Yet the area is flanked by London's East End, long synonymous with poverty, overcrowding, disease and criminality.
As the river brought treasure to the empire, it also brought an expanding population to the East End. Waves of immigrants—French Protestant Huguenots, Irish, Ashkenazi Jews and Bangladeshi—poured in and general conditions worsened.
According to the 1881 census, over one million people lived in London's East End, where the life expectancy of a labourer was less than 19 years. Two out of every 10 children died, and diseases like tuberculosis, rickets and scarlet fever were common.
“In that context began the Christian Mission,” says Lt-Colonel Alex Morrice, a retired officer and self-described historian, who leads Salvation Army-focused tours through the East End. “If you don't know our roots—where we've come from—you don't know where we're going. We get information and inspiration from our history, and while we can't be imprisoned by our past, it gives us signposts for the future.”
Today, as in the 1800s, vendors peddle everything from produce to household supplies in market stalls down Whitechapel Road. It's alongside these stalls that the East London Revival Association first held an open air outside the Blind Beggar pub.
“The slums were indescribable with dreadful squalor,” Lt-Colonel Morrice says. “Large families lived in tiny apartments with no water or heat. They were the neglected poor, the outcasts of society.”
When the leader of that revival meeting asked if anyone wanted a word, William Booth stepped forward. The following Sunday, July 2, 1865, he preached his first sermon under the association's tent in Vallance Gardens.
History holds that Booth returned home that night and said to his wife, “Kate, I have found my destiny.” He became its leader, and so began what was renamed The Salvation Army in 1878.
The Blind Beggar still operates today. Two nearby statues commemorate Booth's work in the area, and a street mural features influential people, including Queen Elizabeth, George Bernard Shaw and Booth. Two corps, Cambridge Heath and Stepney, and Booth House, a shelter for homeless men, currently serve the community.
Focus on the World
This is the Army's birthplace, and in 2015—the organization's 150th year—Salvationists will gather at the O2 in South East London for Boundless: The Whole World Redeeming. The 20,000-person capacity arena will host representatives from each of the Army's 126 countries of work.
“For the first time we truly have the capacity to reach the entire Salvation Army world,” says Lt- Colonel Eddie Hobgood, an officer from the U.S.A. Southern Territory and congress co-ordinator.
Only the seventh international congress—the last in Atlanta, Georgia, in 2000—this anniversary congress is named after Booth's timeless song, O Boundless Salvation, which has been called the anthem of this army.
“When William wandered into the East End and saw the poverty and neglect of the church, he was moved to do something,” Lt-Colonel Hobgood says. “We believe the call to save the world is as strong today and The Salvation Army needs to sometimes be reminded of what we're all about. Boundless is a call to continue into the next 150 years.”
From July 1-5, 2015, seven sessions will feature various aspects of General André Cox's dream for the Army. Forty performance groups from throughout the world will participate—from hula, to Chinese lion dancing and the Angola National Band—giving the congress an international flavour. And through the Mind the Gap initiative, Salvationists can sponsor international delegates from financially supported territories.
"We want to hear and see expressions of the Army from around the world that demonstrate the incredible ways people are reaching out with the gospel," says Commissioner Cochrane, international secretary to the Chief of the Staff and chairman of the congress planning and advisory council. "Everyone is made in the image of God. Everyone is of equal value to God. His love knows no boundary of place, colour, class, gender, and nothing is beyond the reach of God's love."
“We know this is more than just celebration for celebration sake,” says Stephen Dahlem, senior creative director at Corporate Magic, the production company engaged to help plan the congress. “We want people to leave moved and inspired.”
As soon as delegates exit the Tube's North Greenwich Station, Dahlem says they will be submerged in the Army's story. A one-mile march down the Mall from Horse Guards Parade to Green Park beyond Buckingham Palace with the participating performers will give the event great exposure in the city.
“This is an amazing opportunity to help pedestrian traffic understand what the Army is about and why it is celebrating,” Dahlem says. “We want to make sure this is a global celebration with viral legs.”
Stronger Than Ever
Commissioner Cochrane is responsible to ensure the General's vision for the congress is met.
“We are what all the years have made us, but God has much more for us to do,” he says. “During the congress we will be galvanized into something that is fit for the rest of this century and as long as God wants us to work. All the experience and empowerment of the years, and the Holy Spirit, have enabled the building of a movement that is stronger than it's ever been in its history.”
“The Salvation Army has a remarkable testimony of trust in God," he continues. "When the first Salvationists gathered in the East End, they had nothing—no place to call their own, no building, no money and very few people—but somehow God took the commitment of those few people and multiplied it. It will be an inspiring moment when we all gather in what is possibly the biggest tent in the world—the O2—just a short distance away from where they held those first meetings.”
Christin Davis is managing editor of the U.S.A Western Territory's New Frontier, where this article first appeared.
To register and find more information, visit boundless2015.org.