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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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."