The opening of the Clapton Congress Hall in May 1882 became a clandestine “proving ground” that turned out to be pivotal for the future of Salvation Army music, as we know it today.
Up until that year, the infant Salvation Army was employing any and every means possible to attract attention of the masses to the message of the Gospel. Throughout Britain, the Army was either praised or ridiculed for its unorthodox methods.
And so it was that someone approached General William Booth with an idea—setting Christian words to wildly-popular secular songs of the day. These songs were all the rage in pubs and bars across the country; many people knew both the tunes and the words of such silly songs as The Girl I Left Behind Me, or Poor Old Joe, or I’ll Take You Home, Again, Kathleen. Even tear-jerkers, like Just Before The Battle, Mother or Will You Love Me When I’m Old? were on the lips of many citizens.
The novel idea, and the Founder’s secretive test in response, is an iRony of note.
One of the first was from the pen of William Baugh, who “borrowed” a music-hall ditty called Champagne Charlie. From the worldly words boasting “Champagne Charlie is my name; Champagne drinking is my game…” came “Bless His name, He sets me free!”
Many others quickly followed by a host of Salvationist musicians eager to venture this evangelical frontier. Why not use songs such as these—re-written for the propagation of the Gospel—in Army meetings?
At first, Booth thought it a bad idea, and for two reasons. First, influential financial supporters might consider it distasteful—even blasphemous. Second, would reminders of their “old haunts” and regress back into those habits?
But to his credit, the old Founder decided to poll the congregation that would show up for the Clapton Congress Hall’s grand opening—a poll that the crowd would never realize was taking place!
More than 5,000 attended the grand opening, and Booth wisely asked three of the Army’s best soloists of the day to each sing one of the “converted” songs during the program. Many in the crowd were the Army’s benefactors and supporters. This promised to be a good litmus test—if unscientific.
Captain Rodney “Gypsy” Smith sang The Blood Of Jesus Cleanses White As Snow (tune: I Traced Her Little Footprints In The Snow); Captain Adelaide Cox sang Enjoying A Full Salvation (tune: Pretty Louise); and, Cadet “Sailor” Fielder sang the potentially-controversial version of Champagne Charlie.
“It is not known if the soloists realized (their performances) were on trial, but they sang their hearts out while the General and his leading officers awaited the reaction,” Colonel Brindley Boon, himself one of the Army’s foremost journalists and musicians. “The large congregation was soon carried away. Choruses were repeated again and again and gradually the public resentment weakened until everyone was clapping hands with the songs and waving handkerchiefs.”
According to R.G. Moyles in his book, Come Join Our Army, when General Booth saw that even his influential friends were singing along with gusto, his “test” was complete.
The old General soon afterward announced to the world his decision with a quote that most Salvationists today know by heart: “Secular music, do you say, belongs to the devil? Does it? Well, if it did I would plunder him of it, for he has no right to a single note of the whole seven!”
It’s iRonic, then, that in Salvation Army corps around the world—in 128 countries—Salvationists still sing these songs of Zion, using tunes retrieved from the devil’s arsenal, all because of an social experiment that a select few even knew about!
— Major Frank Duracher, Assistant Editor-in-Chief