William and Catherine Booth

The Rapid Rise of The Salvation Army in Britain in the 1880s

David Malcolm Bennett
William Booth had a passion to reach the masses for Christ and in 1865 the Booth family moved to London where he certainly found those masses. In July that year Booth took part in an evangelistic campaign in a tent in London’s East End, and was deeply moved by the poverty and godlessness of the people amongst whom he was working. He felt called by God to settle in that area and continue the work there. The family moved to the borough of Hackney in east London and while Catherine continued to itinerate William Booth began to minister to the East Enders. The name of Booth’s work, his Mission, underwent various changes, before becoming the Christian Mission in 1869 or 1870. In 1878 it was renamed The Salvation Army.[1]
At first Catherine Booth had no real input into the Mission as such, being instead the family’s main breadwinner, often preaching to congregations in more prosperous areas.[2] But after two or three years, as William Booth’s vision began to extend beyond the East End, she was used as a preacher to visit likely areas for expansion, hold evangelistic meetings and test the waters to see whether there was enough interest in that location to open a new mission station.[3]
The Salvation Army was aggressively and unashamedly evangelistic. Its open-air meetings and street parades, often later led by a brass band, its holding meetings in secular locations such as Music Halls and theatres, all helped to bring the Army to the attention of the people in the districts in which they worked

One officer, John Lawley, usually carried an umbrella for his outdoor meetings. If he failed to attract a crowd by conventional methods, he would put up his umbrella and run around in circles until the people gathered. Then he would proclaim the gospel.[4] Such eccentric practices were common in the Army’s early days. Its controversial methods, and not least its employment of female officers, attracted attention in both the religious and secular press, which drew it even further into the public eye.
Progress at first was fairly slow. At the end of the first year the Mission had a mere 60 members. This was not surprising because the area in which Booth was working was one of the most Gospel-resistant in the country. The British census of 1851 showed that on one particular Sunday just over 40 percent of the nation’s population went to church. In London’s East End (Booth’s initial territory) the percentage was much lower, with some boroughs below 20 percent. In addition, many of the East Enders were Irish Roman Catholics, who were not attracted to Booth’s form of religion.[5]
However, by 1877, after Booth’s Mission had spread to other areas, it had 31 stations with a total of over 2500 members.[6] From then the Mission/Army grew rapidly, especially in the north of England, though in London, its birthplace, growth was much slower. In 1880 it opened operations in the USA and Australia and in the following year France. By this time it was fast developing into one of the most, if not the most, successful evangelistic enterprises of the Victorian era.

It is very clear that the Army, in Britain at any rate, grew rapidly from the late-1870s until about 1888, but after that, though it was still growing, it increased at a much slower pace, and then plateaued, as the following chart for that period demonstrates.

The Growth of The Salvation Army in Britain 1877-90
Below is a chart of how the Salvation Army grew in this period.
Year     Corps   Officers
1877       30          36
1878       81        127
1879     125        194
1880     172        363
1881     234          ?
1882     387          ?
1883     528      1340
1884     637      1476
1885    802       1780
1886  1039       2271
1887  1274       2974
1888  1412       3523
1889  1445       4314
1890  1375       4506

These statistics, which are for Britain only, show clearly that after extremely rapid growth in the late 1870s and the early and mid-1880s, the rate of increase slowed significantly, and in the final year of that decade there seems to have been a decline. It does need to be noted, however, that these figures come from different sources, and though most seem to have been recorded in December of the relevant year, the last two, at least, were earlier. In addition, the data has not always been compiled in the same way. For example, some seem to be for England and Wales only while others include Scotland and Ireland.

Also the statistics for “Officers” are in some cases for officers only, while in others they are for officers and other employees. The 1890 figure is for “Officers or Persons wholly engaged in the Work”, so the increase in paid personnel for that year, against a decline in the number of Corps, is presumably because of an increase in the number of non-officers employed by the Army to manage the Darkest England scheme.[7] These statistics are therefore not all precisely comparable.

But these differences in method cannot mask the fact that the rate of growth in the late 1870s and much of the 1880s was extremely rapid. In the first ten years of the above period the number of Corps increased from 30 to 1274, which is most remarkable. William Booth thought that his Army was going to sweep through the nation and the world. However, it would also seem that by the end of the 1880s not only had the national figures reached a peak, there had been a decline in London. Another relevant factor is that figures for 1891 and 1892 do not seem to be available.[8] This might well indicate that in those years the Army’s numbers declined and Booth was not keen on publicising the fact. So The Salvation Army in Britain simply exploded in the 1880s, setting off very rapid growth, then seems to have reached a peak at the end of the decade.

When one investigates the matter of actual conversions, or at least claimed conversions, the matter is even more remarkable. In the year ending on 30 June 1878 the names of 10,762 “Anxious enquirers” were recorded.[9] Then, according to the Army’s official history, “During 1886 no fewer than 148,000 persons confessed conversion at [Army] penitent-form[s] in the United Kingdom alone.”[10]

However, it needs to be noted that “conversions” proceeding from public invitation evangelism fail to take into account that people often respond more that once to evangelistic invitations, and some respond many times. In addition, some respond and quickly fall away. Therefore genuine conversions through Salvation Army instrumentality in those years are almost certainly far less than the figures given above, but they are still very likely to be a significant number.

But it is unarguable that The Salvation Army grew from a handful of people in the middle of 1865 to an organisation of many thousands a little more than 20 years later. There is little doubt too, that many, perhaps most, of these additions came from outside the existing churches. While it must be admitted that the Army did acquire a host of members and supporters from other denominations, almost certainly a substantial number of whom came from the Methodist churches, many others were converts from the streets, public houses and Music Halls and right outside organised Christianity.

Why Did the Army Grow so Quickly?

What has to be asked here is did The Salvation Army grow so rapidly at this time simply because of the type of organisation it was and the methods it used, or was it because a widespread revival occurred soon after it had laid firm foundations for its work and it just benefited from that revival? Or did both of these factors play their part?

John Kent says that by 1890 “the original religious basis of the Army was proving too weak to sustain the initial success”, which was why Booth commenced his social work scheme, In Darkest England.[11] In other words, Booth realised that the growth in his Army was slowing considerably and that it may have even been declining, and decided to add a new factor, involvement in a whole range of social issues, into his movement to reignite that rapid growth.

However, what Kent does not seem to realise is that some of the units of the In Darkest England scheme, officially launched in 1890, were established earlier while the Army was still growing rapidly. For example, support for people leaving prison began in 1883, a rescue home for prostitutes was founded in 1884 (a work that was headed up by one of the Booths’ daughters-in-law), and the shelters for homeless men were commenced early in 1888 on the General’s specific command.12 Kent’s suggestion, therefore, does not measure up.

It is undeniable, however, that The Salvation Army in Britain plateaued in 1889-90, and as figures for the next two years do not seem to be readily available, this may suggest that there was a decline and that Booth had no intention of broadcasting the fact. So if The Salvation Army stopped growing in Britain around 1889-90 and in the next few years may have even begun to decline, what were the reasons for that?

Is it possible that the main reason for this halt to growth had nothing to do with the Army as such, nothing to do with its “original religious basis” or anything else within the movement? Could it be instead that a God-endowed spiritual revival that had bloomed so well and for so long in Britain in the late 1870s and 1880s, and from which the Army had so profited, had now ended? Thus the Army along with most other British denominations ceased to grow and even declined from 1890.


1 David Malcolm Bennett, The General: William Booth (2 vols. Florida: Xulon Press, 2003), 1:349-59 & 2:13, 94-104.
2 Catherine Booth’s Reminiscences, in The Diary and Reminiscences of Catherine Booth (ed. David Malcolm Bennett, Brisbane: Camp Hill Publ. 2005), 87- 93, 136.
3 C. Booth, Reminiscences, 136-40, 145-46.
4 Mrs. Colonel Carpenter, Commissioner John Lawley (London: Salvationist, 1924), 34.
5 The population of England and Wales in 1851 was 17,927,609, G. Kitson Clark, The Making of Victorian England (London: Methuen, 1965), 66. The number of church attendances on the day of the census was 10,896,066. However, many people would have attended twice or even three times, so it was estimated that 7,261,032 different people went at least once on that Sunday, Census of Great Britain 1851, Religious Worship, England and Wales: Report and Tables (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1853), cli-clii; see page 7 for the figures of some East London boroughs.
6 Bennett, General, 2:33, 71.
7 Sources of statistics: 1877 and 1878: The Salvationist, 1 Jan. 1879; 1879: The War Cry (TWC), 27 Dec 1879; 1880; The Advance of The Salvation Army (1880), 8; 1881 and 1882: Glenn K. Horridge, The Salvation Army, Origins and Early Days: 1865-1900 (Godalming: Ammonite, 1993), 38; 1883: The Salvation War (1883), 155; 1884 and 1885: G. S. Railton, Heathen England (5th Edition), 189-90 and The Salvation War (1885), 170-71; 1886: The Advance of The Salvation Army in 1886, 9; 1887 and 1888TWC, 7 Jan. 1888, 8, and 5 Jan. 1889, 10; 1889: All The World, June 1889, 246; 1890: William Booth, In Darkest England and the Way Out (London: Salvation Army, 1890), appendix, iii. These statistics have been collated with the help of the International Heritage Centre, London and the Heritage Centre, Sydney. My thanks go to them.
8 I have been unable to find such figures and searches by the International Heritage Centre, London and the Heritage Centre, Sydney have also proved fruitless.
9 Christian Mission Magazine, Sept. 1878, 246.
10 Arch Wiggins, The History of The Salvation Army (6 vols. London: Salvation Army, 1964), vol. 4:184.
11 John Kent, Holding the Fort: Studies in Victorian Revivalism (London: Epworth, 1978), 335.
12 Bennett, General, 2:202-203, 209-10, 258; TWC, 21 Jan. 1888.

© 2013, David Malcolm Bennett

No Comments Yet

Comments are closed.