The Blog

Saving Bodies By Saving Souls

The History of the Salvation Army

12:00 AM, Sep 13, 1999 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The Salvation Army, with its brass bands, blue uniforms, and Christmas kettles, seems to be everyone's favorite charity. The $ 1.2 billion that the 121-year-old Army receives yearly in private contributions makes it the nation's top-grossing philanthropy, dwarfing such rivals as the YMCA, the American Red Cross, and Catholic Charities. Catholic Charities, for instance, spends a bit more -- $ 1.9 billion annually to the Salvationists' $ 1.4 billion -- on social programs, but it depends on local government contracts to supply nearly two-thirds of its funding. Government aid represents only a little more than 15 percent of the Army's spending budget.

It is difficult not to admire the Salvation Army -- as even some of its historic detractors, such as the socialistically inclined George Bernard Shaw, grudgingly conceded (Shaw commended the Army's work with the poor while condemning its practice of financing that work with donations from the capitalist overclass). The Army is the only modern religious movement to have inspired a still-performed highbrow stage play (Shaw's Major Barbara), a hit Broadway musical and Hollywood movie (Guys and Dolls, based on a Damon Runyon story), and, for a time, the melodic and sartorial style of the world's most famous rock 'n' rollers (the Beatles, on the cover of their 1967 Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band).

And the Salvationists are once again under an approving literary spotlight, in Red-Hot and Righteous: The Urban Religion of the Salvation Army, Diane Winston's sympathetic new history. Winston's book is not without its flaws, mostly stylistic. Although she is a former newspaper writer, when she decided to pursue a doctorate in religion at Princeton (the book is her worked-over dissertation), she traded in journalistic crispness for the jargon-laden postmodern vocabulary of present-day academia.

She seems, for instance, to have lost her newswoman's knack for telling a straightforward story, and such dreary and overused words and phrases as "transgressive," "discursive," "performance," "gender identity," and "white male Protestant hegemony" abound. An eight-page excursus on the semiotics of the doughnuts that female Salvationists served soldiers on the World War I front lines is as sodden as those crullers after a day in the trenches.

Nonetheless, this imaginative and thoroughly researched book convincingly traces the way in which the Salvation Army tailored its message and image to accomplish the maximum practical good in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, while winning the hearts of a public not quite ready -- as it still seems not to be -- for its distinctive spiritual message.

The Army began its formal existence in 1878 with the stated mission of bringing the Gospel to the urban poor. Its founders, William and Catherine Booth, were working-class Methodists from the north of England, heartland of the Industrial Revolution and, even in the mid-nineteenth century, of chronic economic depression. Waves of religious revivalism swept northern England, just as they had swept the eastern seaboard of America during the Great Awakenings, and William Booth became a preacher in a revivalist branch of Methodism that held large, emotional meetings in tents and theaters and banned the use of tobacco and alcohol.

In the noisome Cheapside alleys where the Booths started holding revival services in 1865 (with Catherine Booth sharing the preaching, an unusual activity for women at the time), ale-soaked indifference to religion reigned. The Victorian journalist Henry Mayhew -- whose mammoth study of London's working class remains the classic nineteenth-century source-book -- once asked a London costermonger if he knew who St. Paul was. "A church, sir, so I've heard," the man replied. "I never was in a church." The Booths offered these down-and-outers a raucous, "happy" religion whose freewheeling services copied street-corner entertainment with band-playing, dancing, stage acts, parades, and "red-hot" sermons that reminded listeners of hellfire but were also laced heavily with humor.

In formulating the Army's distinctive theology, William Booth drew on the "Holiness" tradition of Protestantism, in which the decisive event for a Christian is not a particular sacrament such as baptism (Salvationists do not recognize sacraments), but the experience of "sanctification" -- the transforming awareness of God's redeeming love, which can take place revival-style during the church service.