One hundred years ago a great Christian movement was born out of a godly concern for people. Its birthplace is marked by a statue of William Booth that stands close to the site of “The Blind Beggar”—the public house in East London where the onetime Methodist superintendent minister began the work that thirteen years later became known as the Salvation Army.

The spiritual birthplace of this “permanent mission to the unconverted” is Christ’s word that joy in heaven is greater over one sinner who repents “than over ninety and nine just persons who need no repentance.” This divine concern for people had possessed William Booth since the time when, as a lad of fifteen, he had made a confession of faith in Jesus as Saviour. Thereafter, from the pawnbroker’s shop where he worked he would hurry to hold cottage meetings in overcrowded areas of his native Nottingham. Street meetings were part of his regular evangelistic program, and it was almost inevitable that in due course he should become a Methodist preacher, though he was born an Anglican and had considered the possibilities of the Congregational ministry.

His early campaigns were like those of Billy Graham without the latter’s large and efficient organization. Booth was a prophet not without honor in his own country. Over 600 people professed conversion under his preaching in Sheffield in 1855. During the following year there were 800 more in Leeds and 200 in Halifax. A Nottingham crusade that followed produced over 700 seekers. It was an incontestable sign of William Booth’s sincerity that he was ready to sacrifice his assured position in the ministry of the church when it conflicted with the passion of his life.

What he founded with an unorganized handful has now become a “church” with formal doctrines and recognized means of grace, with its ministers known as “officers,” its membership rolls carrying the names of its lay people (“soldiers” or “recruits”), its Sunday school and ancillary youth activities and, final hallmark of ecclesiastical respectability, membership in the World Council of Churches since the inauguration of that body in 1948. Officers and soldiers together represent a cross section of society, ranging from the Oxford graduate with first-class honors and the Edinburgh Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons to the lad or lass who has nothing more to give than a loving heart and a willing pair of hands.

What William Booth at first thought would never be more than a mammoth workingmen’s mission in London is now to be found from Land’s End to the Antipodes, and is active on every continent and the islands of the sea. Its music has now been heard in the London Festival Hall, and recording companies compete for its songs. Yet the Salvation Army is still motivated by the same divine concern for men and women, seeking to meet every form of human need just where it is.

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This has called for imaginative adaptation of methods to meet the changed social scene; but to a movement that came out of a sensitive dissatisfaction with the efforts of the Victorian churches to reach the unchurched, this has been no insuperable difficulty.

The unashamed poverty of the mid-nineteenth century has disappeared—at least in the Western world. Nevertheless there remain a multiplicity of human needs that can be met only person-to-person. The Army bonnet still moves swiftly about the streets of the world’s cities; an officer still responds at any hour of the day or night should an emergency arise.

The gin palaces Hogarth drew are gone, but alcoholism remains one of the major social scourges on both sides of the Atlantic. The Army’s “Harbour Light” centers are full every evening, and understanding officers link medical skills to the grace of God in order to rehabilitate those whom an unforgiving society has written off as irretrievable failures. This may be far removed from kneeling at the drumhead at the street corner. Yet both the compelling motive and the glorious end result remain unaltered.

The Salvation Army officer is no longer a person whose grammar is shaky and whose spelling is uncertain. He is likely to have majored in a subject of his own choice and may be found running a Salvation Army hospital near the North Korean border, acting as headmaster of a secondary school for boys and girls in Mary Slessor’s Africa, serving as a triple-certificated nurse in the Eastern Highlands of New Guinea, or using his academic qualifications in one or another of the officer-training colleges dotted all over the globe. After two World Wars, the unity of the Army is stronger than ever, with officers willing to serve anywhere at home and abroad. In Pakistan an Australian directs the work, in Brazil a Frenchman, in Japan a Scot, in the Argentine a Dane, in Korea an Englishman, in Finland a Swede.

Moreover, no one country has anything approaching a monopoly of Salvation Army membership. Although the Army was born in Great Britain, it is four times stronger outside Britain. The movement has no interest in any theory of race superiority but accepts Paul’s grand declaration that in Christ “there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond not free.”

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A hundred years ago the state of man’s soul might have been indicated by the state of his suit: the evidences of personal wrongdoing were usually more apparent then than now. Sin today takes a high polish. Outward appearance is no guide to moral standards. The narrowing of human horizons to this world of time and sense has led men to suppose that they can manage without either the admonition or the comfort of the Christian faith. The one is unheeded, the other unwanted. In such a situation the Salvation Army has been recasting its approach without losing sight of its primary aim or weakening its biblical foundations. Fired by the same passion that possessed William Booth, concerned soldiers are displaying a holy inventiveness in the service of Christ.

Radio and television techniques are now in regular use in the service of the Gospel. The Army officer is still to be seen making his rounds of the hotels, but youthful Army lads and lasses now may be encountered in the coffee bars and dance halls, busy in the work of personal evangelism. For all this there is scriptural warrant. Where men were to be saved the Apostle was willing to be made all things to all men; similarly, the young Salvationist is willing to tackle the “beardies and weirdies” on their own ground and in the same great cause.

Some may lament the passing of the blessed and breathless improvisations of the Army’s pioneer days. But there is no beatitude for inefficiency from the Master, who bade the children of light learn from the world. A newspaper with the most modern layout is used as an aid to the Christian message; selling at a few cents, it directs a spiritual challenge to the non-churchgoer whose Saturday concern is sport and whose Sunday interest his personal ease. In Britain the War Cry ranks in circulation next to the Roman Catholic Universe.

The Army’s discipline remains unshaken. Every soldier is a total abstainer. Ninety-nine per cent are non-smokers. Current sexual laxity has not undermined its standards of family life and conduct. Its people, though scattered over five continents, continue to think of one another with mutual affection. Salvationists in Korea will pray for a general whom they have never seen with as much fervor as a youth group in the United States will contribute toward the needs of a Salvation Army primary school in Rhodesia.

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There have always been prophets who have declared the Army’s demise to be imminent. On the death of William Booth one London newspaper forecast that “this rope of sand” would dissolve. After my own election the favorite gambit of some bright reporters was to ask whether I did not think that such a Victorian anachronism had outlived its usefulness. But I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet. I simply rest on the judgment of a wise man who said in face of similar questionings, “If this counsel or this work be … of God, you cannot overthrow it.”

T. Leo Brannon is pastor of the First Methodist Church of Samson, Alabama. He received the B.S. degree from Troy State College and the B.D. from Emory University.

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