The Salvation Army was founded more than a hundred years ago during the worst period of industrialization in the United Kingdom. British Christians marveled at the stories of missionary advance in places like Africa. They read books like Livingstone’s Out of Darkest Africa with its spirited descriptions of that Continent from the perspective of European missionaries vividly describing cultures they saw as dark and in desperate need.
The young William and Catherine Booth read these evangelical tracts chronicling the terrible needs of people in other parts of the world and they were grieved by the fact that all around them in industrial cities like London, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool people lived in abject conditions – poor, homeless, rootless, and uncared for. Seized with compassion, anger and a strong sense of God’s pain over the failure of Christian England to see what was happening to its own poor, the Booths wrote their own tract, Into Darkest London. They wanted to awaken the nation to the dire needs of the poor in the cities and call Christians to a vision of God’s care for the other, the outsider, the poor. From this was born The Salvation Army. Based upon some dominant metaphors of the period (the military in the midst of an empire) the idea was to form a civilian army, a company of men and women in God’s uniform committed to disciplined, self-giving lives that served the poor and sought to bring God’s light and hope into the terrible conditions of industrial cities. It was a significant movement of God focused on the establishment of churches (citadels – to keep the military metaphor) in the poorest areas of the city. It is significant to note that this was at the same time when a new “American Renaissance” – formed by the likes of Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman – was gestating an explicitly anti-city ethos to be picked up by the likes of Olmstead and Frank Lloyd Wright that resulted in a massively suburban culture as the basis for the “American Dream.” The Booth’s and their new movement were part of evangelical movements in the late 19th century that saw the Gospel of Jesus and reign of God as implicating Christians irreducibly in issues of justice, peace and reconciliation toward the poor and all who suffered oppressive forms of life.
The economic circumstances of early industrialization were a massive challenge to Christian life and identity in the form of cities filled with untold numbers of poorhouses and horrible working conditions.
Few grasped the challenge, until the Booth’s shaped a vision and formed a movement. This disciplined band of men and women was akin to movements in England in much earlier times. In the 5th and 6th centuries, out of far Northumbria the Celts formed disciplined bands of young men and women from the upper classes who believed the Gospel called them to more than their own self-shaped needs and sent them out across the country as heralds of God’s love and Gospel life.