Social justice is not a new initiative or catchphrase for The Salvation Army. From its earliest days, the Army has sought not only to meet people’s most basic needs, but also to address the root causes of their distress.

When the Army’s co-founder, William Booth, learned about the plight of people sleeping outside under bridges in London, England, he challenged his son, Bramwell, to “Go and do something!” While this lively discussion between father and son sparked the early development of the Army’s longstanding emergency shelter ministry, it seems clear that the original intent was to quickly address the immediate and unsatisfactory living conditions of London’s homeless population. The provision of emergency shelter was not viewed as an end in itself, but rather as a way for the Army’s leaders to better understand and then address the social ills that plagued the people in their care, such as alcohol addiction, unsafe working conditions, inadequate housing, low wages and generational poverty.

For example, some of the people helped by the early Army were employed in match factories that paid low wages and required them to work with white phosphorus, which caused an occupational disease called phossy jaw that was painful and disfiguring. In response, the Army opened its own match factory that not only used the much safer, but more expensive, red phosphorus, but also paid higher wages to its employees, provided tea breaks and ensured the facility was adequately lit. In addition, the Army launched a public campaign to encourage local retailers to buy their matches instead of the cheaper versions produced by other factories. Once other match factories adopted similar working conditions, the Army closed its match factory, as its social justice goals in this instance had been met.

As the early Army spread around the world, it carried this spirit of social justice with it. At the start of the last century, the Army in Canada recognized the challenges faced by people caught in the justice system. Perhaps foreshadowing the later words of William Booth, “While men go to prison, in and out, in and out, as they do now, I’ll fight,” the Army believed that more needed to be done to help people reintegrate into society after being released from prison. This cycle of repeated incarceration was negatively impacting the offenders, their families and society as a whole. As such, the Army recommended the adoption of a prisoner probation system to the federal government, which then led to the creation of Canada’s first parole program.

With any fighting force (even a nonviolent one such as The Salvation Army), there are many roles required for battle. Some soldiers are called to actively fight on the front lines, effecting change, while others are needed to serve as stretcher bearers, dressing wounds and carrying hurting people to safety. The Army has a rich history of not only meeting people’s most basic and immediate needs, but also of fighting for lasting social and spiritual change. As noted in the mission statement for the Canada and Bermuda Territory, the Army exists to “share the love of Jesus Christ, meet human needs and be a transforming influence in the communities of our world” (italics added). The Army isn’t simply called to help hurting communities, but to seek justice in order for these communities to be transformed into healthy and vibrant expressions of God’s kingdom here on earth.

While we can celebrate the fact that more than 130 years have passed since the Army first provided emergency shelter to people experiencing homelessness, we should also take a moment to lament the fact that this ministry (and our other social services ministries as well) is still needed today, particularly in countries so rich and well developed as Canada and Bermuda.

Questions for Reflection:

  • If adequate housing in Canada existed tomorrow, would the sight of empty emergency shelter beds cause celebration or panic for The Salvation Army?
  • The Salvation Army is good at caring for people and meeting their basic needs, such as providing food, clothing and shelter. In some communities where we do not have the capacity or willingness to also actively engage in social justice initiatives, how can we work in partnership with other community stakeholders who are fighting for social change and support them in this work?
  • Is the Army (and its members) still willing to risk its reputation in order to address the social ills of our time? 


John McAlister is the national director of marketing and communications.

Feature illustration: © Abscent84/ 


On Monday, October 15, 2018, Concerned said:

John McAlister writes an interesting and cogent defence of the Army's record in the pursuit of "social justice". While I am not sure William Booth would have used that label the effect was the same; the Army was a catalyst driving social change on some of the significant social issues of the day. The Army may not have the significance in this role it once had, but the Army still asserts itself with a small measure of pride as the "largest non-government provider of social services". Fair enough.

But McAlister does not discus is the broader purpose of the early day Army's apparent concern for some of the social ills of that time; the salvation of men and women and conversion from sin to the Army's version of Christianity. Booths' emphasis on "Soup, soap and salvation" was what really motivated the Army to get involved and take action. While I would never question the genuine motivation behind the initiatives he speaks of in the Army's halcyon days the Booths' overall objective was always to "get people saved" and ultimately make them into Salvationists. Many, many Canadian Salvationists can trace their roots "in the Army" to the drumhead conversion of an alcoholic or a woman rescued " from the streets" of Industrial Revolution England, not to mention the effect of the "Darkest England" schemd. All "social justice initiatives" of their day, but the long term result was the growth and development of the Army as first and foremost a spiritual force. The "social work" fed the growth and development of our corps.

That emphasis, I am afraid, is rarely if ever prevalent in the Army's "social justice" work today. We are great at handing out school back packs, providing hot meals to firefighters, working to address the profound social ills of human trafficking and sexual exploitation and generally "doing good". But is any of this resulting in spiritual conversions and the growth and development of new Salvationists? That was ultimately William Booth's concern; the salvation from sin of all who came within the ambit of the Army's influence and to make them eventually into "red hot Salvationists", full of the Holy spirit and ready to help "march along".

That hardly seems our motivation today.


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