By Rhonda Chalfant Contributing Columnist
August 19, 2014
The Salvation Army, established by William Booth and his wife Catherine Booth in England in 1865, organized religious revival meetings. Much of their work was done in London’s East End, a poverty stricken area of the city, marked by homelessness, hunger, unemployment, crime, alcoholism, and prostitution. Their work was successful — many were fed, housed, and provided medical care, and many were converted to Christianity.
The established churches of the time did not approve of the Salvation Army. The churches disliked the Army’s bands that played hymns on street corners and collected money to support their industry. They more strongly disliked the idea that the poor and sinful might come to their “respectable” churches.
Despite the disapproval by the established churches, the Salvation Army grew. Its work spread to Wales, Ireland, Australia, and in 1879 to the United States. By the mid-1880s, the Salvation Army had a presence in Sedalia.
Here, the Salvation Army met the same sort of opposition it had met in London. The leading opponent, however, was not the mainline churches, but the Sedalia Democrat. The newspaper printed scathing articles criticizing the really bad musicians in the Salvation Army’s band and the noisy parades down Main Street.
The Salvation Army established its headquarters on West Main Street, the location of many of Sedalia’s brothels and saloons and near City Hall and the Police Station. Its location put its workers in a position to learn from police officers about the poverty they encountered while on their beats, as well as to encounter those who might wish to renounce their unwholesome way of life.
The Democrat’s most vociferous criticism concerned those who attended Salvation Army revival meetings. The idea that prostitutes, alcoholics, and petty criminals might seek salvation offended the editors of the Democrat, who somehow forgot that Jesus Christ had ministered to the sinful.
Poverty was a major problem in Sedalia during the late 19th century, and each winter collections were made to provide food, clothing, and fuel to the poor. However, the Democrat failed to acknowledge the Salvation Army’s work to help the poor.
By the early 20th century, the Democrat’s attitude had changed completely. In December 1909 when William Booth was writing his memoirs, the Democrat-Sentinel printed an article praising Booth’s work and the work of his son Bramwell Booth, who would take over after William Booth’s death in 1912.
At Christmas 1909, the Democrat printed an article lauding the “splendid work on behalf of the city’s destitute.” The Salvation Army members in Sedalia collected $50 in cash to use to help the poor.
On Christmas Eve, the Army’s hall had opened early in the morning so that volunteers could pack baskets of food. Each basket contained enough food to feed a family of six, including celery, canned tomatoes, potatoes, corn, a jar of jelly, a jar of preserves, bread, rice, cranberries, coffee, and beef. Between 9:30 and 10 a.m. almost 100 baskets were given away.
At 11:30 a.m., the Army hosted a hot meal for 200 people. Members of the community had contributed more than $100 worth of food for the baskets and the meal. The Salvation Army distributed bundles of clothing after the meal.
On Christmas Day, Ensign Taylor appeared as Santa Claus at a Christmas celebration geared to children. The hall was decorated with a Christmas tree, and each child was given a “toy or remembrance of some kind.” In addition, 100 pairs of shoes and more clothing were distributed.
The Salvation Army’s “magnificent work,” the Democrat-Sentinel claimed, “was deserving of high commendation.” Why the press and the established churches were so slow to accord the Salvation Army the respect it deserves reflects not only the social class prejudices of the late 19th century but also the church’s reluctance to accept new ideas about religion and social status.