The Salvation Army, with its brass bands, blue uniforms, and Christmas kettles, seems to be everyone's favorite charity. The $ 1.2 billion that the 121-year-old Army receives yearly in private contributions makes it the nation's top-grossing philanthropy, dwarfing such rivals as the YMCA, the American Red Cross, and Catholic Charities. Catholic Charities, for instance, spends a bit more -- $ 1.9 billion annually to the Salvationists' $ 1.4 billion -- on social programs, but it depends on local government contracts to supply nearly two-thirds of its funding. Government aid represents only a little more than 15 percent of the Army's spending budget.

It is difficult not to admire the Salvation Army -- as even some of its historic detractors, such as the socialistically inclined George Bernard Shaw, grudgingly conceded (Shaw commended the Army's work with the poor while condemning its practice of financing that work with donations from the capitalist overclass). The Army is the only modern religious movement to have inspired a still-performed highbrow stage play (Shaw's Major Barbara), a hit Broadway musical and Hollywood movie (Guys and Dolls, based on a Damon Runyon story), and, for a time, the melodic and sartorial style of the world's most famous rock 'n' rollers (the Beatles, on the cover of their 1967 Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band).

And the Salvationists are once again under an approving literary spotlight, in Red-Hot and Righteous: The Urban Religion of the Salvation Army, Diane Winston's sympathetic new history. Winston's book is not without its flaws, mostly stylistic. Although she is a former newspaper writer, when she decided to pursue a doctorate in religion at Princeton (the book is her worked-over dissertation), she traded in journalistic crispness for the jargon-laden postmodern vocabulary of present-day academia.

She seems, for instance, to have lost her newswoman's knack for telling a straightforward story, and such dreary and overused words and phrases as "transgressive," "discursive," "performance," "gender identity," and "white male Protestant hegemony" abound. An eight-page excursus on the semiotics of the doughnuts that female Salvationists served soldiers on the World War I front lines is as sodden as those crullers after a day in the trenches.

Nonetheless, this imaginative and thoroughly researched book convincingly traces the way in which the Salvation Army tailored its message and image to accomplish the maximum practical good in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, while winning the hearts of a public not quite ready -- as it still seems not to be -- for its distinctive spiritual message.

The Army began its formal existence in 1878 with the stated mission of bringing the Gospel to the urban poor. Its founders, William and Catherine Booth, were working-class Methodists from the north of England, heartland of the Industrial Revolution and, even in the mid-nineteenth century, of chronic economic depression. Waves of religious revivalism swept northern England, just as they had swept the eastern seaboard of America during the Great Awakenings, and William Booth became a preacher in a revivalist branch of Methodism that held large, emotional meetings in tents and theaters and banned the use of tobacco and alcohol.

In the noisome Cheapside alleys where the Booths started holding revival services in 1865 (with Catherine Booth sharing the preaching, an unusual activity for women at the time), ale-soaked indifference to religion reigned. The Victorian journalist Henry Mayhew -- whose mammoth study of London's working class remains the classic nineteenth-century source-book -- once asked a London costermonger if he knew who St. Paul was. "A church, sir, so I've heard," the man replied. "I never was in a church." The Booths offered these down-and-outers a raucous, "happy" religion whose freewheeling services copied street-corner entertainment with band-playing, dancing, stage acts, parades, and "red-hot" sermons that reminded listeners of hellfire but were also laced heavily with humor.

In formulating the Army's distinctive theology, William Booth drew on the "Holiness" tradition of Protestantism, in which the decisive event for a Christian is not a particular sacrament such as baptism (Salvationists do not recognize sacraments), but the experience of "sanctification" -- the transforming awareness of God's redeeming love, which can take place revival-style during the church service.

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.

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).

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