Certain key dates have been celebrated in The Salvation Army as markers of it’s growth. It’s origins are dated from 1865, when its founder William Booth preached on Mile End Waste, and returned home to tell his wife “Catherine, I have found my destiny”. A Congress in 2013 marked a century since Booth’s famous “I’ll fight” speech, which was closely followed by his Promotion to Glory. But amongst all the famous events, 1929 “was only talked of in hushed tones in Army circles”, writes retired General John Larsson. 1
In that fateful year, a growing clamour for reform eventually drove General Bramwell Booth from office, and some say to an early grave. The crisis centred around the method of selection for the Army’s senior international leader. Concern was growing, especially in America, that permitting the General to personally nominate his successor would lead to a Booth dynasty, which might seek to control and perhaps strangle The Army.
Led by Bramwell’s sister Evangeline, then National Commander in America, a campaign began to press for the High Council (created by William Booth as a backup method) to become the sole means of choosing a General, who would serve for a set term. In contrast Bramwell saw his nomination as “a sacred charge” from his father, the Founder, which he could not relinquish.
Having served in the office of General, John Larsson is better placed than most to bring a discerning eye to this complex story. Drawing heavily on a very detailed account from 1934 by St John Ervine2, combined with personal interviews and private correspondence not previously published, Larsson paints a dramatic picture of the internal struggles that brought about a huge change in The Salvation Army.
He tells of the pain of bitter dissension that arose between family members and officers who had formerly been loyal co-workers. Whilst the reformers may claim success for their cause, the pain suffered on both sides leaves no sense of victory.
The excellent book is at times a hard read. Larsson has included detailed descriptions of the various legal documents surrounding the case, that the modern reader may understand some of the decisions of all sides. Larsson describes this tale as “a drama with no villains”. Perhaps this is so, but it is impossible to read this account without forming a view. It seems there were pivotal moments in which all out war may have been averted. Readers must decide for themselves if anyone is to blame.
1Larsson, J., 2009. 1929 : a crisis that shaped the Salvation Army’s future. London: Salvation Books.
2Ervine , St. John, 1934. God’s Soldier : General William Booth. London : William Heinemann.