“Go and do something”: what ‘the Salvos’ believe and practise

“Go and do something!” This was the response of William Booth, co-founder with his wife, Catherine, of The Salvation Army to his eldest son, Bramwell, upon learning that men were sleeping out on the bridges of London. Bramwell duly went and did something:


Within a year, in 1888, the first facility for food and shelter was opened in London with accommodations for some 70 men. Soon more than 2,000 persons were being fed daily, including more than 700 hungry children who came for soup. Pressing need and success led to more being established.[1]

It may be argued that, in that moment, the future direction of The Salvation Army altered. It was no longer a movement exclusively focused on evangelism and winning souls for Christ, but now an organisation actively concerned with the conditions of people in this life, as well as in the next.

In Australia, ‘the Salvos’, as The Salvation Army is affectionately known, remains a trusted organisation[2], consistently supported by a generous public whose goodwill is never taken for granted by those of us who have the responsibility both for collecting funds, as well as for operating the social programs those donations make possible. Yet how many people would know that the services provided are all an outward expression of Christian faith – that our desire to “go and do something” is motivated by our understanding of the person and work of Jesus Christ, who came to “do something” for us?

By the time William Booth died in 1912, The Salvation Army was operating in 58 countries[3]. Today, it works in 128 countries[4] on a scale that William and Catherine could hardly have imagined. In the variety of countries represented and the wide range of services delivered, it is the practical expression of Christianity − “Christianity with its sleeves rolled up” − that defines Salvationist service still:

The Salvation Army, an international movement, is an evangelical part of the universal Christian Church. Its message is based on the Bible. Its ministry is motivated by love for God. Its mission is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and meet human needs in His name without discrimination.[5]

The great passion and calling of William Booth’s life was to be an itinerant evangelist. With Catherine’s support he resigned from the Methodist[6] church in 1861, partly over the Methodists’ refusal to allow him the freedom he knew he needed to fulfil God’s calling. In 1865 he found himself preaching at a tent mission amidst the poverty and deprivation of the East End of London. Later, Booth reflected:

As I passed by the door of the flaming gin palaces tonight I seemed to hear a voice sounding in my ears … where is there so great a need for your labours? And there and then in my soul I offered up myself … Those people shall be our people, and they shall have our God for their God.[7]

The East End Christian Revival Society became The Salvation Army in 1878 and uniforms, quasi-military structures and terminology followed. The military symbolism translated well into the culture of late 19th century Britain. The purpose of the uniform – then and now – was primarily to witness to the faith of its wearer.

In modern day Australia, the uniform is, perhaps, less well understood although still recognised. For this wearer, the uniform is firstly a witness to myself – a reminder of the covenant I have made in response to God’s call. It should also be stated that many people who worship with us choose not to wear uniform. It remains the case that the uniform signifies the availability of the wearer – and it opens doors of opportunity for us.

The Salvation Army’s initial growth was sometimes more organic than strategic. Salvationists simply gathered together and formed corps[8] wherever they happened to be. In 1880, two converts from England, John Gore and Edward Saunders, conducted a meeting from the back of a cart in Adelaide. The Salvation Army was officially recognised in Australia in 1881. Today, The Salvation Army operates 336 churches and 453 social services centres across Australia[9].

Salvationist theology retains the Wesleyan emphasis of the founders, encapsulated in eleven articles of faith[10]. Salvationists believe that the grace of God is freely available to anyone, in any place, and at any time. This was one of the reasons why, in 1874, the decision was made not to include ritual observance of communion in Salvationist worship. The founders were concerned that nothing should “become a substitute for inward grace.[11]” However, Salvationists also retain absolute respect for the sincere sacramental observances of other traditions. As a holiness movement, The Salvation Army teaches that every person’s life can be an outward demonstration of God’s inward grace. This idea is, perhaps, best described in one of The Salvation Army’s most popular consecration songs:

My life must be Christ’s broken bread,

My love his outpoured wine.

A cup o’erfilled, a table spread,

Beneath his name and sign,

That other souls, refreshed and fed,

May share his life though mine.[12]

That same spirit of sacramental service – practical holiness – compels The Salvation Army into the world in search of the last, the least and the lost (2 Corinthians 5:14). Why an army? Because we fight against all that would enslave people, against the forces of evil that seek to crush the human spirit and the enemy’s lies that people’s lives are worthless.


[1] Gariepy, Henry. Christianity in Action: The International History of The Salvation Army. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 2009: 177.

[2] According to the AMR 2016 Charity Reputation Index available at http://www.amr-australia.com/asset/cms/2016_Charity_Reputation_AMR.pdf

[3] Gariepy, 2009: 85.

[4] The Salvation Army. Year Book 2017. London: The Salvation Army. 2017: 30.

[5] The international mission statement of The Salvation Army, published at http://www.salvationarmy.org/ihq/Mission

[6] Now part of the Uniting Church in Australia.

[7] Gariepy, 2009: 7.

[8] A church or mission station.

[9] The Salvation Army, 2017: 60 & 64.

[10] See https://salvos.org.au/newcastle/about-us/our-beliefs/

[11] Gariepy, 2009: 70.

[12] The Song Book of The Salvation Army, 2015 edition. Song No. 610, by Albert Orsborn (1886-1967).

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Stephen Oliver Image
Stephen Oliver

Captain Stephen Oliver is Salvation Army Corps Officer, Newcastle Worship and Community Centre.

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