One morning in 1885, a Salvation Army worker unlocked the doors of the ministry’s London headquarters to find an adolescent girl sleeping on the front step. Surprised at her presence, the worker asked how she arrived at such an unorthodox resting place. The answer was appalling: After coming to the city to find work, she was lured into a brothel and imprisoned in the kitchen until she would agree to become a prostitute. But she escaped through a window and asked a police officer for directions to the Salvation Army headquarters, for she remembered the organization’s widespread reputation for helping women trapped in prostitution. Eventually, she received the help she craved, and the Army counted her among its many trophies of God’s gracious work amid England’s lower class.1
Founded by Methodist minister William Booth, the Salvation Army began as the East London Christian Mission, an effort to win London’s poorest residents to faith in Christ. Yet quickly, Booth and his wife, Catherine, discovered that ministering among the underprivileged required battling cultural decay in addition to preaching eternal salvation. So they changed the ministry’s name to the Salvation Army in 1878 and established a well-rounded program designed to move economically depressed men and women into lives of Christ-honoring productivity.
Indeed, nineteenth-century England desperately needed such a ministry. Industrialization created an expanding urban population plagued by overcrowding, poor sanitation, and low wages. In Manchester, for instance, one could find houses scarcely six feet wide and five feet long containing two beds surrounded by refuse and filth. Often the inhabitants of such dwellings had only sewer water to drink.2 To cope with those conditions, many of the nation’s poor resorted to alcoholism, prostitution, and drug addiction.
Booth’s strategy was first to call the down and out to faith in Christ and subsequently teach them His standards of work and productivity. For example, a drunkard who refused to work once happened upon a Salvation Army meeting and heard a sermon on the Scripture, “[S]eek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). Interrupting the preacher, he called out, “Do you mean that if I ask God for work, He will give it to me?” When the preacher said yes, the drunkard was converted. Shortly, he found work and became a productive citizen. On another occasion, an alcoholic named Maggie was saved while spending the night at a Salvation Army shelter. She likewise went on to live a sober and productive life.
For many of the poor, Booth’s program involved voluntary settlement in an urban cooperative community where they were assigned jobs and paid for their labor. Eventually they were moved to a rural cooperative where increased responsibility, combined with Christian discipleship, prepared them to live sensibly upon returning to independent life in the city. In addition, the Salvation Army established an anti-suicide bureau, hospitals, leper colonies, homes for the elderly, and criminal rehabilitation centers. By his death in 1912, Booth had grown the Army into an international ministry giant mobilized to help the world’s poor. Poet Vachel Lindsay speculated about the eternal fruit of his efforts:
Drabs and vixens in a flash made whole!
Gone was the weasel-head, the snout, the jowl!
Sages and sibyls now, and athletes clean,
Rulers of empires, and of forests green!3
May God raise up more ministers like William Booth, who support gospel proclamation with practical ministry to those who need it most.
1 Roy Hattersley, Blood and Fire: William and Catherine Booth and Their Salvation Army (New York: Doubleday, 1999), 304-305.
2 Harold G. Steele, I Was A Stranger: The Faith of William Booth, Founder of The Salvation Army (New York: Exposition Press, 1954), 44-46.
3 Vachel Lindsay, General William Booth Enters Heaven and Other Poems (New York: Macmillan, 1916).