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Today in History... birth of a new army

12:00am | & News

In July 1865, a new Christian Mission was opened in a tent in the deprived East End of London by revivalist preacher William Booth and his wife Catherine.

It was the beginnings of a religious movement and charitable organisation which now has a presence in almost 130 countries worldwide and a membership of more than 1.5 million – The Salvation Army.

Determined to wage war on the evils of poverty, drunkenness, vice and crime, Booth modelled his new Methodist sect on the structure of the British Army. Uniformed ministers were called 'officers', awarded rank and promotion by seniority, while converts were known as 'recruits' and 'soldiers in God's Army'. The Army would have its own flag, crest and motto, and hymns played by its own bands, often with new words set to popular tunes previously heard in alehouses. 

Several things set Booth's Christian Mission apart from others of the time. First, in an age when 'the woman's place was in the home', it valued and encouraged active participation by women, who were awarded ranks equal with men. Second, its members didn't just sermonise, but ventured out to perform good works on the streets in London's most godforsaken areas.

Booth later spoke of the "three S's" and the order in which they should be provided for those in desperate need; first Soup, then Soap and finally Salvation. Soup kitchens were the first in a long line of campaigns designed to provide physical and spiritual assistance to the destitute.

Many of the Salvation Army's first recruits were alcoholics, morphine addicts, prostitutes and other 'undesirables' who were not welcomed by other mainstream churches in polite society. Recruits were expected to refrain from alcohol, drugs, tobacco and gambling and in return received food, care and spiritual guidance.

With this new approach of military efficiency the Salvation Army grew quickly, but not without opposition. Many of its early meetings and gatherings were targeted by disruptive elements throwing rocks, bones, tar and even rats, as well as assaulting members and ministers. It was widely thought that much of the opposition was fermented and funded by pub owners and criminal gangs who were fast losing trade as the Salvation Army began to clean up large areas of London.

Although informally known as The Salvation Army, the name wasn't officially adopted until 1878, with the first overseas branches established two years later in Australia, Ireland and the USA. More overseas branches followed, often as Salvationists emigrated to new countries and set up their own 'army outposts'.

America in particular has embraced The Salvation Army, which has built a strong reputation for its charitable work among society's most deprived groups. Its reputation was established early on through its disaster relief efforts in the wake of the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 and the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.

Today The Salvation Army is still headquartered in London, but active around the world. It operates evangelical centres, hospitals, emergency and disaster services, alcohol and drug rehabilitation programmes, community centres, social work centres, charity stores and recreation facilities.

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