Salvation Army: The church behind the kettles

It’s that time again: the bells are ringing and the red kettles swinging in front of grocery stores and other public places all over America. And in this holiday season, when even the staunchest of of Scrooges can’t help but think of what part they should play in “goodwill to all men,” a historical Wesleyan church has its hour of highest profile. That’s right. The Salvation Army is a church, and an “evangelical” one to boot. In 2004, this church got an extra dose of publicity when McDonalds heiress Joan Kroc sent 1.5 billion dollars their way. And we did an e-newsletter for Christian History about this much-misunderstood group:

The Blood-and-Fire Mission of the Salvation Army
Where did this tuba-playing, kettle-wielding social force come from, and what’s it all about?
Chris Armstrong

Joan Kroc’s 1.5 billion dollar bequest recently put the Salvation Army on the front pages of many newspapers (and raised important questions about the potential effects of wealth on Christian organizations). But we didn’t need the reminder—we’ve known all about the Army for a long time.

Or have we?

We tend to associate them with Christmas kettles, brass bands, and the upright, do-gooder stance gently mocked in the Loesser musical (and Marlon Brando movie) Guys and Dolls. Some of us have had more personal contacts: my wife and I still remember fondly the atmosphere of caring and peace in the Army-operated maternity hospital in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where our first three children were born. And in our younger, poorer years, we both sported the latest student chic off the racks of the “Sally Ann” thrift shop on Halifax’s grimy Gottingen Street.

But do we really know this high-profile national organization? It seems the Army has become such a cultural fixture that the New York Times was actually shocked to discover that it is a Christian denomination whose first allegiance is to its Lord and whose first mission is evangelism.

But these commitments have never been far to find. They were the founding principles of this Wesleyan church, and they drove its tremendous nineteenth- and twentieth-century growth.

Apostle to the masses
William Booth—the Salvation Army’s co-founder with his wife, Catherine—was born on April 10, 1829, in Nottingham, England. As Norman Murdoch put it in our Issue #26: William & Catherine Booth, “The Booths were at best laboring class, with little education. His father, ‘a Grab, a Get,’ by William’s definition, died when William was just 14. By that time William was helping to earn the family income by working as a pawnbroker’s apprentice. Mrs. Booth ran a small shop in a poor Nottingham district where she sold household wares.”

Converted at 15 by Wesleyans (British Methodists), Booth soon became caught up in the soul-saving fervor of visiting American Methodist revivalist James Caughey and the bold and systematic approach of Caughey’s compatriot, evangelist Charles Grandison Finney. Murdoch tells how Booth set out with a group of friends to evangelize Nottingham’s poor. “They held nightly open-air addresses, after which they invited people to meetings in cottages. Their use of lively songs, short exhortations calling for a decision for Christ, visitation of the sick and of converts (whose names and addresses they recorded) all anticipated methods Booth would write into Salvation Army Orders and Regulations thirty years later.”

In the 1885 publication All About the Salvation Army, William Booth himself sketched the next phase of his ministry in the third person:

“General Booth …. became a minister of the Methodist New Connexion, and traveled in a great many parts of England, seeing great success in winning souls, until the year 1861, when he resigned his position as a regular minister, and gave himself up, with his wife, to evangelistic work. After this their labours were very largely owned of God, thousands being received into the various churches as the result. In the year 1865, Mr. Booth was led, by the Providence of God, by no plan or idea of his own, to the East of London, where the appalling fact that the enormous bulk of the population were totally ignorant and deficient of real religion, and altogether uninfluenced by the existing religious organizations, so impressed him that he determined to devote his life to making these millions hear and know God, and thus save them from the abyss of misery in which they were plunged, and rescue them from the damnation that was before them.”

The result of this vision was the East London Christian Mission, which in 1878 became the Salvation Army. At the meeting where the change took place, Booth and his colleagues announced, “The Christian Mission has met in Congress to make War. It has organized a Salvation Army to carry the blood of Christ and the fire of the Holy Ghost into every corner of the world.”

What the Salvation Army believes
Eleven articles of faith were included in the 1878 document establishing The Salvation Army. These are still, today, part of the “Articles of War” that each prospective “soldier” in the Army must sign:

“1. We believe that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments were given by inspiration of God; and that they only constitute the divine rule of Christian faith and practice.

2. We believe there is only one God, who is infinitely perfect—the Creator, Preserver and Governor of all things—and who is the only proper object of religious worship.

3. We believe that there are three persons in the Godhead—the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost—undivided in essence and co-equal in power and glory.

4. We believe that in the person of Jesus Christ the divine and human natures are united; so that He is truly and properly God, and truly and properly man.

5. We believe that our first parents were created in a state of innocency but by their disobedience, they lost their purity and happiness; and that in consequence of their fall all men [sic] have become sinners, totally depraved, and as such are justly exposed to the wrath of God.

6. We believe that the Lord Jesus Christ has, by His suffering and death, made an atonement for the whole world, so that whosoever will may be saved.

7. We believe that repentance toward God, faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, and regeneration by the Holy Spirit are necessary to salvation.

8. We believe that we are justified by grace, through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ; and that he that believeth hath the witness in himself.

9. We believe that continuance in a state of salvation depends upon continued obedient faith in Christ.

10. We believe that it is the privilege of all believers to be ‘wholly sanctified,’ and that their ‘whole spirit and soul and body’ may ‘be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (1 Thessalonians 5:23).

11. We believe in the immortality of the soul; in the resurrection of the body; in the general judgment at the end of the world; in the eternal happiness of the righteous; and in the endless punishment of the wicked.”

The “submerged tenth”
Before the mid 1880s, Booth tended to see social services as a diversion from revivalism. Early Salvationists had begun various charitable enterprises, but it was only in the decade leading up to the writing of his widely acclaimed book In Darkest England and the Way Out (1890) that Booth changed his mind and integrated the social and spiritual emphases. In Issue 26, Murdoch tells how the firebrand evangelist was inspired by Salvationist workers on the urban “front lines” to begin working for the social salvation and physical well-being of the poorest city dwellers:

“Social reform was in the air when Salvationist slum sisters living in London established refuges for unfortunate women in Soho and Picadilly areas. When the Salvationists discovered that slum dwellers, mostly Irish and southern and eastern European immigrants, opposed their Wesleyan/holiness salvation message as foreign to their culture, they opened homes for ‘fallen women’ and orphaned ‘waifs and strays,’ hunted down drunkards, and met released prisoners …. at prison gates. The example of these women led the Booths to join the 1885 ‘Maiden Tribute’ crusade of W. T. Stead, editor of the Pall Mall Gazette. Their efforts brought to world attention the need for legislation to save girls under sixteen from white slavery in London and Paris brothels. In short, ‘social’ Salvationists began to change the mind of William Booth.”

But there was another factor in Booth’s change of heart, says Murdoch. This was the early Salvation Army’s woeful inability to reach the “heathen masses” in urban slums. By 1888, “while the Army grew in working-class neighborhoods, it declined in the poorest slums,” especially around Booth’s East End headquarters, where “surveyors could scarcely find a Salvationist.”

In his Darkest England, Booth called these destitute Londoners the “Submerged Tenth.” They comprised “(1) those who, having no capital or income of their own, would in a month be dead from sheer starvation were they exclusively dependent upon the money earned by their own work; and (2) those who by their utmost exertions are unable to attain the regulation allowance of food which the law prescribes as indispensable even for the worst criminals in our gaols…. . Three million men, women, and children, a vast despairing multitude in a condition nominally free, but really enslaved—these it is whom we have to save.”

Solidarity with the poor
The Salvation Army’s ministry was never one of condescending charity, in which the rich and cultured went “slumming” with baskets of food and lessons on home management and hygiene. According to scholar E. H. McKinley, the early leaders including Booth “had come to Army work from social backgrounds that ranged from the respectable working class, at best, to the ranks of the desperately poor.” They ministered to the destitute out of solidarity, not superiority.

From the beginning, the Army did attract support from all ranks—including the Joan Krocs of their day. Occasionally, McKinley writes, “a person from a good social background would actually join the Army. Frederick de Lautour Tucker, a high-ranking colonial official who became an officer in the Army and later Booth’s son-in-law, is a notable example.

“With a handful of such exceptions, however, the Army’s early leaders had been poor. They knew poverty, its terror and futility, and they knew how little the light of the Christian gospel had penetrated the vast, dismal acres of city slums in which they had passed their lives. They now felt called to return there with the Good News that God and The Salvation Army loved all people alike.”

The Salvation Army’s dual emphasis on living the Christian life and helping the poor has changed our world immeasurably. And it continues to stand as a challenge to those Christians—I include myself—who have become too fond of the comforts afforded by our middle-American lifestyles.

If you would like to know more about William Booth’s brand of religion, our Issue 82: Phoebe Palmer and the American Holiness Revival, mailing late this May, will delve more deeply into the unique combination of spiritual and social salvation that marked the Salvation Army and other Wesleyan-derived groups.

Related article: Would You Like to Super-Size Your Ministry?

Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today.Click for reprint information.

2 responses to “Salvation Army: The church behind the kettles

  1. Great Article – thanks.

    I would like to add that while The Salvation Army’s Church members believe the theological statements in the article, we don’t expect those we help to believe them, or even care what we believe to receive help.

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