‘I may be wrong but I think a man can be a Christian and march along without a uniform’: theft and imposture brings the Salvation Army into court

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The Salvation Army was founded in 1865 but only adopted its current name in 1878, so in January 1884 (the subject of this week’s series of posts) it was still a fairly new organization. I’ve written about the ‘Army’ several times in this blog and elsewhere and I think it would be fair to say that in its infancy the Sally Army (and it is now affectionately known) was not as well-thought of as it is today.

As a deeply religious Protestant sect it attracted criticism from middle-of-the-road members of the established Church of England. This criticism (which was often sneering) from above was matched by ridicule and antagonism from ‘below’; members of the working class resented the temperance message the Army preached. Many others simply disliked the awful row they made when they marched through London playing brass instruments badly and singing hymns off key.

A quiet Sunday in London; Or, the day of rest.

Cartoon in Punch (1886) showing some of the contemporary ridicule of salvation Army members 

Some of this underlying resentment and  contempt can be seen in the prosecution of a letter carrier at Bow Street Police court towards the end of January 1884. William Hartley, employed in the Chelsea district of London, was brought before Mr Flowers accused of stealing a letter that contained a £5 note. Hartley, it was alleged, had stolen the money and used it to buy a Salvation Army uniform.

When the police traced the missing money and found a trail leading to Hartley he was arrested and held for questioning. He then wrote to the Army at its headquarters in Queen Victoria Street, saying he was attached to ‘211 Blood and Fire Division, Chelsea Detachment’. As a result both the detachment’s commander –a ‘Captain’ Isaac Anderson – and the Army’s solicitor – Mr Bennett – appeared in court also.

The reporter was amused that Bennett, a lawyer, appeared in the uniform of the Army rather than civil clothes and this theme ran through the Morning Post’s article. The lawyer said he regretted any association between the prisoner and the Army and suggested the man was an imposter. After all, he said, ‘any person could have a uniform by paying for it, if he liked to represent himself as a soldier’.

This drew a strong rebuke from the magistrate:

‘The country provides its soldiers with a uniform’ Mr Flowers told him, adding that he ‘didn’t see the use of a uniform, but I may be wrong. I think a man can be a Christian and march along without one, and all the better’.

While he said this ‘warmly’ it was met with applause in the court, indicating that many of those gathered shared his dim view of the Army’s obsession with dressing up and adopting a military outlook. That said it was clear to him that Hartley was guilty of stealing the bank note (and, as it was revealed a 20spostal order and since the theft was both serious (£5 in 1884 is about £300 today, 20 shillings equates to £65) and from her Majesty’s Post Office, he committed him to take his trial before a jury.

Today the Salvation Army has over 1.6 million members across the globe and does a great deal of worthwhile charity work. William Booth, the Army’s founder, wanted a more direct religion for the masses, feeling that the C of E was far too ‘middle class’ to appeal to ordinary people. I suppose the rise of evangelicalism  in the modern period is a reflection of this as well, the idea that Anglicanism is less about God and more about keeping up appearances and retaining social barriers (rather than  breaking them down).

As someone with no organized religion of my own I find them all equally strange but at the same time am happy when Christians (as the Sally Army’s legions of members are) actually practice what they preach rather than simply paying lip service to the sermon on the Mount by their occasional attendance at harvest festivals or carols at Christmas.  The Salvation Army may be odd but it is not full of hypocrites.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, 26 January, 1884]

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