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.

Although supposedly nonpolitical, Salvationists did have political prestige among the Victorians. The Army's 1885 Purity Crusade against sex trafficking produced a petition with nearly 400,000 signatures and resulted in Parliament raising the age of consent and criminalizing solicitation. Combating international sex trafficking remains a major Salvationist emphasis today. Confronted by Social Darwinians distressed over the Army's attention to the vulnerable and disabled, Booth responded, "They believe in the survival of the fit. The Salvation Army believes in the salvation of the unfit." The Army's ministry to Britain's poor was so effective that the Church of England sought a partnership in the 1880s, but the talks failed--partly because Salvationists rejected sacraments and affirmed female preachers.

But the Established Church's overture illustrated Booth's transition from outcast former Methodist to senior Christian leader and humanitarian. The trajectory resembled the life of Methodism's founder, John Wesley, whom Booth revered. Unlike Wesley, Booth was a fecund father, with eight children, most of whom helped spread the message, especially to America. Also unlike Wesley, Booth had an extremely happy marriage, and his preacher wife was herself a religious celebrity until her death in 1890. Booth became friends with the powerful, praying with Cecil Rhodes, having an audience with the Japanese emperor, visiting President McKinley, appearing before the U.S. Senate. He was recognized by Theodore Roosevelt as a "steam engine in trousers."

Booth urged a then-young Winston Churchill, as home secretary, to widen Salvationist access to prisoners. "Am I converted?" Churchill asked. "You are not converted, but I think you are convicted," Booth responded, to which Churchill smiled in return. Rudyard Kipling, watching the white-haired, long-bearded Booth receive an honorary degree from Oxford, pronounced that he had the "head of Isaiah and the fire of the Prophet." The general "laid down his sword" in 1912, having preached between 50-60,000 sermons across 60 years. "The promises of God are sure if you only believe," were said to be among his final words. The funeral was nearly a state occasion. Queen Mary quietly attended, seated next to a former prostitute, who told her of Booth, "He cared for the likes of us."

William Gladstone had once asked Booth how the autocratic Army would replace its general, pointing out that not even the pope appoints his successor, and that the Salvationists made no provision for "calamity, incapacity, or heresy" by their leader. Heeding his warning, Booth set up a High Council to intervene in such crises, while still appointing his capable son, Bramwell, to succeed him. Bramwell led the Army honorably until his illness in 1929, when the first High Council removed him in favor of a non-family member, the first of 16 commanding generals over the last 80 years. The second of these generals was Evangeline Booth, daughter of the founder, who returned home in New York, after her election, to a ticker tape parade. No American-born general was elected until 1994.

Today, three quarters of the Army's members are in the developing world, and the largest Army territory is Kenya, with 350,000 soldiers. The Army is the largest social institution in France (where it's government-funded) and one of the largest in Germany. War and tyrannies occasionally oust the Army, but almost always there's a return, including in Russia, China, and Eastern Europe. The Army is still kept out of North Korea and struggles in Burma; but Europe's increasing secularism is now seen as a major obstacle, with a recent general noting that Salvationists have to be "creative" in what was once the heart of Christendom. An Army "peace force" invaded Iraq in 2003, shortly after the U.S.-led invasion.

The Army operates in Muslim countries, but Henry Gariepy says almost nothing about Salvationists' relations with Islam: Presumably it downplays its Christian spiritual message in Muslim countries. There are moving accounts of Army martyrs to communism, especially in North Korea and China. Other martyrs gave their lives during World War II. When the Iron Curtain fell in 1989 oldsters in Eastern Europe welcomed back the Army, full of grateful memories from 50 years before. In 1978, Marxist guerrillas, having sighted mission stations as "soft targets," murdered two Salvationists in Rhodesia. In protest, the Army withdrew from the World Council of Churches, which was then funding the guerrilla armies as part of its "Program to Combat Racism."

Remarkably, unlike so many other Protestant groups and denominations, the Salvation Army has not gone theologically liberal. It remains pro-life and pro-traditional marriage while not compromising its core doctrines, and remaining mostly non-political. How the Army evaded the trends of mainline Protestantism would be an interesting story that this book does not tell. Presumably, its tight discipline and sacrificial spirit, not unlike many a Roman Catholic order, were key ingredients. The Army, despite its international membership and brilliant organization, has never sought or ever been a very large membership church. This book could have explained why. The Army, though believing in conversion, emphasizes service over evangelism, and often tacitly encourages its constituency to join or remain in other churches. Today it gains extensive government and other secular funding without wide controversy, partly because many are still unaware that Salvationists are an evangelical church.

Christianity in Action is written by a dedicated Salvation Army officer. It refers in passing to personality conflicts among officers across the century, and the occasional financial scandal. But overall it portrays a unified Army that is ever advancing across the field of spiritual combat. The story here is very informative, and often inspiring, if almost certainly incomplete.

Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, is the author of Taking Back the United Methodist Church.