When The Salvation Army took risks and why it matters

By Nick Coke

We all love a bit of Salvation Army history don’t we? When I was doing some research for the first chapter of ‘Marching Towards Justice’ I learnt a few details about Salvation Army justice-seeking I hadn’t known – you’ll have to read it to see what I found out! More recently I received a short book in the post from my brother-in-law entitled ‘Social Evils The Army Has Challenged’. Written by S Carvosso Gauntlett in 1946, it tells seven stories of how The Salvation Army went about challenging the status quo and bringing about social change. The writer takes us from Britain to Japan, India and French Guiana covering a period from 1880-1933. This blog is too short to share everything but what comes across throughout is the role risk-taking plays in order to bring change.

In the foreword, General Carpenter, writes:220px-General_George_Carpenter

‘William Booth was by no means opposed to, in fact welcomed, the plans for social improvement based on Education, Trade Unions, Co-operation, Socialism and so on; in fact, almost anything short of violent revolution.’

Seems to me that back in the day our forebears didn’t see the possibility of social change as a mere hope or dream but rather a reality that was eminently possible with the right approach. There was a confidence that came with personal conviction, spiritual power and a collective commitment to the cause. It also appears that because of this, taking risks was simply a natural part of the process required to achieve just and righteous ends.

Take the ‘Maiden Tribute’ Campaign, for example, or as it was known in the 1880s – The Purity Agitation (I love that!). This was the fight to force the British government to raise the age of sexual consent as a protection for trafficked and abused children. Bramwell and Florence Booth who spear-headed the campaign did so from the grassroots. Twenty-three year old Florence, the pioneer leader of women’s social services, was so outraged by the stories she heard at the home for rescued women in Whitechapel that she encouraged her husband to go and find out for himself what was happening. So, the chief of staff, took to wandering in certain neighbourhoods in disguise ‘wading’ as he put it ‘through a sea of sin and defilement’. At the end of his listening campaign he concluded:

‘No matter what the consequences might be, I would do all I could to stop those abominations, to rouse public opinion, to agitate for an improvement of the law.’

bramwellHe was as good as his word. The remarkable campaign that followed with help from reformer Josephine Butler, journalist W T Stead and Salvationists up and down the land brought about a change in the law. The campaign involved the publishing of shocking stories in the press, a 2 mile long petition delivered to the door of parliament and the buying of a child. Yes, that’s buying a child – to prove it could be done in London for £5. The result of that action was a date in court for Bramwell. After a 12 day trial that held the attention of the country, he was acquitted, although Stead was jailed for 3 months. At the time many feared it would be the end of The Salvation Army with the Founder’s Son and Chief of Staff in the dock of the Central Criminal Court. And yet as Bramwell later reflected when General:

‘The trial did the Army a great deal of good. It made us known, and put us at one stroke in the very front rank of those who were contending for the better treatment of the lost and the poor… Our work for women was greatly furthered… We knew…. that the Queen followed the proceedings with great concern and sympathy. The case opened doors for us also in the overseas dominions and in the US.’

All this makes me wonder what place risk-taking has in our cause of justice-seeking today? A risk-averse culture will help us to maintain the status-quo and keep our friends happy but it won’t bring about change. It occurs to me that we have as much to lose by not taking risks as we do by taking them. When we stay silent on an issue that we really should be speaking up about then we become complicit with the wrong itself. That may not damage our brand but I wonder what it does to our souls? I want to admit here to longing for some of that confidence from the early days – a confidence in the spiritual power to overcome ‘social evils’ of our time, to ‘stop abominations, to rouse public opinion, and to agitate for an improvement of the law.’ Lord, give us a vision for your kingdom here on earth, motivate us to action and remove our fear. Amen.

9 thoughts on “When The Salvation Army took risks and why it matters”

  1. To be honest, I don’t thing that the Lord hadn’t give vision. The vision was and is always there. The question is how many are willing to disrupt their lovely carrers? I am afraid that the Army to a large extent is to middle class for dirty hands. Very few salvationists to inspire you nowadays.

  2. I believe that God is calling the Army to more risk-taking for justice and for the Gospel. I have a new book (the foreword is by Major Stephen Court) that is full of Army history and quotations. It is about taking the risk of opening up holiness meetings to the direct leading of the Holy Spirit and the Greek New Testament of ekklesia. The current issue of the “Southern Spirit” of the USA South Territory contains a book review about it. It is called: “Beyond Church: An Invitation To Experience The Lost Word Of The Bible–Ekklesia” and is available on Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/Beyond-Church-Lost-Bible-Ekklesia/dp/1518744567/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid&sr

  3. I have worked in the area of Child Welfare all my professional career: caseworker; supervisor; trainer; teacher. I also have been a Salvationist all my life. As I embarked on this career, I became more and more aware at what a visionary William Booth was….and he put this vision into practice for The Salvation Army more than a hundred years ahead of our “Social Conscience.” New York State, for example, enacted The Child Welfare Act, the first of its kind, in 1973!!!!! Well over a hundred years after William Booth’s vision. I have shared your article with friends. In my retirement years I am working part time at The Salvation Army Family Services. I love the work, but am more and more aware of our dependence on government money and the constraints this brings, as well as the confidence to dare to make a difference.

  4. I just wanted to edit that last line. It should be “………as well as the LACK of confidence to dare.”
    Thank you.

  5. May thanks Elizabeth for your comments and encouragement. Let’s be confident in what can be done in the future with some prayer and belief! The ‘action’ section on this website outlines some great work that The Salvation Army is doing with issues of housing, wages and sanctuary in the UK, using community organising methods.

  6. George – I understand your frustration. There is more we can be doing that’s for sure. I do know some very inspiring Salvationists, though, who do ‘get their hands dirty’. Some of them are our mutual friends! Keep going…

  7. I have read the above with great interest.

    I have worked for The Salvation Army in an area of high socio-economic need. While doing that work I was blest to have received the support of many inspirational, insightful and godly people who thought more about the needs of “suffering humanity” than they did about their own personal wealth and well being. Sadly, I agree with Elizabeth regarding the constraints placed upon The Salvation Army (TSA) by government and how badly it affects the work that needs to be undertaken by TSA.

    Additionally we need to recognise that to take risks we often require funding, because as you are well aware not all risk-taking options are cost free. Unfortunately due to the global economic downturn from 2008 onwards the availability of funds from sources internal and external to TSA have reduced significantly. I personally have seen many worthwhile Third Sector organisations, that do not have the backing of an organisation or church like TSA, close down because, although they were prepared to take risks they did not have the financial stability to do so and have ceased to exist.

    However we really need to appreciate that not everyone is cut out to “get their hands dirty”. After all the saying goes “horses for courses” and I’m grateful that there are people who will and do, while there are those that can’t but support either financially or in other ways.

    Sadly there are many middle-to-upper class people who desperately need the support provided by TSA. Getting “your hands dirty” might not be appropriate but providing a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on or to provide advice and guidance will be equally beneficial to them.

    Also let’s not forget that when risks have been taken they have not been random acts, rather they have been well thought through, and implemented having understood both the possible negative and/or positive outcomes that may be achieved. Perhaps we live in a society that no longer values “community spirit” only one where the “I or me” is the only important aspect/person to look after.

    So. I agree, let’s take risks, but let’s ensure the risk is practical, feasible and viable and that at the end of the day those who need support receive it.

  8. Nick – I praise God for the chance I had to meet some of you – inspirational Salvationists. What gets on my nerves though is all these thousands upon thousands of people that wear their nice uniforms, like a God given duty, for a Sunday service and have the conviction that they actually make a difference to the world.
    The same time I am seeing God’s spirit not to be bothered about these people and carry on his magnificent work under the radar of the institutions.

    1. Being raised salvation army..wearing uniform..being a leader..now not in the army but sttending after going to other churches. the one key thing i notice is the excuses. yes we need money yes people contribute to gods work on different ways but i believe we have become soft to have the worlds approval..if one is convicted to stand up be passionate like our founder one is pushed down. today god is calling for all hods people to stand up be brave do not talk about what we r going to do..while we make excuses..the devil wins.we have become a mediocre church.too busy internalising. whetes the teachinh wheres the leading wheres the discipleship wheres the unconfitionsl love for all. Even our preaching hss gone soft. wheres the fire in our belly that the army stood for. this world we react to it but this needs people like our founders to stand up for the people and god…we need to be warriors..while we sit back in our excuses etc people pass us by and god is not happy for he is not honoured.

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