Header Graphic
The Salvation Army's First Battle in Dayton

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, December 2, 1934

The Salvation Army’s First Battle in Dayton

By Howard Burba


Fifty years ago this week Dayton got a laugh out of a newspaper announcement that a movement was on foot to establish a branch of the Salvation Army here.

You may or may not remember that far back, but if you do you will recall that fifty years ago the Salvation Army really was a laughing matter to those living in what New York columnists enjoy referring to as “the provinces.” The Middle West knew little about the Salvation Army at that time, and possibly cared less. The girl with the tambourine was pictured as a reformed underworld denizen, the man with the bass drum as a Bowery type willing to enlist in any movement that promised him three meals a day and a place to flop at night

The real purpose of the Salvation Army was not understood by the general public a half century ago. Neither did the American people vision the coming of a time when it would be as securely grounded in this country as any other institution working for the betterment of mankind. So when a local paper announced that Dayton was to make the acquaintance of the Salvation Army it was taken with the same degree of interest that marked the coming of a burlesque show to the old Park theater.

Dayton had, of course, heard of the Salvation Army. Local citizens who traveled a bit in those days had at times seen a little bunch of blue-coated, blue-skirted men and women kneeling about an upturned bass drum in the streets of New York and Philadelphia, and had, upon inquiry, been informed that they were members of the Salvation Army. Some of these local residents might, if you pressed them, admit that their first acquaintance with the organization came when a robust lassie in poke bonnet with flowing red ribbons had stuck a tinkling tambourine beneath their nose as they leaned against the mahogany bar of some eastern thirst emporium. In its early years the Salvation Army found its most fertile field behind the swinging doors of a saloon, and there it garnered its heaviest contributions.

When a local newspaper announced just 50 years ago this week, or on Dec. 5, 1884, to be exact, that the Salvation Army was coming to Dayton there was a general understanding that to see the organization in actual operation it was going to be necessary to frequent the saloons. Even the newspaper man who wrote the first announcement of the Army’s coming must have held that view, for we find him couching his opening announcement in these facetious words:


“A representative of our paper,” he wrote, “had yesterday an interesting conversation with Capt. West, one of the corps commanders of the Salvation Army, who is now in the city preparing for the first engagement of the organization here, which takes place Sunday at the canal landing above Third st. Capt. West was dressed in full uniform and looks much more like a soldier than an evangelist.

“He is expecting several other corps commanders here to assist in the work. When asked how long he expected to stay in Dayton he replied: ‘Till the judgment day.’

“In answer to various questions in relation to the organization he said that it originated in London  in 1865 under William Booth, who is commander-in-chief of the Army both in American and England. It originated in New York city four years ago (1880) under and in Canada 125 corps. Their work in the United States has been confined to the eastern cities, but they are moving westward and already occupy several cities in Ohio and Michigan.

“The organization is strictly military. They have the officers of the regular army, and drills and marches are part of their duties. In this army neither males nor females are recognized as such. They are all soldiers. A large number of corps commanders and minor officers are women. Feminine Capt. Emma Lewis is expected to arrive in Dayton today.

“Capt. West said the army operates: (1) By holding meetings out-of-doors, marching through the streets, singing, playing on instruments, exhorting and shouting. (2) By visiting saloons, prisons, private houses, and preaching and praying with all who may be got at. (3) By holding meetings in saloons, theaters, music halls and other pleasure resorts and by turning factories and other buildings into meeting rooms, so securing hearers who would not enter ordinary places of worship. (4) By using popular song tunes and the language of everyday life to convey God’s thoughts to everyone in novel and striking form. (5) By making every convert a daily witness for Christ, both public and private.”

With that portion of the opening announcement digested one can understand how easy it was for the layman to connect the Salvation Army with the saloon and the underworld. It is, like-wise, not hard to understand why Dayton rubbed its hands in gleeful anticipation of a new kind of public performance. But let the old newswriter of 1884 continue with his explanation:

“This warfare is continued day and night,” he wrote. “Constantly pressing the enemy to the wall. They spend the entire Sabbath in their work.

“The special field for the Salvation Army is outside of church and with that class who seldom or never attend church. The Army will not accept anyone as a member if he belongs to a church. To be a soldier you must come from outside the church. These enthusiasts accept the teachings of the scriptures, but ignore the ordinance of baptism and the Eucharist.

“Capt. West says they create a great deal of excitement and opposition wherever they go. They are often assaulted, arrested and cast into prison. But none of these things are allowed to halt their work. Capt. West now shows the marks of a terrible pounding he received a few weeks ago.

“Their barracks will be on E. Third st., in the building at the northeast corner of the street and the canal. An organization will be effected tomorrow (Sunday.)

“Every man to his tent, for the war is on!”

I have talked to a couple of older citizens whose curiosity led them to the banks of the old canal at Third st. and library park on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1884. They tell me it was like going to a circus. There was such an outpouring as one sees at the circus, and everyone was present to be entertained, instead of enlightened and spiritually uplifted. There was not the least indication, they assured me, that anyone viewed the event in a religious light, or that anyone there with a view to hearing a message of helpfulness and inspiration. But let the old newspaper files tell the story of the day the Salvation Army came to Dayton:

“The Salvation Army fought its first battle in Dayton yesterday,” says a paper of Monday, Dec. 8, 1884. “They held five services, two in the street at the canal landing and three in the barracks nearby.

“Their custom is first to hold an out-door service, after which they go to the hall and hold another. At 2 o’clock in the afternoon Capt. West at the head of his army marched from the barracks to the landing, where an immense crowd had congregated. The services there lasted about one hour, and consisted of songs, prayers and speaking. They then returned to the barracks where a similar service was conducted by Miss Capt. Lewis. The hall was packed full and a large number could not get in at all, but removed to the sidewalks where they remained throughout the entire service.

“In the evening there was no outdoor service, but the hall was again jammed full, and hundreds were turned away. The audience was largely attracted out of curiosity, the real worshippers were few. The meeting was opened by the singing of several songs, accompanied by the rattle of two tambourines (ram’s horn out of date) and violent gesticulations by the singers. Several prayers were offered and Capt. West read and preached from the parable of two men going up into the temple to pray.

“He hadn’t talked long until some Philistine turned off the gas and the room was in midnight darkness. This created a great deal of excitement. Many laughed, stamped and clapped their hands; others cried, ‘Put him out!’ ‘Arrest him!’ etc. When the gas was again turned on and lighted Miss Capt. Lewis marched to the rear of the hall and took command of the crown while Capt. West told how much he had been like the Publican. Capt. West may be a very good commander, but like Moses he needs a brother Aaron to do the talking.

“The services closed with experience, songs and prayer. It was fun for the boys. The tambourine is a new instrument in religious worship in this city and draws wonderfully. The audience was most remarkable, such a one as never before, perhaps, attended a religious meeting in this city. Three-fourths of them were of the word and a large number were croakers and cranks.

“It may be said of the Salvationists that they are a peculiar people and draw only the peculiar and curious. There is certainly nothing in their services that could commend them to intelligent Christians and it is difficult to comprehend how they can serve the cause of religion better than can the established order of things. The Salvation Army has no schools, no creed, no literature, no churches. The world is not going to flop over at their command. The war will be continued from day to day.”

That the editorializing in the news item telling of the first day’s battle only served to increase interest in the army’s appearance here is vouched for by those who recall subsequent services.

On Tuesday evening, for instance, there was another throng present, this time composed largely of those who had commenced to fear they were missing something. Going into detail concerning this service the reporter wrote as follows:

“The barracks of the Salvation Army was filled again last night, and hundreds were turned away. A few prominent church members were there, but the large crowd was mostly boisterous young men seeking cheap amusement. If the service be spoken of as Christian worship, it was not treated with ordinary respect. There was much talking, laugher, stamping of feet, clapping of hand and shouting ‘Amen!’

“Miss Capt. Lewis conducted the services. She read from the 5th chapter of Matthew, and then exhorted the people to come to Christ and be saved.

“There is no order in the service. While one was speaking another was passing around through the audience selling copies of ‘The War Cry,’ the organization’s weekly paper. The boys had a great deal of fun out of it.

“At the close of the meeting the captain pronounced benediction on his knees. As soon as the company is organized they will drill each day in their tents.”

When we look back over the years, and casually estimate the vast amount of good the Salvation Army has brought to the weary and heavy-ladened of the work, to its humanitarianism and its noble accomplishments both in peace and war, both at home and abroad, both in sunshine and storm, it is not easy to visualize a Dayton newspaper openly attacking it and ridiculing and vilifying its motives. Yet we have it I black and white. On Wednesday, just three days after the Army had pitched its tent in Dayton we find this article in a morning newspaper of that date - Dec. 10, 1884.

“The monstrous farce in the name of religion is still continued by the Salvation Army. Last night their barracks was again filled and Capt. West stood at the hall door below and refused admittance to hundreds – the first time in the history of Dayton when the door to religious worship was closed upon comers.

“But the public need not be surprised at any strange, cranky movements on the part of the Salvation Army. They seem to pride themselves upon doing things to provoke criticism and ridicule. The audience is boisterous and ill-mannered, that is true; but such conduct is provoked by the character of what is called worship. To draw it mildly, it is something new to Daytonians, who forget they are attending a religious service.

“The tunes of ‘Old Black Joe,’ ‘Swanee River’ and similar plantation melodies, accompanied by rattling tambourines, are heard at concerts and shows, but never at religious worship.

“However pure their motives may be, the means and measures adopted but the Army certainly do not commend the work either to saint or sinner. Such exercises can have but one effect and that is to cause irreverence for sacred and eternal things.

“The services last night were a repetition of those of former meetings. They consisted of songs, prayers, exhortations and the sale of song books and the War Cry. The audience was as noisy and indecorous as on former occasions. Capt. West told them they were a set of Arabs. While this disorder was in progress in the room, a similar scene was being enacted on the sidewalk below by the crowd which had been refused admittance. There were few ladies present.

“One or two men have professed conversion, but the corps had not yet been organized. When this is done part of the services will be military drill. The members spent yesterday selling ‘The War Cry’ on the streets of the city. It is by these dales that funds are raised for the support of the army.

“The crowd on the sidewalk seemed perfectly good-natured except one fellow whose wife had gone ahead of him and gotten in while he was shut out. He explained to Capt. West that his wife was inside and begged like a penitent to get in, but the old soldier was inexorable and the anxious husband had to stand there in the cold until the close of the services.”

But ridicule and editorial abuse rolled off the Salvation Army’s back much as water tolls from the back of a duck. When a few mornings later the attack was renewed by the morning paper, the Army, already on its way and knowing exactly where it was headed for, shrugged its shoulders at this renewed barrage:

“Last night was a bad one to camp out, and the Salvation Army sought their usual warm quarters in the barracks on Third st. There was a good attendance and the usual performance took place. If Capt. West could secure all the hand-painted tambourines and their owners throughout the city his manner of praising God might be more effective. His recruits will continue to be drawn from a class which delights in being curious and in being called cranks, and the army will wage its war in its usual novel manner until the novelty is worn off.

“The Great Captain of man’s salvation went about doing good and modesty assuming His kingship, and His disciples believed and hollowed Him. The Salvationists would do better, perhaps, if they would discard artillery uniforms, their noisy tambourines and their silly military titles and adopt such modes of worship and means of work as would commend them to the sympathies of the average Christian.”

Another week of villification rolls by and then we find the Salvation Army hoisting the flag of victory on its ramparts. This chapter is couched in few words in the old daily paper, but those words are impressive since they announce the first permanent location of a Salvation Army corps in Dayton. Here is the article, taken form a local newspaper of Dec. 24, 1884:

The Salvationists have at last organized an army with headquarters at Dayton. They held a secret meeting at their barracks on Monday night for this purpose, admitting none except those who had already signified their intention of becoming soldiers. Miss Capt. Emma Lewis was in command and acted as recruiting officer. The army was organized so that a combined, aggressive attack might be made at once on the forces of the enemy.

“The regulations prohibit the enlistment of anyone who is a member of any secret society, or member of any church, and those who enlist must enter the field at once, sell the ‘War Cry’ on the streets and in all public places; attend the drills and as soon as possible to appear in the regular army uniform. Weekly drills will be held in the barracks and none but members will be admitted. The following persons have so far been mustered in as members: Ira Turney and wife; Fanny Billet, Emma Erhe, Mary Pfauhl, Nellie Little, Jennie Baker, Anna Scott, Frank Hatfield, Wm. Ensey, Liberty and Finley Aulman, H. McCune and Stella Turney.”

A lot of water has passed through the old canal since the little band of self-sacrificing disciples of human helpfulness knelt and prayed on its banks 50 years ago. A half-century has rolled into time, and a happier picture now presents itself. Proudly, if it wished, the Salvation Army could point to its accomplishments throughout those 50 years, and to the towering monument it has erected in the heart of Dayton citizens, rich and poor and of every known creed. Bit the Salvation Army doesn’t point with pride. It is too busy doing the noble work it started out to do away back on that bleak December day in 1884.

The Salvation Army prefers to go right on writing victories in the hearts of the human race; helping those who are hard put to help themselves; lifting the fallen; feeding the hungry and with a finger that never falters pointing to that star in the east first viewed by the Wise Men above Bethlehem more than nineteen hundred years ago.