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Sunday, 26 June 2011

A Whitechapel Meeting 1882 by Major John Matthews (R)

An Hour With The Salvation Army

"A religious movement which in its fourth year of operations claims some of the largest congregations to be found in most of our great towns must surely be worthy of attention. When it is added that these congregations are mainly drawn from that "non-worshipping" population over which clergymen, moralists, and philanthropists are accustomed to wail in despair, the movement becomes interesting beyond all proportion to the mere numbers it may affect.

Statistics might be given to justify these remarks, but they are needless. Concurrent testimony, confirmed by our own observations in London, shows that this movement affects poor abandoned souls whom almost every device of preaching or ritual has hitherto failed to bring within the sound of the gospel. Let all have their due, even if we feel constrained to protest against practices which we deprecate. When we think of the raving, riotous, profane rabble fairly dragged at the tail of the Army in its marches through the streets, and almost forced to confront the tremendous alternative of heaven or hell, we find a new light on the words of the Gospel, "the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force It may be impossible to help wishing that they (the Army) were milder - mannered. But if they really do drag captives with them as they scale the walls of heaven, who would not wish them God speed?

And they do! There can be no doubt about that. Inconsistent converts, backsliders, mercenary pretenders there may be amongst their recruits; but that they have been the means of making drunkards sober and of taming many a lawless ruffian, and rousing thousands of careless souls. to inquire, '*`What must I do to be saved?" is too notorious to be denied. Let us tell of our own experience of one of their meetings, held at the head-quarters of the "First Whitechapel Corps", as it is called. There is a special interest attaching to this place of meeting, for it is here that the movement originated. The "East London Mission" had used the hall for many years, when Mr. Booth, a little more than three years ago, conceived the idea of organizing the Salvation Army. With that organization, its affectation of military titles, and its uniform, we need not concern ourselves. `Men are but children of a larger growth". And the "Army", equally with the "Good Templars" and the Ritualists, have found, we may suppose, some advantage in appealing to the childishness that survives in grown-up people. But this is not the essence of the movement: let us go into their hall, and try if we can to find out what it is.

In a wide thoroughfare, almost as crowded and bustling on Sunday evening as on Saturday, we see a dense throng round a wide gateway, and, were it not for the fact that public houses are the only places of ordinary resort privileged to be open on this day, we might suppose we were approaching the entrance of a penny theatre. The dress and language of the jesting throng suggest that, and nothing else. The same idea is favoured by the lighted vestibule, at the end of which are doors opening into the hall. We pass in and find some six or seven hundred people already assembled. It is nearly seven o'clock; but the 'Whitechapel First Corps" has not yet arrived. It is marching through the streets singing hymns of triumph, and striving, by the aid of brazen instruments, to overbear the clamour of an opposition force now regularly marshalled to shout it down; or, in the absence of the police, to adopt more summary methods. A glance at the audience convinces us at once that it is one of a very unusual character. The proportion of the male sex is certainly larger than ordinary, and they are nearly all youthful. Amongst the women there are many of middle age, worn and weary-looking.

A balcony runs round three sides of the hall, while at the end a platform rises in several steps, like an infant-school gallery. On the wall above this platform are some startling appeals in big letters - "Will you go to heaven or hell?" "Let God have His own way," and others more familiar.

We have hardly time to look around when the sound of singing, half drowned in riotous cries and jeers, reaches us from the streets, and the "corps" marches in, followed by a tumultuous crowd that surges up into the balcony, or subsides into the vacant seats below. The band with their brazen instruments take their place prominently on the gallery in front of us, and we note with some alarm a portentous ophicleide, almost big enough to blow the roof off. The army knows no distinction of sex in the holy war. There are women taking their places as lieutenants and captains of the force, and in some of their faces it is impossible to mistake the saintly look of pure self-forgetful devotion which we mark in pictured saints whose eyes gaze into eternity. Amongst the recruiting band, who take their seats fronting us, is a youth by no means of prepossessing countenance, who, we learn, was the originator and organizer of the "Opposition Army", but who now, in token of his new allegiance, has a symbolic helmet sewn in his coat; and we fervently hope it truly represents the helmet of Salvation.

Without ceremony, without announcement, some voice, we know not where, strikes up a lively hymn, beginning, "I'm a pilgrim for glory," and running continually into a refrain of question and answer:

"Are you ready? Yes, I'm ready, Only waiting till the Master comes."

The lively energy with which this is caught up shows that the majority are habitual attendants. Then a brother in uniform, a sort of cross between that of a policeman and a rifleman, gives out a hymn from the book and the ophicleide betrays ominous tokens of activity. The cornets take up the strain, and the multitude join in heartily again. If they could only drown the ophicleide all would be well , but it is a tremendous instrument, much too strong even for the whole force of the army, and as it rarely ever hits the right note, our hypercritical ears undergo some torture. But, bless the man, his heart is in it! He blows as if he were standing before the walls of Jericho, and their fall depended on his lungs. The discord does not in the slightest degree disturb the singers. Indeed, they enjoy their efforts so much that at the close of the hymn they are loath to leave off, and sing the last two lines over and over again.

When at last they cease, the young man with the symbolic helmet at once leads off in prayer. Only a month ago his Sunday evening's amusement was to throw brickbats at the army. Now, with a fervour that struggles vainly against poverty of language, he beseeches a blessing on the work. It is noticeable that he does not speak in the plural, but in the singular, as though he were praying alone. "Oh, my God!" he cries, 'Bless this meeting. Let souls be converted this night. Oh my God! bless us now." It is impossible to repress a doubt as to the wisdom of allowing such recent converts to appear so prominently. But all is so strange to us here that our ideas are somewhat topsy-turvy, and we forbear criticism. At any rate, there is no possibility of doubting the lad's earnestness now. We are told he has to bear a good deal of persecution; and as he is the son of a publican whose house is much frequented by the Opposition Army, we can well believe it. We earnestly hope he may endure to the end.

After two more prayers, another hymn is raised, happily this time without the ophicleide. Everything in the service is so spontaneous that several times hymns are raised without announcement. Some voice leads of in well-known words - this time it is "My Jesus, I love thee; I know thou art mine" - and instantly several hundred voices join in, the people all retaining their seats. On these occasions the brass band is taken unawares and is left behind, but each man fingers his instrument as though to come in somewhere, and they generally succeed regardless of pitch, before the end of the hymn.

The reading of Scripture is not followed with much attention. In fact, fidgeting and whispered conversations are general. The preaching, which consists not of one discourse, but of several brief exhortations, is - at least on this occasion more remarkable for energy of delivery than for pathos or striking illustration. Still there are points that tell on the audience. Meantime, with all the elements of a dangerous riot at the back of the meeting, the leader shows admirable tact and coolness. When a preacher somewhat ludicrously cracks his voice and has to pause for breath, this leader, without moving from his seat, instantly raises a hymn and gives the orator time to recover. When jeers and mimicry from the roughs become annoying, he says quietly, "Now then, aisle keepers, look after them chaps. There's a lot of fellows come in here just to help the devil by upsetting our meeting. Keep an eye on them." And the proceedings go on again as though nothing had happened.

One thing that touches us deeply is the impassioned devotion again and again manifested to the Friend of Sinners. It was said of old, "at the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow." And here not only knees, but hearts are bowed by that name. "He left the glorious heaven, and came down amongst sin and suffering for you - for you!" "Ay, for me bless Him; hallelujah!" cries a poor, toil worn woman near us. "There's one verse of a hymn tells my experience," says a young man, suddenly rising on the platform, "and I want you to sing it. It's this : 'All hail the power of Jesus's name.` Instantly the old tune of Miles' Lane is raised; but when they come to "crown Him Lord of all," the repetition provided in that tune is not enough for them. They have got an addition to it, which goes on quavering and twirling on the word "crown" for several moments, and it is an unmistakable happiness to the army and their converts thus to celebrate the Captain of their salvation. Now what cathedral-music can, in genuine pathos, equal this.

"Sudden conversions" cease to be incredible to us. A poor wretch who has been assaulting his wife and starving his children, while he has drunk himself to the borders of the grave, comes in here, and the first word he hears is that "the devil is a hard master." Well, that is a self-evident proposition to him. It never occurred to him just in that way before, but now he becomes suddenly aware that he is carrying a real hell- within him.

The preacher tells a story of a man who found a wonderfully good master, and goes on: now I have found a good master. I used to serve Satan; but I heard of a master who paid better wages, and I turned out on strike. My new master promised me good work, with peace of conscience here and rest afterwards. He's paid me regular so far, and I know he will to the end, and my children knows it, and my missis knows it too." "Hallelujah! that's me," responded a glad woman in the gallery. "There's lots of people here serving a bad master. He has given them many a aching head and a aching heart. And the little 'uns gets it, and the poor wife gets it and it's all bad to everybody. The devil never did anyone a good turn. He never lifted up a man in his life. If he did, it was only to knock him farther down." The poor wretch who listens feels how true this is, and begins to wonder if there is any chance for him to "strike" too. His life becomes darker and more dreadful with every word he hears, and if he does not utter the words, the thought is in his heart, "what must I do to be saved?" And then he is told how there is a way of escape, how "God so loved the world," how Jesus went about doing good to just such miserable souls as he is, and how the same Jesus carried their burden of sin and sorrow up to the bitter death of Calvary.

Nay, he hears that the spirit of this Jesus is actually in the assembly, and that all who yield to him are now saved from their sins, and may hope for strength to lead a pure and happy life. The zeal, the conviction, the moral excitement around him are contagious. He falls into an agony and a trance. He is struggling between life and death. People come to him and pray over him. Hundreds of voices are singing, "I will believe, I do believe that Jesus died for me." And why not for him too? Yes, glory to God, he must believe. Christ is his saviour too. He is a saved man. A strange, joyful assurance of a better future for him takes possession of his heart. The bondage of corruption is broken.

Let us go. We have seen some things that a little startle, perhaps almost shock us. And we hear of many doings in this army which we must distinctly reprobate, especially in its unwise dealing with children. But if the power of God to heal sin-stricken souls was not present to-night, we hardly know what signs would prove it!"

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