"Dangerous" Degrees

One of the interesting stories in Salvation Army history is about Samuel Logan Brengle. Through a series of events Brengle was attracted to the Army to the point of desiring to become an Officer within its ranks. Here’s how David Rightmire has recounted this story in his biography of Brengle, Sanctified Sanity (pg 18-19).
Brengle arrived at the International Headquarters of The Salvation Army in London on June 1, 1887, to a lukewarm reception by William Booth. The Founder was not impressed with this new recruit, believing him to be of the "dangerous classes" (i.e. a man of education and culture) and hence unable to submit to Army discipline. Sam expressed his belief that the Holy Spirit had not only sanctified him, but had led him to offer his life in service within the Army. Brengle convinced the General of his sincerity by expressing his desire to join the ranks in order to minister self-sacrificially to the poor, stating: "I knew my only way up to heaven was by going down to the lowest of the low." He had passed his first test but was sent to be interviewed by the Chief of the Staff, Bramwell Booth. Once again, Brengle was labelled a member of the dangerous classes and warned not to waste his time in joining an organisation that he would probably leave in a year or two. Not to be rebuffed, the candidate persisted until Bramwell agreed to let him in on a trial basis.

Following this comes the famous moment when Brengle was sent to the Training Garrison at Leamington and the first task he was assigned was to polish the boots of the other cadets. Initially dismayed by this menial task Brengle’s thoughts soon turned to Jesus washing his disciples feet. With this thought in mind he willingly and humbly got on with the task.

It’s a great story, and one I’ve heard told numerous times. It says a lot about Brengle, the man. It suggests that he was willing to humble himself in the light of how Christ had humbled himself for all of us, for the sake of the Kingdom.

Yet, I want to look at this story from a different angle. In fact, I want to ask some questions. Firstly, about William and Bramwell Booth.
  1. What does this say about William and Bramwell Booth?
  2. What does this say about the value of “education” and “educated people” to them? (NB: Brengle only had a BA, and a partially complete Divinity degree).
  3. What were they afraid of?
  4. What would be the problem if Brengle did, in fact, give one or two years good service and then left?

These questions interest me more than ones about Brengle himself. Further to this, given that we continue to recount this story in our mythology, and often its told to cadets or those considering officership, there are further questions relating to us today?
  1. What does this say about The Salvation Army as an organisation and the way we treat our own?
  2. Might this be labelled as “humiliation”, and if so do we consider that an appropriate method of training, either then or now?
  3. Do we still consider “education” or “educated people” as the “dangerous class”? If so, why?
  4. What does this say about ourselves with regards to our values and so on?
  5. Why is “obedience” so important a characteristic of an Officer that we would tell this story as an example of how it was obtained?

As someone involved in education at the moment, and continuing to pursue formal studies in theology, the questions regarding the place of education and educated people in the Army interests me the most. The reality is education causes people to think. In fact, it trains them in the art of thinking. For theological education and Christians in general terms, the task of theologising, as John Webster has suggested, is in itself a holy task. It is the art of thinking like Christ.

So is this important?


So what’s the problem?

Well, consider the military. Consider all the things you’ve seen (and perhaps done) with regard to the training of new recruits in the armed forces, or even emergency services like the police. When the drill sergeant says to the person who’s just had their first ‘buzz cut’ – “drop and give me twenty!” – they know full well not to seek clarification on defining the word “drop”, or reach for their wallet to pull out a twenty-dollar bill, and they definitely do NOT ask “Why?” We all know what would happen then!!!!

The military relies on a chain of command from the top down. The military also relies on obedience from the bottom up. If that doesn’t happen people die. It’s that simple and it makes sense. As a result, because of the purposes of the military they “train” first and only later “educate”.

So, I think this is where the conflict comes about for The Salvation Army. I think this is where the Booths assumed that Brengle (and other educated people) would be dangerous. ‘He’s been trained to ask “Why, sir/madam?” We need people who will say “Yes, sir/madam!”’ The Booths trained, they did not educate.

I don’t intend to criticise William and Bramwell at this point. They were who they were, and did what they did in the historical circumstances that they were in. Their educational philosophy was based on the assumption that they were in a battle and training needed to prepare people for that battlefield. But there’s some big questions for us as a movement today, particular as it relates to the place of education within our movement.

“What are we training for?”

This question is one of educational philosophy. Do we want people to come out the other side saying “Yes, sir/madam!” or “Why, sir/madam?” or a combination of both? Is there a place for both? Should we do one after the other, and if so, which order is appropriate? If we go for obedience first, at what point is it acceptable for someone to go from “Yes, sir/madam!” to “Why, sir/madam?” Note, too, that these questions apply not just to the training of Officers, but to the training of Soldiers as well. The terminology of “training” and “education” in itself is very significant here. Historically we have “trained” (“Yes, sir/madam!”). Do we now also “educate” (“Why, sir/madam?”)?

I realise that I’m asking a lot of questions here, but I think they’re worthy of being asked and wrestled with. Perhaps it’s my personality. Maybe, I’m not a “Yes” man but a “Why?” man? I guess the armed forces even have “military intelligence”. Is there a place for that in our movement as well?

I’d be interested in your thoughts.


  1. Good questions! Here's a few of my thoughts...

    1. I'm not an expert on the culture of various time periods, but I would assume that in Booth/Brengle's day tertiary education was much more associated with the wealthy and 'elite' - out of reach of the typical working-class family. (A wikipedia search indicates even in 1950 only about 5% of Americans had completed a Bachelors degree)

    I think this would explain some of the initial hesitation... "Is this guy actually able to sacrifice his privileged lifestyle to live and work among the poor, or is he just caught up in the 'hype' of the Army but will find his old lifestyle irresistable?"

    So I think the Booths were probably as much concerned about the cultural associations of 'education' as education itself.

    2. I don't necessarily see the important distinction as 'Why vs. Yes'. More like 'Why vs. How'.

    I remember from your post a while back on Booth and the Sacraments that his response wasn't one of an autocrat and a dictator (although I know some of those tendencies are recorded elsewhere). But in that particular instance, Booth's response is basically to go "I won't devote my or our time to the 'Why' of the sacraments when the 'How' of men's Salvation still requires attention". (That's quite a liberal paraphrase I know, but seems fair I think).

    So I wonder if the perceived danger was a diversion of the focus towards theoretical/intellectual questions at the expense of the pragmatic ones?

  2. A few random but related thoughts.

    I always found it amusing that the Booths were concerned that Brengle (and others) wouldn't be able to take orders. Wasn't that essentially the reason William left the Methodists?

    I wonder how much of the reticence to get well educated people on board is due to the insecurity of people in the upper echelons of the Army? I don't have stories to tell exactly, but I have had problems there with officers in the lower echelons.

    Finally, the Army still prefers practice over theory. We have very few career academics. Most of our theologians do their work in addition to their 'real' appointment. And we have very few (if any) theologians who aren't officers.

    I mean, try suggesting to the Army you need a light appointment in order to complete your dissertation on 'Alfred Whitehead's Influence on the Handbook of Doctrine: The Articles of Faith as a Reader in Process Thought". You'll get a fair hearing, but I can guarantee the officer who needs twelve months to finish their Psychology doctorate is going to get a more sympathetic ear.

  3. I think also the issue is 'what education you are receiving', and 'how is that education being received/given'. In Booths day, much of the education resulted in suppression of the lower classes and elevation of the upper classes. In that context, an 'educated' person would be diametrically opposed to the work of TSA.

    The saying 'knowledge is power' is very true. it has the power to widen the gap between the 'haves' and the 'have nots'. It has the power to perpetuate wrong ideologies and descrimination. And it has the power to raise people up, to narrow the gap between the social classes, and to destroy descrimination. It is the power of education to do good that many people fear. Education causes people to ask 'why' (as you unequivically point out). Questioning authority, or the chain of command, is not what people fear (I don't think). What people fear when we ask 'why' is that we are also questioning their beliefs, and in so doing, questioning the very core of people - causing others to question their very being.

    For Example. In the past, when people questioned 'why' regarding slavery, people's views were so deeply challenged, their way of life obliterated, their very concept of reality shattered, it led to many wars around the world.

    Today (to use a current example on this blog site and others), if we question 'why' regarding traditional teaching around homosexuality, it will cause many people to lose their faith, to question their very concept of reality, question their life, question everything.

    Education causes us to look at new evidence. To re-examine old evidence. Long held beliefs and teachings are not just challenged, but thrown out the window. What we have based our entire life on is often destroyed (if it is based on anything other than God Himself, such as doctrine, or beliefs about God), and so our life is left in ruins by those who are educated. In the context of faith, that has very far reaching consequences.

    In my first lecture at Training College in Bexley North, our Education Officer (Phil Cairns) gave us an essay to read from the Expositors Bible Commentary (the orriginal set) which said along the lines that if we believe the earth was created by God, then no matter what we find out through our study of it, it cannot shake our belief that God created it. Even if we find out that evolution is true, it cannot shake our faith in God.

    People like our leaders, the Booths, and many others in these situations, I don't think balk at education per se. They are uncomfortable with what it might lead to for them.

    For me, so long as we base our faith on God and God alone, not doctrine, not interpretation of Scripture, but on God, His Son crucified and resurrected, then nothing else, no matter what it is, can challenge our faith. And I say that as a person who has not lived an easy life by any means.

    Just my thoughts,

    Yours in Christ,
    Graeme Randall

  4. I think you have been a little unfair to the Booths and the way they did things. It was under the Booths that our Army grew at a pace we can only look back at with nostalgia. Nor do I think they devalued education as such, after all education had it's place in Booth's Grand Design. However, since you have made the distinction "education" over "training" - people are still leaving officership after receiving their education and our Army is still getting smaller every year.
    I am not really sure education and educated officers have helped all that much.
    Colin Young

  5. Thanks for your replies...
    Jarrod... some really thoughtful comments there. I tend to agree with you about (1) although I'm not so sure about (2). Yes there is the pragmatic bent, but this story seems to me to suggest a desire more for obedience than practical suggestions on getting the job done. I could be wrong, though.
    Cameron... yes, "study leave" is not a frequently used (nor really validated) appointment. I think that relates to our pragmatic bent, which struggles to reconcile "study" as actually "doing something."
    Graeme... I want to pick up on the comment "it will lose people to lose their faith"... I'm not convinced. My experience of asking people 'why do you believe what you believe?' has been that it actually strengthens faith. No doubt, it can be a difficult process to go through, and it needs to occur in a 'safe' environment. But questioning long held beliefs and practices actually causes us to either affirm what we've held and believe in it more confidently, or refine it.
    Colin... it was far from my intention to denegrate the Booths, but I do think that Salvationists are very poor at critical history. We put on our "red, yellow and blue" glasses when we look at our history and only see the good things (which there were many, many, many stories of). As the old saying goes, if we fail to learn from the failures of history we're doomed to repeat them.


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