The Church Army was founded in England in 1882 by the Revd Wilson Carlile (afterwards prebendary of St Paul’s Cathedral), who banded together in an orderly army of soldiers, officers and a few working men and women, whom he and others trained to act as Church of England evangelists among the outcasts and criminals of the Westminster slums. As a curate in the parish of St Mary Abbott, Kensington, Carlile had experimented with unorthodox forms of Christian meetings and witness, going to where coachmen, valets and others would take their evening stroll and holding open air services, persuading onlookers to say the Scripture readings, and training working people to preach. Previous experience had convinced Carlile that the moral condition of the lowest classes of the people called for new and aggressive action on the part of the Christian Church and that this work was most effectively done by lay people of the same class as those whom it was desired to reach. This was at a time when similar groups were appearing – the Revd Evan Hopkins was organising a ‘Church Gospel Army’ and other clergy had established a „Church Salvation Army“ at Oxford and a „Church Mission Army“ at Bristol. Carlile suggested a combined „Church Army“.
As the work grew, a training institution for evangelists was started in Oxford with F S Webster as Principal, but soon moved (1886) to London, where, in Bryanston Street near Marble Arch, the headquarters of the army was established. Marie Carlile, Wilson Carlile’s sister, was a frail woman who left a life of elegance for the tough, austere life of training women in 1888, followed by the first „Recue Shelter“ for women in 1891, and continued in the mission for fifty years.
William Booth had already seen the extreme poverty and need for unorthodox evangelism work, and since 1865 had been developing a similar mission (in 1887 given the name Salvation Army), using similar „Christian soldier“ metaphors, also in London slums. Church of England bishops approached Booth about the time the Church Army was founded to join in their work in the slums, but he declined. Both the Church Army and the Salvation Army continued to work in the most dreadful slums; both had some difficulty with their parent churches (Church of England and Methodist) being able to cope with those coming out of the slums as a result of the mission work, and realised the need for alcohol-free refuges.
During the First World War, the Church Army was very active among the troops in France, and ran around 2000 social clubs across France.
In 1965 the headquarters moved to Vanburgh Park in Blackheath, London, to a new chapel and college designed by E.T. Spashett ARIBA, opened by Princess Alexandra and consecrated by Michael Ramsey.
In 1978, Church Army purchased Winchester House, a former missionary school (see Eltham College) in Blackheath, south-east London, to be refurbished as its new headquarters. It was officially opened by the Queen Mother on 12 June 1980. In 1992, the Church Army vacated the Vanbrugh Park college buildings and the college was relocated to Sheffield; the buildings were taken over by Blackheath High School.
The Church Army is now a member of the National Council for Voluntary Youth Services (NCVYS) by virtue of its work towards the personal and social development of young people.