Vision for the Lost or Lost Vision: William Booth's Legacy
100 years on (Part Two)
|SALVATION ARMY MEETING: ROYAL ALBERT HALL, LONDON|
Booth did imagine scenes other than of hell; visions of the millennium, and of heaven. He speculated in 1900 that London could become the New Jerusalem, with Hyde Park roofed over to become “The World’s Great Grand Central Temple”. His vision of the Millennium looked remarkably like a Salvation Army International Congress. And like those grand Congress occasions, the purpose of his sharing this vision was to motivate his followers to greater efforts on behalf of the lost. He visited heaven and interviewed participants in the Acts 2 account of Pentecost in order to bring back a hurry-up message from the Apostles and Saints to shirkers in the ranks. The focus was not the attainment of bliss but the compulsion to rescue people from hell.
But there was a further vision. Although acts of mercy and service were part of Booth’s Wesleyan dna and long featured in the Christian Mission’s agenda, from the late 1880s on Booth was persuaded that the depth of social deprivation the Army encountered made it too difficult for many people to hear and understand the message of Salvation. He had to do something about hell on earth as well as hell hereafter. While the Army was already engaged in social action, Booth came to see the need for more fences at the tops of cliffs as well as more ambulances at the bottom. Sometimes he even tried to do something about the levelling cliffs themselves. He saw that society, as well as the individuals comprising it, needed to be saved.
So he began to describe another, extended vision. Here’s an example, as reported by former Commissioner Alex Nicol:
In one of his most inspired moments he delivered an address to his Staff upon the Salvation Army of the future. He called it a vision. He saw:
Homes for the Detention of Tramps.
Transportation Agencies for Removing Slum Dwellers from one part of the world to another.
Steamers owned and chartered by the Salvation Army for the purpose.
Stupendous factories, splendid stores, colossal workshops, and vast industrial enterprises.
Inebriates' Home for “men and women who drink distilled damnation in the shape of intoxicants.”
Rescue Operations of many orders for the deliverance of fallen women.
Land Colonies evolving into Salvation cities.
Orphanages becoming villages and Reformatories made into veritable paradises.
The working out of my idea for a World’s University for Humanity.
A Salvation Citadel in every village, town, and city.
The post-millennial character of the Army’s vision is evident in this 1895 American article:
When we consider in our times, and appreciate the fact that we are in the very beginning of the glorious Millennium, we have cause to rejoice… It has not been the reconstruction of society and government – the paternal – modelled after Bible times and practised by General Booth in his early Army – I say it has not been these improvements, although they have helped. The great power, as we are all aware, is the fact that people have been saved and cleansed from all sin by the Blood of Jesus. This is the power that has brought about this reign of unselfishness and love among the people of the earth. This is the reason the entire world speaks the same language, and the word “foreigner” is obsolete… It was upon the debris of social ruin that The Salvation Army built up a grander civilization – one that honored [sic] and served God… The Lord was with His Army as He promised (Joel 2:11). In the year 1900 A.D., The Salvation Army numbered 20,000 field officers, in 1925 A.D., 200,000, when every city, village, and hamlet in the entire world had corps. Whole cities had been converted. … In 1950 the world was about conquered and the devil so discouraged that he gave up the fight.
So what was Booth’s vision? A vision of hell. But by late in Booth’s life his vision encompassed not only Salvation from hell in this world for heaven in the next but the Salvation of this world as well.
What do we now see?
Admitting that the 1950 millennial prediction was a tad premature, does what we now see look like Booth’s vision?
To begin with, how about saving people from hell? An early-days Salvationist was an uncomfortable person with whom to share a railway compartment. You would be ear-bashed on the subject. Today, many of us are more anxious to demonstrate our inoffensive normality. The fact that many Salvationists have become less motivated to engage in personal evangelism probably indicates a slackening commitment to the doctrines underlying such activity. A diminished conviction that our neighbour is going to hell renders us less inclined to risk giving offence by trying to save him from it.
But lest we think this only came in with Rob Bell’s book Love Wins, here’s ex-Commissioner Nicol again, a hundred and one years ago. Commenting on the Fifth Doctrine, “We believe that our first parents were created in a state of innocence, but by their disobedience they lost their purity and happiness and that in consequence of their fall all men have become sinners totally depraved and as such are justly exposed to the wrath of God,” Nicol wrote, “The Army is committed for all time to this doctrine and many others equally contentious, and some of which Staff officers no more believe in than they do that Bacon wrote Shakespeare.”
Really? Perhaps Nicol had the integrity to resign because he no longer believed those doctrines. Perhaps many of us have since found ways of re-interpreting them to our satisfaction, just as Anglican clergy once pledged a token adherence to the long-outmoded Thirty-Nine Articles of 1571.
This is not to say that modern Salvationists do not believe, or that sinners are no longer brought to salvation by our witness – they are, thank God – but Booth would probably consider some of us to be people “who do not seem to have any care – that is, any agonising care” – for the lost.
And what of Booth’s other vision, of the salvation of society?
All over the world, battalions of Salvationists and employees are engaged in alleviating social distress. Sometimes they not only attend to the consequences of social evil but also seek to engage with its structural causes. For many years this last was somewhat understated, partly because of the increasing social conservatism of the Army’s constituency and a fear of all things “political”, but in recent years it has been given a more prominent place in our mission. The mission statement of the Army in New Zealand is, “Caring for people, transforming lives, reforming society”.
Any hesitations? Booth’s “Darkest England” scheme of “social salvation” in this life was intended to support, to complement, not to replace, his commitment to “spiritual salvation” for the next life. He feared that service could become an end in itself. Today many of those working for the Army in this field are not Salvationists, and need not be Christians, and may not be particularly in sympathy with that aspect of the Army’s mission. In 2004 some New York employees sued the Army for insisting on it. They claimed that “When the Salvation Army’s religious mission was made mandatory in our work place, it changed the climate in a way that caused us fear and concern about our ability to ethically deliver services.”
Although Salvation Army leaders have always been reluctant to allow donors, government or private, to determine our policies and values, we cannot resist the bait of those assiduously cultivated funds. Booth would take money from the devil himself and wash it in the tears of the widows and orphans – but the devil usually has his terms. I know that there is a strong argument that our mission must be holistic, not confined to “saving souls”, and that even giving a cup of water in Jesus’ name contributes to the salvation of the world, but would Booth have been entirely satisfied that his vision was being embodied in all we do, both Word and Deed?
So, has the evangelical imperative become diluted? If that’s what we now see, and if it be thought that we have lost the vision,
How did that happen?
We naturally idealise the early Army as a time of exponential growth, but statistically, the Australasian flood tide had peaked by 1900. In barely a generation the initial energy had begun to dissipate, the vision begun to fade. Reinhold Niebuhr echoed Luther in writing that, “By its very nature the sectarian type of organisation is valid for only one generation… Rarely does a second generation hold the convictions it has inherited with a fervour equal to that of its fathers, who fashioned these convictions in the heat of conflict and at the risk of martyrdom.” The children and grandchildren of those who had experienced the miracle of the changing of beer into furniture did not necessarily enjoy the same kind of vital conversion experience of their own. They grew up within the world of the Salvation Army and it was their familiar sub-culture, but they did not necessarily inherit the evangelical imperative. Many found the sub-culture restrictive and they began to slip away.
Major Harold Hill
New Zealand, Fiji and Tonga Territory
 William Booth, “The Millennium; or, The Ultimate Triumph of the Salvation Army Principles”, All the World, August 1890, 337-43.
 A. M. Nicol, General Booth and The Salvation Army (London: Herbert and Daniel, 1911) 136-137. The speech here summarised by Nicol may be found in William Booth, International Staff Council Addresses (London: Salvation Army, 1904) 47-58.
 The War Cry (USA) 12 January 1895, p. 4, quoted in Allan Satterlee, Turning Points: How the Salvation Army Found a Different Path. (Alexandria VA: Crest, 2004) 79.
 Nicol, General Booth, 93-5.
 http://www.au.org/media/church-and-state/archives/2010/04/salvation-army-in-ny-cant.html, downloaded 11 April 2010.
 See for example an address to the 1921 International Social Conference by Commissioner Adelaide Cox in Social Problems in Solution (London: The Salvation Army, 1921) 39-41; Clarence Wiseman in “Call to Renewal and Change”, in John Waldron (Ed.) Creed and Deed: Towards a Christian Theology of Social Services in The Salvation Army (Toronto: The Salvation Army, 1986) 280; Dennis Garland, “The Salvation Army and the State of Welfare: An analysis of Text and Narrative.” MA (Hons) Thesis, University of Western Sydney, 2004, iii.
 H. Richard Niebuhr, Social Sources of Denominationalism (New York: Meridian,  1957) 20.