February 1886 was a big month in the history of the Salvation Army corps in Hamilton. Only in existence in the Ambitious City for a few years, the Salvation Army had created a sensation with its outdoor services, street processions and hugely-attended services in its barracks.
So popular had the services become at the Army’s first barracks on Ferguson Avenue North, that a larger building on Hunter street was under construction and nearing completion in February 1886.
On the 1st of February 1886, the Hamilton Spectator carried the following description of the new barracks:
“The new barracks of the Salvation Army are just about finished and are ready for occupation. The building is a substantial brick one, somewhat ornate and comfortable. It has a capacity for seating 1,200 people comfortably, and has besides a platform consisting of five or six rows of seats, arranged one above the other, with a seating capacity of about 300 people. This is intended for the members of the army.
“The interior is exceedingly tastefully though plainly furnished, the ceiling being pure white and the walls grey, in imitation of stone. The floor has inclination of four feet from front to rear, so that the platform can be seen and the speakers heard from every part of the hall. The ceiling is supported by slender wooden pillars on which the gas fixtures are arranged. The rooms for the officers are equally comfortable and convenient.
“The opening services will held on Sunday next.”1
1 “The S. A. B..”
Hamilton Spectator. February 01, 1886.
On Saturday February 14, 1886, the members of the Hamilton division of the Salvation army vacated their old building. The new barracks were dedicated the following day :
“On Saturday evening, the Hamilton division of the Salvation Army took leave of its old barracks on Ferguson avenue, and yesterday there was a big time at the new Barracks on Hunter street. The corps turned out in large numbers at all three services on Hunter street, and were as enthusiastic and demonstrative as usual.
The building was ‘formally dedicated’ at the afternoon service
“There was, however, little formality about the ceremony. The members of the corps joined hands in a line around the interior of the building, and sang a hymn written for such occasions; there was some prayer and a big address from the commander, who declared the building dedicated to the glory of God in the salvation of souls.
“The principal feature of yesterday’s service was the singing and the collections.”2
2 “The New Salvation Barracks : Dedicatory Services Under the Direction of Commissioner Coombs.”
Hamilton Spectator. February 15, 1886.
The Salvation Army certainly had its followers in February 1886, but it also had its detractors. One of the criticisms of the Salvation Army, that the Spectator reporter who attended the dedicatory service noted, was the pressure made to contribute money
“It is hard for any person attending the army meetings to get away without contributing something. You have a plate thrust before you at the door, there is a collection taken up, and War Crys and hymn books are peddled among the audience during the services. As for the singing, it is usually very hearty, and sometimes stirring and effective, the peculiar hymns being nearly all set to popular tunes.”2
The service to dedicate the Hunter street barracks was the first of a few special events that the Salvation Army in Hamilton had planned for February 1886, both at the barracks and out on the streets:
““Salvation was energetically boomed in Hamilton yesterday. All day, the hallelujah lads and lasses tramped about the streets, and the sound of their voices mingled with the steady roll of drums and the brazen bursts from blaring brass instruments. The noises were oftimes discordant, but they were made with right good will, and when people heard them dodging around street corners, playing hide and seek among the snow flakes and going where they wished on the wandering winds of heaven, they knew, without any telling, that they came from throats and hearts sincere and earnest in their work. Several bands and a large number of officers and soldiers arrived during the day and were welcomed by Hamilton corps.
“A holiness convention was held during the afternoon, followed by a banquet in the old barracks. After the banquet, the army held what it calls an ‘indescribable jubilation.’ The crush was very great, and the hall was crowded long before the procession arrived. Shortly after 8 o’clock, the auditorium was so crowded that it was next to impossible to get in. Over 300 soldiers occupied the raised seats at the end, and more were scattered through the auditorium. It is estimated that between 1,500 and 1,700 people were present. It was noticeable that nearly all the officers were young, appearances indicating that their ages ranged from 18 to 35.”
Regarding collections – “The religious fervor was strong upon some women present whose pocketbooks were not particularly extensive. One of them took a pair of gold earrings from her ears and handed them in; another gave a ring; a third, a chain.”3
3 “Saved Soldiers : the Salvation Army’s Big Jubilee in the New Barracks Barracks.”
Hamilton Spectator. February 16, 1886.
On Tuesday, February 18, 1886, for the third day in a row a special service was held in the new barracks:
“Their Monday’s all night of prayer did not appear to have exhausted the spiritual or physical energies of the local or visiting soldiers, as their council was continued yesterday and the hurricane of war was yesterday publicly demonstrated in the new temple last night.”
“Visitors included Captain Freer and wife “the officers who first planted the flag here.”4
4 “Waging Wild War : Salvationists Sit on Satan, Who Suffers Severe Scorching.”
Hamilton Spectator. February 17, 1886.
A new music piece introduced at that service, titled “Oh, I Am So Happy.”
“It is a piece of swelling music, alternatively fast and slow – and the handclapping accompaniment has a peculiar effect. During the singing of the piece, the officers were greatly moved, many jumping and gesticulating in a manner rivalling that of the most excitable of modern revivalists. At the height of this excitement, the English officers leaped from the platform and marched around the building shouting the song as hundreds on the platform roard forth the chorus. It was an extraordinary scene of wild excitement, and no one knew what to expect next or what inconceivable turn the meeting might take, except that there would be lots of hallelujah noise and excitement and innumerable volleys.” 4
At the close of the month, Hamilton’s anonymous columnist, The Kicker, turned his critical eye on the Salvation Army in Hamilton. His article on the subject appeared on February 25, 1886:
“The Salvation Army in Hamilton has got a big temple on its hands, and I am awaiting with some curiosity to see what new sensation it will spring on the public to draw people into it. The barracks itself is not a sufficient attraction, neither did the noisy and sensational demonstration with which the building was inaugurated prove to be a permanent boom, for I looked into the place a night or two ago, and found a mere handful of people huddled together in the big building. One great principle of the army is to keep itself conspicuously before the public, and it is considered justifiable to go to very extreme lengths in order to accommodate this end. I would humbly suggest a hallelujah ballet. A profane ballet never fails to crowd the opera house with the class which the Salvation Army wishes to reach. Why not fight the devil with his own weapons?
“By the way, I was talking the other day with one who used to be a strong friend of the Salvation army, but has come to take a rather despondent view of its permanent influence for good.
“ ‘The army,’ said he, ‘relies too much on emotion, and not enough on reason and common sense. Many, very many, of the so-called ‘conversions’ which take place at army meetings are nothing more than an exalted emotional condition which susceptible persons are worked up to by the contagious religious excitement which prevails among the soldiers at these meetings. Only a small percentage of these ‘conversions’ prove to be permanent. Between two and three hundred persons professed conversion under Happy Bill’s instrumentality; I looked in vain for a single one of these among the soldiers who gathered on the platform during the dedicatory services a few days ago.
“Well, the army has done some good. There are many men and women in Hamilton who are living better lives today than they were living before the army came here. They have passed from the ranks of salvationists into the churches, but the churches would never have gained them if it had not been for the salvationists. The army acts the part of a recruiting sergeant for the churches.”5
5 “The Kicker.”
Hamilton Spectator. February 20, 1886.