Explosive Growth in America–Railton Leads the Way
by Frances Dingmann –
George Scott Railton was one of the unique personalities who helped form the character of The Salvation Army.
Born in Birmingham, England, in 1849, the son of a Methodist minister, George lost both parents with the fever when he was 15. The boy worked on his own in London, looking for something that was more like the old Methodism of John Wesley. Eventually he found the Christian Mission work by William Booth to be what he had been seeking. At the Booths’ invitation, he moved into their home temporarily to become Booth’s secretary, remaining for 11 years. In this position he consolidated his beliefs of theology and contributed many of his own views to the fledgling Salvation Army, particularly concerning the Sacraments. He shared Catherine Booth’s belief in hard work and self-denial, sometimes carrying it to extremes to the point of endangering his health.
By 1876, long before female emancipation was talked of, he had gone on record as saying, “If women can do the work and can raise the money they should have the same as men” This meant not only equal salary, but equal opportunity.
“Let me go!”
By 1880, Bramwell Booth had had become so capable that he was displacing him as his father’s right-hand man. Railton, who always had a desire for mission work, persuaded Booth he should be the one to open the Army’s work in New York. Male officers being in short supply, he selected Lieutenant Emma Westbrook, who had been working in the Booth home, and recruited six more young women with the thought of training them on the voyage to America.
Railton was dubbed the Army’s first Commissioner. There were several hurried farewell meetings, during one of which Elijah Cadman implored the Almighty to “Drown ’em on the way” if they were going to fail him when they arrived. Within two weeks after Booth had received word of the Shirleys’ success, they began a very rough three week voyage, complicated by engine trouble and a burst boiler. Railton began holding meetings all over the ship, causing rumors among the first-class passengers that he was a lunatic, and meeting complete indifference among the steerage people. The high point of the voyage was when he, to cheer the seasick ladies, sang hymns through their cabin door.
Dressed for action
For the trip, the eight had been fitted out with the first official Salvation Army uniforms. Railton wore a dark blue suit, cutaway coat and high peaked hat, and the ladies were in ankle-length blue dresses trimmed in yellow, and what looked like derby hats with Salvation Army ribbons. They had been sent with two flags, one for the future “New York Blood & Fire No. 1” and one for the Shirleys in Philadelphia. The flags had the stars and stripes sewn into an upper corner.
The press, who routinely met each arriving ship, were there to document the day and wrote the colorful arrival up for the papers. A reporter noted that the Shirleys, who had come to welcome them, were greeted “rather coldly” by Railton. Perhaps Railton would have liked to be the first!
Rev. and Mrs. James Ervine, who had written Booth asking for missionaries, were there at the dock to take them to their house. Though all appreciated the restful stay, Railton was eager to begin meetings.
Offered the use of several churches by Ervine’s friends, Railton was determined to bring the message to unchurched masses. When newspaper accounts brought an invitation from Harry Hill, owner of a concert saloon, he horrified the churchmen by jumping at it.
Harry Hill’s Variety, a tawdry music hall, housed the Army’s first indoor meeting in the United States. Though Hill and most of the customers regarded the meeting as entertainment, it was a start, and among the sort of people Railton wanted to reach.
Ash barrel bears fruit
The one good outcome of the meeting was the offer of the Hudson River Hall for a month. At the first meeting they got their first convert, Ash Barrel Jimmy. A hopeless drunkard, he had earned his nickname when he was found by a policeman drunk in a barrel, his hair frozen to the bottom, and was dragged, barrel and all, to the police court. Ordered by the judge to attend the Salvationist meeting, he found his way there and was soundly converted. James Kemp later became an officer, rising to the rank of captain.
Word of his salvation brought crowds determined to see what the newcomers were doing. The group collected enough money to rent a hall of their own, the Grand Union on Seventh Avenue, which became the “Blood & Fire No. 1.” Encouraged, Railton and the “lassies” made swift progress, spreading out to the lost people of New Jersey. Afterwards, denied permission to hold street meetings when the halls became too crowded, he moved his headquarters to Philadelphia, where the Shirleys already had two thriving corps. All this happened in two weeks!.
Searches far and wide
Railton continued his hectic pace to find new places to open. Discouraged by the heat, three lassies packed up and returned to London that summer. By fall there were 12 corps in the United States.
Railton took longer and longer train trips to find new places to open, at last settling on St. Louis as the gateway for possible movement to the West. By November he had moved almost a thousand miles from the rest of his troops to St. Louis, where he found some encouraging support. He opened on January 1, but crowds were small, and there was never enough money.
As his St. Louis corps opened, 31-year-old Railton was recalled to International Headquarters, needed for opening the work on the continent. Railton had hoped to continue his work in America, and had even applied for citizenship; but Booth’s next cable said, “Come along.” The work had been established in America, though his efforts in St. Louis vanished without a trace. Captain Amos Shirley was left in charge until the arrival of Major Thomas Moore from London.
More lands to conquer
Railton’s talent for languages made it easy for him to communicate his ideas, and visits to France, Switzerland and Sweden took up much of his time. There was considerable surprise in the Army when it was announced in 1884 that Railton was going to marry. Somehow he had found time for courtship and marriage to Marianne Parkyn, a soul mate who proved adaptable to his frantic schedule and tolerant of his incessant traveling away from England. Eventually she and the children made a permanent home in Margate, where he stayed whenever possible.
The Railtons had three children: David, Esther and Nathaniel. David, who became a minister, was the inspiration behind the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey.
In the course of his voyages Railton made many contributions to the Army’s work: song books in Zulu and Dutch; the beginnings of the Army and Navy League, for Salvationist servicemen away from home; and the Prison Gate work for recently released prisoners. He had a particular interest in Germany, studying the language and being instrumental in sending officers to begin the work there. So short were his stays in various countries that his wife did not have time to embroider his guernsey in the proper language for each–so Railton obtained permission to wear one embroidered only with a cross, the universal language of Christ.
Scouts in the Far East
In 1906, in accordance with the Founder’s wishes, he scouted in China to look for possibilities for the work–which did begin in 1915. He gloried in reaching the Japanese people, where he found the work already going on.
The Commissioner was inspired by the missionary spirit in a far wider sense than is generally understood. He was a missionary, not for a province, a land, or a people, but for the world.
In an August 28, 1906, letter to Captain Anna Allemann, San Francisco Chinatown corps officer, he wrote: “The poor Chinaman–how eager they are to keep or crush him out everywhere in their blindness. Yet it all increases my desire to do anything I can for his nation. Though no such arrangement has been made, I am half hoping that all this journey may by God’s goodness be turned to the good of China especially, for which I would gladly give up all the life that may remain to me.” Railton had been hoping for Captain Allemann to go to work in China, but deferred because of the great need for helpers after the earthquake in April.
Railton’s health, always precarious, began to fail noticeably in 1913, the year after Booth’s death. He kept up his frantic schedule, with a trip to France and Holland and an impulsive stop in Cologne, Germany. After running for a train with heavy baggage, he collapsed and the end came. He was 64. His first “lying in state” was at the men’s shelter in that city.
People from all walks of life, from all over the world, mourned his promotion to Glory. World Commissioners followed the car bearing his casket, and as the procession passed Parliament, for the first time in 100 years a band was permitted to play. Truly Booth’s spiritual son, he was laid to rest beside the first General.
As W. T. Stead wrote in the Pall Mall Gazette, “General Booth would be the first to admit how much the Army would have come short of its present position but for the untiring energies of Commissioner Railton.”
Sources: The General Next to God, by Richard Collier; Marching to Glory, by Edward McKinley; and museum files.
Photos Courtesy Western Territorial Museum and the International Heritage Centre