Salvation Army Sacramental Theology - Part 1

A distinctive part of The Salvation Army's self-understanding has been the decision taken to discontinue practising the dominical sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist in any form within Army worship. This decision was made by William Booth and published in the War Cry of 17th January of 1883, and means that, along with the Society of Friends (Quakers), the Army is one of two denominations to take this stance officially. Many others in practice share this position by virtue of the infrequency of their partaking of the sacraments.

Salvationists continue to discuss this decision both in an attempt to answer two main questions; "Why did we stop?" and "Why do we continue to maintain this position?". Over the course of several posts (not sure how many yet) I will attempt to outline what are the commonly given answers to those questions. Before we get to that, though, I think it's very important to get some context on what was happening to the Army in the time leading up to this critical decision. This, I believe, sheds some very interesting light on this topic, but is something that I think most people are unaware of. 

Firstly, we must remember that the "official" start date of the East London Christian Mission (the precursor to The Salvation Army) is 2 July, 1865; the date that William Booth first preached in a tent on an old Quaker burial ground in the East End of London (the physical association with the Quakers is ironic given the positional association we share today on this very topic). The Mission immediately began to grow under the Booths' leadership up to the 1870s where we pick up our investigation.

1878 - This is the year that the name was changed to "The Salvation Army" at the stroke of Booth's pen. It is also the year that the first uniforms began to appear and when the first flag was presented to a corps, designed by Catherine Booth.

1879 - The Army crest is designed and adopted. Each of the components of the crest bears a symbolic and theological meaning, including the cross, the "S" for "salvation", the crown, the sun and so on.

1880 - The army purchase a Training home for the purpose of training new officers. International expansion also began in this year with movement into many other countries, including Australia.

1881 - A "headquarters" building was purchased which would later become known as International Headquarters (IHQ). It is still in this same location today, although it has been through several upgrades. A central "Congress Hall" was purchased which became the central training home (ironically it was a disused asylum. Make of that what you will!)

1882 - The Articles of War were introduced and made compulsory for all soldiers to sign. Some people left the Army over this document, but most stayed. Critical for our topic, though, this was also the year when serious discussions were entered into with the Church of England as to whether the Army would become what Harold Hill has described as an "ecclesiola - a church within a church" (Harold Hill, Leadership in The Salvation Army, (Bletchley: Paternoster, 2006), 58.)

This last event, which was a major turning point in the way the leaders of The Salvation Army understood the movement, was significant in our history. Consider the time at which this took place. We were 17 years old, had seen some significant and rapid growth, we had only just commenced movement outside of England, and were beginning to couch everything that we did in our emerging military identity. One of the critical aspects of this discussion was with regard to the sacraments. As we will see in later posts, frequent participation in communion was expected in the Church of England, but this was dependent upon having been already baptised. Many of the new Salvationists (including Officers) were not. Further, many of the Officers were women. Were they to be allowed to administer the sacraments? It had never been allowed in the Church of England up until that time. Would they make a special dispensation for female Salvation Army Officers? It proved to be a significant sticking point.

When we consider this history it comes as no surprise then that a decision that Booth wrestled with becomes concrete in his mind very soon after he makes the decision to say "No" to the Church of England. The Army would, in reality from 1882 on, be its own denomination. It would have its own identity, its own leadership structure, its own worship practices. I do realise, of course, that these things were already happening. But the decision to "go our own way" was very similar to a 17 or 18 year old recognising that they are their own person, with their own identity and leaving home for the first time. 1882 was the year that the Army left the roost and went out into the world standing firmly on its own two feet. 

This, I think, sheds some very necessary and important light on this discussion.

Continue on to Part 2 here.


  1. interesting. btw, a PhD study is being done here - one of the main arguments is that catherine is THE theologian of the movement (at least compared to william) and that the SA's position re sacraments ultimately rest upon her thoughts.. :D


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