What is the Salvation Army?
The Salvation Army sends out its troops at Christmastime.
Many people today know the Salvation Army as the place where they take used clothes or the group that rings bells at Christmas time. We also read periodically about Salvation Army's participation in disaster relief and preparation of holiday meals for poor and homeless people.
What the Salvation Army Does
The Salvation Army is, according to its own mission statement: "an evangelical part of the universal Christian church. . . . Its mission is to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to meet human needs in His name without discrimination." The group was founded by William Booth in London's East End in 1867 under the name The Christian Mission. They changed the name to the Salvation Army in 1878. Booth, a former Methodist minister from Nottingham, became an independent evangelist early in the 1860s. Preaching in the streets of the East End, Booth observed unspeakable poverty and wretched living conditions that guided his ministry to one of social concerns.
That Booth declared his social crusade an Army is not surprising, given the times of rapid growth of cities, precipitated by the Industrial Revolution and the large numbers of unskilled rural dwellers leaving the land in the hopes of factory jobs made the East End of London look very much like a war-zone.
In the days before government social programs like unemployment insurance, minimum wage and pensions, Booth's Army joined approximately 500 charitable agencies trying to alleviate the severe problems of the East End like unemployment, dangerous and overcrowded living conditions, drunkenness, prostitution (both adult and child) and the crimes of people desperate to survive one more day.
The Early Days
His notion of an Army caught the imagination of British society overall, implying to the poor and those who deplored them that salvation would bring order to their lives. To the personal repentance and reform that had characterized earlier religious movements, the Army gave the poor a purpose: to save others, both with their words and by the way they conducted their lives. This message came to a Britain familiar with military victory as a tool of worldwide colonial expansion. The notion of a war on poverty produced by drastic social change, rapid urbanization and industrialization appealed to more than just the poor.
The Salvation Army in the United States
By 1880 the Salvation Army had expanded to the United States, another country in social turmoil. With the Civil War just 15 years earlier, poverty was a devastating reality both in northern cities and the rural South. Immigration, which had increased massively with the potato famine in the 1840s in Ireland, continued in waves, overwhelming cities with needy poor. Emancipated blacks left the South hoping for a better life in the North.
The draft riots of 1863 in New York damaged property and lives of those who already had little. Financial chaos from the panics of 1857 and 1873 created an increase in the number of poor people, and moving westward was not always the answer. As in England the poor included wounded and worn-out soldiers sent home by governments unable to provide pensions in peacetime. In cities and rural areas the Salvation Army gained ground as it stressed the purpose of living a regulated life so as to serve others less fortunate.
Street preaching gave way to local social-welfare centers, meeting at least some of the needs of the poor and hungry and steadily emphasizing the ability of new volunteers to help those whose lives remained chaotic. Those who study religious movements generally agree that the military-style order, easily-understood Christian mission statement and emphasis on the power of all members to help others provided the strengths that expanded the Salvation Army worldwide.
The Salvation Army Today
Today, the Army's social presence is more indoors than in the street, although it remains the duty of all members to share their faith with anyone who will listen. Most visible are community centers serving poor, homeless and hungry people and stores that help people acquire clothing and household items they need with dignity. Centers differ depending on community needs. In one city a center may emphasize English instruction for immigrants and in another a residence for pregnant teens.
Knowing something about the Salvation Army causes one to view the Christmas bell ringers in a new light. Some ringers are volunteers, helping the Army for a multitude of reasons. But when you see the dark-blue uniform with dark-red trim and hear a young fellow coaxing Christmas carols out of a trumpet made cranky by the cold and wind, remember that you are seeing a soldier, a beneficiary of evangelism, doing his part to show what the Salvation Army has done for him and what he can do for others.