"Our Foreign Field": Records of the Salvation Army in Africa1

By Spencer, Steven | African Research & Documentation, May 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

"Our Foreign Field": Records of the Salvation Army in Africa1


Spencer, Steven, African Research & Documentation


Introduction

In the autumn and winter of 1954 Commissioner John Allan, the second-in-command of the Salvation Army, visited Africa and travelled through those countries where The Salvation Army was then established: Kenya, Rhodesia, South Africa, Nigeria, the Gold Coast, French Equatorial Africa and the Belgian Congo. During his visit he met tribal and national leaders including, on 11 November 1954 in the Gold Coast, Kwame Nkrumah in his Presidential Office, where Commissioner Allan "asked God to guide Nkrumah as he controls the destiny of his people".

When an account of the tour was written up for publication in 1955, the article began as follows:

Nowadays Africa is a continent where something dramatic is always happening. One part or another is constantly in the public eye. Here and there a new order is in course of being established and, as one competent authority has stated, tomorrow's headlines are certain to come out of the Dark Continent.2

If we look past the stereotypical and condescending language about Africa, the author was right. Within a year, Kwame Nkrumah had become president of an independent Gold Coast, and within five years the majority of the countries Allan visited had gained independence from European powers.

The Salvation Army had been in Africa since the 1880s and, as illustrated by the records of Commissioner Allan's visit, their archives show a movement affected by, and responding to, many of the historical changes on the continent. The cataloguing of previously 'hidden' collections has enabled research into new perspectives on the African continent.

The Salvation Army's origins were in the mid nineteenth century schisms within Methodism. In 1865 William Booth, who had been a minister with the Methodist New Connexion, and his wife Catherine established the East London Christian Mission, which proved popular enough to quickly set up a string of its own meeting-houses in London and quickly spread across the country. In 1878, tapping into the jingoism of the era, the Christian Mission rebranded itself as 'The Salvation Army' and soon developed the now familiar accoutrements of brass bands, uniforms and a fully-realised military structure with General Booth at its head. Its ministers were known as 'officers' and its chapels as 'corps'. The Salvation Army reached its hey-day in Britain in the years after the First World War, by which time it had become a world-wide movement. This international expansion was closely linked to the British Empire; the social reformer Henrietta Barnett, not herself a Salvationist, wrote in 1922 that "Few people realize that the work which The Salvation Army does is of measureless importance to England as an Empire builder".3

The Salvation Army in Africa

This association with the British Empire dates from 1882 when The Salvation Army began to send missionaries to the Indian sub-continent; the first move into an African colony was in 1883 when three pioneer officers, Major Francis and Rose Simmonds with Lieutenant Alice Teager, were sent to South Africa by William Booth. On 4 March the first Salvation Army meetings in Africa were held at a rented hall in Cape Town. When Major and Mrs Simmonds left South Africa three years later, they were leaving behind twenty-one corps and forty-eight officers, many of whom were South Africans.

Although The Salvation Army moved into Rhodesia in 1891, it was not until the 1920s that The Salvation Army began to expand across the continent, at first into the British colonies of Nigeria, Kenya and the Gold Coast. Later 'territories' were established in French, Belgian and Portuguese colonies. Expansion continued in the post-colonial period, with Angola in 1985 and Rwanda in 1995. In 2013 The Salvation Army is at work in twenty-three African countries. These range in size from Kenya with 350,000 Salvationists to Mali (where work opened in 2007) with just over 100. Figure 2 shows the countries where The Salvation Army is active, divided into twenty-three territories. …

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