Blood and fire and the Salvation Army

From a speech by the Labour peer and biographer of William Booth, Roy Hattersley, delivered at the Edinburgh Book Festival

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William Booth, the untutored pawnbrokers' clerk who founded an enduring world-wide church, is the unknown Victorian - a man who, despite epitomising the virtues of his age, rarely figures in the pantheon of 19th-century heroes.

William Booth, the untutored pawnbrokers' clerk who founded an enduring world-wide church, is the unknown Victorian - a man who, despite epitomising the virtues of his age, rarely figures in the pantheon of 19th-century heroes.

He is excluded for the reasons which, almost to the end of his life, made him an outcast from polite society. He was obtrusively religious. Evangelists - and he was the most successful of his day - can hardly be anything else. But we in Britain - perhaps here I should say, the English - like to confine our Christianity to Sunday mornings. Booth was too enthusiastic for cultivated tastes.

Two letters, written to The Times by Anglican clergymen, illustrate the cause of constant offence. On 17 January 1885, the Reverend J Hector Carcelles MA (Cantab) described the horrors of a railway journey from Richmond to Notting Hill. "In the neighbouring compartment there were some officers of the Salvation Army. One of them rose and, in the most violent language, began to address us on the most solemn of subjects." Worse was to come. When the train stopped at Latimer station, "our zealous friend" shouted from the window, "You will all rot in hell". Mr Carcelles demanded that the railway company "protect its passengers from that sort of behaviour". Church of England rectors do not like religion being forced upon them.

Booth also made the social error of associating with undesirables, whom he described as sinners in need of salvation. Worse still - being God's salesman as well as God's soldier - he exploited repentant wrongdoers in the propagation of his cause.

Reformed drunkards, thieves and prostitutes marched shoulder to shoulder with the morally spotless officers of his Army and urged other drunkards, thieves and prostitutes to mend their ways. Not only was such overt evangelism embarrassing, it had unfortunate social consequences.

MD Pearson of St James' Vicarage, Clapham, denounced the Salvation Army's use of military music. But he had a more serious complaint. The preoccupation with persuading young women to abandon a life of vice was disturbing the proper order of things. "Domestic servants are at a premium, for the Army is largely recruited from this class."

The class composition of the Salvation Army was not in dispute. God's soldiers adopted many of the least desirable attributes of the industrial poor. They were certainly noisy. They shouted the hope of heaven from street corners and played their trumpets and trombones outside peaceful public houses. They were also colourful when they could afford it. The women had given up feathers in their hats and brooches on their blouses and the men had sold their watch chains to help the poor. But they marched behind banners and their working uniform was emblazoned with the scandalous motto "Blood and Fire". They disturbed the peace.

Worse still, they disturbed consciences. Indeed, they impertinently suggested that disturbance was their mission. It is not surprising that the establishment was offended.

The more unscrupulous among them tried to pretend in turns that he was a revolutionary, a swindler and a charlatan. The more subtle and sophisticated derided him. And we have to admit that there was something which, at least to the Anglo-Saxon temperament, is essentially silly about an old man with a prophet's beard calling himself general, wearing the frogged coat appropriate to that rank together with an umbrella and stalking the country warning unbelievers of the wrath to come. But it worked.

By the time he died, the Salvation Army thrived in India and America, Australia, Mexico, Korea, Japan and every country in Europe. It still does. English empiricists should have praised him for his success. Instead, he has been ignored because he was an outsider.

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