Saving the Slum Sisters

Banner Image March Walking Dead — Slum Sisters

Two words—glass slipper—often lead to one thought: Cinderella. Whether you grew up with the Brothers Grimm version, the Disney version, or any of the hundreds of spin-offs in between, one thing holds true: Cinderella’s class is evident in her clothing.

Social class, that is. In jealousy, her stepfamily replaces her pretty outfits with torn peasant rags, making their less-than-worthy treatment of her seem more fitting. When the royal family announces a ball, the stepsisters ruin Cinderella’s only proper dress to try to lower her status back down; and a glimmering ball gown magically entitles Cinderella to be treated as well as a royal.

Wealth often translates into influence and opportunity. Yet the divide between rich and poor is so vast that those at the bottom struggle just to get by. So, how does someone get a hand up when they don’t have a fairy godmother?
Meet the Slum Sisters.

HITTING THE SLUMS

In the early days of The Salvation Army, open-air meetings were a strong means of spreading the Gospel. However, there were plenty of people who were too weak, too ill, and too busy with the demands of life to receive God’s Word in this way.

In 1884, Emma Booth (daughter of General William Booth) had a revolutionary idea: send Army officers into the worst parts of London’s slums. This way, they could serve the poor by ministering to the sick, caring for the children of working mothers, and providing for the physical and spiritual needs of these neglected communities.

The first officers to be appointed to this ministry in the United States—America’s first two “Slum Sisters”—were *Staff-Captain Emma J. Bown and Lieutenant Martha Johnson. They started in 1889 after the order came from Commander Ballington Booth. Bown had studied the work carried out in London’s slums previously, so she was especially prepared for the challenge set before her in New York City.

BLENDING IN

The Slum Sisters lived in the midst of the people they served—maximizing their time and capacity to help. They ditched their Army barracks for tenement rooms which were very small and had no luxuries. They learned that to blend in with the working people, they had to forgo their uniforms and dress as common workers. The Slum Sisters’ new attire became gingham dresses, aprons, shawls, and straw hats. Winter or summer, day or night, these officers were constantly available to meet the needs of the people. This was no small feat, for the slums were filthy and disease-ridden, and filled with the aftermath of every vice you could imagine.

By the end of Bown’s first year in the slums, an additional two pairs of slum officers were stationed in New York. Despite the small numbers, their impact was tremendous:

  • More than 5,500 families were visited during that time.
  • 942 families received clothing.
  • 613 families received food donations.
  • 777 babies were cared for in a Salvation Army nursery.

A NATIONAL MOVEMENT

Slum work began to expand in the United States in the 1890s. Boston, Brooklyn, Chicago, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, and St. Louis all had Slum Sisters providing ministry and support to the poor by 1896. Slum officers provided “food to the hungry, clothes for the naked, fuel for the cold, bedding for the comfortless, work for the workless, hope for the despairing, and often the Bread of Life to the hungry at heart” (Secrets of Success in Slumland). By night, they could be found in saloons and dives, reading the Bible, selling The War Cry, and leading those present in song and prayer (The War Cry, September 27, 1975). In time, there were hundreds of Slum Sisters throughout Europe and the United States, where they continued serving until about 1950. By this time, their social work had been absorbed into other service programs, including rescue homes for the homeless, abandoned women, drug addicts, alcoholics, and prostitutes. Day nurseries, children’s homes, and summer camps were also set up to meet the needs of young people.

Despite no longer sending out Slum Sisters in the original sense of the word, The Salvation Army continues its valiant mission, in these and other programs, to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ and meet human need in His name without discrimination.

*Staff-Captain was an intermediate rank between Captain and Major that was initiated in 1881 and discontinued in 1931.

Portrait of Emma J. Bown

Emma J. Bown

REVIVING HOPE

The Slum Sisters often made house visits to those in need. One story recounts an ill woman found lying on her attic floor on a small pile of rags for her bed. She was hardly half clothed and was holding her baby of only a few months old. The baby didn’t have sufficient clothes either, and looked so shrunken, famished, and sickly that the babe was described as a “hideous travesty of infinitely old age” (Love’s Laborings in Sorrow’s Soil). The husband had deserted the family, and now both mother and child were starving and sick.

A month after the Slum Sisters found them, their life was turned around: they were now healthy, fed, clothed, strengthened, and given hope.

CHILDREN OF GOD

The unwavering courage and devotion of these women were possible due to their love of God and others. They saw everyone as a child of God. Status, race, sex, religion, and even health—none of those things mattered when the Slum Sisters offered their continual assistance.

How can we, who may not be dedicating our entire lives to service in this way, learn from their example? Is there someone who is neglected in your community that you could reach out to with love? Consider living out your faith in this way, and remember to pray for missionaries and volunteers who are serving others around the world.

—Mariam Aburdeineh, Editorial Assistant, Young Salvationist magazine