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The Salvation Army’s first High Council—Courage or Coup?

by Robert Docter – 



Old Sunbury Court, the original meeting place of the High Council.


He bought it for the Army in 1925—Sunbury Court —a magnificent Georgian mansion, its spacious grounds overlooking the banks of the Thames, a short distance downstream from Windsor Castle. The Founder’s eldest son and successor, William Bramwell Booth, had purchased the historic manor house and grounds for use as a staff college.

What irony.

A short four years later it would provide the backdrop and meeting place for discussions leading to his removal from office. Was this a “palace coup” by those in power positions around the Army world—or was this a demonstration of commitment to an ethic and designed to “save” the organization from the autocratic limitations of its inception?

One of the principal characteristics of a cult is an inability to outlive its founder. The Army’s founders, William and Catherine Booth, had been “promoted to Glory” decades earlier—Catherine in 1890, and William in 1912. The Army had survived. Trouble concerning the designation of future leaders had been brewing for some time. The Army’s original 1878 Foundation Deed created the very real possibility of an Army “royal family.” The Deed stipulated that a General, upon assuming office, would identify his successor by placing the name in a sealed envelope. William chose Bramwell. No retirement age was identified.

Such a system had tremendous potential to foster nepotism or build an “elite” corps of leaders, entry to which was permanently denied the common folk. As former British Prime Minister William Gladstone pointed out to William, the approach could be very risky. The person named in that envelope could easily fail to represent the best person possible to lead the organization. Additionally, it left no room for “calamity, incapacity or heresy.” Prior to his death, the Founder wrestled with this. He refused to abandon the idea of each General identifying his own successor but did allow the creation of an escape clause to answer Gladstone’s criticism. A revised Deed Pole of 26th July, 1904 provided clause 2, sub-clause 3 which allowed a joint requisition by seven Commissioners to convene a High Council for the purpose of adjudicating the question of whether a sitting general could be found unfit and removed from office. Less than two decades later, Bramwell would face his own seven commissioners.

Bramwell’s problems seemed to have begun early.

He had been emotionally connected to his mother, Catherine, since his birth.

Her strength and availability shaped him. He must fulfill his destiny. He relied on her for all of the major decisions of his life—including the selection of a wife. He had become the “Chief of the Staff.” There was no room for any alternative point of view. The age and the Army’s culture dictated that this was his right. Following the death of Catherine, on whom William also relied for feedback and comment, Bramwell began to assume increased administrative power in the international affairs of the Army. William became the “outside” man for the Army continuing his strong evangelistic message. Bramwell became the “inside” man—running its affairs, creating orders and regulations, building the worldwide command structure. He no longer had his mother available, but he now had a wife—the woman selected by Catherine—Florence Soper, a strong, beautiful and brilliant woman who saw in Catherine everything a woman should be. Florence now became the power behind the man—the man on whom all responsibility fell for actualizing the dreams of his parents.

And so, Bramwell and Florence built the organizational model by which the international Army would operate. Failure was not an option, but he was no William. Charisma eluded him. His crowds were respectful but not nearly as large as those attracted by some of his commissioners. Then, too, he had problems within the family. Ballington in the United States, Herbert in Australia, Kate in France left the Army for a multitude of reasons, but aided significantly by Bramwell’s (and Florence’s) rigid interpretations of his London dominated organizational model. His sister Emma was killed in a railway accident in Colorado. This left Bramwell and Evangeline from the original family. Eva, the Booth child most like William, was continually a reluctant and rebellious colleague. By now an American citizen, Eva became very vocal in her discontent and prepared and personally delivered 15 points, more accurately termed “demands,” for Bramwell focusing on succession issues and greater autonomy for America.

And so as 1928 arrived on the scene, with many territorial commanders from around the world chafing under a London operated scene, the stress and difficulties of the job must have weakened his body, and he appeared much less frequently in public, then not at all after May. At this point Bramwell’s leaders from around the world expressed deeply-felt affection for him and became highly concerned for his well-being.

On November 13, Bramwell’s highly loyal Chief of the Staff, Commissioner Edward Higgins, visited him at home and found him “seriously ill”—seeming almost near death. The next day, seven commissioners visited him—Samuel Huren, British field commissioner; David Lamb, international social secretary and director of emigration; Robert Hoggard, special service; Henry Mapp, international secretary for the U.S.A. and British dominions; Charles Jeffries, international training garrison; Wilfred Simpson, international traveling commissioner; and Richard Wilson, trade and publishing manager.

On November 28, they announced a joint requisition for a meeting of a High Council under the provisions of the Deed Pole of 26th July, 1904 to determine the fitness of Bramwell to continue as the Army’s next leader.

And so, Sunbury Court welcomed 63 officers on the 8th of January, 1929. A series of legal challenges and the desire to have accurate assessments of Bramwell’s condition delayed the process. One of these delays was an additional visitation of Bramwell, this time by a few members of the High Council itself. Among this delegation was Commissioner Samuel Logan Brengle who eventually voted in favor of the resolution. On February 13, 1929 a final vote was taken. Fifty-two members voted for the resolution to declare General Bramwell Booth unfit to serve based on the state of his health. Five voted against—four of whom were Booths, and four abstained.

So—courage or coup? The point is still discussed today. The actions of those commissioners, however, provided a democratization of the Army that has very gradually filtered through the ranks in many ways. Some will say “too much.” Others will respond “not enough.” The action did provide Evangeline Booth the opportunity to be elected the Army’s fourth General. We can hypothesize with some interpretative certainty that her name was not the one in Bramwell’s sealed envelope.

The Army lives on today, and Sunbury Court once again hears the role call.


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