Today we celebrate the 136th anniversary of the conversion of James Kemp, otherwise known as Ash Barrel Jimmy, The Salvation Army’s first convert in America. While the story of James “Jimmy” Kemp and his dramatic conversion is legendary, there is a tendency to look back on the event and see it as a quaint, even humorous, episode from our American Salvation Army past. For some, imagining Jimmy’s feet sticking out of the ash barrel, is like picturing a young George Washington cutting down the famous cherry tree, or visualizing what it would have been like for Johnny Appleseed to crisscross the land, scattering apple seeds wherever he went. In these examples, fact, myth, and nostalgia become wrapped up together resulting in a story that, although pleasing, is un-relatable to everyday life.
An honest look at the Ash Barrel Jimmy event reveals a deeply human story, and therefore, a truly relatable one. Jimmy Kemp, a flawed, tragic individual, who finds God’s grace and salvation, through the ministry efforts of a fledgling Salvation Army, goes on to accomplish great feats for the Lord.
For those who may be unfamiliar with Ash Barrel Jimmy, the story goes as follows: On the evening of March 15, 1880, a broken and desperate man, encountered Christ through the ministry of The Salvation Army. The Army was in its pioneering days, having just arrived in New York City a mere five days earlier. Jimmy Kemp, a severe alcoholic and petty criminal, got the moniker, ‘Ash Barrel Jimmy’, for supposedly falling into a barrel full of ashes, outside a Water Street tavern, trying to retrieve his hat. After spending a night in jail for public drunkenness, he was brought before a magistrate who took pity on him, sparing him from further jail time if he agreed to seek out the services of The Salvation Army. Jimmy agreed, and after an incredible misadventure through the streets of New York (which included getting thrown off a street train, and getting clubbed on the head by a member of New York’s finest), Jimmy finally found his salvation becoming the first convert of The Salvation Army in America and a lifelong follower of Jesus Christ.
Jimmy’s story continues to be lived out today by the thousands of Americans who find recovery and redemption through the work of the Adult Rehabilitation Centers and Harbor Light programs, every year. The Salvation Army continues to stand alongside of those living with addictions.
We rejoice in the life and witness of Ash Barrel Jimmy on this, the 136th anniversary of his conversion! Stay tuned for more information on the life of Jimmy Kemp, and like him, be open to allowing God to use your life and circumstances to win others for Christ.