The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.
Few people would take issue with the assertion that the Salvation Army is one of the most respected charitable organizations.
This was not always the case. A mixture of curiosity and contempt greeted the Army when it first appeared in Wellington County in the 1880s. People now associate the Salvationists with help to the destitute, disadvantaged and dissolute. This work did not become important until after the Army became solidly established.
The first Salvationists to appear here put their efforts into forceful preaching and recruiting new adherents to their simple and direct brand of evangelistic Christianity.
The Salvation Army originated in 1865 in London, England, as the Christian Mission, with William and Catherine Booth as the leaders. Booth soon saw advantages in adapting a military structure to the organization to facilitate recruiting and overall co-ordination of efforts.
In 1878, he changed the name to the Salvation Army, and assigned military ranks to his rapidly growing group of adherents, with himself as general.
There were uniforms, flags, and in 1879 the first brass band. Catherine Booth designed the famous “war bonnets” worn by women members of the organization. They called their churches and residences citadels and barracks, and conducted recruiting and fundraising drives with the planning and precision of a military campaign.
The Salvation Army appeared in Canada on May 24, 1882, when two of General Booth’s young recruits staged an evangelistic meeting in the market square in London, Ontario.
Though many people derided the event as a curious novelty, the sermons and music of that day inspired a surprising number of people to join the Salvation Army, and others to make financial contributions.
From the beginning, the Salvation Army sought out those on the low end of the economic and social scales. The Methodists had followed a similar course in the 1840s and 1850s, but had become increasingly smug and self-satisfied in the following decades. The Salvationists directed their message at those who were being ignored or even shunned by the older religious denominations.
From that first meeting in London in May 1882, the Salvation Army spread with amazing speed. Within five years it was active across the country, concentrating its efforts in the larger centres where, then as now, the poor and destitute tend to congregate.
General Booth had become increasingly appalled at the social conditions in England’s larger centres. His brand of practical Christianity had a direct appeal to those at the bottom of the ladder. The Salvation Army combined devout worship with charitable assistance to the less fortunate. These goals attracted financial support from those who did not join the Army.
Unlike other denominations, the Salvationists did not hesitate for a moment in using show business techniques. Their arrival in Guelph was typical of their aggressive campaign to spread the gospel, secure new recruits and make their presence known to all residents.
March 9, 1884 began as a normal Sunday in the Royal City. By 10 am the vast majority of residents were preparing to go to church, as they did every week.
At a quarter past 10, when many were on the streets walking to church, Captain Glover of the Salvation Army began discharging firearms in St. George’s Square. The noise shattered the quietude of the Sabbath, and almost instantly drew hundreds of people to Wyndham Street and the Square.
The gunfire was the signal for Glover’s associates to begin marching from the old drill shed (across the street from the armouries building on lower Wyndham Street) to the square, accompanied by a brass band and drum corps playing at full volume.
The procession proceeded up Wyndham Street on the sidewalk, but there was such a press of people that police officers asked them to take to the street. The Salvationists hadn’t risked asking for permission to parade, fearing the request might be turned down. The crowded sidewalks forced the police to move the procession to the middle of the street.
At the square, the Salvation Army formed up into orderly ranks, and Capt. Glover preached a brief sermon. When he concluded, he and his band of followers marched back down Wyndham Street, returning to the drill shed, which they had rented for the day.
Most of the spectators, numbering 1,000 according to the Mercury, or more than 10% of the city’s population, wandered on to their own churches, a few minutes late in many cases. A surprising number, though, either inspired or curious, followed the parade. The Salvation Army’s service filled the drill shed past capacity. More than 100 had to stand outside.
Getting full value from their rental, the Salvationists held services again that afternoon and evening. At the end of the day they had a dozen new recruits, and everyone it the city knew of their presence.
Over the next few weeks the Salvationists continued to spread their word in Guelph, with more services and preaching on street corners. More often than not they attracted hecklers and scoffers, but soon there was widespread support for the strange new religious organization.
In Guelph, as in most centres, they succeeded in attracting a handful of well-placed residents as new recruits.
Particularly startling to many was the presence of women as full members and at all ranks of the organization, rather than in a women’s auxiliary. Some of the other denominations in the city would not reach this stage for another 75 years.
Within six months of its arrival in Guelph, the Salvation Army felt sufficiently strong to establish a permanent base. They decided to build a citadel, and purchased a parcel of land on the corner of Paisley and Dublin Streets.
On Nov. 6, 1884 they laid the cornerstone for the structure, which took the form of a small church building but without any spire or unnecessary decoration. Construction, except for some interior plastering and painting, was complete two months later. Successful fundraising in 1884 had raised most of the $5,000 cost, which was equal to the value of four good houses at that time.
Pleased with their success, the Guelph Salvationists held the first service in their new citadel on Jan. 1, 1885. It was a Thursday evening, and allowed financial supporters who belonged to other denominations to attend without conflicting with their own regular Sunday services.
Though they had a building, the Salvation Army ranks in Guelph never swelled past the 100 mark. Religious services often attracted more than this figure.
Indigents and visitors always received a warm welcome there. By 1900, the religious side of their work had taken a back seat to the welfare functions that the organization filled in the city.
After 1900, Guelph council regularly gave a sizeable donation to the Salvation Army to assist with their efforts, in the absence of an effective public welfare system. In return, the Salvation Army band became a regular sight at many civic functions, parades and celebrations. By the time of the First World War the Salvation Army had become a vital force in the fabric of the city.
In the 1920s the Salvationists began to stress assistance to poorer families at the Christmas season. The familiar kettle soliciting public donations appeared in Guelph for the first time in December 1926.
Guelph’s Salvation Army moved to new quarters on Birmingham Street, more suitable to their activities, in the 1960s.
The Guelph Little Theatre took over the old citadel building in 1967, using it for its rehearsals, productions and storage, until fire claimed the structure in November 1993.
*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on March 2, 2001.