The Salvation Army sprang from the humanitarian nature of its founder, William Booth, a Christian Minister from Nottingham, UK, during the Victorian feudalistic England, where poverty was eminent. The Salvation Army commenced activities in East London in 1865, at first by the name ‘London’s Christian Mission’. In 1878, the name was changed to its current name, ‘the Salvation Army’. The main characteristic of its members has always been a passion to fight poverty, a desire for social justice and an enthusiasm to spread the message of God’s love to all.
The good fight (The fight for good)
The Salvation Army adopted a military mode. Its founding coincided with the period of two major wars, the American Civil War and the war in Crimea; both affected the world a great deal. Those in the Salvation Army realized that in order to achieve their goals for social change, as well as their Missionary aims, the military structure, hierarchy and terminology was the way to go.
Soon, the ranks of the Salvation Army increased in numbers but, at the same time, the numbers of those who felt threatened by its activities multiplied, as well. Those most disturbed were they who were making fortunes out of the poverty, such as pub owners and prostitution houses. Due to the efforts of the Salvation Army, a significant number of alcoholics abandoned drinking and prostitution, deciding to spend their money on their families - rather than on their passions. The pub owners, who saw their income decreasing drastically due to the Salvation Army’s activities, resorted to violence. Within a year, 700 members of the Salvation Army were savaged by brutal attacks. These attacks reached their peak when a riotous crowd of 4.000 people attacked the headquarters of the Salvation Army, causing massive destruction. The cavalry intervened to avoid a great tragedy.
Blessed be the poor
In William Booth’s time, the people in East London lived in misery. Not only did he not condemn or walk away from them, he went into their neighbourhoods - which were full of thieves and prostitutes, and where alcohol and drugs (laudanum and opium) were their main means to forget squalor and misery.
As Booth cared for them, he came to see that there was a way out for them - if he could help them deal with their problems face to face. For William Booth: ‘Christianity means to love God with all your heart and your fellow man as yourself.’ This is the belief he implemented in his mission amongst the poor. Combining the practical help with the promising message of the love of God, he helped them understand that there is light at the end of the tunnel. However, he walked by their side till the end of the journey. He himself once wondered: ‘Why all these massive buildings and temples to save people after death, but not the slightest effort to save them from the current hell?’
Loved by all
William Booth’s death in 1912 was the end of a life full of faith and devotion to the principles of Christianity. According to him, all men are equal in the presence of God. Forty thousand people attended his funeral in West London, including Queen Mary. Next to the Queen was a prostitute whose life had been changed by the Salvation Army. As the corpse passed by them, she turned to the Queen and said: ‘He cared about people like me.’
Ever since then, the Salvation Army has won the love of people all over the world. The secret of its success is the endless effort to follow Jesus Christ’s teaching and to help to people in need.
When William Booth commenced his mission work, he realized that preaching was not enough - and that hands-on social work was essential. He felt he had to do everything in his power to help those in desperation. Ten percent of London citizens lived in absolute poverty, and he was determined to help every time there was a need, utilizing all possible means. It should come as no surprise that most of the social services of the Salvation Army were initiated as responses to an urgent need.
In 1887, as William Booth was walking by the Thames River at night, he saw many homeless sleeping on its banks. He was angry to see this phenomenon in so-called ‘wealthy England’. The next morning, he talked to his son about this and asked his son to do something. Soon after, the Salvation Army bought a warehouse and modified it to host the homeless. Before the end of the first week, more than 2.000 people were being fed daily and 80 people were sleeping under cotton blankets. Today, the Salvation Army of the United Kingdom is the number one social service organization.
Embracing this point of view, the members of the Salvation Army, the soldiers, started to assist young women who were condemned to prostitution, mainly due to financial austerity, homeless men who were without work, and starving children who had been abandoned.
Soon after, the first homeless shelters were created, enabling many homeless to sleep indoors at night. Training programs were developed to provide them with working skills. One of the first issues to appear in the mission against prostitution was that many of the girls were pregnant. They had no medical care and were giving birth in inadequate places for both them and their new-borns. This led the Salvation Army to establish maternity hospitals. Since the members could not bear to see children begging in the streets, they also established children’s institutions. The old people who lived in terrible conditions also found warm shelter in Salvation Army housing.