Bodyguards With A Beat

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You may “hear” a Salvation Army kettle before you see one. Either a ringing bell or a brass band playing your favorite Christmas carol may cause your head to turn. Ever wondered how brass bands first began? Rather than only playing at Christmas time, in many Salvation Army locations, their weekly participation accompanies meaningful corporate worship. Their purpose goes far beyond entertainment or applause. Let’s go back in history to discover how The Salvation Army brass band first began.


In 1879, 17-year-old Eliza Shirley opened the work of The Salvation Army in Philadelphia. She was soon joined by George Scott Railton and the seven “lassies” who arrived in New York City on March 10, 1880. Though we read of the early Salvation Army’s success, this often came at great physical toll. Dr. Edward McKinley notes the depressingly long list of hostile acts committed against the Army in the United States from 1880 to 1896. At least five Salvationists were martyred; a mob tried to lynch a young captain; officers were shot at repeatedly; several soldiers had their arms broken; and at least three officers were struck in the head with bricks thrown at short range (Samuel Logan Brengle was one of them in 1888). A young officer even permanently lost her hearing after being knocked unconscious by a large piece of ice (Marching to Glory, 1980).

The Salvation Army in London, England was no different. Founded by William and Catherine Booth in 1865, they would face their first organized opposition in 1881 when the Skeleton Army was raised. This army carried banners with images of skulls, crossbones, monkeys, rats, and the devil. During Salvationist meetings and marches, they would throw rocks and dead rats, play loud music, shout, and physically assault members of The Salvation Army. They mocked the Army’s “Blood and Fire” motto with “Blood and Thunder.” Flour, rotten eggs, stones, and eggs filled with blue paint were all thrown at The Salvation Army. By 1889, at least 669 Salvation Army members were assaulted, including 251 women.


Everything. During the summer of 1878, The Salvation Army in Salisbury faced the same persecution as those around the world. Captain Arthur Watts, who was appointed there, was bruised and beaten by mobs when preaching outside. Charles Fry offered to help. He was a local builder who played the cornet in the Wiltshire Volunteer Rifle Corps. One August evening, Charles Fry and his three sons—Fred, Ernest, and Bert—arrived and offered their services as bodyguards. They were all musicians (playing cornet, trombone, and euphonium), and hoped their music would help drown the noise of the opposing mob.

Not only were the interruptions silenced, but more people were attracted to The Salvation Army. Souls were saved! “Ruffians who could not or would not find God in words found Him in melody” (Born To Battle, 1965). William Booth heard of the Fry musicians and took them with him on several mission tours in 1879. The demand for their services became so great that the Frys gave up their building business and were commissioned as full-time Salvation Army officers. When Charles Fry died in 1884, the headstone over his grave read, “The first bandmaster of The Salvation Army.”

Salisbury was the first corps to have a brass band; and once others saw the powerful impact music played in bringing people to salvation, many more followed. The Consett Corps in County Durham was the first to follow Salisbury’s example. In 1879 they established a four-man band, which grew to 14 players. The first band in London started in 1880 at the Whitechapel Corps. “Two years later a band of five hundred musicians, drawn from corps in the capital, played at the opening of Regent Hall in Oxford Street, and by 1883 there were four hundred Salvation Army bands in Britain” (History Today, 1977).


Music was recognized as a powerful weapon in Salvation Army warfare, and so in The War Cry of March 1880, William Booth urged all officers to play every instrument they could, including violins, bass viols, concertinas, cornets, brass instruments, drums, and anything else that would make a pleasant sound for the Lord. The only instruments Booth specifically prohibited were organs and harmoniums, which he feared would put-off the public because of their association with church.

The enthusiasm of early Salvationist bandsmen could be noted as greater than their musical ability. With every effort to attract a crowd for Jesus, one captain led his corps with a fiddle he was unable to play (which he purchased for four shillings), and another with a cornet he had only played for four hours. These early bands were often in trouble with the authorities. In 1911 the Hastings Corps bandmaster was imprisoned for two weeks for creating a nuisance in a public place.


Songster brigades (senior choirs) and brass bands played an important part in the evangelical work of The Salvation Army, and steps were taken to organize them. “In 1881 Fred Fry was given the task of producing music for all the bands. He taught himself to use two fonts of type and an old printing press that had been bought for that purpose” (History Today, 1977). Two years later, Fry was joined by Henry Hill and Richard Slater who together produced The Salvation Army’s first published collection of original songs with music—Salvation Music.

Richard Slater wrote more than 600 published songs as well as band tunes and arrangements, whereas Fred Fry concentrated more on putting Salvationist songs to popular tunes of the time. Though Salvation Army music had become more unified, there were still corps who needed to make variations—the South Shields Corps, for example. In this context, most of the bandsmen were illiterate, so band cards were identified by pictures, rather than with a printed title.


Band music soon became a trademark of The Salvation Army’s outreach, and the newly written marches and solos demanded long hours of practice by bandsmen. For example, the weekly program for the average bandsman (noted in January 1949) would be:

Tuesday night: 7:30 pm – 10:30 pm band practice
Saturday night: Required attendance at an Army service (the band would play three to four times)
Sunday morning: 10:00 am street meeting and 11:00 am service
Sunday afternoon: 2:00 pm street meeting and 3:00 pm service
Sunday evening: 7:00 pm street meeting and 8:00 pm service


Next time your foot taps to the beat of the brass band at a Christmas kettle, remember its foremost mission—evangelism. Four Fry men committed their lives to protect those who preached the Gospel, and as a result, God used their musical ability to present the Gospel, too!

General William Booth said, “[Brass bands] are to work for the good of the corps and for the salvation of souls, and for nothing else. We are not going to stick them up on the platform, nor march them through streets for them to perform, and be admired…The man must blow his cornet and shut his eyes, and believe that while he plays that he is blowing salvation into somebody and doing something that will be some good” (History Today, 1977).

Did you know that Commissioner Booth-Tucker organized and successfully operated a complete band on wheels?

A War Cry in The Salvation Army’s National archives recounts: “Most of the instrumentalists piloted their wheels with one hand and operated their valves with the other. The trombonists were the only exception, and they rode tandem, the back seat driver in this case being a necessary adjunct to the team.

We here depict the drummer Major Stimson who tells us his only accident was on his first engagement which was on a parade up Riverside Drive, when he ran into a hearse.”

— Captain Pamela Maynor, Editor of Young Salvationist Magazine

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