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Saving Bodies By Saving Souls

The History of the Salvation Army

12:00 AM, Sep 13, 1999 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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The other key tenet of Salvationism came from Methodism's founder, John Wesley, whose tendency toward Arminianism modified the traditional Protestant doctrine of justification by faith in Christ alone, which at its strictest entails predestination to Hell for those not selected for redemption. Wesleyans, like Catholics, reject predestination and hold that works of charity are more closely related to a believer's salvation.


The Booths called this "being saved to save," and from the very beginning they lived it out, operating soup kitchens for the destitute whom they hoped to make part of their flock. From Methodism, too, the Booths derived the hierarchical structure of their new sect, with its ranks of soldiers and officers. The Salvation Army's military titles, uniforms, and rhetoric of battle (Salvationists call their churches "outposts," and their American newspaper is named the War Cry) were derived from the "muscular Christianity" of the late nineteenth century, which encouraged Christ's disciples to cultivate the manly virtues. From the Quakers, whose practices Catherine Booth admired, came the Salvationists' commitment to simple living and radical self-denial. To this day, the Army's officers -- its ordained clergy -- survive on subsistence wages and modest housing allowances.


The Booths also figured out how to deal with what might be called the "moral hazard" of the vast eleemosynary enterprise that theirs would grow to be. The conundrum of moral hazard -- how to deliver charity without creating a class of dependent idlers -- plagues welfare theorists, and it especially plagues the conscientious Christian accosted by a street-beggar, who may well be a fraud or professional panhandler, but who is also, according to the Gospels, Jesus himself in hungry and ill-clothed disguise. The prevailing mode of approach in the Booths' day was the one that had inspired the British Poor Laws of the 1830s: so-called "scientific philanthropy," which attempted to weed out the "undeserving" from the "deserving" poor by making relief as unpleasant as possible (workhouses, breaking up families), and by sending "friendly visitors" -- the predecessors of today's social workers -- into homes to investigate worthiness and offer unsought advice on housekeeping, cooking, and child-rearing.


The Salvationists eschewed scientific philanthropy as un-Christian: "nailing poverty to a cross of shame," as a Booth descendant put it. As the Army began expanding its services in England and America (where a Salvationist contingent arrived in 1880), it proudly advertised that its soup kitchens and breadlines, its maternity homes and orphanages, its shelters for men, women, and children, its holiday food baskets purchased with kettle proceeds (which made their debut in San Francisco in 1891), and its massive, lavish Christmas banquets for the poor, complete with linens, china, holly decorations, toys for the youngsters, and Santa Claus, were free to all who showed up, whether worthy or unworthy, and of whatever race or creed.


Salvationist soldiers personally waited on table at these feasts, imitating Jesus at the Last Supper. In dank tenement blocks, Salvationist "slum sisters" rented rooms and wore the ragged garments of the indigent to whom they ministered. At the same time, however, the Army set strict rules of conduct for those who availed themselves of its services -- no drinking, smoking, or cursing -- and it required residents of Salvationist shelters to perform chores for their keep or pay a small fee. Its homes for women trained residents in such trades as book-binding and hat-trimming so they could find work other than domestic service after they left. The Army's famous thrift shops are lineal descendants of early enterprises of collecting and recycling junk with shelter-resident labor. The Army treated the poor with dignity, sympathy, and generosity, recognizing that their condition often had economic as well as moral causes, but it expected them to behave responsibly while on Salvationist premises, and it worked to turn their lives around before they left.


The Army was at first a target of ridicule for its circuslike religious services, its constant parading with brass and drums, and its seemingly indiscriminate approach toward charity. (Another target was the virtue of the slum sisters and the Salvationist "lassies" who invaded saloons to sell the War Cry and rescue fallen women.) But within twenty years of the Army's arrival in America, the sheer scope of the coast-to-coast social service network that it quickly set up and the exemplary lives of its soldiers had made the new sect respectable. In 1886 a visiting William Booth was a White House guest of President Grover Cleveland.