The Road to Boundless
30 June 2015
Flowing through London, the River Thames is a longstanding maritime route, boundary and economic resource. As merchant ships sailed throughout the world, they brought back its riches to store in the City – the financial heart of the British Empire.
Yet the area is flanked by London’s East End, long synonymous with poverty, overcrowding, disease and criminality.
As the river brought treasure from the empire, it also brought an expanding population to the East End. Waves of immigrants – French Protestant Huguenots, Irish, Ashkenazi Jews and Bangladesh – poured in and general conditions worsened.
According to the 1881 census, more than one million people lived in London’s East End, where the life expectancy of a labourer was less than 19 years. Two out of every 10 children died, and diseases like tuberculosis, rickets and scarlet fever were common.
‘In that context began The Christian Mission,’ said Lieut-Colonel Alex Morrice, who served as an officer from Scotland to Japan and retired as assistant chief secretary of the United Kingdom Territory with the Republic of Ireland in 2001. A self-described historian, Morrice leads Salvation Army-focused tours through the East End. ‘If you don't know our roots – where we've come from – you don’t know where we’re going. We get information and inspiration from our history, and while we can't be imprisoned by our past, it gives us signposts for the future.’
Today, as in the 1800s, vendors peddle everything from produce to household supplies in market stalls down Whitechapel Road. It’s alongside these stalls that the East London Revival Association first held an open-air outside the Blind Beggar pub.
‘The slums were indescribable with dreadful squalor,’ Morrice said. ‘Large families lived in tiny apartments with no water or heat. They were the neglected poor, the outcasts of society.’
It was a life so bad, the pub advertised: ‘Get drunk for a half penny; blind drunk for a penny.’
When the leader of that revival meeting asked if anyone wanted a word, William Booth stepped forward. The following Sunday, 2 July 1865, he preached his first sermon under the association’s tent in Vallance Gardens.
History holds that Booth returned home that night and said to his wife, ‘Kate, I have found my destiny.’ He became its leader, and so began what was renamed The Salvation Army in 1878.
‘The Salvation Army – what a strange name!’ Booth wrote after The Christian Mission’s renaming. ‘What does it mean? Just what it says – a number of people joined together after the fashion of an army; and an army for the purpose of carrying salvation through the land…’
The Blind Beggar still operates today. Two nearby statues commemorate Booth’s work in the area, and a street mural features influential people – from Queen Elizabeth, to George Bernard Shaw and Booth. Two corps, the longstanding Cambridge Heath and the more recently opened Stepney, work in this community, along with the 150-bed Booth House for homeless men.
This is the birthplace of The Salvation Army, and in 2015 – the organisation’s 150th year – Salvationists gather from 1-5 July at The O2 in south-east London for Boundless: The Whole World Redeeming. The 20,000-capacity arena is host to representatives from each of the Army’s 126 countries of work.
‘It's going to be an event that will inspire the entire Salvation Army world, and for the first time we truly have the capacity to reach the entire Salvation Army world,’ said Lieut-Colonel Eddie Hobgood, congress coordinator, a USA Southern Territory officer who has spent most of his service in event-planning roles.
Only the seventh international congress – the last was in Atlanta, Georgia, in 2000 – this anniversary congress is named after Booth’s timeless song, ‘O Boundless Salvation’, which has been called the anthem of this army.
‘When William wandered into the East End and saw the poverty and neglect of the church he was moved to do something,’ Hobgood said. ‘We believe very strongly the call to save the world is as strong today and The Salvation Army needs to sometimes be reminded of what we’re all about. Boundless is a call to continue into the next 150 years.’
Seven main sessions will feature various aspects of General André Cox’s dream for the Army, leading on Sunday 5 July to a one-mile march down The Mall from Horse Guards Parade to Green Park, beyond Buckingham Palace.
‘The Salvation Army has a remarkable testimony of trust in God. When the first Salvationists gathered in the East End, they had nothing – no place to call their own, no building, no money, and very few people – but somehow God took the commitment of those few people and multiplied it,’ said Commissioner William Cochrane, International Secretary to the Chief of the Staff and Chairman of the congress planning and advisory council. ‘It will be an inspiring moment when we all gather in what is possibly the biggest tent in the world – The O2 – just a short distance away from where they held those first meetings.’
By Christin Davis -
This article was included in issue one of Boundless Today. Click to read all issues of Boundless Today.