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Heroes: James Barker

by in Action, Features, Sliding Gallery

HERO: James Barker
Years Fighting: 1850′s – 1901
Hero ID: The Colonel
Mission: Expose Injustice and Effect Social Reforms
Strength: Passion, Energy, Publicity, Creativity

James Barker grew up in the English town of Ipswich, but moved to London in his early twenties to work for the Oxford University Printing Press. While riding a double-decker bus he saw and heard an open-air (out-of-doors) Salvation Army meeting. He was so intrigued he got off the bus and joined the growing crowd. Soon after James allowed Jesus to take over his life and he became an officer (pastor) in The Salvation Army.

James’ passion and energy could be a little overwhelming at times and people regarded him a loose cannon- subject to frequent explosions of temper and threatening to resign regularly. However, love was in the air and James married a quiet girl named Alice Sutton who became a calming influence for him.

A few hours after William Booth married them, the Barkers boarded a ship and set sail for their new appointment- Adelaide, Australia. The trip was full of difficulties, one of the greatest being that they didn’t even make it to Adelaide! The Barkers were dropped off in Melbourne, Australia instead, where they didn’t know a soul and had only pocket change left to support themselves!!! Through God’s strength they had the first Melbourne Corps (church) opened by Christmas eve, 1882 and only a year later there were almost 40 Corps operating in the country!!!! I can’t even wrap my mind around that! When was the last time you heard of 40 new churches open across a country in less than 2 years?

Barker became most known for his passion for justice and changing social systems to help the hurting, especially prisoners. He started homes for men coming out of prison and helped them find jobs and get them back on their feet. So transforming was their work, when Australian gov’t members found out that Billy Booth wanted the Barkers back in England, they begged for the Barkers to stay- even offering to support them financially!

In England, Booth and The Salvation Army were increasingly concerned with how workers were being paid very little – what they called ‘starvation wages’. Entire families- parents and children- would be working 16 hours a day and still not making enough to survive. Particularly bad were the matchstick factories. On top of the filthy factory conditions and poor pay it was also noted that factories were using a chemical called yellow phosphorous which, with continued exposure, caused a condition known as “Phossy Jaw”. Basically, a person’s jaw bone and teeth start to rot away causing awful, oozing sores and disfigurement. This wasn’t the kind of thing you just have to take two aspirin and call the doctor in the morning. Phossy Jaw was so destructive that some poor people had to have their jaw bones removed. Doctors were hesitant to treat people because of the repulsive smell of the puss, and one European study showed half of its victims committed suicide to escape the pain. Match factories didn’t care about these effects because they were only concerned about making money.

Under the leadership of Colonel Barker, The Salvation Army took a stand to fight this injustice in the workplace. How did they respond? They opened their own match factory, paid the workers almost twice the wage as other factories, and used safe red phosphorous to produce matches. They called their matches ‘Lights in Darkest England.’ Barker took the media on guided tours of match factories in order to expose the deplorable conditions and the thoughtlessness and corruption of the industrial sector. Salvation Army magazines implored people to pay a little extra for “Lights in Darkest England” matches vs other brands and boycott other brands that were mistreating their workers with poor wages and conditions creating Phossy Jaw.

Although they never made much money, the match factory achieved its goal, proving that the use of yellow phosphorous was needless and workers could be paid a fair wage. Because of The Salvation Army and James Barker’s leadership fighting injustice in his culture, The British Government passed laws banning child labor and the use of yellow phosphorous in match factories.

Colonel Barker continued to work tirelessly for social reform in London, gaining access for The Salvation Army to minister in prisons and provide housing and support for prisoners on their release. He not only preached the gospel, but SHOWED it in the improvement he made in the lives of thousands of England’s and Australia’s poor.

R-U a part of The Salvation Army? If so, this stuff is in your D.N.A- it’s part of your spiritual tree! Tap into it. Let it speak and breathe life into you. Wake up from your trance. Dust yourself off.


Do yourself a favour. Sit down for a minute. Turn off your cell phone and ipod and reflect for a couple minutes of ‘you’ time to do some soul searching. Answering these questions below will help give you a sense of purpose in your life.

  • James Barker was pretty rough around the edges when he started work for The Salvation Army, but God used his passion and energy in crazy ways. Maybe you’re letting your personal issues and flaws hold you back from fully serving God. How can you fully surrender to God and allow Him to take your gifts, mould you, and use exactly who you are for his purposes and to make him known?
  • The Colonel had a passion for social reform. What social/societal systems do you see around you that are broken?
  • Have you ever had the opportunity to minister to those in prison? This was important not only to the Colonel, but to Jesus (see Matthew 25). The Salvation Army still does prison ministry – ask your Corps Officer (pastor) about it.
  • Have you ever heard about fair trade? Bad working conditions and unfair wages are not a thing of the past. Much of the food you eat and clothes you wear were most likely produced by those living in slave-like conditions. Like the early Salvationists we need to DO SOMETHING- become aware and boycott those who only care about turning a profit and support companies that pay fair wages. It’s not as hard as you think. Join the FAIR TRADE movement ( and make sure you’re not supporting human misery.
  • Is there an injustice in your community that few people seem to know or care about? Raise your voice and become an advocate for social justice where you live. How about joining a youth justice group or starting one in your school?

See previous Heroes Episodes:
Frederick | Joe | Donut Girls | Eliza Shirley | Sarah Beaty

Fight against injustice // Fight hard // Fight with love

:: by Heidi Adams of Triton, NL
I’m a Salvation Army youth pastor and enjoy unicycling, playing the ukulele and singing off-key, loving Jesus, making the world a better place, and refusing to grow up. Check out Just Youth.

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