|William and Catherine Booth, founders of the Salvation Army.|
Note—This is one of those stories that got away from me. What started out as a cute little piece about a quirky bit of history led me down digressive, but interesting paths. And research on the actual events took more than the usual digging. So here it is, over-inflated and a day late.
Most modern Americans have a vague but positive image of the Salvation Army. Their members, dressed in tidy blue uniforms are spotted annually ringing hand bells by familiar Red Kettles. Sometimes, in big cities at high profile locations there may even be a small brass ensemble and/or singers. All the better to lure your coins and bills for a charity that promises to feed and house the hungry and destitute and help treat those who have hit rock bottom due to drinking or drug use. Perhaps we envision the slightly prissy but sexy Sergeant Sarah Brown in Guys and Dolls.
Most of us are unaware that the Salvation Army is not just a charity, but a highly zealous evangelical denomination whose main mission is not comforting the afflicted, but saving their souls by bringing them to Jesus. The down and outers that they serve quickly learn that there is a price for every donut, dinner, and cot—being a captive audience for emotional hell-fire and brimstone sermons and accepting counseling that is as much fervent prayer and the study of religious tracts, a psychological support.
But so what, many will shrug. It can’t do much harm and may do some good.
The Salvation Army dates to mid-19th Century Victorian England where its brand of militarized proselytizing of the wretched urban poor was from the start highly controversial. The Church of England, Catholics, and more traditional dissenters were rarely united in their opposition to the style and substance of the Army’s brand of Evangelical Christianity. Brewers, distillers, publicans, and working class drinkers were threatened and enraged by the Salvation Army’s militant teetotalism and demands for the legal prohibition of alcohol sales.
Its roots were in fervent Methodism. Again modern Americans will be surprised. Our Methodists are right smack dab in the staid middle of mainstream Protestantism. But it had originated the emotional Evangelical revival crusades that under powerful preachers like George Whitefield on both sides of the Atlantic in the 18th Century. In America Whitefield ignited the First Great Awakening. Methodism directed much of its energy to proselytizing among the poor and working classes. It gave real hope to folk in want and misery and spread rapidly. In America it was the largest Protestant denomination by1860 thanks to its saddle bag circuit riding preachers following the frontier as it expanded. A glimpse at that old time fervor is found in an offhand comment offered by Norman Maclean’s Presbyterian fain the novella and movie A River Runs Through It—“Methodists are just Baptists who can read.”
In Britain, after officially separating from the Church of England, it was soon outpacing more traditional and largely Calvinist dissenting sects. By the mid-19th Century some of the original excitement was dying down amid general Victorian respectability, and emphasis on saving souls was somewhat replaced by a zeal for social reform embraced by many of its middle class adherents. And no reform seemed as urgent as temperance—the mother of all reforms.
William Booth was a preacher who kept up the old-school fervor for salvation coupled with a zeal for reform and sacrificial service to the poor. Born to a comfortable middle class family in Nottingham in 1829, he was forced to leave school and be bound out as a pawnbroker’s apprentice at the age of 13 when his family’s fortune collapsed. Exposed to people in such crisis that they gave up their most prized possessions, young Booth found solace in the revivals and street meeting sweeping the region. He converted to Methodism at age 15 and was soon engaged in lay preaching. Shortly after he teamed with his best friend to conduct their own revival meetings in the area, which lasted until the friend’s death in 1849. He left Nottingham for London that year where he found work at another pawn shop and resumed lay preaching then began revival preaching in the Kensington District.
In 1851 he joined the splinter Methodist Reform Church and sought to enter the regular ministry. Preaching at their headquarters Binfield Chapel in Clapham young Booth became engaged to the equally fervent Catherine Mumford. Booth’s heart was in revival evangelism at which he excelled. But his church superiors insisted that he serve as a parish minister. He would have to give short shrift to his congregations to answer frequent calls to speak at various revival meetings. With the loyal support of Catherine, Booth resigned the ministry and left the denomination after his third parish assignment in 1861 and began a career as an independent revivalist. Although he continued to preach Methodist doctrine, he now found himself barred from meetings at chapels of his old denomination.
In 1865 Booth was preaching to street crowds outside a notorious pub in London’s deeply impoverished East End. Missionaries conducting their own tent meeting near-by were impressed and invited them to join them. The success of his meetings there beginning in July convinced him he had found his real calling. Soon after he and Catherine opened their Christian Revival Society, later known as the East London Christian Mission. Two years later they acquired a former Beer Hall and made it the center of a movement. Known as the People's Mission Hall housed sometimes rowdy all night prayer vigil, provided cheap or free meals, and ministered to other immediate needs of the poorest of the poor, criminals, drunkards, and prostitutes without discrimination. It was one of almost 500 missions established by well meaning Christians of all denominations out to save the souls of the wicked poor. But, it was one of the most successful in part because Booth mixed his gospel with real assistance.
He began to attract disciples who tried to duplicate his work elsewhere. But it was hard. Brewers and publicans railed against his temperance marches. Drinkers and hooligans often stoned him, his marchers, and broke windows in the mission building. For every step forward there seemed a setback.
In 1878 Booth was dictating a letter to his secretary and used a phrase “The Christian Mission is a Volunteer Army.” His teenage son Bramwell heard it and exclaimed, “I’m not a volunteer, I’m a regular or nothing!” Booth to substitute the words Salvation Army for the Volunteer Army and soon made it the new name of the Christian Mission.
He also adopted a military form of organization with ranks of officers—ministers, lay worker as NCO and the rank and file of the saved were soldiers and the latest but uncommitted converts were captives. The Corps, as they were called were outfitted in uniform’s mimicking those of the British Army—Men in scarlet tunics and military caps, the women in matching tunics, long blue skirts, large bonnets fastened at one side of the neck by a wide ribbon bow, and sometime a blue cloak with a scarlet lining.
|A typical English Salvation Army brass band of the late 19th Century.|
In the Methodist tradition Booth had already employed music—including music hall tunes with new hymn lyrics in the grand Sunday worship he led at large, rented theaters. Now he added marching bands for his street parades and rallies and had other members carry and play tambourines as they sang enthusiastically. And the parades, which drew more and more attention, marched behind the Army’s own distinctive banner.
All of this was disconcerting to the religious establishment and to communities being targeted, most of whose residents had little interest in either being saved or being reformed. Civil authorities were also concerned that a religious army might actually take up arms and become and insurrectionary one. This was not such a ridiculous worry considering that just such a religious army had once risen up in English history, plunged the country into a prolonged and bloody Civil War, over thrown the monarchy, committed regicide, and then had its leader, Oliver Cromwell, rule as an oppressive dictator.
Despite opposition from all sides, the Salvation Army grew rapidly and was soon dispatching officers—both men and women who served with equal authority—to all corners of the British Isles. Soon new branches were springing up in America and other countries as well.
To get an idea of the exuberant energy of the Salvation Army, consider the famous verses by American Poet Vachel Lindsey years later in General William Booth Enters Heaven:
[GRAND CHORUS OF ALL INSTRUMENTS.
TAMBOURINES TO THE FOREGROUND]
The hosts were sandalled, and their wings were fire!
(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)
But their noise played havoc with the angel-choir.
(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)
O shout Salvation! It was good to see
Kings and Princes by the Lamb set free.
The banjos rattled and the tambourines
Jing-jing-jingled in the hands of Queens.
[REVERENTLY SUNG. NO INSTRUMENTS]
And when Booth halted by the curb for prayer
He saw his Master thro’ the flag-filled air.
Christ came gently with a robe and crown
For Booth the soldier, while the throng knelt down.
He saw King Jesus. They were face to face,
And he knelt a-weeping in that holy place.
Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?
Which brings us, at long last, to the town of Basingstoke advertized in the headline. It was once an old and sleepy market town in Hampshire in south central England. After being connected to London and port communities by railroad in the 1850’s it had become an industrial center and its population swelled with those looking for work in its plants and mills. In addition to producing farming machinery, heavy equipment, and textiles, the town was home to several breweries which supplied beer and ale to a wide region. It also boasted of more than 50 public houses serving a municipal population of only 6,681. The town had developed a regional reputation for public drunkenness and rowdy behavior. The respectable people of the town were not amused.
Since the time of Cromwell Basingstoke had been center for Dissenters. Its professional classes, shopkeepers, and master tradesmen, what might be called the Burger classes were still largely members of Dissenting sects, most particularly the influential London Street Congregational Church. Most of the members of the town council and other officers were members of that church. A minority in town were Anglicans, principally members of the old gentry, and those who were loyal to or aspired to reap benefits from Tory governments. Catholics were scarce and despised. The majority of the laboring class, many of them relatively recent arrivals, were largely un-churched or susceptible to fits of religious enthusiasm when this or that revival would roll through town. Allegiances to evangelical dissenting sects like the Methodists waxed and waned.
The Congregationalists supported a Temperance movement as did other dissenting congregations, local Temperance Societies, and the local newspaper, the Hants and Berks Gazette founded two years earlier. But they were getting nowhere in restraining the liquor trade or suppressing public vice. A good dose of religion was the prescribed medicine, but the Congregationalists certainly did not want to admit even saved grubby workers to their holy precincts. By 1880 they may have signaled General Booth that they would welcome the Salvation Army in their community and support a vigorous temperance campaign.
At any rate they welcomed the “two feeble women,” a Captain Jordan, a female Lieutenant, and a small number of sergeants and soldiers, including musicians, were dispatched to Basingstoke, arriving in September of 1880. They immediately announce plans for to “open fire on Sin and Satan.” Within a week they had begun their street parades which attracted crowds to their meetings.
Local Brewers and publicans were alarmed at the threat to their livelihood. They quickly began to support—and stoke with their products—resentment of working class mobs who began to gather to harass the Sallies, as they were called, within weeks of their arrival. They modeled themselves on the Skeleton Armies that harassed the Salvation Army in London and other major cities.
|The Bassingstoke Massagainians modeled themselves on the Skeleton Army that harassed Salvation Army temperance parades in London.|
They took to calling themselves the Massagainians because, as legend would have it an early leaflet call working men to “Mass again” against the teetotalers. They attempted to disrupt the marches with jeers, their own loud music, plus thrown stones and punches. Stale beer and froth drenched the singing Salvationists from windows of May’s Brewer. Tensions escalated through December along with split lips, cracked heads, and bloody noses. Eggs were thrown at the old silk mill in Brook Street and the Gazette office had its windows broken. The perpetrator of the Gazette attack was publicly awarded a gallon of ale. Sally members were ambushed and dunked in the canal and Captain Jordan narrowly escaped drowning in the River Loddon.
Winter somewhat reduced confrontations, but things heated up again in March 1881. On Sunday March 20, 1881 the Sally planned a major march and was attacked by a mob of Massagainians numbering in the hundreds outside of the Mechanics Institute on New Street. A particularly burly Sally soldier named Charles Elms wrested a Union Jack from the hands of a hooligan then got his arm broken in the struggle to retrieve it. As word of the melee spread reinforcements arrived on both sides bringing the number of attackers to as many as 1000. Many “good citizens” of the town, including members of the Congregationalist church rushed to the scene to protect the marcher. Meanwhile the five member Town Constable force and Mayor W. B. Blatch, a brewer, stood aside and did nothing.
Rioting continued into the afternoon up and down Church Street where a several shop windows were smashed. The unfortunate Elms, who had returned to the side of his Salvation Army cohorts, had his jaw broken and head cracked. Another man was badly cut when pushed through the plate-glass window of the Little Dustpan furniture shop. Still another was trampled. More minor injuries on both sides were too numerous to count. The Adams Brothers, proprietors of the Victoria Brewery, were identified as leaders of the Massagainians.
Following the riot General Booth wrote the Home Secretary demanding that his troops and supporters be protected from mob violence.
Salvation Army leaders defiantly announced another march the following Sunday, March 27. The Massagainians vowed to stop it. As both sides prepared a bitterly divided local government struggled with how to respond. The Council, dominated by the Congregationalists, demanded protection. The Brewer mayor and Chief Constable maintained that their small force was insufficient to safely guarantee the peace. The council forced the mayor to mobilize 30-50 Special Constables to be drawn from—virtually drafted—from the ranks of the towns “leading Tradesmen.” It was a reluctant force at best, many in sympathy with the Massagainians. Realizing this Council called in 30 County Police from Winchester who were thought to have no conflicting loyalties. In addition the captain of a troop of Royal Horse Artillery in town was asked to have his men at the ready. Just how the troops “happened” to be in town is something of a mystery as they were not normally billeted there and would have had nor regular duties that would have brought them to the town on Sunday.
On Sunday the Salvation Army march got off under escort of the town and special constables with the County Police in reserve. They were trailed by a hooting contingent of Massagainians numbering several hundred. The special constables were notably unhappy and uncomfortable with their duty. When the morning march concluded safely, about 3/4s of the special constables returned to town hall and announced that they would not continue to protect, “damned hypocrites.”
When the Sally reassembled outside their old mill headquarters for a second afternoon march many of the special constables had joined the Massagainians. The march set off with the protection of County officers but was stopped by the Mayor who said he was afraid of the more than 3,000 who had gathered at Church and Brook Streets who were led by their own band. The Army pressed forward anyway reaching as far as May’s Brewery when they saw the Massagainians descending on them. The attempted to turn around to return to the mill, but the mob marched passed them pinning them against the side of the street and preventing them from going forward or back. Fighting broke out and from the steps of the Town Hall Mayor Blatch officially read the riot act and ordered the Royal Horse Artillery to clear the streets of everyone, Sally and Massagainian alike.
They made short, brutal work of the job, but no one was killed. The day ended in an essential draw. But news of the invocation of the Riot act and action by the Army made headlines across the country and resulted in Parliamentary debate and investigation.
That Sunday was the apex of the trouble in Basingstoke, but hardly the end of them. The Home Office put pressure on local the magistrates who a proclamation forbidding all processions and open air gatherings in hopes of easing tensions. Three new magistrates were appointed in June 1881 and against the wishes of the Mayor and one other magistrate, persuaded the rest to allow the Salvation Army parades to resume. So did minor rioting and street brawls.
In August the Vicar of the Anglican parish, who would later write an article detailing the history of the conflict which is a source for historians of the event, presented the Magistrates with a petition signed by calling for the Salvation Army processions to be banned for disturbing the peace of the town. In his history the Vicar decried the violence of opponents, but painted the Sallies as needlessly provocative and exciting excessive passions in its followers—a classic Anglican response to revivalist evangelism in general.
The minister of the Congregational Church countered with a petition signed by 613 calling for the processions to be protected to the fullest extent of the law. That August Captain Jordon also swore out charges against a group of Massagainian leaders and those who had been identified with specific acts of violence. On August 30th, 20 people appeared before the magistrates, charged with assault and obstruction as a crowd of Massagainians besieged the court, shouting, beating drums, waving rattles. Ten of were sentenced to Winchester jail for 14 days.
When the men were released they were greeted as martyrs and heroes. They were fetched from the jail in fine liveried carriages and escorted to Basingstoke by outriders in scarlet coats and a professional band playing Hail the Conquering Heroes. They were brought to the public Corn Exchange building, rented for the occasion from the town for an elegant banquet amid spectacular decoration. Brewers donated six barrels of a specially brewed extra strong beer dubbed Massagainian Stingo.
|Broken windows on Church Street after the Election Day 1881 riot.|
In the sharply divided town the municipal elections held on November 1 were hotly contested with Tories, Anglicans, and Massagainians in an odd coalition backing slates against the Liberals, Congregationalists, and Temperance groups. The Massagainian slate with the overwhelming support of the town’s working class population carried the day. An enthusiastic mob celebrated with yet another riot in which the newspaper office, Congregational Parsonage, the Sally’s Silk Mill where a prayer meeting was being held, and Soper’s Castle, the elegant home of a leading Temperance man all suffered smashed windows.
Incidents continued into 1882, including one in which the Mayor once again Read the Riot Act after a mob tried to break into the Town Hall to rescue a fellow who had been arrested to assaulting a constable and another in which six Salvation Army lasses were thrown into the Town Brook.
But as another spring arrived everyone had grown tired of more than a year and a half of strife. The brewers, publicans, and their customers realized that the Sally proved no existential threat to their livelihoods and entertainments. In fact, business was booming. For their part the Salvation Army, once it established its right and ability to parade unmolested, discretely reduced the number and aggressiveness of its public demonstrations.
General Booth personally visited the town to claim victory but was not molested. With donations from all over the country, he saw that a fine new Salvation Army barracks and headquarters was built in town with plenty of room not only for meetings but for soup kitchen like public feeding and dormitory rooms for formerly fallen young women.
Today Basingstoke is mildly embarrassed that riots of 1880-82 are the best known incidents in the town’s long history. Many of the old industries have closed but the town has been made over to exurban satellite of greater London with much of the town’s historic center razed to make room for modern shopping malls. The population has swollen to 84,275 including many middle class commuters. The Salvation Army is still there, now in its third building. And although there are no longer 90 pubs or local breweries, there are plenty of places to drink and drinkers to fill them.