There were several avenues of children's work taking place in the movement at this time. There was:
(2). Bands of Hope - headed by the mother of James Jermy (who came to America around the same time to attempt an American version of The Christian Mission in Cleveland, Ohio, but failed). This was a group which began outside of the Christian Mission in the 1840s in which children would sign 'pledges' committing to abstain from alcohol.
(3) Sunday Schools - which were a form a literacy training through biblical knowledge. This was popularized by Robert Raikes in the mid-18th century, but were more focused on providing education through the church for the disadvantaged. In 1870 (same year the Christian Mission wrote its major Constitution), there was a Public Education Act of 1870, which began the shift to universal education in England. With the government taking the responsibility of educating the masses, this threw many of the Church-based Sunday Schools into an identity crisis.
(4) Experimental Children's Programs - there were other experimental programs taking place around this time. These would include 'Ragged Schools' and informal networks like Thomas Barnardo's East London Children's Mission - sound familiar? Barnardo was the famous children's worker who temporarily partnered with William Booth (and met with him at the famous Christian Mission's Limehouse Pennygaff - a site purchased to save children from being trapped in lives of crime and prostitution). For a period of time, Booth (ever the pragmatist) thought of partnering with Barnardo and releasing the Children's work to him.
When William Booth visited many of the Mission Stations, he found people doing whatever they wanted. Some weren't doing anything for the kids, others were using these meetings to indoctrinate children into ideologies such as Chartism. Many were simply doing skill-and-drill exercises with the Bible, but weren't helping kids understand what it all meant. It was disorganized and in many ways it wasn't focused on a clear strategy of saving children, discipling them, equipping and mobilizing and then training them to lead others.
James Rapson, who had led the charge in the Children's Mission, disappeared from the Mission around the early 1870s (he was Booth's Secretary for the Mission and also wrote often in the magazines) and was replaced by George Scott Railton. With the loss of Railton, there was nobody who was passionate enough to take his place. Barnardo, by this time, was independent and doing his own work and Bramwell was slowly becoming the heir-apparent for heading up the future Mission, even more so than Railton. Different people were tried in this role, but didn't seem to be completely successful. The biggest issue though was that from his earliest of days, William Booth was uncompromising on his commitment to transformation (and rightly so). He shared the convictions of Trans-Atlantic Revivalist, Edward Payson Hammond, that if a child was exposed to the KNOWLEDGE of the Bible and of Christianity, but had not the EXPERIENCE of transforming conversion, that this child would grow up to be HARDER TO REACH than if S/HE HAD NOT BEEN REACHED AT ALL.
Here is Ethel Rohu, John Roberts' daughter's account of these happenings 141 years ago (Taken from "John Roberts - Evangelist").
My hope is that you will see from what I have stated about that these are not beginnings, but RE-beginnings: The Beginnings of Children's Work - an all-alive meeting, and hope to have a good day tomorrow – my first Sunday in Blyth.” So ran the entry in John’s diary. “O Lord, give me this place!” is the prayer which concludes this entry. John set about the task as if he intended to help God answer his prayer. Hearing that a fisherman had been drowned he called at the house to pray with the stricken widow. Five little children with big, wondering eyes were gathered round their mother. Sixty-two years later one of the little girls was to attend a home league rally at an adjacent corps and relate the memory which had lived with her through the years. “He comforted my mother in her sorrow,” she said, “and when children’s meetings started later on we all joined, and we’ve been in the Army ever since.” She was then sixty-nine. No place of worship in Blyth was big enough for the crowds who wanted to come to the Army so, whenever possible, the Central Hall, a building accommodating a thousand people, was secured for the Sunday night meeting.
Jack Stoker and his wife were prominent soldiers. When they were appointed to Bishop Auckland as officers, their farewell meeting was described as “A Hallelujah Concert.” They had an outstandingly successful soul-saving career and two of their sons became officers. The open-air opportunity at Blyth was grand – and seats would be reserved inside for the estimated number who would follow to the indoor meeting. The diary records: The people here seem to love having the subject of holiness introduced. They have some knowledge of it, but very little. The clouds are dispersing however; several have sought and, I believe obtained, this great profession.
Two months slipped by and increasing congregations constituted a problem in accommodation. As the Captain passed the door of the Central Hall on his way to the open-air he saw the people lined up waiting for the doors to be opened. Did his mind revert to his childhood vision of waiting crowds to whom he longed to preach the gospel? The hall would be packed long before the march came in and, alas! many would be turned away. Holding an open-air meeting was possible only because the soldiers’ seats were reserved on the platform. “Announce that no children will be admitted,” the local helpers suggested. “But the mothers cannot come – in many cases – unless they bring their children,” the Captain objected. The hall-keeper registered a resolve to keep out such children as came without parents as one means of minimizing his dilemma. Then came word from the borough officials regretting that the Central Hall would not be available for The Salvation Army on Sunday evening, July 25th, as there was a prior claim for this date. In this quandary someone suggested asking for the loan of the large Wesleyan Chapel with capacious gallery.
The minister was willing, probably trusting that something of the spirit of those Central Hall gatherings would enliven his own charge. Some seats had to be reserved for the usual chapel congregation as well as for the corps soldiery and their open-air adherents. The door-keeper’s problem was greater than ever! The diary entry is somewhat brief. “A grand sight to see that great gallery packed with people, as well as the hall below, but no visible results – though many were evidently under conviction.” But there was one result destined to have a more far-reaching effect than could possibly have been foreseen at the time. As the open-air workers had processioned toward the chapel, a little girl had shyly accosted the Captain and asked, “Please can I get into the meeting tonight?” “Certainly, if there is room,” was the guarded reply. “Ah, that’s just it,” she rejoined. “The door-keeper tells me there is no more room.”
The child awaited eagerly the Captain’s decision but, when it came, the light died out of her face. “If that is the case,” he said, “I am afraid you cannot get in.” She turned to move away and the Captain, watching the little figure with dejection in every line, thought suddenly of his Lord’s words – “Forbid them not… for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Long afterward he could recall the thrill that ran through his whole being. He had heard a divine call and, in a flash, a great opportunity was revealed to him. “Look here!” he said, and the child turned, arrested by his tone. “Would you like to come to a special meeting for children only in The Salvation Army hall, next Friday evening at six o’clock?” “Oh, yes!” she cried, her face aglow. She was told to tell her schoolfellows and friends and bring as many as she could along with her.
That night in the crowded chapel there was made the first announcement of a Salvation Army meeting for children only. Among John’s papers is a miniature “Manifesto” which he wrote as he sat in his little quarters on the eve of the new undertaking:
Tomorrow evening, Friday, July 30th, 1880. I am (D.V.) to commence an hour’s meeting for children. My object in doing so will be to get them converted. May the Lord help me to accomplish my effort! May He enable me to lead these meetings in a way that shall be interesting and at the same time profitable. I think of beginning with singing and prayer. Then perhaps a little Bible reading showing Jesus blessing the children. I will tell them of His love for the children. Simply – very simply – I will go on to show Him as their Substitute. Explain the long word by illustration of a little boy who became a big boy’s substitute in a school. Ten minutes will be given for Scripture quotation to induce them to learn the Scriptures. I will tell them of my own conversion in the Sunday-school and so impress upon their minds the fact and need of conversion. Possibly As we go on I shall get speakers… Who can tell but what the Lord is now about to save many children, and bring them out into the world as Salvation Army officers? God grant that it may be so, and unto Him alone shall be all the glory. Amen. (Signed) John Roberts. July 29th, 1880. Blyth.
The Captain, admitted that it was with fear and trembling that he made his way to the hall – a little before six o’clock on Friday, July 30, 1880. Would there be anyone there? Could that sudden inspiration and announcement have really meant all that it seemed to him to mean? He was not left long in doubt. As he drew near the hall the sight that met his eyes set his heart beating with pleasurable anticipation. Boys and girls of all sizes and ages were assembling, seemingly in the wake of an invisible Pied Piper. Yes! There was the little inquirer of Sunday night! She was making toward him eager to introduce her own particular friend who was apparently helping to marshal the company. The Captain was pleased to shake hands with the alert little person – perhaps he had visions of her as an officer-to-be. He certainly did not foresee that he was then forging another of those life-links which they who follow the divine call are so wonderfully the unconscious instruments. This little girl – Minnie Browell, a daughter of the Methodist Manse – brightly explaining that, though she went to the Wesleyan Sunday-school, she had never heard before of a Friday evening school and was so pleased to come, would one day bear a name that became a household word in Poplar. Ten years later, on August 2, 1890, she became the wife of Lax of Poplar, and from thence was at her husband’s side in all his ministry.
Of that first children’s meeting the Captain wrote: “A glorious time! About seventy present, and I was able to hold their complete attention for half an hour. May the Lord continue to give me the right message for them, so that we may get soldiers and officers for The Salvation Army from among those precious children.” During the days which succeeded the new venture the Captain went about his duties with the ever-recurring thought “What ought to be the next step?” Merely to interest the children and make them happy would have no justification unless there were definite results in Army building. “We have been called into being for the salvation of souls,” he was always telling the soldiers, “and unless this purpose be achieved our activities are worthless.” Had he given an invitation for the Penitent-form all seventy children would doubtless have come forward – as they would have done anything else that he asked. But this was not the way in which soul-transformations took place. Until he had some evidence of their understanding of what it means to be saved he must close the meeting in prayer and send them home. But how great a fire a small spark kindles! The children’s week-night meetings were becoming the talk of the town. On the following Friday the congregation of boys and girls had risen to 120, and on the third occasion 150 were present. Yet on his return to his quarters, the Captain wrote: “My heart is sad tonight. I covet those children for God’s service. Surely some among them will be called to do damage to the devil’s kingdom! I am asking the Lord for direct guidance on this important matter.”
On the following Sunday the direction came. It had been arranged to hold a memorial service for a little girl whose life had borne testimony to the reality of her conversion. The Captain saw the possibilities of the occasion, and spoke of her victorious life and triumphant promotion to Glory as an evidence that children may be saved from sinning and made useful in the service of God. Among those who came forward were a number of girls and boys. With great joy in his heart and a prayer that he might be led by the Spirit, the Captain dealt personally with all those kneeling in penitence, and the impressiveness of those moments he never forgot.
A second week-night meeting “for children only” was decided upon and each child who came to the Penitent-form received an invitation for Wednesday at six o’clock. This was August 18, 1880. The Captain saw before him a clear course. Now he would be able to appeal for decisions for Christ to be made in the smaller gatherings where it would be possible to have each seeker dealt with individually. In the Friday meeting those who showed evidence of desiring to seek salvation would be encouraged to do so, and also be given an invitation to the Wednesday meeting which was to be the center of more intensive training in the things of God. Seldom was there a meeting without someone getting saved. On Wednesday the young converts would testify and, by degrees, they were brought forward to witness in the adult meetings.
On Saturday evening they occupied the platform before a packed hall. For those who found it difficult to express their experience the Captain wrote dialogues, being careful that they understood and experienced what they were being given to learn. These extra meetings were included in the reports to the divisional headquarters and arrested the attention of Major Dowdle. Meeting the Captain at an officers’ council, he said: “Roberts, have you got children on the brain?” “No, Major; I have them on my heart,” was the reply. Outwardly amused, Dowdle was inwardly touched and interested, as events were to prove. He arrived on a Friday afternoon, and took tea in the quarters. As six o’clock drew near the Captain said: “Will you be able to find your way to the hall by seven o’clock; I ought to slip off now to meet the children.” “But I want to meet the children also,” returned the Major, and together they went off to an occasion both were long to remember.
The Captain recorded: “We had the seats arranged in a square. The children were full of the importance of the occasion. The Major was charmed. He talked like a fiery prophet, and the children leaned forward, wide-eyed and, in some cases, open-mouthed, and listened spellbound. I looked on with a great joy in my heart!” “Splendid, Roberts!” said the Major. “We will have more of this in the division.” The children’s case had been won. From then on the diary records the Captain’s movements as opportunity was made for him to travel round the division with a chosen company of saved children to give their witness in public meetings. One of these occasions is noted: “Twenty-one souls were won for God; week-end collections trebled.” Major Dowdle reported the progress of the work among the children to the General. Hitherto every Salvation Army convert had been commandeered to fight in the open-air battles which preceded each public indoor meeting. These were not military descriptions only. The open-air stand was a real battleground; the fort was held in the fire of fierce opposition. Some would have preferred the quieter service of taking a Sunday-school class but none could be spared, and the running of Sunday-schools was not provided for in the multiplicity of schemes for helping along the salvation war. But the heart and mind of the Founder were ever open to new ventures in soul-saving, and soon after receiving the divisional officer’s report he made his way north to look into matters for himself. “These meetings must be started all over the country,” was his decision.
Meanwhile, the Captain with the children on his heart was by no means dull to the needs of the adults in his charge. The shipyard had intrigued him from the first survey of his activities. A recent visit to some new docks was noted: “Walked out upon the works where new docks are being built and new roads made. How familiar the scene – tipping wagons, packing sleepers, boys turning points and building themselves huts, boys swearing and quarreling!” As always after such reflections he wrote his heart’s prayer: “O Lord, help me to bring many more – old and young – into the liberty which Thou has given me.” In all probability the impressions of that afternoon had something to do with “Noonday talks in the shipyard.” Of their beginnings the diary records: “Tuesday, October 26th, 1880. Went to the Iron Shipyard to speak to the workmen for the first time. Tremendous disturbance at first, but very soon they got quiet and listened well. Going again tomorrow. O Lord, bring much good out of it!”
The noon meetings at the shipyard became the order of the day. Ministers from the various churches came along to see what was going on, and their services were “roped in.” They had awakened to the need and, as Salvationists would say, “caught the fire.” We know that one at least, the father of Minnie Browell, became outstanding in evangelistic ministry. Overflow meetings on Sunday night were held in a chapel to accommodate those who could not gain admission to the Central Hall. Then farewell meetings – marching orders had come again!
Rohu, Ethel B. - The Beginnings of Children’s Work.
John Roberts, Evangelist. - Salvationist Publishing and Supplies, 1953.