at this time rejected those on the fringes of society, particularly those who suffered from addiction problems including alcohol. The Salvation Army instead sought to welcome these people, and moreover to help them.
An Adult Rehabilitation Centre in Pennsylvania, USA (photo: SAConnects, 2016)
Members of the Army, known as soldiers, commit themselves not to drinking alcohol, smoking tobacco or taking harmful drugs, recognising the negative impact these things can have upon one's life. But it also serves as a sign of solidarity with those who are also seeking to give up damaging substances.
People are often invited to attend a Bible study as part of the rehabilitation process - this is one in Massachusetts, USA (photo: SAConnects, 2016)
Around the world, the Army offers help and support for those who are addicted. From addiction centres, support groups or just an understanding conversation as a starting point, we want people to live life as fully as possible.
The Army in disasters and emergencies
In a crisis, The Salvation Army is often said to be among the first on the scene.
Responding with compassion
Significantly in recent history, this was the case following the tragic attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City on 11 September 2001. Within half an hour of the reports of a plane crash at the site, the Army was present. For nine months following that day it provided pastoral support and refreshments to those involved in rescue and recovery efforts, and was involved in the larger rebuilding projects until 2006.
This response is echoed in many of the world’s consequential events: in earthquakes, floods, fires, hurricanes, tornados, tsunamis, winter storms and extreme heatwaves, The Salvation Army has provided expertise and support where it is needed most.
150 years of The Salvation Army
From time to time in The Salvation Army’s history, it has held International Congresses. National and Territorial Congresses are held regularly, but these international occasions have seen the whole of the organisation convening for special meetings.
Celebrating 150 years
Usually held in London, the 2000 Congress was arranged in Atlanta, USA. However, 2015 saw a return to the birthplace of the Army, London, for a highly significant anniversary: 150 years since its founding.
Whereas previous Congresses have been held over the course of a weekend, this anniversary was marked with a five-day event in the O2, a large London event space. Themed Boundless – The Whole World Redeeming, reflecting William Booth’s hymn ‘O Boundless Salvation’, the name also echoes Ephesians 3:8:
'Total commitment to the mission'
Boundless saw Salvationists from across the globe gather for music concerts, exhibitions, dance and drama performances, and of course meetings in the main arena offering reflection, prayer and worship of God. This culminated in General André Cox’s call for Salvationists to focus on God’s work. ‘This is boundless salvation’, he said, ‘A total surrender of our lives and the total commitment to the mission.’
Each event of the Congress was planned, first of all, to bring honour and glory to the Lord, but also to display the cultural diversity of our worldwide Army.
It is astonishing to think how far the organisation has developed in its history. From the early days of street preaching in London, it now offers vibrant weekly worship, practical care for the disadvantaged and services meeting all kinds of social needs. Through the vision of the Booths and subsequent leaders, members and friends, The Salvation Army is known in so many parts of the world, and through its work
What is your place in the story?
The 150th anniversary celebrations led naturally into a renewed focus, from 2017, on Salvationists mobilising in their own communities, to share the gospel and to meet human needs in an authentic and locally-relevant way.
Simba Mbiri and Mainga Milambo pray with a man in Lusaka, Zambia (2017, photo by Chola Simwanza, submitted to The Whole World Mobilising)
Houston resident Sandra Kizzee moved to tears by The Salvation Army's response after she and her neighbours felt forgotten in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey (2017, photo by Daphne Nabors, submitted to The Whole World Mobilising)
The next chapter
Whatever your reason for wanting to find out the story of The Salvation Army, you will not have failed to realise that it involves the work of many people – pioneering leaders, team players, supporters, members, friends and those in need. Through them, lives have been transformed. The next chapter relies on passionate people too.
The mission remains the same as in 1865 – what role will you play in the next part of The Salvation Army's history?
- Find out more about The Salvation Army International
‘Transforming lives since 1865: The story of The Salvation Army so far’
Writing and production
Joseph Halliday, IHQ Communications
With particular thanks to
- The Salvation Army's International Heritage Centre
- The Salvation Army United Kingdom Territory with the Republic of Ireland's Video Production Unit