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History, what's the point?

History, what's the point?

History, what's the point?

The ARW on James’ shoulder signifies “Australian Rescue Work”. 

By David Woodbury

Many people question the relevance and significance of documenting and disseminating history and see little point in the time and effort spent researching and publishing it. If historical research is nothing more than listing dates, facts and anecdotes from the past, then it may well have little relevance to a practical and active movement like The Salvation Army.

However, history is far more than curiosity, for hidden away in the dusty archives are stories, facts and data that will enable contemporary Salvationists to not only understand the ethos of the organisation, but also to find empowerment for ministry today.

Like many of my age group, I grew up on a diet of Salvation Army history and doctrine through directory and corps cadets.

Booklets such as the Victory and Liberty series were staple fodder for young Salvationists in my early and formative years. Today, such information is not so easily available or utilised for young Salvationists, and we may well have generations that have little knowledge and understanding of Salvation Army history and development.

My research has led me to understand that the early Salvation Army had an active energy and spirit that was unique and empowering, and there is real need for us to keep alive, or even rediscover, that same energy and empowering today. I have this sense that somewhere in the dusty volumes and archives of history we may well rediscover not only our heritage, but also our corporate identity. “When the past no longer illuminates the future, the spirit walks in darkness” (Alexis de Tocqueville).

While some of the methods that made the Army so highly successful in its early years may have little relevance today, the principles and innovative mindset behind them can be re-employed to bring us once again to the cutting edge of evangelism and ministry.

History reminds of where we have come from, our roots and our heritage. It reminds us of the battles fought, the victories won and yes, the failures that were inevitable in any organisation developing as quickly as the 19th-century Salvation Army. It reminds us that many of the liberties, privileges and high public profile we enjoy today were accomplished by those faithful Salvationists who have gone before us.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle said: “If you would understand anything, observe its beginning and its development.” In an era when many organisations seem to be struggling with their identity, a comprehensive understanding of our history could be the catalyst needed for The Salvation Army to become more relevant in our age. Our relevance to the present age rests heavily on knowing who we are, and understanding the events that made us what we are today.

Own identity

The Salvation Army in Australia did not develop in a vacuum; it was impacted by the influences at work among the emerging nation. Despite its British trappings, The Salvation Army in our region developed its own identity and style of Salvationism. There is a sense in which the Army’s development in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was enmeshed in the emerging nation and became in no small way, part of the fabric of the Australian way of life. There is no greater way of being relevant than being part of the fabric of that community.

History can provide us with an indicator for the future. In coming to understand the past with all its nuances, we are empowered to plot a path on which we can move forward with a significant degree of confidence. It is the knowledge of our history that clarifies the fundamentals that underpin our Army. Two pivotal events stand out.

In 1865, the Army’s founder, William Booth, returning home from preaching in the poverty-stricken East End of London, declared to his wife, Catherine: “Darling, I have found my destiny.” Among the beer shops and gin palaces, overflowing with drunk, poverty-stricken masses, Booth had caught the vision of salvation for the lost that would compel him to raise up an organisation whose purpose was the reclamation of lost and broken lives.

By 1878, the organisation that William Booth led, The Christian Mission, was an Army in all but name. Booth, known as the General Superintendent, was often referred to as The General and many of his workers adopted military terminology. A printer’s proof for the mission’s report of 1878 referred to the mission as a “volunteer army”. While there is conjecture about the exact events, some historians contend that it was William’s eldest son, Bramwell Booth, who objected to the word volunteer, declaring he was a regular rather than a volunteer. Without a further word, William Booth picked up a pen and struck out the word “Volunteer” and wrote “Salvation”.

I sense that younger generations are looking for direction for their lives, and their Army. There is an intense desire within them to know and understand what motivated the early Salvation Army, and in some sense recapture something of that innovative and Holy Spirit-inspired enthusiasm. It may well be in coming to understand our history they will not only find and soak up something of that early spirit of Salvationism, but will also reinvigorate our movement.

We, who are the gatekeepers of that knowledge, have the responsibility to pass on that knowledge in a manner that relates to, and is comprehended by, contemporary generations.

The challenge is how do we communicate the simple lessons of history in this digital age with its emphasis on visual and social media?

Someone has said that those who fail to learn the lessons of history are bound to repeat them. As old and perhaps overused as the quote is, the reality is that it is absurdly true. To learn these lessons they need repeating, perhaps in new and relevant ways. Nevertheless, they need to be continually repeated and reaffirmed, as the old song reminds us: “Tell me the story often for I forget so soon.”


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