The Salvation Army’s egalitarian roots
Catherine Booth was a formative influence in the founding of The Salvation Army. The movement, in fact, was co-founded by William and Catherine Booth. True, William Booth has been most often referred to as the Founder and Catherine as the Army Mother, but her influence was pervasive. She was his closest confidant and most candid critic. “Thou art to be my guardian watcher!” he once wrote to her during their courtship.1 And so she became. Before he knew her better, William made bold to express the popular understanding of the time that women were less endowed intellectually and spiritually than men. Catherine lost no time in disabusing him of any such notion, insisting that he come to “settled views” on the issue of women’s equality or they had little prospect of a future together. He did.
The Booths raised eight children to maturity, three boys and five girls. All, with the exception of one daughter, who had a limiting condition, proved to be remarkable Salvation Army leaders and gifted preachers. Much is owed to Catherine’s firm hand in the nurture of mind and spirit. She would not allow her sons to look down on their sisters. “I have tried to grind it into my boys that their sisters are just as capable and intelligent as themselves,” she declared.2 William trusted her judgment implicitly and knew she was the more theologically astute. She was his preaching partner in their early campaigns, often providing him with sermon material. During her husband’s illnesses, she preached in his stead with great effect and soon had her own wide-ranging preaching ministry. By the time she preached her last public sermon in the pulpit of Dr. Joseph Parker’s famed City Chapel, London, she had become one of the best-known women preachers of her generation. It is no surprise then that, when preaching stations began multiplying as the Christian Mission gained momentum, the Booths began recruiting women for the ministry, often assigning them in charge.
When the mission took the name of The Salvation Army in 1878, the right of women to preach, and, indeed, to undertake any task in ministry for which they had been gifted, was firmly established in the fledgling movement. Even before Catherine, unable to resist further the impress of the Spirit, began to preach at Gateshead on Whit Sunday in 1860, she had penned a brilliant defense of women’s right to preach in response to an attack by a local pastor on the pulpit ministry of Phoebe Palmer, who was preaching at the time in a nearby community. Her essay is still in print.3
Christine Parkin opines that “there is almost an air of ‘positive discrimination’” toward women in the Orders and Regulations drafted by William Booth for staff officers in 1895:
One of the leading principles upon which the Army is based is the right of women . . . to an equal share with men in the great work of publishing Salvation to the world. . . . She may hold any position of authority or power in the Army from that of a Local Officer to that of the General. Let it therefore be understood that women are eligible for the highest commands—indeed, no woman is to be kept back from any position of power or influence merely on account of her sex. . . . Women must be treated as equal with men in all the intellectual and social relationships of life.4
This charter is a vital part of the essential ethos of the Army to this day. It is enshrined in all subsequent revisions of Orders and Regulations in one form or another. Army leadership has never wavered from it as an ideal. It is the priceless legacy of William and Catherine Booth left to future generations of Salvationist women. General Frederick Coutts, then commissioner, writing in the 1959 Salvation Army Year Book on the occasion of the one-hundredth anniversary of the publication of Female Ministry by the Army Mother, eloquently captures this legacy:
Theories of what ought to be in church order so often break before the fact of what is. In the economy of the Kingdom, God’s ways are not our ways, nor His thoughts our thoughts. In vain do men debar those servants whom He employs. . . . Seeing that the grace of the Spirit and the gift of the office of apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor and teacher have been—and are—so undeniably granted to women as well as men “for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ,” who are we to withstand God?5
Sadly, it must be acknowledged that leadership has not always been consistent in conforming Army policies and practices to this grand and emancipating ideal. Still, for thousands of women in more than one hundred countries as they have responded to God’s call to Salvation Army officership, it has opened a “wide door for effective work.” Since the days of the Christian Mission (1865–1878), single women, sometimes in teams of two, have proven effective in preaching and pastoral work. Many have been in the vanguard of missionary outreach. Serving as missionary officers in Korea, we were often moved while standing at the graves of three valiant young single Swedish officers who braved exposure to disease when the Army “opened fire” in the peninsula nearly a century ago. Some have found missionary service a path to leadership. General Eva Burrows (Ret.), an Australian, began her officer ministry as an educational missionary in Rhodesia. Commissioner Robin Dunster, the current chief of the staff at International Headquarters in London, second in command and chief operating officer for the global Army, served first as a missionary nurse administrator in Zimbabwe and much later in senior leadership there and as territorial commander in Congo and the Philippines. Traveling around the Army world as international leaders of the movement, we have often been awed by the dedication and sheer physical courage of our single women officers serving in some of the riskiest and most demanding assignments.
Social services for women in the last century came under separate command in the United Kingdom and North America. The Women’s Social Services Department provided unique opportunities for single women to gain administrative and leadership experience. Commissioner Christine MacMillan, now international director for social justice and former territorial commander for Canada and Bermuda, spent most of her career in Social Services. Though unintended, the eventual integration of the Women’s Social Services Department with its separate headquarters and leadership structure into the overall command structure of the Army deprived women of positions previously available for gaining administrative experience as a steppingstone to senior leadership. The number of programs under the exclusive leadership of women was reduced, eliminating valuable opportunities for aspiring single women officers. There remains, of course, within the Army a wide range of ministries for single women officers, including corps leadership.
Marriage and ministry
A half century ago, the great majority of officer cadets were single. Entering training much later in life, cadets today are far more likely to be married.6 The Army requires that officers be married to officers. This limits the field considerably for single women who desire to marry, as the number of single men cadets is even slimmer than that of single women. Women who do enlist for training while single are responding to a clear and compelling sense of calling and are often better qualified than their peers. While every position of leadership is, in principle, available to them, the path, even for the most gifted, has often been rough, narrow, and dispiriting. Thankfully, intentional efforts are now being made to identify single women officers with outstanding leadership potential early in their service and to prepare them for major leadership opportunities.
The provenance of the policy requiring officers to be married to officers is not entirely clear. Harold Hill observes, “Until the mid-1880’s, married women were given the option of coming into training or remaining at home during the training period.”7 Apparently, it was seen as an administrative convenience at a time when officers were moved about frequently, sometimes every few months. Clearly, some officers’ wives were likely to be better suited to ministry than others. Eventually, emphasis was placed on both husband and wife confirming a call to this unique vocation as an officer couple. At one point, the concept of “joint covenant” was proposed, but gained little traction. Each officer makes his or her own covenant with God as an officer of The Salvation Army. In the event of the death of either partner, it is expected that the surviving spouse will continue to fulfill his or her calling as an officer. The fact that the covenant is regarded as a life covenant,8 though it is accepted that not all will stay the course, creates its own level of difficulty in providing appropriate appointments for all officers, married and single.
The reality has been that a great host of married women who have committed themselves to an officer vocation in response to God’s call have discovered that they had gifts for ministry that they had not imagined. Indeed, not a few husbands over the years have followed a wife’s calling into officership, discovering only later their giftedness for ministry. In any case, wives and husbands receive the same training. Each is ordained a minister of the gospel and commissioned as an officer of The Salvation Army. Up until 1996 and the changes effected as a result of the recommendations of an International Women Officer Commission, convened to review the status of women officers, women followed the ranks of their husbands and were referred to as Mrs.Captain David Jones, for example—or, more often, simply as Mrs. Jones. They are now understood to carry rank as officers in their own right and are to be referred to as Captain Dorothy Jones, for example, whether married or single. The change was much more than cosmetic. The outcomes were far-reaching. Women’s sense of identity as officers and clergy in their own right has been significantly reinforced, not only in their own minds, but in the minds of their male peers and others to whom they relate in their officer roles. In some African countries, this policy has changed the public perception and even legal prerogatives of married women officers, especially in the event of a husband’s death, when by tribal custom they might otherwise be divested of all their possessions, including their children.
The international leader and general of The Salvation Army is elected by the High Council, by deed poll constituted of the officers with the rank of commissioner, the most senior rank in the Army, and certain other senior officers. With the conferring of rank in their own right on all women officers, women married to commissioners were also given the rank of commissioner and were thereby eligible to participate in the High Council and the election of the general. The effect was for married women officers to be made a part of other decision-making boards and councils at every level. For example, married women commissioners, representing the four United States territories, now participate fully in the deliberations of the Commissioners Conference, which sets national policy for The Salvation Army in the United States. With these changes, the need for preparing senior married women officers for participation at this level became immediately apparent. A whole new range of leadership appointments now became open to married women officers as a consequence, although the facilitating of these appointments was the prerogative of territorial leaders, not all of whom have been eager to place women in more senior roles.
In 2001, General John Gowans wrote to international Salvation Army leaders urging them to consider the appointment of married women officers to more senior leadership responsibilities. Referencing the regulations as far back as 1886 guaranteeing the eligibility of men and women alike for all ranks, authorities, and duties, “all positions being open to them,” he acknowledged that “this truth has not always and everywhere been implemented with the courage and conviction that it demands of us, and I wish to seek your cooperation in ensuring that the Army today recognizes and obeys the divine imperative that has been laid upon us in this matter.”9
Toward the end of our term as international leaders, an International Officership Commission was convened to review and put forward recommendations regarding the unique institution of Salvation Army officership. The commission issued its final report after our retirement in 1999. The report further supported the recommendations of the earlier Women’s Commission. General John Gowans engaged the surveyed opinion of more than 17,000 officers around the world in responding to the recommendations of the commission. Their responses were collated by an external firm and the results forwarded to the general for review and decision. (The Army, though now more collegial and participatory in administrative ethos, is after all a command structure!) Some recommendations were accepted, some deferred, and some referred to territories for implementation at their discretion. Given the cultural diversity of the Army in 114 countries where it is now established, it becomes ever more difficult to legislate for the movement internationally.
A certain cultural sensitivity is required in introducing changes affecting the status of women to be sure, particularly as it may affect the family structure. Having said that, it took a Danish woman leader serving with her husband in Bangladesh to remind the 1998 International Conference of Leaders that, if we were to feel it necessary to await changes in the culture before implementing changes in the interest of equality of opportunity for women and recognition of their God-given rights, we might still be agreeing to women throwing themselves on the funeral pyres of their husbands. Ultimately, our standard is not Eastern culture or Western culture, but the culture of God’s Kingdom.
The 1990 report of a Church of England Working Party Concerned with Women in Ordained Ministry, entitled Deacons Now—published when women could be ordained only to the deaconate, but not yet as priests, let alone bishops—included a statement germane to the Army’s own challenge in maximizing its resource in commissioned women officers: “The Anglican Church has for the first time seriously addressed the career development of women in ministry. Having willed the end—the incorporation of women into the clerical profession—the Church is now faced with the challenge of willing the means.”10
For the most part, married officers are comfortable in the adjustment to roles reflecting their gifting while working together as corps officers in local communities, where their responsibilities are often far more diverse than those of the average pastor. Sometimes the wife is more capable in relating to the community, fund raising, administration, or financial management, while the husband does most of the preaching. With other couples, it is the wife who is the more gifted preacher and programmer for worship and other activities, while the husband handles the business, administration, and community relations. In fact, a study completed by Lt. Col. Richard Munn, in connection with his doctoral studies at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, demonstrated a high degree of marital satisfaction and fulfillment experienced by corps officer couples included in the survey.11
Difficulties arise for officers and their leaders when the couple is appointed to headquarters responsibilities where they will be given separate assignments. And, though leaders are now under mandate not to confine themselves to the convenience of “parallel appointments” for married women officers, it is still most common for women to be assigned tasks within the Department of Women’s Ministries that have become associated with the appointments of their husbands whether the women are particularly suited to those tasks or not. For many years, wives of officers in headquarters appointments were left without meaningful assignments and sometimes without any appointment at all.
The intention is now that all married women officers should have appropriate and fulfilling responsibilities. The end willed is clear. The challenge is willing the means. It is a challenge being faced by many denominations. Where women officers lack the necessary experience or the opportunity to gain it (and, often enough, even if they do have the requisite experience and ability), the “stained glass ceiling” is a frustrating reality. In the end, the Army is the loser. Now that senior married women officers are being given reserved appointments which have been the preserve of men or single women, Harold Hall can comment that some have seen the single woman leader in the Army as an “endangered species.”12 While a concern, we would not regard the situation as quite so dire. In fact, there is evidence that, in some major territories, both single and married senior women officers are being given significant commands. Commissioner Mary Rajakumari was appointed territorial commander of the large and complex Western India Territory with headquarters in Mumbai, following the promotion to Glory of her husband in 2007. Commissioner Vinece Chigariro is now in her second appointment as a territorial commander, first in Zambia and now in Zimbabwe, with responsibility for more than one hundred schools from preschool to secondary, two hospitals, numerous social service programs, and some eight hundred centers of worship.
As is the case with not a few Protestant denominations, The Salvation Army in responding to these challenges is aware of a foot-dragging cultural inertia in some quarters. Surprisingly, those in the American territories are often more resistant to change in this regard than are Salvationists in the developing world. The Army in the United States at grassroots tends to be most strongly influenced by far-right evangelicalism with its overreaction to the perceived evils of secular feminism. There are strongly entrenched cultural biases as well. Contributing to that inertia is the recruitment of officer cadets heavily influenced by far-right conservatism and a lack of awareness of, or unwillingness to accept, the scriptural grounds for women’s freedom to preach and lead, so fervently articulated by Catherine Booth. Having said all this, we observe a heartening resurgence of commitment to the Founders’ legacy of freedom for women in ministry and leadership increasingly evident across the Army world, which holds bright promise for the future.
William and Catherine Booth were evangelists to the core. Their hearts were aflame with a passion to proclaim Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. They believed in the redeeming and transforming power of the gospel. Their hearts yearned for the salvation of the lost. The movement they birthed was destined to fight under a banner of Blood and Fire. Their commitment to recruiting a full force for this fight was both principled and pragmatic. The example of Jesus and the practice of the Apostles provided all the permission they required to employ women fully in the great Salvation War. They would not deny to women the freedom to make “full proof of their ministry” in response to the imperious call of God laid upon their lives. There was, and is, a world to win—a world of sin and suffering, of brokenness and bondage, waiting for the liberating Word and transforming touch of the Savior’s love. Now, as then, The Salvation Army is committed to standing “shoulder to shoulder”—women and men with a common calling and commission to “preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ and meet human need in His name.”13 Fulfilling that commitment consistently has never been without its challenges. But fulfill it we must, lest we lose our legacy and falter in our mission.
“The Lord gives the command; the women who proclaim the good tidings are a great host” (Psalm 68:11 NASB).
- Catherine Bramwell-Booth, Catherine Booth: the Story of Her Loves (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1969), 144.
- Frederick Coutts, “Ordination of Women,” The Salvation Army Year Book (London: The Salvation Army International Headquarters, 1959), 8.
- Catherine Booth, Female Ministry: Women’s Right to Preach the Gospel (Rancho Palos Verdes Calif.: The Salvation Army USA Western Territory); also included in Terms of Empowerment with essays by Catherine Booth, Evangeline Booth, and Commissioner Kay Rader, published by the USA Eastern Territory and available from CBE at www. equalitydepot.com.
- Christine Parkin, “A Woman’s Place? (Catherine Booth and Female Ministry)” in Catherine Booth: Her Continuing Relevance, ed. Clifford Kew (London: The Salvation Army International Headquarters, 1990), 19. This collection of essays published by The Salvation Army International Headquarters in 1990 marks the 100th anniversary of Catherine Booth’s promotion to Glory.
- Coutts, “Ordination of Women.” And this from Coutts: “Any rigid theory of the ministry always shatters itself against the inalienable right of God to choose whom he pleases as his messengers.” Parkin, “A Woman’s Place?,” 14.
- Currently, in the USA Eastern School for Officer Training in Suffern, N.Y., the average age of male cadets is 35 and of women 32. In the Central USA CFOT located in Chicago, Ill, the average age is somewhat less.
- Harold Hill, “The Salvation Army Officer: A Case Study in Clericalization” (Ph.D. diss., Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, 2004), 3ff. By 1886, the regulation, though less than clear, intimates what later would become policy—that both husbands and wives were expected to share in a common calling and were to be trained and commissioned as officers.
- The covenant is signed by every cadet in a solemn Service of Covenant at the conclusion of a two-year training program. The text begins, “Called by God to proclaim the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ as an officer of The Salvation Army, I bind myself to Him in this solemn covenant. . . .”
- Richard Munn, “Salvation Army Married Officer Leadership: For Such a Time as This” (D.Min. diss., Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, 004), 96.
- Deacons Now: Report of the Working Party Concerned with Women in Ordained Ministry 1990 (London: The Advisory Council for the Church’s Ministry, 1991), 85.
- Munn, “Salvation Army Married Officer Leadership,” 96.
- Hill, “The Salvation Army Officer,” 1.
- From the international mission statement of The Salvation Army. Online: http://www.salvationarmy.org.