Modern Babylon Revisited
The Salvation Army’s War on Human Trafficking
In 1885, decades before he became the second General of The Salvation Army, Bramwell Booth and his wife, Florence Soper Booth, were young officers ministering in London. Through their work with poor young women, they became aware of the scale of human trafficking in Victorian England. Horrified by these “terrible revelations,” as Florence wrote, the Booths worked with an investigative journalist named W.T. Stead to devise a provocative way to publicize their discovery. The result was one of the most remarkable episodes in Army history.
England in the late 19th century was notably reform–minded, but also characterized by decorous reserve and a high level of self–regard. It required an extraordinary effort to convince genteel Londoners that human trafficking was taking place in their midst. Rebecca Jarrett, a Salvationist and former prostitute, contacted her old colleagues, who helped Stead and the Booths “buy” Eliza Armstrong, a 13–year–old girl.
Bramwell transported Armstrong across the English Channel and placed her in the care of a Salvationist family in France. Stead then wrote a polemical, multi–volume exposé entitled The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon. The title implied that Victorian England was morally equivalent to civilizations such as Babylon and Ancient Greece, with young women sacrificed as tribute to “the maw of the London Minotaur.”
In The Maiden Tribute, Stead recounted the purchase of Armstrong, arguing that the episode demonstrated how easy it was to buy and traffic a young girl without detection. Respectable society, he wrote, lay in sleepy ignorance of such crimes.
The Maiden Tribute created a furor, directly leading to the passage of legislation raising the age of consent and criminalizing procurement for prostitution. However, the tactic of staging a crime, simply to prove how easily it could be done, was and remains controversial. Stead, Jarrett, and Bramwell Booth were eventually tried for assault and abduction, with Stead and Jarrett both serving prison sentences.
During the events surrounding the publication of The Maiden Tribute, members of the Army employed three approaches that remain central to its response to human trafficking.
AWARENESS: Like most Victorians, Bramwell and Florence Booth were initially ignorant of England’s sex trade. As Florence heard the stories of the young women she met, she became distressed and cried herself to sleep. “I tried to console her by suggesting that the stories were probably exaggerated,” Bramwell wrote in his memoir Echoes and Memories. Bramwell’s initial skepticism, bordering on willful ignorance regarding this topic, was typical of the time. However, the Booths’ empathy and dogged curiosity ultimately captured the nation’s attention.
ENGAGEMENT: Crucially, the Army of the 1880s did not work alone. Although he was not a Salvationist, W.T. Stead’s fiery moral attitude and sense of showmanship were a perfect fit for the Army. (He wore his prison uniform on the anniversary of his imprisonment.)
Without Stead’s writings in a prominent newspaper, the Army’s work could not have effected legislative change. Similarly, Stead and the Booths could only execute their plan with the help of Rebecca Jarrett, who provided access to a criminal network.
Salvationists today work with a wide range of contacts. In an online video, Major Estelle Blake counsels, “We need to network with different agencies, different churches, anybody who’s involved in the fight, to find out how we can work together to combat it.”
FEARLESSNESS: Several participants in the “Armstrong Affair” served prison sentences. Although polite society was scandalized to learn of the sex trade of young girls, some anger was also directed toward Stead, Jarrett, and the Booths for their methods.
Today, Salvationists committed to this fight recognize that engaging such an issue may anger people who would support the cause in principle. Misperceptions such as “Trafficking doesn’t happen here” and “There’s nothing I can do about it” are commonplace. Success requires fearlessness and a willingness to invite controversy in order to effect social change, as The Salvation Army did in 1885.
by Nealson Munn