The Salvation Army and paranormal phenomena

By Nate Cull

It’s not commonly understood that before Azusa Street, the Salvation Army experienced the same kind of paranormal phenomena now called ‘Pentecostal’ or ‘Charismatic’. Many readings of Salvationism as a social movement seem to consider that its primary force was merely enthusiastic zeal and forceful preaching. Paranormal events are notoriously difficult for people who have not personally experienced them to recognise, so they often get quietly edited from mainstream biographies and textbooks. It’s not deliberate suppression, just a failure to notice the unbelievable.

But when you look at documents from the era, it’s obvious that there was more than simple emotionalism at work. If we have experienced the Toronto Blessing phenomena, it’s very easy to recognise the same events occurring in the 19th century.

From a 1920 biography of William Booth by Harold Begbie: Volume 1, Chapter 25.



Although William Booth had decided that the Christian Mission should set before itself the task of rousing the indifference of the apathetic, and of converting the sunken and depraved sinner, he was still immensely conscious of the need for spiritual growth in holiness. His one tendency towards mysticism lay in this direction, and unless we perfectly acquaint ourselves with the character of this tendency we shall miss the secret of his inner life.

He believed and taught that every man is born in sin, and because of sin cannot inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. He believed and taught that an absolute and conscious change of nature must take place in every individual before he can inherit eternal life. The Church teaches that an infant is cleansed from original sin by the sprinkling of water in baptism. To William Booth, as to the majority of philosophers and men of science, the sprinkling of water in baptism could not by any possible means be anything more than a symbol; it could not make the smallest difference to the character and temperament of the child. John Stuart Mill had painfully learned from experience “that many false opinions may be exchanged for true ones, without in the least altering the habit of mind of which false opinions are the result.” Human personality is neither to be regenerated by a ceremony nor to be transformed by logic. But Booth declared, and philosophers like William James–Henri Bergson, too, we may even say–are certainly of his opinion, that a radical, intelligent, and fully conscious change of nature is possible to man; and this radical, intelligent, and fully conscious change of nature, he held to be that “conversion,” without which, according to the teaching of Christ, man cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

Baptism, therefore, was for William Booth a detail of symbolism, and he left it freely to his followers to decide whether they would be baptized or not; he felt no vital concern in the matter. His emphasis was on Conversion, the conversion of the adult and intelligent individual, and this was the first and greatest of his preachings. But beyond the arrest of the sinner, and the awakening of the soul to the living fact of a Living God, lay the path of Holiness; and here William Booth could not stop and leave conversion to follow its own evolution.

The doctrine he held on this subject was a variant of the doctrine known as Entire Sanctification. This doctrine, as the extremists hold it, teaches that a converted man can so grow in grace, can so open the doors of his volition to the will of God, that sin ceases to have the least power over him; that he is cleansed of all evil, and becomes perfectly pure, perfectly holy, even in the sight of God. William Booth never held this doctrine, but he did seek perfection in love after conversion, and taught men to aspire after entire sanctification of the will.

To reach this condition was, with him, if not the supreme object of each converted man and woman in the Christian Mission, at least the first of all their personal objects. First they must preach the repentance of sins; first they must labour to rouse the whole world to the truth of Christ; but after this, if possible simultaneously with this, they must wrestle with God for the entire sanctification of their own souls.

In this way he came to encourage what were called “Holiness Meetings.” The character of these meetings eventually provoked the fiercest attacks ever made upon him by religious people, and many religious people thought that they were something extravagant and something unhealthy. Nevertheless, by a careful and sympathetic consideration of these remarkable attempts to deepen spiritual consciousness we approach a rightful understanding of William Booth’s religiousness, and perceive with some degree of clearness the character of the struggle which was taking place in his own soul.

Mrs. Booth, as we have said, was on the side of Holiness. She had a young but powerful ally in the person of her eldest son, Bramwell. But while Bramwell Booth was an enthusiast for these Holiness Meetings, almost a leader among the evangelists of the Mission who taught Entire Sanctification, he was more inclined for challenging the world than his mother, more disposed to startle the conscience of the age. Bramwell Booth, who had shivered for a long while on the banks of doubt concerning his fitness for the work of an evangelist, and who had shrunk in timid dread for some considerable time from the very thought of preaching, was now, with George Railton, among the most enthusiastic and aggressive of the Mission workers.

The following descriptions of Holiness Meetings, taken from The Christian Mission Magazine, afford no real picture of the extraordinary sights which were witnessed, nor do they give an adequate account of the effects produced upon the souls of those who took part in them. Bramwell Booth tells me that, after many years of reflection, and disposed as he now is to think that in some degree the atmosphere of those meetings was calculated to affect hysterically certain unbalanced or excitable temperaments, he is nevertheless convinced, entirely convinced, that something of the same force which manifested itself on the day of Pentecost manifested itself at those meetings in London. He describes how men and women would suddenly fall flat upon the ground, and remain in a swoon or trance for many hours, rising at last so transformed by joy that they could do nothing but shout and sing in an ecstasy of bliss. He tells me that beyond all question he saw instances of levitation–people lifted from their feet and moving forward through the air. He saw bad men and women stricken suddenly with an overmastering despair, flinging up their arms, uttering the most terrible cries, and falling backward, as if dead–supernaturally convinced of their sinful condition. The floor would sometimes be crowded with men and women smitten down by a sense of overwhelming spiritual reality, and the workers of the Mission would lift their fallen bodies and carry them to other rooms, so that the Meetings might continue without distraction. Doctors were often present at these gatherings.

Conversions took place in great numbers; the evangelists of the Mission derived strength and inspiration for their difficult work; and the opposition of the world only deepened the feeling of the more enthusiastic that God was powerfully working in their midst.

The following article from The Christian Mission Magazine for September, 1878, gives an account of “A Night of Prayer,” lasting from the 8th to the 9th of August:

'That scene of wrestling prayer and triumphing faith no one who saw it can ever forget. We saw one collier labouring with his fists upon the floor and in the air, just as he was accustomed to struggle with the rock in his daily toil, until at length he gained the diamond he was seeking–perfect deliverance from the carnal mind–and rose up shouting and almost leaping for joy. Big men, as well as women, fell to the ground, lay there for some time as if dead, overwhelmed with the Power from on High. When the gladness of all God’s mighty deliverance burst upon some, they laughed as well as cried for joy, and some of the younger evangelists might have been seen, like lads at play, locked in one another’s arms and rolling each other over on the floor.

Well, perhaps there was something besides the genuine work of the Holy Ghost there, perhaps there were cases of self-deception and presumption, perhaps there were some carried away by the contagion of the general feeling. How could it ever be otherwise while Satan comes up with the people of the Lord? But, at any rate, God wrought there with a mighty hand and with an outstretched arm, so as to confound the wicked one and to raise many of His people into such righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Ghost as they never had before, and thousands, if not millions, of souls will have to rejoice for ever over blessings received by them through the instrumentality of those who were sanctified or quickened between the 8th and 9th of August, 1878.”

Cutting through the somewhat cringeworthy archaic religious jargon, it is apparent to me that what actually happened in 1878 in the Salvation Army and the Holiness Movement was very similar to what happened in Azusa Street in 1907 and what I have witnessed happening in 2009 (and at intervals during the last twenty years). There is a power present in these moments which is not generated by the intense will to believe, and is something completely other than emotional manipulation. We know it’s not generated by our willpower simply because it’s not always present. But when it is, physical healings can take place and lives can be deeply changed in moments.

One problem with the Holiness Movement model, however, and with the Salvation Army construct of a ‘war against sin’, is that in the absence of this power manifesting, people can feel compelled to try to recreate the same conditions by force of sheer willpower. This spiritual ‘cargo cult’ mentality can lead to a kind of psychological bullying, and the creation of authoritarian religious structures, which can be very emotionally damaging. This is the dark side of revivalism and Pentecostalism, and it is also very apparent here in Brazil.