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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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In 1904 Booth's thirty-nine-year-old daughter Evangeline became commander of the Army's American branch, and during her lengthy tenure (until 1934, when she became general of worldwide operations), the Salvationists became not just respectable but down-right glamorous. Tall and good-looking, with a torrent of auburn hair and a talent for the dramatic, Evangeline Booth had begun her Army ministry as a teenager, when she quickly established a reputation as one of its most compelling public speakers.


By age eighteen, she was working Picadilly Circus as a slum sister, dressed as a flower girl in order to find out how the poor really lived. She reprised the role in fetching Eliza Doolittle tatters in an autobiographical pageant she created for a 1906 Army benefit for San Francisco earthquake victims that drew six thousand spectators to New York's Hippodrome Theater.


Although she maintained a genuine devotion to the impoverished, she had her Salvation Army uniforms handmade by a French seamstress and lined in silk. Her tastefully furnished house in Hartsdale, New York, abutted the estate of the financier Felix Warburg, who let her ride her horse on his grounds. Her summer retreat at Lake George was close to that of another friend, New York Times owner Adolph Ochs. One of her recruits in Canada was the mother of Aimee Semple McPherson, whose own flamboyant preacherly style owed much to Evangeline Booth's theatrics. To help with Army publicity, Booth brought in Bruce Barton, the preacher's son and advertising tycoon whose 1925 bestseller The Man Nobody Knows cast the historical Jesus as a suave and savvy CEO.


Booth was a gifted steward of the Army's finances (she increased the value of its property more than thirtyfold during her tenure as U.S. commander and added $ 35 million to its capital account), and she campaigned tirelessly against her favorite horrors: alcohol and white slavery. But her real flair was for giving the Army sex appeal. It was she who oversaw the sending of female Salvationists to the front during World War I to serve coffee and sweets to the doughboys, mend their clothes, pray with them, and remind them of the girls back home.


The tin-hatted, impeccably virtuous "Sallies" garnered such high esteem among the troops and in the public mind that an idealized version of one of them appeared (of all places) on the cover of Cosmopolitan magazine. (Although Winston insists that the Army uniform muffled female sexuality, its close-fitting bodice and high collar flattered many a face and figure.)


Thanks to the work of the Sallies and other Salvationist volunteers during the war, the Army never had to worry about money again; it vaulted to the forefront of American charities, where it has remained ever since.


Guys and Dolls was only the culmination of an early-twentieth-century stage and screen tradition in which the shapely, bonneted lassie with a tambourine was as much an urban stock type as the streetcorner crapshooter and the prostitute with a boa and a heart of gold. Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Marlon Brando, Joan Crawford, and Mae West all had starring roles in films that gave the Salvation Army an honorable niche in the cultural landscape.


After the Evangeline Booth years, and as moviegoing tastes changed, the Army's quasi-worldly, silver-screen sheen wore off. The current national commander, Robert A. Watson, lives quietly and frugally in Army-owned lodgings near its national headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia. Many of the Salvationists' huge array of social services are surprisingly similar to those the Army offered a century ago (it still dishes out seven million free Christmas dinners a year), but they have become, like social services elsewhere, institutionalized and professionalized, with a paid staff of 37,000 trained caseworkers and managers supplementing the religious troops.


The Army retains its knack for positioning itself to be all things to all potential contributors. Religious and social conservatives can take comfort from the Salvationists' wholesome style and quasi-military structure, deducing (correctly) that their donation dollars will not be spent on transient political and ideological causes. In 1998 the Army turned down $ 3.5 million from the city of San Francisco rather than comply with a gay-rights ordinance that requires city contractors to extend spousal health insurance where offered to "domestic partners" of their employees. The Catholic Church, like the Army, holds that sexual relations outside marriage are wrong, but Catholic Charities decided to keep its $ 5.6 million worth of San Francisco contracts by finessing the issue, persuading the city to include in its definition of domestic partners family members and platonic roommates.


The Salvationists' more forthright stance could only shore up their conservative support -- while their irenic attitude toward city officials and their clearly sincere commitment to alleviating suffering probably earn them some respect from liberals. Unlike other evangelical groups in America, the Army has steered clear of politics and declined to take high-profile positions on such issues as abortion.


Thus, when a suburban shopping mall outside Washington barred the Salvationists a few years ago from setting up their distinctive red kettles to collect for the needy at Christmas, there was an outcry from press and public, and the mall backed off.


The Army's religious identity is delicately muted (its distinctive red logo is a shield, not a cross), enabling it to draw donors from well across sectarian lines: Catholics and non-Christians aplenty, along with the Protestants who might be expected to support Protestant philanthropy, many of whom are probably unaware that the Salvation Army is a church as well as a nonsectarian charity.


Indeed, the Army is surprisingly small compared with the vast network of services that it tends. As a religious denomination, it has fewer than 500,000 members in the United States, of whom only 124,000 are uniform-wearing soldiers, many the offspring of other Salvationists. In England, the Army's membership is in sharp decline: 43,000 soldiers in 1998, compared with 124,000 in 1947, and its leaders are considering whether to abandon military grades, the uniform (over much protesting from the ranks), and a requirement that officers marry only other officers.


Over the years other groups -- from the Jesus People of the 1970s to Mother Teresa's nuns to a host of storefront ethnic preachers -- seem to have replaced the Army in the streets searching for sick bodies or souls ripe for conversion, and in the public mind as the embodiment of urban Christianity.


In Red-Hot and Righteous, Diane Winston contends that the Army realized early on that evangelizing the poor was a much tougher proposition than helping them materially, and that it forsook its original goal of sacralizing the culture in order to become an entrenched part of the culture, phasing out its rowdy revival meetings as its philanthropic activities grew in scope and prestige. Commentators on Winston's book have warned that the Army's near-abandonment of its Gospel-bearing mission may presage the eventual fate of other churches that entangle themselves in "faith-based" partnerships with the government to deliver social services.


It is certainly true that the Salvation Army needs to reinvigorate itself as a distinct religious tradition if it is to survive (and it seems to be taking some steps in that direction, such as reintroducing communion services in order to enrich its liturgy). Another way to look at the Army, however, is not so much as a separate denomination but as a Protestant monastic system, whose members take vows of self-denial, wear distinctive garb, and embrace the primordial monastic mission: to pray and to extend God's welcoming love to the physically, spiritually, and economically broken.


G. K. Chesterton once remarked that Catholics have religious orders, while Protestants have sects -- and the Salvation Army fills for Protestants the niche that a diffuse array of male and female orders fills for Catholics. It does so selflessly, uncompromisingly, and successfully. As such, it is unrealistic to expect the Army ever to become an evangelical megachurch. Some of its trappings of Victorian-era muscular Christianity may evolve into something else, but the Army's distinctive spiritual fervor and sense of calling -- above ideology, geared to service -- ought to ensure it a lasting place on the American scene.




Charlotte Allen is a contributing editor to Lingua Franca and author of The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus (Free Press).