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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

1929 – The Salvation Army in Crisis – Hagiography Fails Us

These are a few of my thoughts as I’ve been reading former General John Larrson’s book -1929: A
Crisis that Shaped The Salvation Army’s Future [i]  (chapter 14)

The story of the 1929 crisis within the Salvation Army (the deposition of General Bramwell Booth and efforts to reform the leadership structure of the Army) is, for The Salvation Army, a slightly embarrassing story; some of our saints and heroes don’t come out so well.  Our hagiography fails us because the individuals in this story and participants of this struggle were fallible humans.  And this is not something we like to admit about our heroes and founders.    We (in whatever organization we belong) want to remember them as being heroic and brave and always advancing in righteousness and holy zeal.  But we know- if we will allow ourselves to admit it- that this isn’t really the case.

When the High Council of The Salvation Army voted to adjudicate Bramwell Booth as unfit to hold the office of the General, it was not with rancor or ill will; it was not a matter of personal resentments (at least, overall it was not.  Some of that may have played into their actions as well – they were, as we’ve said, fallible.)  They had pleaded with him to resign of his own free will so as to not force them into this last dramatic and painful step.  But Bramwell clung to the position even when it was clear to most everyone else that he should let it go.  Call it pride, call it fear, call it selfishness, Bramwell would not relinquish the command of The Salvation Army that had been bequeathed to him by his father, the Founder and first General. 

After receiving the news that the High Council had voted (55 to 8) to pass the ‘resolution relating to the adjudication and removal of General William Bramwell Booth’[ii]  Bramwell and his family announced that they were filing a legal injunction prohibiting the High Council from electing a new general – on the grounds that the 1904 Deed Poll (which gave the High Council the necessary legitimation) was never legally valid and, as such, the High Council had no authority to adjudicate the General’s fitness to hold office and that Bramwell was still the sole authority.

This was duplicitous and bare hypocrisy on the part of the General and his family. 

The 1904 Deed Poll (which augmented without changing the 1878 Constitution of The Salvation Army) had been enacted by William Booth and Bramwell was not only one of the driving forces behind its drafting, but had received his own generalship under its provisions.  Bramwell had long resisted the challenges of the High Council toward change arguing that he felt compelled to honor the wishes and intent of his father, the founder.  But as desperation often drives us to sacrifice our principles, Bramwell stood ready to throw out a quarter of a century’s worth of organization in order to retain his position.

Bramwell and the other members of his family (namely his wife, Flora, and his daughter, Commissioner Catherine Booth) had repeatedly assured the High Council,  the Salvation Army at large and the fascinated public (who were following the story in the newspapers and tabloids) that they would not stoop to taking legal action.  But now that the tide had turned against them, they had announced a legal injunction against the High Council.  This sudden reversal felt like a betrayal to four of those eight members of the High Council who had, to this point, refused to side against Bramwell, and they disassociated themselves from any further support of the Booth family.

Many were also quick to point out that the General’s action directly violated the Orders and Regulations of the Salvation Army: “In no case may Salvation soldiers go to law in the ordinary way with respect to differences which may exist between them.  This is positively prohibited by the Holy Spirit and must never be practiced – 1 Corinthians, Chapter 6, Verse 1.”[iii]

Our hagiography fails us – not because these were terrible, wicked people involved in nefarious plots and maliciousness – but because hagiographies always fail. They’re inherently problematic.  We humans are prone to failure, even the best of us will, when faced by pressure and anxiety, succumb to fear and pride and selfishness.

If we can remember this about our saints and heroes, we’ll be a lot better off. 

[i] Larrson, John 1929: A Crisis that Shaped The Salvation Army’s Future Salvation Books, London England, 2009.
[ii] Page 220
[iii] Orders and Regulations, 1927 edition, quoted on page 233

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