In the late 1990s, evangelicals began to wake up to the breadth and brutality of sex trafficking. But one group was way ahead of everyone else.

The Salvation Army has a history of fighting sex trafficking that stretches back to 1881. That’s when Elizabeth Cottrill of the Army’s Whitehall Corps began taking women and girls who had escaped sexual slavery into her home. When demand overwhelmed capacity, the Army rented a house and put Florence Booth, wife of the Salvation Army founders’ eldest son, in charge. Over the next 30 years, she expanded the specialized ministry to 117 shelters.

In 1884, a girl who had escaped a brothel by climbing down a rainspout visited Florence’s husband, Bramwell, in his office. Her story compelled him to look into London’s East End sex trade. “The cries of outraged children,” he wrote, “and the smothered sobs of those imprisoned in living tombs were continually in my ears.”

Stead laid out a plan to purchase a young girl from her family, have her certified a virgin, then sell her to a brothel. From there she would be rescued.

Bramwell concluded that public sentiment must be aroused and laws must be changed. He approached his journalist friend W. T. Stead. Like most Brits, Stead needed proof that such evils occurred in England. So in league with Bramwell and several activists, Stead laid out a plan to purchase a young girl from her family, have her certified a virgin, then sell her to a brothel. From there she would be rescued immediately and sent to safety.

The scheme gave Stead the evidence he needed for a 10-article exposé in The Pall Mall Gazette. For months, the public talked of little else. Catherine Booth, Bramwell’s mother, engineered a “monster petition” of 393,000 signatures on a scroll that stretched two miles. The petition asked Parliament to raise the age of consent from 13 to 18 and demanded criminal penalties for procuring young people “for seduction or immoral purposes.” Parliament raised the age of consent to 16, and the Army prepared housing for thousands of girls who suddenly found themselves on the streets.

Some government officials, however, not wanting to admit that sex trafficking was a problem, prosecuted the co-conspirators. A judge convicted some of them of one technicality: when Stead’s agents purchased the girl from her mother, they did not obtain her father’s consent. As a result of these events, the Salvation Army entered a new phase in which social ministry stood alongside and supported evangelism.

Over the past 130 years, the Army has done a remarkable job of holding individual salvation and social salvation in balance. In 2013 in the United States, they provided 58 million meals and 10 million nights of shelter; that same year, they recorded 455,000 faith commitments.

To celebrate its 150th anniversary this year, the Army is rolling out a major social initiative aiming to lift 100,000 families out of poverty over the next 15 years. Called Pathway of Hope, this innovative program will target qualified families that show the necessary “strengths and aptitudes” to benefit from in-depth support from Army caseworkers. The Army began to pilot programs in three Midwestern communities in late 2011. Early results show that 50 percent of the families who stayed in the program “demonstrated increased stability and sufficiency.”

The US wing of the Army has the necessary reach to attempt a project of that scale. “Across the country, we have about 3,500 active officers, 60,000 employees, and 3.5 million volunteers,” National Commander David Jeffrey told me. “We’re in over 7,000 communities.” In addition, the Army is collaborating with social work departments at colleges like Asbury, Trevecca Nazarene, and Olivet Nazarene.

But to identify and serve these families on the path to self-sufficiency, Jeffrey estimates, the Army will need to hire up to 700 more caseworkers. It will require an additional $200 million to ensure that the program can retain its faith-based nature and stay free of government restrictions.

Faith commitments make a difference, Jeffrey says. For example, in their adult rehabilitation programs, about 33 percent of those who complete the program do not reoffend within the first year. But when graduates become involved in a faith community, about 80 percent stay on the straight and narrow.

The Salvation Army’s history makes it clear: Evangelism and social uplift belong together.

David Neff is former editor in chief of Christianity Today.

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Past Imperfect
David Neff
David Neff was editor in chief of Christianity Today, where he worked from 1985 until his retirement in 2013. He is also the former editor in chief of Christian History magazine, and continues to explore the intersection of history and current events in his bimonthly column, "Past Imperfect." His earlier column, "Editor's Bookshelf," ran from 2002 to 2004 and paired Neff's reviews of thought-provoking books and interviews with the authors.
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