Echoes of Methodism in the Salvation Army's Commitment to World Mission

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The Wesleyan and Methodist Missionary Society had been in existence for just 16 years when William Booth was born in 1829. But Methodist commitment to world mission had begun long before that.
John Wesley’s ‘All the world’s my parish’ [1] could be viewed as more of a statement on his itinerant mission than a commitment to world mission. Although he’d spent some of his early years of ministry as a missionary in America, Wesley displayed a rather ambivalent attitude to ‘the world’.
Fanning the Methodist flame
It was another ardent early day Methodist who had fanned the flame of world mission in the Connexion. Thomas Coke had been an Anglican curate in Somerset. After an undignified confrontation with his parish in 1776, he had asked John Wesley, by now 73, for guidance.
Instead of calling him out into the ‘world parish’ of Methodism, Wesley advised him:
‘ …to go on in the same path, doing all the good he could, visiting from house to house, omitting no part of his clerical duty.’ Nine months later Coke was ignominiously dismissed from the parish, and cast his lot with the Methodists.[2] In one of his earliest conversations with Wesley, he’d asked: ‘I have no parish, no church, Mr Wesley. What shall I do?’
‘Go, and preach the gospel to the whole world!’ had been the old man’s reply.[3]
Through Coke’s vision and perseverance the world parish of which Wesley spoke became a reality. He was the pioneer administrator of Methodism’s developing world mission. Wesley retained a priority for his native Britain.
Wesley built a strong, living and vital church in Britain. Coke let it loose into the world.[4] Something similar might be said for The Salvation Army. Booth built a strong British base. It was his first commissioner, George Railton who spearheaded the move into the wider world.
Coke’s concern for the church’s mission in the world was his underlying motive. For him the church was a means to an end, and that end was the salvation of the world. Similarly it was his concern for the Church’s mission that made him an eager advocate of Christian unity.
Unilateral Action
1777 brought a group of Calabar princes from West Africa to England to plead for missionaries to replace some who had died there. Thomas Coke, by now effectively Wesley’s aide-de-camp, was enthusiastic. Ever the realist, Wesley was not. He believed there was too much to do in Britain to think about the world outside it.
A year later Coke circulated an appeal letter:
I wrote Mr Wesley and asked his leave to enquire among the preachers whether two of them will venture on this important mission. He said he should not discourage any of the preachers that might choose to go, ‘But they should know,’ says he, ‘that they carry their lives in their hands. Without a very peculiar providence of God they will not live there six months.’[5]
Countering Coke’s arguments, Wesley wrote to a Scottish minister: ‘You have nothing to do at present in Africa. Convert the heathen in Scotland.’
No doubt sensing Wesley’s continuing resistance, by 1783 Coke liaised with a fellow-lawyer and drew up the first published plan for evangelisation. ‘A Plan of the Society for the Establishment of Missions Among the Heathen’. This too was circulated without Wesley’s knowledge or agreement.
Coke was demonstrating the qualities which combined to make him so effective in driving the world mission idea forward. Salvationist George Railton, a century later, demonstrated this self-same willingness to ‘go it alone’. Ardour and sometimes unilateral action evoked resistance to the point of hostility. Coke’s passion fuelled his actions. His concern for people, especially the under-privileged, spurred him into a relentless determination to turn vision into reality. He probably did not pause to think of the consequences of his action, or if he did, he considered that divine direction over-rode any human loyalty. Yet personal loyalty remained. Witness his letters to Wesley which concluded: ‘My dear sir, with very great respect, your most dutiful, obliged and affectionate son.’[6] Railton, too, in spite of his disagreements with the Army’s leadership, remained a loyal supporter of the Founder to the end.
Wesley was understandably angry at Coke’s impertinence. It was a challenge to his authority. He directed a scathing attack on his young assistant: ‘You are too hasty, Dr Coke,’ he said. ‘If you had consulted me instead of acting so precipitately on your own ……The time is not ripe.’ And that was the end of it.[7]
Wesley had apparently already determined to send Coke to America. Technically still an Anglican without authority to ordain a priest or consecrate a bishop, Wesley did ordain deacons. He also ‘set Coke aside’ to superintend the work in America. The man who had disapproved of Coke’s independent action, was now acting independently. Coke’s work alongside that of Asbury in establishing the church in America bears its own witness of success. Even there they acted independently in setting up a conference which did not include ‘old Daddy’, as Asbury called the father of Methodism. And worse still, they named themselves bishops, much to Wesley’s annoyance.[8]
Some accused Coke of impetuosity and ambition. Not least among the critics was Charles Wesley, seemingly piqued by the influence the young Coke was having on his brother. But was it not the passion for world mission which led to this assumption of authority? And was this not a necessary ingredient for success in establishment of a denomination’s commitment to the wider world? Why was the elder Wesley reacting as he did? Was he genuinely sending Coke to a major task? Or was it rather that the wider world provided somewhere, as Semmel suggests,[9] to send off rebellious and independently-minded colleagues?
Without imputing reasons or claiming identical motivation, there was a Salvation Army echo a century later. Booth sent Railton to America, and in later life ‘excommunicated’ him to the world.
Plans for Mission
In 1792 William Carey published his: An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens. The dissertation set down a biblical basis for mission, gave global statistics, and stated two simple principles necessary for success: prayer and mission agencies.
Nine years earlier, in 1783 Coke had set down in just two pages six simple and practical points, his legal mind clearly evident. It gave a committee powers to:
  • receive donations
  • accept missionaries or those to be engaged in civil employment
  • provide education, including language training for prospective missionaries
  • support missionaries while abroad
  • print scriptures or parts of it
  • do anything else necessary to accomplish its purpose.
It also undertook to publish an annual report.
The plan concluded with an impassioned statement:
… all real lovers of mankind: ….. will acknowledge the amazing change which our preaching has brought upon the ignorant and uncivilised at least throughout these nations; and they will admit that the spirit of a missionary must be of the most zealous, most devoted and self-denying kind: nor is anything more required to constitute a missionary for the Heathen Nations, than good sense, integrity, great piety and amazing zeal. Men possessing all these qualifications in a high degree, we have among us, and I doubt not, but some of these will accept the arduous undertaking, not counting their lives dear, if they may promote the kingdom of Christ, and the present and eternal welfare of the Fellow Creatures … [10]
Coke’s plan had not excited Wesley. Rack[11] suggests that Wesley was consumed by the incorporation of the conference, and that this explains his lack of support. At this point denominational governance was taking priority over world mission.
A century later in 1889, Booth[12]  presented his own plan: The Mission of the Future. The Army, like many other Christian bodies, met in the Exeter Hall for an annual stimulus to world mission. Christendom and the missionary societies were under attack - criticism that had built on Charles Dickens’s concern for the plight of England’s poor. He had alleged that ‘whatever Exeter Hall champions, is the thing by no means to be done.’[13]
Booth made his point:
I would resolve the entire Christian Church into one vast Missionary Society – its avowed purpose being the subjection of the world to God, and I would organise and support and govern for this purpose. And I should say that the first thing that would be proper for it to do would be to divide the nations of the earth up into two distinct classes, viz the friends, and the enemies of Jesus Christ. …
He then proceeded to outline his principles for the Mission of the Future:
  • bring (the heathen) back to God
  • publish the salvation which God has prepared … in Jesus Christ, and … persuade (the heathen) to accept it
  • (assess) resultsin some measureproportionate to the calamities it seeks to retrieve
  • send forth men and women in numbers somewhat proportionate to the magnitude of the work to be done
  • support its activities financially on a vastly moreliberal scale
  • disownall methods and all agencies that are not able to produce … results
  • adapt …. to the … habits, conditions and circumstances of the different races
  • make every nation produce the forcenecessary to its own conquest
  • self-support and reproduction, with respect to finance
  • men and women … possessed of the spirit of true Christian enthusiasm.
By comparison with Carey’s document, Coke’s plan had been functional. If anything, Booth followed Coke’s organisational rather than Carey’s scriptural emphasis. But it goes beyond both with an emphasis on results, appropriate investment, adaptation and the emphasis on developing local missionaries. When Railton first made contact with the Christian Mission (1872) he described it as ‘a native agency’.[14] Both Methodism and The Salvation Army have been committed to the deployment of national full-time workers and leadership. But the extent to which the Army has retained central control militates against this ideal.
If it was ‘incorporation’ that distracted Wesley from supporting Coke’s plan, then the ‘Darkest England’ scheme probably distracted William Booth from further commitment to world mission. Little more was heard of the ‘Mission of the Future’. Even when Booth was overseas, he was in search of the ‘overseas colony’ for the British poor. The salvation of the local population seemed to come second.[15] 
The Rebellious First Commissioner
George Scott Railton was born of Methodist missionary parents who had met while working in Antigua. Thomas Coke had served there too. Watson describes Railton as: ‘An incurable romantic, (who) glimpsed … Wesley’s vision of one parish, the whole world.’[16] As a youth he had been inspired when reading of Christian missionaries. Undaunted by any thought of failure, he had, at the age of 19, journeyed to Morocco to win the Moors for Christ, carrying a flag inscribed: Repentance, Faith, Holiness. This rather eccentric effort was an echo of Coke’s venture into post-revolutionary France, doing the seemingly impossible for Christ.
Railton’s brother told him of William Booth’s need for an assistant. Railton was soon at Booth’s side. Like the well-educated Coke, Railton brought a blend of linguistic and literary skills. The young idealist, Railton, matched the seasoned campaigner, Booth, during the crucial years 1872 – 1880. During these years the Army’s internationalism together with several other denominational features developed. As William Booth’s first lieutenant, Railton had a leading part in framing policies; some he initiated.[17]
Bramwell Booth wrote of Railton:
From the earliest days, and even, I think before the idea had taken possession of any other mind, Railton’s conception of the future embraced the idea of a worldwide war.
Here was the internationalist that helped shape Booth’s commitment to world mission.
But if Methodism had required African pleas to provoke missionary action, then it was the Indian-born Frederick Tucker who precipitated the Army’s entry into the missionary field in 1882.
Railton had returned from the United States by then, ordered back to London much against his will. In contrast to Coke’s resistance to Wesley’s orders concerning America, Railton had given in to Booth’s. If the John and Charles Wesley – Thomas Coke threesome had ended with a John Wesley- Thomas Coke partnership, then the William and Bramwell Booth – George Railton triad had evolved differently. Father and son had become the partnership of Salvation Army leadership. Wisbey[18] observes that Booth needed Railton to help administer the rapidly-expanding Army. But Bramwell had taken his position as second-in-command. Railton would nevertheless have been able to advise the General on the India invasion. 
But strains appeared over the growth of what the highly principled Railton regarded as ‘diversionary operations’ within the Army. Here was an echo of the uncompromising Coke. Railton disapproved of activities like the trade department selling items not essential to the mission. He also objected to the strong disciplinary measures being introduced,[19] arguing rather for mercy and reform. Booth soon sent Railton to South Africa.
He returned to London and was editor-in-chief when the Army held its first International Congress in 1886. He wrote:
India, Australia, North America, the Southern States, the Cape and even China will no longer any more than France and Switzerland and Sweden be names to many thousands of us …..But I trust that these are not the only peoples as to whose condition we shall be troubling till we have done our best for them ….. let this great International gathering ….. compel you to devote the rest of your life to the exaltation of Jesus, the only capable Ruler of any individual or of any people! [20]
Like Coke, Railton had a heart for the marginalised.
Command in Germany followed. Railton led a German contingent to the 1894 Jubilee Congress, marking William Booth’s conversion. He had become increasingly disenchanted with further ‘diversionary operations’ - a match factory, the Salvation Army Building Association, and finally the newly-launched Salvation Army Assurance Society which had acquired the charter of the Methodist and General Assurance Society. He expressed his disapproval publicly.
Side-lining, if not dismissal, was inevitable. The remainder of Railton’s service was a sequence of missions in various parts of the world, some of which brought him into contact with other denominations and even other religions. Bramwell reprimanded him for his excessive zeal in attending Catholic mass or Buddhist prayers! But he was back at the front-line, a missionary. His death in 1913 on a train journey in his beloved Germany, an almost unknown evangelist, was poignantly like that of Coke’s a hundred years before.
Methodism’s missionary administrator had pressed the Conference to allow him to fulfil a life-long ambition to go east. In 1813 they had reluctantly agreed. He would finally become a front-line missionary. But his dream was not to be realized. Before he arrived in Ceylon he died, being buried at sea.
Murdoch suggests that the Army’s commitment to world mission was transference from failure in their work among the poor in London’s east end.[21] Who can dispute the unknown motives of the subconscious heart and mind? But other influences abound: missiological, theological and historical among them. All must have played their part. But it is in the lives of committed people, Railton among them, that we discover the zeal which gave the Army a foothold in world mission. They were more than missiologists; they were missionaries, they were more than administrators; they were activists.
The passion they exhibited, the risks they took and the misunderstandings they endured were echoes of their Methodist forebears.
A Missionary Society and an Army
Rader observes:
In the years after 1890, Booth went through a period of fervent post-millenial triumphalism. He was confident that the Army had found the key to solving society’s intractable problems, and that his militant branch of the church had been raised up by God to lead the world into a veritable heaven on earth. How much he was influenced by the Bible, and how much by Britain’s naval conquests and overseas expansion, we do not know.[22]
The Evangelical Revival had been one of the main impulses for the flurry of missionary societies at the end of the 18th Century. Evangelicals seized with the desire to snatch sinners from hell by conversion naturally wanted to extend that gift to the heathen. The abolition of slavery, with its strong emphasis on the value of all humankind, had added impetus.
Though the Conference had established a committee (perhaps as one way of restraining its enthusiastic overseas missions director, Coke) it felt there was no need to have a separate body. A variety of influences, not least the spawning of missionary societies ultimately prompted Methodism to establish its own Wesleyan Missionary Society in 1813. It was an organ of the church, and not an independent society.[23]
Semmel reminds that ‘the decision to turn the expansive energies of Methodism to the foreign mission field must also be viewed in terms of the inner politics of the Connexion ….’ But there were loftier reasons. One of the laymen at the inaugural meeting of the society expressed what a 21st century Salvationist would accept:
The doctrines of Methodism bind this duty upon us in a special manner, since we believe that in the gospel is provided a full, free and present salvation from all the moral evils consequent upon the fall of Adam, and that wherever the gospel is faithfully preached, this salvation is in reach of all. …And since the duties of the gospel are imposed on us all, its benefits are offered to all.[24]
Arminian commitment to ‘the whosoever’ added challenge. There were no elect! All might be saved.
The age-old debate about there being enough heathens in England had surfaced as the Connexion considered establishing a society. ‘Foreign missions will have the same influence on religion as foreign commerce has upon agriculture and manufactures, and as Christianity flourishes abroad, so it will flourish at home.’[25] Wesley had gone to Georgia ‘to seek his own soul’s salvation.’[26] The reciprocal benefit of the home and foreign missions on each other remain evident. Is that one of the reasons why Booth and The Salvation Army opted for a single organisation?
The closest the Salvation Army has come to constituting a separate body to administer the mission-instituted parts of the Army has been the establishment of the Overseas Department at International Headquarters. In 1888 the Booths appointed Colonel Alex Nicol as permanent Secretary for Foreign Affairs. By 1912 the word ‘foreign’ was abandoned and the Army designated international secretaries as officers in the Overseas, and more recently Zonal Departments through whom the General and the Chief of the Staff direct the Army internationally.[27]
When Booth established his Army it was to become a closely integrated network of congregations both in Britain and abroad. Here we see a model of international ‘connexion’. Sandall[28] writes:
It is the one Salvation Army that leaping the seas has spread from country to country – it is indeed native to the whole wide world. In no country do Salvationists differ in spirit or practice from their comrades in other lands. There is no Salvation Army missionary society; it is The Salvation Army on all its missionary fields as in the land of its birth. It is everywhere one, not only in organisation but in the purpose so succinctly put into words by the General when he besought his soldiers everywhere to ‘go for souls and go for the worst!’
At their enrolment as Soldiers of the Army, Salvationists witness:
…… that they freely enter into this covenant, convinced that the love of Christ requires the devotion of their lives to his service for the salvation of the whole world.
Is this global commitment the loudest and most fundamental echo of all? Methodism had always viewed every Methodist as being a missionary.[29]
The Salvation Army is an international movement with its work so closely integrated and administered that in this regard it is probably unique in Protestantism. It is a 21st century echo of Wesley’s ideal of everything being under his personal control and direction – ‘the world my parish’.
My thanks to the staff of The Salvation Army’s International Heritage Centre and of the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society Archives, School of Oriental and African Studies, London, for their assistance with research, and to Professor Norman Murdoch and Dr John Townsend for their helpful suggestions on the manuscript.

[1] Livingstone Parker, Percy; Backhouse, Robert; John Wesley’s Journal: Hodder and Stoughton (1993) p 64
[2] Vickers, John A; Thomas Coke and World Methodism: World Methodist Historical Society (1964) London
[3] Poxon, John W; Coke, The Man and His Mission: Jamaica Methodism Bicentenary Publication (1989) p 6
[4] Davey, Cyril; Mad About Missions – The Story of Thomas Coke, Founder of the Methodist Overseas Mission: Marshalls (1985) Basingstoke p 120
[5] Jackson, T; Collection of correspondence; Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society Archive; School of Oriental and African Studies, London
[6] Coke, Thomas; A Journal of the Rev Dr Coke through the West Indies in two Letters to the Rev J Wesley (1791) WMMS Reports- Vol 1 1789 – 1820; School of Oriental and African Studies, London
[7] Davey, Cyril; Mad About Missions – The Story of Thomas Coke, Founder of the Methodist Overseas Mission: Marshalls (1985) Basingstoke pp 39 - 40
[8] Hattersley, Roy; John Wesley – A Brand from the Burning; Little Brown (2002) p376
[9] Semmel, Bernard; The Methodist Revolution: Heinemann Educational Books (1973) p 157
[10] Coke, Thomas; A Plan of the Society for the Establishment of Missions Among the Heathen. Methodist House Archives, London
[11] Rack, Henry D; Reasonable Enthusiasm – John Wesley and the Rise of Methodism; Epworth Press, London (2002) p 476
[12] Booth, William; The Mission of the Future; The Salvation Army IHQ (1889)
[13] Semmel, Bernard; The Methodist Revolution: Heinemann Educational Books (1973 p 148
[14] Sandall, Robert; The History of The Salvation Army, Vol ll: Thomas Nelson (1950)
[15] Railton, George S; General Booth; The Salvation Army (1912) p 154 ff
[16] Watson, Bernard; Soldier Saint – George Scott Railton, William Booth’s First Lieutenant; in Trailblazers, Yesterday’s People for Today’s Mission, The Salvation Army United Kingdom THQ (2000) p 308
[17] ibid; p301
[18] Wisbey, Herbert A; Soldiers Without Swords; Macmillan, New York (1955) p 31
[19] Watson, Bernard; Soldier Saint – George Scott Railton, William Booth’s First Lieutenant; in Trailblazers, Yesterday’s People for Today’s Mission, The Salvation Army United Kingdom THQ (2000) p 369
[20] Sandall, Robert; The History of The Salvation Army, Vol ll: Thomas Nelson (1950) p301
[21] Murdoch, Norman H; Origins of The Salvation Army; University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville (1994) p 115 ff
[22] Rader, Herb and Fran; Salvation Army Missionary Strategy and Ministry to the Poor; Proceedings of The Salvation Army’s International Conference on Poverty (2001)
[23] Rack, Henry D; Reasonable Enthusiasm – John Wesley and the Rise of Methodism; Epworth Press, London (2002) p 475
[24] Semmel, Bernard; The Methodist Revolution: Heinemann Educational Books (1973) p 160
[25] ibid; p 149
[26] Hattersley, Roy; John Wesley – A Brand from the Burning; Little Brown (2002) p 103
[27] International Headquarters Operations Manual; The Salvation Army IHQ (1997)
[28] Sandall, Robert; The History of The Salvation Army, Vol ll: Thomas Nelson (1950) p 225
[29] Everson F H; This is Methodism; The Epworth Press (1957) p 47 ff