When The Salvation Army’s founder William Booth was told by his son about all the homeless people sleeping on the banks of the Thames, his response was simple: ‘Go and do something.’ That was in the middle of the nineteenth century. But today The Salvation Army’s philosophy is exactly the same.
Ahead of their time, the Booths took an innovative approach in demonstrating their faith by offering practical support to people in need out on the streets of London and beyond. As social justice reformers, a large part of their focus was on caring for people in a practical way, and to reaching out to ‘the poor and destitute.’
The Booths abandoned the conventional concept of a church and a pulpit, instead taking their message to the people. Their fervour led to disagreement with church leaders in London, who preferred traditional methods. As a result, they withdrew from the church and travelled throughout England, conducting evangelistic meetings. Catherine and William walked the streets of London to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to the poor, the homeless, the hungry, and the destitute.
[Watch Richard Taylor in London who is looking at the founding of The Salvation Army via BBC iPlayer here]
In 1865, William Booth was invited to hold a series of evangelistic meetings in the East End of London. He set up a tent in a Quaker graveyard on July 2, and his services became an instant success. This is seen as the official start of The Salvation Army and proved to be the end of Booth’s wanderings as an independent travelling speaker. His renown as a religious leader spread throughout London.
Booth continued giving his new converts spiritual direction; challenging them to save others like themselves. Soon, they too were preaching, and singing in the streets. A radical, William Booth believed that charity demeaned the individual and people should be offered a ‘hand up' and not ‘hand outs' to get them back on their feet.
At a time when women’s place was often seen to be in the home, Catherine Booth was a strong proponent of equality for women and fought for women to be able to preach in church meetings – persuading William to change his own views - with this becoming a key part of The Salvation Army’s official beliefs.
In 1884, The Salvation Army opened a women’s rescue home in Whitechapel for those fleeing domestic violence and prostitution. Against a backdrop of poor and often dangerous working conditions, in 1891, The Salvation Army opened its own match factory in Old Ford, East London. Only using harmless red phosphorus, the workers were soon producing six million boxes a year. A competitor paid its workers just two pennies a gross, while The Salvation Army paid their employees twice that amount.
The Army also began to be involved in relief work, assisting in times of emergency, and disaster. This included the effects of war, with The Salvation Army Naval and Military League starting in 1894.
The Salvation Army served at the frontlines in World Wars I and II - offering comfort and pastoral support to members of the armed forces. It was in World War I, that the famous Salvation Army "doughnut girls" or “doughnut lassies” served their first doughnuts. During major engagements, the girls worked at the field hospitals and set up rest centres for soldiers to write home to loved ones. They went to daily burial services of the doughboys they served and then went to pray over the graves of the enemies.
In World War II, Salvation Army volunteers worked in mobile canteens to support troops in the battles zones across Europe. Salvationists worked in hospitals and also held services for allied prisoners in internment camps in Europe and the Far East. On the home front, families affected by the Blitz or other bombings were supported with clothing, blankets and food.
Today The Army’s emergency response teams still assist at disasters across the world. Churches across the UK have emergency response vehicles on standby to provide tea, coffee, and food to the emergency services. During the floods in the UK last winter, many churches assisted the emergency response by providing shelter, emergency food, blankets and a listening ear to people as well as providing assistance to the emergency services.
Over 150 years ago The Salvation Army found through their work that the main issues facing people were: a lack of ability to buy food and clothing; the fear of losing their homes; a lack of jobs and employment opportunities; and the health and social dangers of a heavy drinking culture.
These issues have remained the same for over 150 years, and still today, for many of the most vulnerable and marginalised in our communities. The Salvation Army is still there carrying on the founders’ work offering practical help, unconditional assistance and support to transform lives.
During a year
- We support more than 2,500 people back into employment.
- Our Family Tracing Unit helps reunite around 2,000 families a year.
- We served around 3 million nourishing meals throughout the year at Salvation Army community and residential centres to older people, people affected by homelessness and young families.
- Our Emergency Response Unit attended 163 emergencies across the country.
- We have 62 residential Lifehouses across the UK and Republic of Ireland for people experiencing homelessness, providing 3,200 beds a night plus training and support to get back on their feet.
- We organise on average 414 Parent and Toddler clubs per week to enable children to play in safe environments and where parents meet with Salvation Army Officers and other parents for support, with an average weekly attendance of 14,742.
We see the problems our society faces – family breakdown, poverty, homelessness, hunger, drug and alcohol addiction, domestic violence, child abuse and much more besides. We see men, women and children suffering greatly. More than anything we want to do something practical to transform their lives.
As well as helping people who are experiencing homelessness, we support families who have hit hard times, people who have been made redundant, become ill or are experiencing benefit delay. When someone in crisis comes to us wanting assistance, we take an interest in that person and get to the heart of their problem to find a long-term solution. The ongoing nature of our work is key to breaking the cycle of dependence and supporting people on a path to dignity.
Our older generation deserve to be treated with dignity, have a say in what they want, to receive care when they require it and to have the opportunity to retain as much independence as possible. We see it as a privilege to offer services to older people who continue to make tremendous contributions to their families and in their communities.
Inspired by our Christian faith, we work tirelessly in communities across the UK and right round the world to help people in terrible difficulties to overcome their problems, get back on their feet and stay there.
Today, The Salvation Army is active in 128 countries. Each location has different challenges, but the adaptive, people-led approach is remarkably similar to that of early-day pioneers. As a worldwide Christian church, our message is based on the Bible; our motivation is the love of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. Inspired by our faith, we engage in a programme of practical action to serve the community, to help those who are suffering and in need, and to fight for social justice.