The Magazine

Soldiers of Mercy

The Salvation Army and the religion of compassion.

Dec 14, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 13 • By MARK TOOLEY
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Christianity in Action

The History of the International Salvation Army

by Henry Gariepy

Eerdmans, 308 pp., $25

Many Americans know nothing of the Salvation Army beyond its Christmas red kettles and bell-ringers in shopping malls. Or they may recall the 1955 musical Guys and Dolls, where gangster Marlon Brando pursues pious Jean Simmons, a "sergeant" at the Save a Soul Mission. But the Army, founded in mid-19th-century Great Britain as a splinter from Methodism, is a lively international denomination in 117 countries with a rich history and expansive cultural and charitable impact.

In the United States alone, it raises $1.2 billion annually (not including the $1.6 billion bequest of McDonald's heiress Joan Kroc in 2003), eclipsing the annual receipts of many major denominations. Internationally, it has 17,000 "officers," over a million "soldiers," and many more volunteers. Its schools employ 16,000 teachers and teach a half-million students. Every year the Army's missions feed, clothe, or otherwise assist millions of poor or displaced persons and victims of natural disasters.

Salvationists are a strange church. They don't have clergy but uniformed officers with military ranks, headed by a London-based general. They are evangelical and Wesleyan, with typical low-church moral strenuousness. Officers must forswear liquor, gambling, smoking, and profanity, among other vices. But like Quakers, they don't have sacraments; there is no baptism or eucharist. And unlike many conservative churches, women have always served in leadership and preached.

Famously, the Salvation Army's founder William Booth promised to offer the downtrodden "soap, soup, and salvation." Booth was born in early Victorian England and, at age 15, vowed that "God shall have all there is of William Booth." He was ordained a Methodist, but the church attempted to restrict his evangelistic technique.

"No, never!" reputedly shouted Catherine Booth at a church conference and, embracing her husband, they departed Methodism together to found their new movement, potentially "without a friend and without a farthing."

Booth found his destiny while preaching to street people under a revivalist tent. At first he sent converts to local churches, but the impoverished new believers either did not want to go or were unwelcome in middle-class congregations. So Booth ran his own mission, devoted to evangelism and social work, which in 1878 became The Salvation Army. His forceful and better-educated wife was his closest adviser and was, herself, a popular preacher. She also helped to design the Army's earliest uniforms and its battle flag, a tricolor declaring, in crimson, the motto "Blood and Fire."

Early Salvationists eagerly embraced military lingo. Prayers were "knee drills," tithe envelopes were "firing cartridges," and church buildings were "citadels." When entering a new country, Salvationists "opened fire." Booth was autocratically the first "general." Its newspaper was (and is) War Cry, now circulated to over two million. Converts sign "A Soldier's Covenant," affirming their loyalty to Christ; deceased Salvationists are "promoted to Glory." Prospective clergy are "cadets." Naturally, "Onward, Christian Soldiers" became a favorite Salvationist hymn.

Like all good armies, the Salvationists have always had marching bands, which were crucial to attracting crowds to urban street revivals. By 1883, the Army already had 400 brass bands in Great Britain and, for nearly a century, even its own instrument factory. Today, it has 2,000 bands around the world. Despite the music and martial rhetoric, Salvationists in Victorian England were often assaulted by angry mobs, many of them enraged by the Army's opposition to booze. Army buildings were attacked and some municipalities even forbade Army marches. In 1882 669 Salvationists were assaulted, one third of them women; 86 were imprisoned, evidently for defying anti-Army ordinances. Of course, Salvationists saw such harassment as validating their war on the
Devil's kingdom.