Story: Salvation Army

Page 1. The Salvation Army’s early days

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Origins of the Salvation Army

In the mid-19th century an English minister, William Booth, left the Methodist church to become a travelling preacher, concentrating on slum areas. In 1865 he and his followers formed the Christian Mission. Renamed the Salvation Army in 1878, this was a noisy and unconventional church, dedicated equally to saving souls and relieving poverty.

Military structure

War was constantly in the news in Britain at the time, and Booth’s church was run on strictly military lines. Its ‘officers’ held ranks such as captain and lieutenant, and wore uniforms, beat drums and waved flags. Morning prayers were known as ‘knee drill’, donations were ‘cartridges’, and starting work in a new district was called ‘opening fire’. The Salvation Army’s magazine was (and still is) titled the War Cry. The new movement spread rapidly across Britain and overseas.

Arrival in New Zealand

In 1882 a devout Dunedin woman named Arabella Valpy wrote to ‘General’ William Booth, enclosing £200 (around $34,600 in 2018 terms) and asking him to send someone ‘to the rescue of perishing souls in this respectable and highly favoured city’1. Early in 1883 two young officers, George Pollard and Edward Wright, arrived in Dunedin with three helpers they had recruited on the voyage. The first Salvation Army meeting in New Zealand was held in Dunedin on 1 April 1883.

New Zealand was then in the grip of economic depression. Unemployment, crime, poverty and prostitution were widespread, especially in the cities, and the Salvation Army’s colourful and welcoming meetings proved hugely popular. As the band blared and young officers sang and banged tambourines, ‘unsaved’ people were invited to ‘surrender’, or kneel at a bench called the penitent form or mercy seat and ask God to forgive their sins. By 1886 the Army had more than 5,000 members in about 40 corps (local groups).

Waging war

The early Salvation Army meetings were disrupted by groups of larrikins (disorderly young men), who shouted, threw stones and attacked the Salvationists during their services. In Auckland larrikins organised an alternative ‘skeleton army’, waving its own skull-and-crossbones flag. However the Army thrived on opposition. It set up local corps with militant nicknames such as the Wellington Warriors, Christchurch Conquerors, Invercargill Invincibles and Dunedin Dragoons.

Role of women

Inspired by his wife, Catherine, Booth insisted that women play an equal role with men in the Army’s activities. That policy was very appealing in New Zealand, where feminist activism was strong and women gained the vote in 1893. Dressed in distinctive maroon uniforms with ‘coal-scuttle’ bonnets, women officers were in the forefront of the Army’s expansion. By 1892 they made up more than half of its full-time officers and headed its five largest corps. Despite theoretical equality, men have usually held the very highest positions. By 2019, only three of the 21 Generals (international leaders) had been women. An active officer could only be married to another officer, since they served together as a pair.

Work with Māori

Unlike larger churches such as the Anglicans and Catholics, the Salvation Army did not start its work in New Zealand with Māori but in settler communities. However, individual Māori such as Joe Solomon in Kaiapoi and Maraea Morris in Gisborne were recruited in the church’s early years.

In 1888 Ernest Holdaway and his wife began a mission to Māori on the Whanganui River. They converted the chief Tamatea Aurunui of Jerusalem, who donated a canoe to help with transport in the roadless region. The mission was named Te Ope Whakaora (the group of lifegivers), and formed concert parties that toured New Zealand and overseas to raise funds. However, in other regions, especially those which had suffered in the land wars, Māori reacted suspiciously to the Army. Holdaway's mission closed after 10 years. Localised missions in Bay of Plenty (to 1928) and East Coast (1933–92) were replaced by a national strategy in the 1990s.

  1. Quoted in Barbara Sampson, Women of spirit: life-stories of New Zealand Salvation Army women from the last 100 years. Wellington: Salvation Army, 1993, p. 11. Back
How to cite this page:

Mark Derby, 'Salvation Army - The Salvation Army’s early days', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 28 May 2024)

Story by Mark Derby, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 20 Apr 2018