How it All Began: The History of Our Sacramental Journey

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How did The Salvation Army arrive at its position regarding the sacraments? This article explores that history and connects it to revivalism and the Second Great Awakening. We’ll see how the Booths came to this pivotal conclusion. “Blood and Fire”—the motto on every Salvation Army flag and crest, signifying the blood of Jesus and the fire of the Holy Spirit—was a uniting thread through this history. I write with humility, from my own point of view, but I hope to shed light on the subject and pray for true communion between the saints. I also write with charity and grace, acknowledging that the sacraments are a meaningful, virtuous, and transformative experience for many Christians.

SPARKING AN AWAKENING

Summer 1800, on the Tennessee border, Logan County, Kentucky: A Presbyterian minister and two Methodist brothers met over a long weekend to pray for their community, which had become known as “Rogue County”—the most violent place in America—where criminals went to escape the law. On weekends, the community would come to Red River Meeting House to trade, drink, and catch up on news and politics. This small and faithful band held a “sacramental service,” where they fasted and prayed for revival and finished by partaking of the sacraments.

As they pled for grace and prayed for the blood of Jesus to wash their county, the fire of the Holy Spirit descended on the Meeting House and sparked an awakening that transformed those inside and spilled over to the rogues outside! Over the following months, the entire county was radically converted, eventually becoming known as the birthplace of southern hospitality!

CROSSING THE ATLANTIC

By autumn that year, the first American Methodist Bishop, Francis Asbury, had crossed into Kentucky. Due to the success of frontier Methodist missionaries like those in Logan County, Asbury heard about the revival taking place at Red River and visited. He found a city of tents with people camping out for non-stop revival meetings! He called Methodists throughout the United States to replicate the strategy. By spring of 1801, the Logan County spark became a flame spreading across the frontier States, later known as the Second Great Awakening.

These revivals did not discriminate. Men and women, children and adults, rich and poor, people of all races, lay people and clergy, sinners and saints were all being transformed. God was changing people’s lives, as well as their societies, evident in how they treated one another. These revivals profoundly influenced the abolition of slavery, the rights of women, and the care given to the poor and those in prison. People would approach an “anxious seat” to publicly call out to God for mercy! Camp Meetings were held all across America. Charles Finney, a revivalist the early Army dubbed “The Presbyterian Salvationist,” described these “new measures” in Lectures on Revivals of Religion.

Wagons gave way to steamboats, and canals connected the east coast to America’s bread basket, but it was spiritual bread that traveled the routes as these principles swept city by city, eventually crossing the Atlantic back to England. The industrial revolution separated rich and poor, deeply affecting the Methodist church. Some coveted education and prestige; others, true to John Wesley’s principles, saw that the whole world and all people needed the Gospel. Methodist reform groups wanted to return to Wesley’s founding purpose. They found an ally in American “new measures” revivalism. One young girl from Derbyshire, Catherine Mumford, received her own copy of Finney’s book and read it repeatedly. American revivalist James Caughey introduced young William Booth to these principles while visiting Nottinghamshire, Booth’s hometown.

TRANSFORMING THE “GODLESS WASTELAND”

Catherine and William met in their twenties and fell in love. They applied principles of revivalism while serving in the Methodist New Connexion. Their churches became “converting shops,” where people encountered grace through the blood of Jesus and the fire of the Holy Spirit. Catherine even started to preach in public like the American holiness ambassador, Phoebe Palmer, who had come to England with her husband to spread holiness fire. William’s evangelistic success, like Finney’s, was becoming clear as the Connexion struggled to contain the growth. The Booths, therefore, became independent evangelists for five years, traveling the routes of Caughey and Palmer until they found their destiny among the masses of East London in 1865.

East London seemed a godless wasteland; the Booths saw nothing closer to hell on earth. Like “Rogue County,” it was a world of anarchists and criminals, the rejected and destitute. It was the perfect context for Blood and Fire to awaken a movement for the salvation of the world. What started as a “Revival Society” quickly became a Mission. Following Wesley’s Methodism and Finney’s “new measures,” they battled for souls in East London. They experimented with a system to get people saved, then connect them to local churches. Sadly, the poor found no place. In response, the Booths formed a church for the masses. As a church, they baptized individuals and shared communion, acts of great importance to Methodists.

One practical challenge, however, when alcoholics were getting saved, was bringing them to church, then giving them wine! Always the innovators, they colored water to look like wine and used that!

REIMAGINING CHRISTIAN MISSION

Within 10 years, the mission expanded to cities across Great Britain. Not all their “evangelists” chose to use the “new measure” of calling people to the altar. Their Bible classes and Sunday schools taught people to read the Bible, but did not convert their souls. At a Christian Mission conference, this issue became disruptive and frustrated Catherine, William, their children, and young George Scott Railton, who served as secretary of the Mission. They actually prohibited Bible classes and Sunday schools from continuing until they found a way to not only give head-knowledge, but to penetrate the soul. They feared inoculating people from true transformation! Bible reading and ministry to children were welcome, as long as the focus was on transformation.

They reimagined the Mission and sought a fresh expression of church, free from the barnacles of religious indifference. They yearned to intensify and accelerate the spread of their Blood and Fire message. Could people return to early church principles, seen in the book of Acts, while radically adapting to the language and culture of people everywhere? They finally chose a military structure—an Army of Salvation—to carry the Blood and Fire to every corner of the world!

This radical reimagination of the church affected everything. Uniforms and flags with “Blood and Fire” were introduced in 1878. Young women were sent out as “Hallelujah Lasses” and led nightly meetings with thousands of people! “Salvationism” swept England like a storm. In 1880, Railton and seven Hallelujah Lasses came to America to join Eliza Shirley and her parents who pioneered the work of The Salvation Army in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Railton trained these lasses as cadets and wrote Orders and Regulationsfor Salvationists on the boat to America. He sent this text to London for the new training homes opening in London that year. Meanwhile, Railton spent much time in Pennsylvania, the “Quaker State.” He was fascinated with how Quakers had chosen to not practice the sacraments, but cared for the poor, empowered women, and believed in the blood of Christ and fire of the Holy Spirit. Railton returned to England in 1881 and published a book associating Salvationists with Quakers. A Quaker publication, however, rejected Railton’s association!

A GREAT DEBATE

Upon returning from America, Railton continued to develop the Army’s doctrines and disciplines, and Orders and Regulations. Fascinated by Quaker theology, Railton and the Booths wrestled with the sacraments. Was the form and ceremony more important, or the essence they represented? As the Jerusalem church welcomed Gentiles (Acts 15), The Salvation Army aimed to reach outsiders with the Gospel. Like the circumcision issue, they queried whether the physical expression was as crucial as the spiritual reality. They decided that Salvationist mission would embrace the less-ritualistic position of the Gentile church as they did in Acts 15. During this time, the Army was expanding into the British Empire, and quickly into lands with little to no Christian influence. The Salvation Army did not colonize people to a British church culture; they aimed to develop a localized experience and expression of Blood and Fire. Salvationists knew this was essential for the transformation of the world.

“THE SECRET BOOK”

A loose association known as The Skeleton Army reacted to the Army’s success of shutting down pubs and disrupting criminal strongholds by harassing and attacking Salvationists. But, church-goers dealt the lowest blow. Some discovered what they thought was a “Secret Book” which Salvationists kept to themselves. What a scandal! In the London Times, a Mr. Charlesworth declared, “In that book you ignore the Holy Sacraments of the Christian Church!” Now, a religious “skeleton” army opposed Salvationists. The Countess de Gasparin warned that Jesus would “break your trumpets and crush your platforms, tear the epaulets from the shoulders of your officers, bid your women return to their hearths, follow their domestic duties, cultivate humble virtues, and fulfill their feminine mission.” Reverend Charles Bullock also published against the Army’s “Secret Book.” What was this book? They were only talking about The Handbook of Doctrine and Orders and Regulations for Officers of The Salvation Army, which were the training manuals for cadets. The Army shared this publicly, and Catherine lectured in response. These harsh critics were Christians who observed the sacraments but seemed to lack grace and holiness. Where was their heart for those the Army was reaching?

About then, the Army also began “Little Soldiers,” who were enrolled under the Blood and Fire, declaring their commitment to a life of holiness and public witness. Adult soldiers were also enrolled; and by 1883, parents began dedicating their children to God in the Army. These new methods were also considered scandalous to some Christians.

Talks between The Salvation Army and the Church of England about possibly uniting broke down after Railton published The Converted Clergymanon the life of John Wesley, which emphasized the Army’s stance on the sacraments.

RESOLUTION AND CAVEAT

At the beginning of 1883, William Booth met with his officers regarding the “sacraments.” In The War Cryof January 17, 1883, he reasoned:

“Now if the Sacraments are not conditions of Salvation; if there is no general division of opinion as to the proper mode of administering them, and if the introduction of them would create division of opinion and heart-burning, and if we are not professing to be a church, nor aiming at being one, but simply a force for aggressive Salvation purposes, is it not wise for us to postpone any settlement of the question, to leave it over to some future day, when we shall have more light, and see more clearly our way before us?”

ANOTHER AWAKENING?

Is that “future day” today? The Salvation Army has indeed become a church. More crucial questions remain, however: Are we “a force for aggressive Salvation purposes?” Is the salvation of souls our central aim? How do we currently share in the body and blood of Jesus? Do people regularly experience grace at our altars? Have we experienced the sanctifying fire of the Holy Spirit? Are we publicly declaring our faith in Christ? Are we what our uniforms say we are, or have we developed barnacles of religiosity with our own forms and ceremonies? Is our Salvationism hollow or hallowed?

We respect and honor churches that observe the sacraments; but The Salvation Army embraces the posture that the essence, not merely the form, is critical. This is a prophetic challenge to maintain the spirit of Salvationism, a plea to address foremost the essential issues of Blood and Fire, then issues of bread, wine, and water. Whether or not it is time for a change regarding the sacraments, God is preparing The Salvation Army and calling us to humble ourselves and pray for an awakening! Together, let’s lay our lives down and become Christ’s broken bread, filled with His holy love, flowing into the world like outpoured wine.

Read more about the history of The Salvation Army and the sacraments by visiting salvationfactory.org/the-sacraments/. You’ll find a list of suggested reading material by Envoy Steve Bussey.

“The Field Officer must lead his Soldiers on to the Baptism of the Holy Ghost; he must make them Blood-and-Fire. The work of the Spirit is to fill the soul with burning zeal for the Salvation of the world. Christ’s work must be finished. He has left that task to His people; it can only be continued and carried on to victory by His own Spirit working in the hearts and through the lives of His people. The Holy Ghost was promised for this. This is what His people have therefore the right to expect, and without it the Soldiers are powerless for the war.”

Orders and Regulations for Officers of The Salvation Army, 1886

Envoy Steve Busey, Salvation Factory/Innovation Department,Territorial Headquarters Eastern Territory