In Darkest England
William Booth’s In Darkest England and the Way Out (1890) “aroused more public interest than any other book since Henry George’s Progress and Poverty,” according to social historian Victor Bailey. Booth set out to end unemployment in Britain by moving the unemployed from city workshops to farm colonies, and then to overseas colonies. His scheme provides the foundation for Salvation Army social services today.
Change of Mind
Before the mid 1880s, Booth had little interest in social reform. He was an evangelist who saw soul-salvation as the only hope for society’s redemption. Social services only diverted from revivalist endeavors. For example, Booth had quarreled with social programs proposed by Andrew Mearns’s Bitter Cry of Outcast London. Booth argued that only soul-salvation will “clothe the naked” and “change their miserable hearts and make them happy.”
Early Salvationists had, of course, begun urban home mission practices of temporary, hand-out charity. But the Darkest England scheme attempted to change the very nature of the urban environment. Why did Booth change his mind?
Influence of “Social” Salvationists
First, certain Salvationists interested in social reform pushed him in new directions. Social reform was in the air when Salvationist slum sisters living in London established refuges for unfortunate women in Soho and Picadilly areas. When the Salvationists discovered that slum dwellers, mostly Irish and southern and eastern European immigrants, opposed their Wesleyan/holiness salvation message as foreign to their culture, they opened homes for “fallen women” and orphaned “waifs and strays,” hunted down drunkards, and met released prisoners in “Red Mariahs” at prison gates. The example of these women led the Booths to join the 1885 “Maiden Tribute” crusade of W. T. Stead, editor of the Pall Mall Gazette. Their efforts brought to world attention the need for legislation to save girls under sixteen from white slavery in London and Paris brothels.
In short, “social” Salvationists began to change the mind of William Booth. These Salvationists have not gained credit for their role because Booth’s authoritarian rule required that he be the originator of Army programs. But had these Salvationists gained credit for their ideas, the Army might have split into separate spiritual and social organizations. Divisions between Salvationist revivalists and those involved in social reform activities were only tenuously patched over by Booth’s charisma.
(Indeed, some “social” Salvationists left “the work.” Frank Smith, who brought social reform ideas to William Booth, later embraced socialist politics as a better way to bring about society’s reform. He started a Labour Army and published a Worker’s Cry. Suzie Swift, who assisted Booth in writing Darkest England, left the Army to join a Catholic order in the United States in 1896.)
Declining Success in Poorest Slums
A second element that led Booth to change his mind about social reform was The Salvation Army’s struggle to win the “heathen masses” in urban slums. In January 1888 a British Weekly survey indicated that London corps (local Salvation Army mission halls) attracted only .7 percent of London’s population to religious services. By comparison, an 1881 survey had shown that the Army had attracted 11.1 percent in provincial Scarborough, 7.4 percent in Hull, 6.8 percent in Barnsley, and 5.3 percent in Bristol. While the Army grew in working-class neighborhoods, it declined in the poorest slums.
The decline was particularly noticeable in London, Booth’s headquarters. In Whitechapel and Bethnal Green districts of the East End, surveyors could scarcely find a Salvationist. They found the Army’s main hall at Clapton situated “among artisans and clerks,” a class other Nonconformist groups were reaching. On April 13, 1889, District Officer Adjutant Morgan disclosed that total East End corps’ membership was 1,000 soldiers, the same as it had been fifteen years earlier at only four mission halls. The obvious conclusion was that the Army was not converting the “heathen masses” to the gospel. Frustration over failure with populations they felt called by God to save led to new practices.
The New Proposal
These influences caused William Booth to adopt social reform ideas, which he embraced as a millennial vision for the redemption of England’s urban slum population, a “submerged tenth.”
Booth published In Darkest England and the Way Out in October 1890, as his wife Catherine was dying of cancer. Preaching, administering, and sitting by his dying wife’s bed absorbed his energy. Therefore, he relied on several others in preparing his social scheme. Frank Smith, just returned from the American Salvation Army command in New York, funneled ideas to Booth from numerous social theorists with whom he was in touch. Smith had made trips to Holland, Denmark, and Sweden to examine farm collectives and immigration schemes, and his material led to Darkest England’s three-step solution to urban unemployment:
1. The city colony: urban workshops that would be the first step from poverty to self-reliance;
2. The farm colony: a “back to the land” community in which the poor would learn basic skills in preparation for the final step;
3. The overseas colony: emigration of England’s unemployed “submerged tenth” to new “Greater Britain” settlements in Canada and Australasia.
In October 1890, with the aid of Frank Smith, Suzie Swift, and W. T. Stead, Booth published these ideas, which drew praise from social leaders in labor, government, religion, and professional social services.
There were also critics. T. H. Huxley did not approve of state-supported social reform by a practitioner of “corybantic Christianity,” and the Charity Organization Society’s Charles Loch did not welcome “unscientific” approaches to social service that might make the poor more reliant on handout charity. Undaunted by critics, Booth and Smith put the plan into effect.
While the scheme’s last two elements, the farm and overseas colonies, lasted only until 1906 in their designed form, urban workshops continue to be a major element of Salvation Army social services in the late twentieth century. More important, In Darkest England turned the Army from a singular emphasis on evangelism to an equal or greater emphasis on social services.
Copyright © 1990 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Christian History.