Why should the devil have all the best tunes?

Soldiers Of The Cross
Soldiers Of The Cross

It was January 22, 1882. The theatre in Worcester, England was so packed that even William Booth had trouble getting in. The overflow crowd, refused admission, broke down the door to gain entry. The music was lively and contemporary. After one song, Booth turned to his hosts and asked, “What tune was that?” That’s “Champagne Charlie is my name”. “That’s settled it,” William Booth decided as he turned to his son Bramwell. “Why should the devil have all the best tunes?”

The adoption of such music was soon put to full use by the Salvation Army. Many of the people who came to faith through the Salvation Army knew none of the hymn tunes or gospel melodies used in the churches; the music hall had been their melody school. An early pamphlet made the Army’s position clear by saying that it “considers all music sacred when used with holy purpose”. In 1880 William Booth had already written: ‘“Secular music, do you say, belongs to the devil? Does it? Well, if it did I would plunder him for it, for he has no right to a single note of the whole seven. . . . Every note and every strain and every harmony is divine and belongs to us. . . . So consecrate your voice and your instruments. Bring out your comets and harps and organs and flutes and violins and pianos and drums and everything else that can make melody. Offer them to God and use them to make all the hearts about you merry before the Lord.”

As it spread around the world the Salvation Army continued to demonstrate their commitment to using whatever means they could to communicate the gospel. On the evening of 13 September 1900, when 4,000 people packed themselves into Melbourne Town Hall for the premiere of Soldiers of the Cross—probably the world’s first full-length film presentation. Thirteen segments of film, accompanied by live music, were interspersed with magic lantern slides (an early form of slide projector) and an evangelistic message by Salvation Army Commandant, Herbert Booth. The film told the story of Christ and the early Christian martyrs in Rome. Martyrs were crucified, beheaded, burned at the stake and thrown to lions. The Age newspaper the following day praised the show’s ‘savage but soul-stirring realism’.

Herbert Booth, son of William Booth, the Australian leader of the Salvation Army had encouraged Joseph Perry to investigate the possibilities of using the new medium as an evangelistic tool. Perry’s enthusiasm led to the setting up of the Salvation Army’s Limelight Unit in 1892, probably the first regular film production unit in the world. At the birth of the Australian nation, the unit was commissioned by the colonies of New South Wales and Victoria to produce the official films of Australia’s Federation Inauguration Ceremonies in Sydney and the opening of the first Federal Parliament in Melbourne.

No doubt other more established denominations were better endowed with resources for such an undertaking. Why was it that an upstart movement in an out of the way, newly formed nation should be on the front line of adopting new technology for their purposes? The early Salvation Army demonstrated while movements are conservative when it comes to their theology and mission, they can be very pragmatic in the means that they use to achieve the audacious goals they set themselves.

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