Everyone nowadays loves the Sally Ann, the Salvation Army. But such admiration was not always universal. Violence and bloodshed was the order of the day when General William Booth first reached out to the down-and-out in East London. Few people today realize that one of the main purposes of the famous Sally Ann Bonnet was to protect the heads of wearers from brickbats and other missiles. So many people used to buy rotten eggs to throw at the Sally Ann Bonnets that these rancid eggs became renamed in the market place as ‘Salvation Army eggs!’
In 1880,heavy sticks crashed upon the Salvation Army soldiers’ heads, laying them open, and saturating them in blood. Mrs. Bryan (wife of the Captain) was knocked down and kicked into insensibility not ten yards from the police station, and another sister so injured that she died within a week. During 1882, it was reported that 669 soldiers and officers had been knocked down, kicked or otherwise brutally assaulted, 251 of them being women and 23 children under 15. In Hamilton, Ontario, the Salvation Army officers were initially ‘squeezed and mangled, scratched, their clothes torn and almost choked with the dust…’ In Quebec City, 21 soldiers were seriously injured, an officer was stabbed in the head with a knife, and the drummer had his eye gouged out. In Newfoundland, the Salvation Army was attacked with hatchets, knives, scissors and darning needles. One night a woman-Salvationist in Newfoundland was attacked by a gang of three hundred ruffians, thrown into a ditch and trampled on. She managed to crawl out only to be thrown in again, as other women were shouting ‘Kill her! Kill her!
Ironically many police initially blamed the Salvation Army for being persecuted. In numerous parts of England, playing in a Salvation Army Marching Band was punishable with a jail sentence! During 1884, no fewer than 600 Salvationists had gone to prison in defense of their right to proclaim good news to the people in music and word. In Canada alone, nearly 350 SA officers and soldiers served terms of imprisonment for spreading the gospel. Despite the jail sentences and persecution, within three years the Army’s strength more than quadrupled! The early Salvation Army ‘jailbirds described their handcuffs as heavenly bracelets. It is little wonder that the Salvation Army eventually developed such a powerful prison ministry.
One of William Booth’s mottoes was ‘go for souls and go for the worst!’ A local English newspaper The Echo commented that the Salvation Army largely recruited the ranks of the drunkards and wife-beaters and woman home-destroyers. Many of us remember as children the song: ‘Up and down the City Road, In and Out the Eagle; That’s the way the money goes, Pop goes the weasel’! Few of us realized that we were singing about the famous Eagle Tavern, just off City Road in London. ‘Pop goes the weasel’ was cockney slang for the alcoholic who was so desperate for a drink that he would even pawn (pop) his watch (weasel). Ironically, the Salvation Army bought the Eagle Tavern and turned it into a rehabilitation centre. The Lion and Key public house in East London became known as ‘The Army Recruiting Shop’. The landlord said, ‘My trade’s suffering, but you’re making the town a different place, so we can’t grumble. Go on and prosper!’
William Booth shocked the world by conducting worship with tambourines and fiddles, instead of the traditional church organ. To make up for the Salvation Army’s lack of church buildings, General Booth bought circus buildings, skating rinks, and theatres.
In response to such bold innovation, one newspaper columnist claimed in 1883 that ‘The Salvation Army is on its last legs, and in three weeks it may be calculated it will come to an end.’ In the beginnings, the Salvation Army was essentially a youth movement, with seventeen-year-olds commanding hundreds of officers and thousands of seekers. Archbishop Tait of Canterbury was so impressed by this youth movement reaching the poor, that he set up a commission which unsuccessfully tried to adopt the Salvation Army as an Anglican society.
By persevering, the Salvation Army began to earn respect from both the churched and the unchurched, and from all segments of society. Even Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle sent the following message: ‘Her majesty learns with much satisfaction that you have with other members of your society been successful in your efforts to win many thousands to the ways of temperance, virtue, and religion.’ By their persevering in reaching out to the poor, William Booth and the Salvation Army became known as the champions of the oppressed. Like no other individual in nineteenth-century England, General Booth dramatized the war against want, poverty and destitution.
It was not by accident that William Booth’s message became linked with ‘soup, soap, and salvation’! Every Salvation Army soldier was taught from the beginning to see themselves as servants of all, practicing the ‘sacrament’ of the Good Samaritan. The famous preacher Charles Spurgeon once said, ‘If the Salvation Army were wiped out of London, five thousand extra policemen could not fill the place in the repression of crime and disorder.’ In recognition of his incalculable impact on the poor, William Booth received on June 26th 1907 the degree of Doctor of Civil Law from the University of Oxford.
William Booth throughout his life showed remarkable creativity and courage. He was one of the world’s greatest travelers in his day, visiting nearly every country in the world. Even at age 78, General Booth was described as‘…a bundle of energy, a keg of dynamite, an example of perpetual motion.’ A keen observer of the international scene, Booth in 1907 prophesied Japan’s technological rise, saying: ‘It is only a question of time when her industries will be tutored with the most expert direction, and packed with the finest machinery taken from all nations of the world, and I do not see what can prevent her producing the finest articles at the cheapest possible price.’
His fellow soldiers saw Booth as a man to follow to their death, if need be. William Booth was truly a spiritual father to the fatherless. His son Bramwell held that his Dad’s greatest power lies in his sympathy, for his heart is a bottomless well of compassion. A Maori woman described William Booth as ‘the great grandfather of us all – the man with a thousand hearts in one!’
Mark Twain said,‘I know of no better way of reaching the poor than through the Salvation Army. They are of the poor, and know how to get to the poor.’
I give thanks for General William Booth, a true giant of a man, and for the Salvation Army who have shown the true Father’s Heart to so many hurting, fatherless people.
The Rev. Dr. Ed Hird, BSW, MDiv, DMin
-award-winning author of the book Battle for the Soul of Canada
-previously published in the Deep Cove Crier/North Shore News and the Light Magazine
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