The history of The Salvation Army—from Methodist movement to contemporary church—is a fascinating study for Dr. James Pedlar, assistant professor at Tyndale University College and Seminary in Toronto. He also holds the chair of Wesley Studies at Tyndale, a position that’s co-sponsored by The Salvation Army and four other Wesleyan-tradition denominations. Raised in the Army, Pedlar has written extensively about its history and doctrine, with a focus on its Methodist roots. Pedlar spoke to Kristin Ostensen, Salvationist associate editor, at his office at Tyndale.
Who were the Wesleys and why were they significant?
John and Charles Wesley are the founding fathers of Methodism, but they’re also the founding fathers of evangelicalism. Both were Anglicans who wanted to see the Church of England renewed. They had a passion for holiness and for taking the gospel to the people, who weren’t necessarily connecting with the church at the time. So the Methodist movement was about evangelism and discipleship, based in small groups. The Wesleys were tireless evangelists and organizers—anything they could do to try to spread the gospel.
Their vision for an evangelical mission and for holy living was carried on through the Methodist churches after them. William and Catherine Booth came out of that Methodist context, and they continued to identify strongly with that tradition. The doctrines of The Salvation Army are clearly Wesleyan.
How did the Wesleys’ teachings inspire the Booths?
There are stories of William Booth—even as a teen—preaching in the streets, much as John Wesley did. After Wesley had his real encounter with the gospel and his life was changed, he started preaching outdoors to coal miners near Bristol, England. At first he thought that was scandalous, he didn’t want to do it, but he says, “I submitted to be more vile, and I went out and preached the gospel in the highways and the byways.” He continued to do that throughout his ministry—going out into the streets, the fields, people’s homes, anywhere to bring the gospel to the people. The Booths also took the holiness side of Wesley’s teaching and made that a key aspect of Salvation Army life, culture and doctrine.
Wesley had a strong social conscience, encouraging Christians to engage in what he called works of mercy—for example, visiting the sick, visiting prisons, helping the poor. He started a school for the children of coal miners who couldn’t afford to pay for school. He started a free pharmacy in London, England, and published books of home remedies. At that time, you had to pay doctors, and Wesley was afraid that they might be ripping people off, so this was a way of empowering poor people to stay healthy in a time when health care wasn’t within their reach. Salvationists have kept this side of Wesley’s legacy alive.
Why is it important for Salvationists to understand their Wesleyan heritage?
John Wesley still has a lot of wisdom to share with the church today. Wesley holds in tension things that most of us find hard to balance—for example, preaching the free-grace justification by faith and holy living; affirming the need for both structure and spontaneity.
For Salvationists, he’s also a connection to the deeper history and tradition of the church. John Wesley was deeply versed in the church fathers and other theological sources; he read widely and drew on anything he found useful. He believed you could learn from people of all different denominations. So for a Salvationist, by encountering Wesley, you encounter someone who sounds familiar, because he’s speaking your own language, and he’s helping you to understand where some of your beliefs come from. But he also brings you in touch with some deeper roots, going back to the early church. It’s good for Salvationists to see their connection to that bigger stream of church history; it helps to build a sense of unity with the broader Christian church. We don’t have to agree on everything, but we can learn from each other and be brothers and sisters.
How is John Wesley relevant today?
Though he was writing 250 years ago, a lot of the things he wrote about are timeless issues and truths that we can still relate to. For example, how can you be sure of your salvation? How do you pursue holiness without it becoming a kind of “works” righteousness?
He also wrote a lot about money, the dangers of riches and how to be a good steward. He was concerned that the Methodists in his day were becoming wealthier, but they were starting to spend that money on themselves in ways that Wesley found problematic. You see the same patterns today. Wesley’s sermons might challenge us to ask, “Do we really need to spend our money on those things, or can we live more simply and give more away?” His three rules for giving were gain all you can, save all you can and give all you can. People tend to be good at the first two.
Why does The Salvation Army interest you academically?
The Army is fascinating in a lot of ways. Its history is colourful, with many unique characters. I study ecclesiology—the doctrine of the church—and I’m particularly interested in movements of renewal. That’s where the Army came from—it was an attempt to renew the church’s mission. I’m also interested in the Army’s transition from a movement to a church. Clarence Wiseman was the first General to say The Salvation Army was a church, in 1976—more than 100 years into its history. There’s still a tension between movement and church that I think most Salvationists would recognize. Is The Salvation Army supposed to be a specialized ministry for the poor, or is it supposed to be like a church down the street? That debate is still playing out. I study how the Army understands itself as a unique movement in relation to the rest of the church, how it understands its mission, what the early Salvationists thought they were, and how that has changed over time.
What is your personal relationship with the Army?
I grew up in the Army and learned what it means to be a Christian through the example of many great Salvationists. I’ve had many good ministry opportunities with the Army, through my local corps and camping ministry, and my first full-time job was working in community and family services in Belleville, Ont. I attend a Free Methodist church, but I really value my Salvation Army heritage and wouldn’t trade it for anything; without it, I wouldn’t be who I am today.
Tyndale is hosting a Wesley ministry conference, symposium and worship event on April 23-25, with sponsorship from The Salvation Army. Visit ministryconference.ca for details.