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Mar24ThuDo we belong to a charismatic Salvation Army? Or have we moved away from such expressions of faith, such as speaking in tongues, slaying in the Spirit, words of knowledge, prophecy and faith healing? March 24, 2011 by Lt-Colonel Max Ryan
Apart from church historians, few people today are aware that the Army, in its early days, was considered to be among the most flamboyant of religious movements. Speaking in tongues, slaying in the Spirit, words of knowledge, prophecy, faith healing and ecstatic behaviour are part of the story of the Church from earliest times. Such signs marked the beginnings of Pentecostalism, as well as Methodism and the Society of Friends. The Salvation Army, as a child of Methodism, followed the growth pattern of its denominational parent, from these charismatic beginnings to a more controlled approach to church life.
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Before William and Catherine Booth commenced revival meetings in the East End of London in the 1860s, they spent years as successful itinerant evangelists. Attendant signs and wonders marked their meetings.
Wrote Commissioner Booth-Tucker, Catherine's biographer, “There can be little doubt that manifestations are permitted, in connection with powerful revivals as part of the signs and wonders with which God had promised to accompany the outpourings of his Holy Spirit. While it would doubtless be a mistake to seek for such manifestations, or to measure spiritual results by the frequency of their occurrence, nevertheless, when they do occur, they may be regarded as encouraging tokens of the divine presence.”
Booth-Tucker's comment reflects the increasing caution of the Army's leadership to signs and wonders. In effect, the Army's approach was that even though one must not presume to seek such manifestations of the Spirit's presence, if such blessings did come, they should be accepted, though with due caution.
British Salvationist historian Glenn K. Horridge has written an analytical survey of the Army's first 35 years. He concluded that the Army was definitely charismatic in its early days. He comments: “Contemporary evidence suggests the Movement to have been charismatic, with shouting, lying prostrate on the ground, and leaping in the air being reported in 1882. Also practised was 'reveling on the floor in the glory' and 'jumping for Jesus.' ”
In these early days, some years before the Pentecostals would earn the sobriquet “holy rollers,” Salvationists were engaging freely in such activity. Horridge concludes: “The Army's official position on charismatic meetings remained ambiguous although such activity was probably even more widespread than reported.”
A random sampling of Army publications through the years reveals that a charismatic experience complete with signs and wonders, yet in the Methodist holiness tradition, was a diminishing part of Salvation Army life.
But there is evidence that faith healing has always had a place in Salvation Army ministry and worship. Historian R. G. Moyles writes about early interest in faith healing: “In some instances the articles in The War Cry by both converts and Army officers illustrated the still-undefined nature of Salvation Army beliefs. A strong proponent of 'faith healing,' Mrs. [Catherine] Booth wrote many defenses of the practice in the early War Cry, and the editor entertained occasional testimonies to the salutary effect of faith-healing services. For a while it seemed as if this would become one of the Army's key beliefs. Eventually, however, it was abandoned both in practice and publications.”
Despite Moyles' contention that faith healing was abandoned, a major directive on faith healing was issued in 1902 by General William Booth. Had there been no problems, the Army's leader would not have found it necessary to issue this carefully worded document, in which he writes: “By faith healing, or divine healing, is to be understood the recovery of persons afflicted with serious diseases, by the power of God, in answer to faith and prayer, without the use of ordinary means, such as doctors, medicines and the like. That God should heal the sick after this fashion is in perfect harmony with the views and experience of The Salvation Army from the beginning. Nothing to the contrary has ever been taught by our authority, and numerous instances of faith healing have occurred in the Army throughout its history.
“We have never discouraged officers or soldiers or any other persons from seeking the intervention of God by believing prayer on behalf either of the healing of their bodies, or the removal of any other afflictions which they may have been called upon to suffer. The very opposite has been the case.
“I do not believe there can be a corps of The Salvation Army, at home or abroad, in which some signs and wonders have not been wrought. Have we not seen men and women and little children raised up from the borders of the grave, and restored to health and vigour, in answer to the prayer of faith?”
However, Booth distanced the Army from the belief that healing is in the atonement, and that physical healing is a right for the Christian, further setting the Army on a path that diverged from the direction taken by charismatics.
In recent years, the Army has approached the issue of signs and wonders with caution. While the Army does not rule out the possibility of people being miraculously healed or other physical manifestations of God's power, most Salvationists are no longer accustomed to charismatic expressions. Regardless of our views on these issues, one thing is certain: God's Spirit is still at work among us in extraordinary ways.
Lt-Colonel Maxwell Ryan is retired in Burlington, Ont., where he serves as a part-time hospital chaplain and amateur Army historian.