The Justice-Forward Salvation Army
Image: Salvation Army USA West / Flickr

In the late 1990s, evangelicals began to wake up to the breadth and brutality of sex trafficking. But one group was way ahead of everyone else.

The Salvation Army has a history of fighting sex trafficking that stretches back to 1881. That’s when Elizabeth Cottrill of the Army’s Whitehall Corps began taking women and girls who had escaped sexual slavery into her home. When demand overwhelmed capacity, the Army rented a house and put Florence Booth, wife of the Salvation Army founders’ eldest son, in charge. Over the next 30 years, she expanded the specialized ministry to 117 shelters.

In 1884, a girl who had escaped a brothel by climbing down a rainspout visited Florence’s husband, Bramwell, in his office. Her story compelled him to look into London’s East End sex trade. “The cries of outraged children,” he wrote, “and the smothered sobs of those imprisoned in living tombs were continually in my ears.”

Bramwell concluded that public sentiment must be aroused and laws must be changed. He approached his journalist friend W. T. Stead. Like most Brits, Stead needed proof that such evils occurred in England. So in league with Bramwell and several activists, Stead laid out a plan to purchase a young girl from her family, have her certified a virgin, then sell her to a brothel. From there she would be rescued immediately and sent to safety.

The scheme gave Stead the evidence he needed for a 10-article exposé in The Pall Mall Gazette. For months, the public talked of little else. Catherine Booth, Bramwell’s mother, engineered a “monster petition” of 393,000 signatures on a scroll that stretched two miles. The petition asked Parliament to raise ...

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Past Imperfect
David Neff
David Neff was editor in chief of Christianity Today, where he worked from 1985 until his retirement in 2013. He is also the former editor in chief of Christian History magazine, and continues to explore the intersection of history and current events in his bimonthly column, "Past Imperfect." His earlier column, "Editor's Bookshelf," ran from 2002 to 2004 and paired Neff's reviews of thought-provoking books and interviews with the authors.
Previous Past Imperfect Columns:
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