The boy could not have been more than 10. It was late March 1959 and still cold, so he wore a winter jacket and mitts. In his hand he carried a card that looked somewhat like a Christmas card except that, instead of a verse inside, it had a graph with lines for people to write their names on and columns for them to enter a money amount. From his coat pocket came a muffled jingle of coins.
The child knocked on the door of one of the houses on his street, as he had done on a dozen other houses earlier. The man who answered the door was dressed in blue jeans and a T-shirt.
“What do you want?” he inquired, looking down at the boy.
“Please, sir,” said the boy in an Oliver Twist-like voice. “I’m collecting for Self-Denial. Would you like to give?”
“What’s Self-Denial?” asked the man.
“It’s money for poor children in other countries.”
“Humph,” said the man and dug into his pocket for a dime. “Is this OK?”
“Yes, sir. Thank you. Would you write down your name and the amount on the card?”
After the man had duly filled in the information, the boy moved on, hoping to collect more money than any other person in his Sunday school class.
That is how I remember Self-Denial as a boy growing up in a little Salvation Army corps in a small Canadian town. I don’t remember actually denying myself anything, except the few hours I spent collecting money from strangers, most of whom didn’t belong to the Army, and some who didn’t belong to any church.
As time passed I came to realize that the Army’s annual Self-Denial Appeal was more than just fundraising. It actually involved denying oneself something and using the money saved to help others. It began back in 1886 with an officer named Major John Carleton.
Major Carleton was present at a meeting led by General William Booth in which the General asked the congregation, many of whom were well-to-do people from the middle and upper classes, to write on pieces of paper (which he called yellow canaries) an amount they were willing to give to support the Army’s missionary work. Major Carleton did not have much money but he took a piece of paper and wrote on it a promise that he would go without his dessert pudding for a whole year and thus save 50 shillings for the work.
When Booth later read the major’s promise he was deeply moved, but insisted that the major not make such a great sacrifice. Instead, the General said, he would encourage all Salvationists to make a personal sacrifice and deny themselves something for one week. In this way everyone could make a contribution. Booth called this the International Self-Denial Fund.
In Canada, Self-Denial is today referred to as the Partners in Mission Appeal. It coincides roughly with the Lenten season. This coincidence is not without significance, because it is during Lent that Christians in many churches practise self-denial, including fasting and going without dessert.
Lent is not part of our Salvation Army lexicon. Its history goes back way beyond Major Carleton and the Self-Denial Appeal. The earliest references to days of fasting in the church date to the writings of Irenaus in the second century. But there was no set number of days. At the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D., the Church Fathers agreed on a period of 40 days before Easter as days of fasting and prayer. This did not include Sundays, because Sunday was considered a feast day. In this way Lent became six weeks of six days (Monday through Saturday) and four extra days at the beginning (Ash Wednesday to Saturday) making 40 days in total.
Generally speaking, our friends in the liturgical churches know how to celebrate Lent better than us in the evangelical fold. Father William P. Saunders of the Roman Catholic Church defines Lent as “a special time of prayer, penance, sacrifice and good works in preparation of the celebration of Easter.”
Ted Olsen, writing for Christianity Today, a thoroughly evangelical publication, laments that many mainline Protestant denominations hardly mention Lent at all. “However, there seems to be potential for evangelicals to embrace the season again,” he says. “For many evangelicals who see the early church as a model for how the church should be today, a revival of Lent may be the next logical step.”
If we marry the spiritual-powerful Lenten emphasis on sacrifice and prayer with our practical Partners in Mission Appeal for funds to support our work in countries that are struggling financially, we will have a union made in heaven. The result will be a growing family of God.
Major Fred Ash is a retired Salvation Army officer living in Barrie, Ont.