Wednesday, June 24, 2015


Amazon Review of Norman Murdoch, Christian Warfare in Rhodesia-Zimbabwe

Norman Murdoch, Emeritus Professor at the University of Cincinnati, has made a very valuable contribution to Salvation Army history bringing with him a unique insider/outsider perspective. As a son of Salvation Army parents, and a graduate of Asbury College and Asbury Seminary, who worked in Salvation Army urban youth work, he may be seen as an insider. However, instead of becoming an officer he chose instead a scholarly career and pursued the study of American intellectual history with a special focus on the Salvation Army in the nineteenth century. This provided him with an outsider’s objectivity that has meant that he has avoided sanitised or triumphalist accounts of the Army’s history. 

He has produced many important historical studies on the Army (including The Origins of the Salvation Army, 1994) and, given his Alzheimer’s disease, Christian Warfare in Rhodesia-Zimbabwe is likely to be his last book.

This valuable study continues the methodological approach followed in Murdoch’s earlier works of viewing the history of The Salvation Army not in a ‘providentialist’ way (history as ‘His-story’) but rather by applying the discipline of history to the Army in the same way as one might for any other organisation, even if the results may be at times embarrassing for the Army. As John Coutts describes Murdoch he ‘has been a critical but never a cynical observer – an independent observer and a candid friend.’

The book examines the history of The Salvation Army’s involvement In Rhodesia-Zimbabwe with a particular focus on its relationships with the white-minority colonial government, the First and Second Chimurenga (revolutionary struggles 1896-97, 1966-79) and the World Council of Churches. 

In the first chapter the central claims of the book are laid out – that the Salvation Army aided and abetted the colonial process in Rhodesia-Zimbabwe, that its claim to political neutrality is unsustainable in light of its support for colonial rule and white minority governments, and that it allowed Cold War politics to influence its resistance to national movements for independence. There is a bitter irony in the observation that African independence leaders gained their ideas of freedom from their mission-run schooling and then often found their church leaders opposing their freedom partly out of fear of Communism (pp. 5-7).

The earlier period is covered in the following four chapters with an examination of the arrival of the Army in Mashonaland (1891-95), the First Chimurenga including the ‘martyrdom’ of Edward T. Cass (1986-97), negotiations between William Booth and Cecil Rhodes which led to the appropriation of traditional homelands for the farm colonies that were part of Booth’s In Darkest England scheme (1901-8), and correspondence about Rhodesia between William and Bramwell Booth (1908). 

Chapter 6, ‘The Salvation Army and the Rhodesian State, 1908-65,’ has a focus on Salvationist schooling, with the claim that the Army’s relationship with the white Rhodesian state and with other churches was ‘that of a weak mission dependent on a strong colonial state’s paternal largesse, and the generosity of business tycoons and philanthropic trusts’ (p. 109). 

Chapter 7 deals with the clash between colonial, conciliar, and communist forces in the 19650s and 60s. Many churches objected to the legitimacy of Ian Smith’s white minority rule in a country of 274,000 white and 6.1 million black Africans. Even though the Salvation Army’s membership was 98% black (probably higher than any other denomination) its leadership hesitated to stand against Smith. Murdoch attributes this attitude to three contributing factors – 1) The Army’s dependence on white government funding for its hospitals, schools, and corps 2) The politically conservative attitudes of the Army’s international leaders, ‘particularly Americans’ and 3) the fact that the Army’s Rhodesian leaders were all white (though only 2% of Army membership was white).

Chapters 8-10 (and 13) deal with the troubled relationships between the Salvation Army, the Rhodesia Council of Churches, and the World Council of Churches (WCC) over support for independence movements which led ultimately to the withdrawal of the Army from both organisations. At the centre of the dispute was the WCC’s ‘Program to Combat Racism’ which involved financial grants to independence movements seen by most member churches as an issue of justice in solidarity with the oppressed but by more conservative members of the churches as support for Communist-backed violent armed rebellion. In 1971 the Army broke with the Rhodesian Council of Churches and in 1978, after the murder of two Salvationist women missionaries at the Usher Institute (detailed in chapters 11 and 12), it suspended its membership in the World Council of Churches, withdrawing altogether in 1981. 

Chapter 13 discusses the negative reaction of African Salvationists to the Army’s withdrawal from the WCC. On 31 August, 1981, up to 200 marched through the streets of Harare under police protection to Army headquarters, led by the lay leader Corp Sergeant Major Jonah Blessing Matsvetu, to protest the action and to demand a return to the WCC. One result of this was that Commissioner David Moyo broke ranks to petition General Arnold Brown on the Army’s return to membership.

The 14th and final chapter sets out the conclusions of the research. The Salvation Army in Rhodesia-Zimbabwe tied itself closely with the white minority government and was slow to hand over leadership to its African constituency. During the movement for majority rule the Army’s Anglo-American leaders, ‘driven by Cold War anxiety’ placed their interest in defeating Communism ahead of the interests of African officers and soldiers. In spite of this, after Independence, African Salvationists were forgiving. ‘As they claimed during their protests against actions taken in London, they love the international Salvation Army. This affection was grounded in appreciation for the sacrifice of talented missionary teachers, doctors and corps officers who served in Zimbabwe over many years. 

Many expatriates spoke for the human rights and political independence of their African brothers and sisters’ (p. 187).

The documentary research of this work is exemplary and is enhanced by visits to Zimbabwe to interview surviving participants. The book is not without some problems, however. At times the author engages in rhetorical flourishes that make unsupported claims. For example on p. 45 we are told that ‘For Cecil Rhodes and William Booth…a British-Christian world [would make] no distinction between what it meant to be British and what it meant to be Christian.’ This may have been true for Rhodes but I doubt that it accurately represents Booth who would never have allowed that ‘Britishness’ could ever substitute for a sound conversion, and whose own ‘empire’ always took priority over the British one. Here and there are found long catenas of rhetorical questions that are somewhat leading, often go unanswered, and needed greater connection to the underlying claims from which they seemed to arise (eg pp. 171-72). 

Chapter 5, while an interesting description of letters between William and his son Bramwell, does little more than narrate the content of the letters making no attempt to contextualise or interpret the material (one quotation is three whole pages long, pp. 66-68). The photographs in the Australian edition are almost all of very poor quality and could perhaps have been left out. The American edition is marginally better.

These are minor flaws and they certainly do not argue against the value and overall quality of this fine piece of historical writing. 

Dr. Harold Hill, a Wellington, New Zealand based scholar and adjunct lecturer in history at Booth College, Sydney edited the work, and was responsible for preparing the existing materials and presenting a final manuscript to the publisher. Without his involvement the book would not have seen the light of day. 

The book functions as a kind of valedictory tribute to the author with a biographical sketch from Andrew Villalon on Murdoch as ‘Colleague, Historian, and Teacher,’ a tribute to him as ‘Historian of the Salvation Army,’ by John Coutts, and a final biographical sketch from his wife Grace. The Salvation Army has been well served in this important history by one of its most candid friends.

By Glen O'Brien on May 21, 2015


Major (Dr.) Jim Watt said...

We are as much in debt to Dr. Harold Hill as to Prof. Murdoch for this unique book, as without Dr. Hills dedication, the book would not have been completed. It needs to be studied, as to this day some Salvation Army leaders are satisfied with official statements, whether from government, police or other Commissioners, never questioning their veracity and never listening to other voices. There have been notable exceptions -- I think of General Wiseman, who was criticised for listening to unofficial voices. He replied, "I don't care where I get my information, as long as it is clear who makes the decisions." Such leaders (and there have been a number of them) are wise like the Chinese emperor who listened to his wide-flying little nightingale in Hans Christian Anderson's famous tale.

As it happened, the liberation war did not bring liberation but a dictator, and one cannot say things are better. That is the problem of revolutions -- they just revolve. The real liberation comes through Jesus Christ, starting with ourselves. The process is slower, but it is the only one that works, which is why I am not a revolutionary (as Murdoch seems to think) but a missionary.

Professor Murdoch's book is a very important help in self-examination. Unless we can look at ourselves critically and realize that mistakes have been made, discussion (including grass-roots voices) engaged, and some sort of reconcilliation made, we cannot move forward. We are like people in a vehicle with a flat rear tire, saying "we need to leave the past behind and move forward." We carry the past with us, either as a lesson or as a burden.

Anonymous said...

Commenter 1 - absolutely correct. The past is glorified in the Salvation Army to the exclusion of the future. The present is largely ignored, as it is too uncomfortable. Those who are blessed with a sense of reality not clouded by rose-tinted vision will realise that the Army is under a spiritual attack by Satan. 'Too long at ease in Zion' springs to mind. A letter in this week's Salvationist about obesity is more than literally correct. As 'Army faithful' we are stuffed full to the brim with the carbohydrate glories of the past - we have been brought up on how good the Army is, and we are steeped in its long, but man-made traditions. Not too many have grasped the protein of the spiritual war mantle and are running with it. A generation of junior soldiers have been nurtured on virtually nothing since the demise of Corps Cadets, and are largely ignorant of even core biblical standards. Why would God bless a movement that has largely forgotten the power and presence of the Trinity? The Salvation Army needs to go 'back to basics' - and soon.