Celebrating its 1865 founding this year, The Salvation Army’s American branch balances social work with sermonizing as the evangelical church and Christian charity charts a future course.
On Sunday, thousands of Christians are expected to march along the Mall in London, past Buckingham Palace, sounding drums and tambourines, trumpets and tubas.
They’ll be clad in blue, gray serge or white uniforms with red or blue epaulets and the letter “S” on each lapel. It stands for salvation, as in The Salvation Army, an evangelical Christian church that will be celebrating its 150th anniversary in the city where its global work began, now active in 126 countries.
A church? Yes, The Salvation Army is a church. The “salvation” the movement offers isn’t just about used clothing or old furniture, staples of its rehabilitation programs and thrift stores that dot the United States. For the 2 million or so “soldiers” worldwide, the organization is a Protestant denomination descended from the Wesleyan Methodist tradition of its founder, William Booth.
Today’s version of what Booth originally called the “Christian Mission” is a global gathering of people who announce they are “saved to serve” others, another interpretation of the “S” insignia on the uniform lapels. In addition to its deploying disaster relief, feeding the homeless or providing a place for after-school activities, The Salvation Army has over 1,200 churches across the U.S. where 77,000 people attend worship each Sunday.
The military name and titles for clergy and army-themed nomenclature were another way Booth and his followers, called soldiers, set the young movement apart. Booth wanted to describe the group as a “volunteer army,” which drew objections from his son, Bramwell, because military volunteers were derided in Victorian Britain. “Salvation Army” was chosen instead, and Booth became its first general.
But church officials acknowledge that few people know the religious underpinnings and mission of one the most widely recognized, largest and well-managed charities in the world.
“We have very high name recognition,” said Lt. Col. Ron Busroe, the group’s national spokesman in the U.S. “Everybody has heard of The Salvation Army … but their main idea about what we do has to do with old clothes, Christmas (donation) kettles and disaster relief.”
Christopher Cantwell, a history professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, has studied The Salvation Army’s American journey, which began in 1880, and understands the public perception issue.
“In the Army’s mind, they always understood their (social) service work to be a religious act,” Cantwell said. “The public understood they’re doing good as an organization that just happened to be Christian.”
Balancing the two wings of serving and sermonizing has and will continue to create some tension for the Army and the public. The group staunchly refuses to discriminate in the provision of services, but backs traditional marriage. It has provided adoption services and eschews abortion. And, for church members, smoking, alcohol and drugs are off-limits.
The organization’s high standing in America comes from its good deeds, said University of Southern California professor Diane H. Winston, author of “Red Hot and Righteous,” a history of the American branch.
The Salvation Army “has been one of the largest fundraisers in this country not because it preaches the Christian gospel, but because it helps people,” Winston said.
‘Soup, Soap and Salvation’
In July 1865, William Booth and his wife, Catherine, moved to London to continue a ministry of evangelism. Booth, tall and angular with a prominent nose and the bearing of an ancient prophet, stood outside The Blind Beggar pub on the Mile End Road and began preaching, his voice reaching inside.
“‘There is a heaven in East London for everyone,’ they heard him cry, ‘for everyone who will stop and think and look to Christ as a personal Savior,’” biographer Richard Collier wrote. The declaration was met with the splat of a rotten egg on the side of Booth’s face, yet the preacher walked home at midnight and told his young wife, ‘Darling, I’ve found my destiny.’”
Booth’s preaching soon moved to a tent at a nearby cemetery, and converts followed. These new Christians, impoverished and sometimes inelegantly attired, weren’t always welcome in the Methodist congregations the preacher frequented. Opening his own chapel, Booth’s work soon attracted acolytes who wanted to spread a Christian message of “full salvation” to those who needed it most. According to the group’s historical archives in London, branches of the Christian Mission were established in other parts of Britain, and converted to Salvation Army “barracks” when the name changed.
A military-style uniform was adopted, Army lore has it, both to equalize the ranks with no one clothed finer than another, as well as to be distinctive on the street. To this day, an organizational history states, the Army’s uniform is a global symbol of people who want to, as Booth’s daughter Evangeline put it, “do the most good.”
A big part of that “good” in the Army, which in its early years was very much a Booth family enterprise, came in the 1880s, when William Booth ordered his oldest son to get a warehouse and do something for the homeless men of London, adding, “But mind, Bramwell, no coddling!” as Christian History magazine recorded.
The Army’s social services, known today as Adult Rehabilitation Centers, are known for involving the homeless and the addicted — women as well as men — in “work therapy,” repairing used furniture, cleaning donated clothes and selling the items in thrift stores.
The group says such work, along with clean clothes, showers and a heavy dose of evangelization, helps repair the lives of these “clients,” with the hope they will return to their families and communities as productive citizens. The program gained the motto of offering “Soup, Soap and Salvation” to all takers.
Accepting that Christian message, Lt. Col. Busroe said, is optional. “We do not use the (social) services as some type of carrot to entice you to accept and live the way we think you ought to live, though we’d love for you to do that,” he said.
Serving others served to endear the Army to the American public, particularly during the 1900 Galveston, Texas, hurricane and the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, according to historian Cantwell. “What led to the Army’s overwhelming acceptance was by and large its service work,” he said.
Perhaps the group’s most recognized fundraising vehicle, the Christmas donation kettle, owes its origin to American efforts as well. In 1891, an officer in San Francisco set up a food kettle as a vehicle for financial gifts, with a sign reading, “Keep the pot boiling.” The idea took off and today, the red kettles — some with credit card readers — are ubiquitous outside retail outlets here and abroad.
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones annually includes the Christmas Kettle kickoff campaign as part of a nationally televised game. Other entertainment figures have volunteered at Christmas kettles alongside service club members, and the U.S. Postal Service commemorated the Army’s 1965 centennial with a special postage stamp, recognition rarely accorded a faith-based group.
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