There are certain sights and sounds one automatically associates with this time of year: snow (in many regions); carols and hymns in the streets, as some attempt to keep Christ in Christmas; crowded banks and stores, as others attempt to keep money in Christmas; and bells, both of the sleigh variety and those rung by Salvation Army officers and soldiers standing beside kettles, often stationed outside the shrines of consumerism.

The Christmas kettles are a visible reminder that, above the fleeting seasonal rhetoric about the poor and underprivileged, some people are actually doing something about it. They have been doing so, in fact, for so long that their work is often taken for granted. Who are these uniformed people ringing the bells?

The official pamphlet, “This Is the Salvation Army,” states: “The Salvation Army is an international, multi-cultural Christian community which combines joyous religious faith with a practical world-wide service.… Because Salvationists believe that the organization, discipline, mobility, and esprit de corps of a military body can, and should, be adapted to a militant Christian Movement, they know from experience that the evil in the world will not yield topious exhortations, but needs to be outfought and out-loved by people who are single-minded in their Christian charity.… Their goal? The world for God.”

A Worldwide Battleground

Assessing the extent of Salvation Army works, one feels himself in the same statistical league as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Over 25,000 officers and cadets and 53,000 full-time employees operate in 86 countries, using 112 languages. Their periodicals run to 123 editions and over 10 million copies annually. Army schools provide education for more than 260,000 pupils; their hospitals and clinics treat 157,000 patients and over 2 million outpatients. Over 243,000 people B are accommodated daily, and 8,000 missing persons are traced annually. The Army serves approximately two billion meals each year. All this is in addition to disaster relief, homes for orphans and unwed mothers, alcohol rehabilitation, training farms, half-way houses, employment services, institutes for the blind, seamen’s and servicemen s centers, youth camps, rescue and antisuicide patrols, goodwill centers, thrift shops, day-care facilities, leprosariums, homes for the aged, and many other works.

The Army is well known for its work with alcoholics. Its position on alcohol states, “The Salvation Army believes that experience has shown a direct connection between (1) the incidence of addiction and (2) the easy availability of alcoholic beverages and the increasing social acceptance of their consumption.” Alcoholism is described as a “bondage” and officers refer to it as a result of sin, but the Army also “recognizes the value of medical, social, and psychiatric treatment for alcoholics and makes extensive use of these services at its centers.”

Article continues below

The Army position on abortion “favors allowing pregnancies to terminate with the normal birth of a child but recognizes that conditions arise under which a choice must be made between early termination (abortion) or full-term pregnancy. It is important that counseling services are available when making such a choice. A decision in any given situation should be adaptable to individual need with full consideration of the fundamental spiritual values which are the foundation of Salvation Army belief.”

While this statement is perhaps not as strong as some evangelicals might like, the Salvation Army has not merely debated the issue of abortion. The numerous facilities for children and unwed mothers give women contemplating abortion some very real alternatives that the evangelical church in general has not been swift in supplying along with its efforts to combat capricious abortion by legislation.

Natural and man-made disasters have led to rapid Army deployments. When an earthquake devastated the Azores Islands, the Army, though it has no work there, sent 25 tons of food and 50 tons of clothing. A quarter-million people were evacuated due to a chemical spill in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada; there the Army served thousands of meals. The eruption of Mount Soufriere on the Caribbean island of Saint Vincent forced thousands from their homes. The Army took charge of four camps, feeding 1,200 people three times a day. Relief work was also performed in Nicaragua during and after the civil war in that country. A CT editor recalls a friend of rather liberal views serving in the Illinois National Guard during the Chicago race riots of the sixties who could not get over the fact that the Salvation Army was there ministering to the troops before the Red Cross, or anyone else, arrived.

General Booth And The Early Battles

The movement now spanning the globe started in London with William Booth. Born in 1829, he was orphaned at age 13 and worked in a pawnshop before becoming a Methodist minister. The squalor of London’s East End—what Matthew Arnold described as “these vast miserable, unmanageable masses of sunken people”—moved him to establish a rescue mission. Victorian England, which spoke smugly of “godly poverty” and upheld a kind of Christian caste system, did not approve. Even Booth’s Methodist colleagues were uneasy. And the downtrodden masses themselves were not receptive; they mocked preachers and generally raised havoc. The police offered little help. About 600 Salvationists went to prison for preaching in the open air. It was a “war against sin” (the line was a prelude to the name “Salvation Army”).

Article continues below

But Booth was not fighting alone. He was supported by his wife, Catherine. Like him, she had achieved against great odds. A brilliant student, she spent the greater part of her youth on her back because of spinal problems. She died of cancer in 1890.

In the book In Darkest England and the Way Out, Booth wrote, “Lord, you shall have all there is of William Booth—and thereafter God blessed me.” Among his many reforms, he fought prostitution (“the career in which the maximum income is paid to the newest apprentice”), advocated a missing person’s bureau, a shelter for lost women, and legal and banking services for the poor. He continued to preach the gospel and to reach the multitudes who would not enter a place of worship. Open-air meetings and marches were organized. Flags, brass bands, and spirited singing were means of attraction. Booth charged the devil with monopolizing “all the best tunes,” and used them himself.

Journalists sent to interview Booth discovered a man with great powers of organization that could have made him fabulously wealthy. But he was described as a man who, passing the stock exchange, would stop and say, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” Under his leadership, the movement spread throughout the world, becoming accepted and esteemed, as it is today. The 1965 centenary celebrations were held in Royal Albert Hall, London. Speakers testifying to the Army’s record of good works included Queen Elizabeth and Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey, who commented that he had “never seen a gloomy Salvationist.” The Army had come a long way from those early slum meetings, held in raggedy, naptha-lit tents.

Although Booth gained respectability—honorary doctor of Oxford, guest at coronations, speaker at the U.S. Senate—there were problems, including rifts over the alleged “Americanization” of the Army. Booth was accused of fleecing the flock, but he agreed to an independent investigation and was exonerated completely. Two sons and a daughter defected because of personal differences and disputes over discipline. (They are absent, nonpersons, in official Army geneologies.) His fourth daughter, Evangeline, was one of the bright spots.

Article continues below

The Salvation Army yearbook states, “The position held by women in the Salvation Army is unprecedented in history. Even in eastern lands, women Salvationists have played a great part in keeping with the Army’s principle of equal opportunity of service for both sexes.” Evangeline seems to bear this out. She was the first woman General of the Army (perhaps of any army), feted by dignitaries and celebrated in musicals. She led the fight for the repeal of laws against open-air preaching. Her philanthropic service during the First World War led to a decoration from Woodrow Wilson. She died in 1950.

Chain Of Command

Still based in Britain, the Salvation Army prefers to call itself a “movement” or a “community” rather than a church. Official publications state that the primary aim is “to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to men and women untouched by ordinary religious efforts.” Whatever the label, the Salvation Army is, in the true sense of the term, an army, with a strict chain of command.

The current general is Jarl Wahlstrom, a native of Finland. All appointments are made and all regulations are issued under his authority. Previous generals have been mainly British and Canadian, with the exception of Gen. Erik Wickberg, a Swede.

The general is elected by the High Council, composed of the chief of the staff (the second in command), all active commissioners, and colonels of two years’ standing who also hold territorial commands. Once in command, she or he serves until the retirement age of 68. The High Council votes shortly before this age is attained, unless there is a death or health problem. Deaths in the Army are referred to as “promotions to Glory.”

Converts above age 15 who have been sworn in are known as “soldiers.” Before enrollment, they are required to sign the Articles of War, an eleven-point doctrinal statement and seven-point rule of conduct. (Salvationists, in keeping with the Army’s claim to be the world’s largest temperance organization, are total abstainers from alcoholic beverages.) The Articles of War also entail a promise to be “a true soldier of the Salvation Army til I die.”

Salvationists who aspire to full-time service are known as “cadets.” They attend a two-year School for Officer’s Training, the equivalent of a Bible school or seminary. They graduate as lieutenants, a rank they hold for five years. A favorable review after this period leads to a promotion to the rank of captain, which must be held for 15 years. From that point, based on service, there may be promotions to major, lieutenant colonel, colonel, and commissioner. There is only one active general.

Article continues below

It is expected that officers will remain in the Army for life. Chosen to Be a Soldier states, “No one must become a soldier as an experiment or with mental reservations as to the length of his ‘service for the salvation of the whole world.’ Only those who are fully determined, by God’s help, to be true soldiers of the Salvation Army til they die can rightly take the holy vows involved in the swearing-in ceremony.” Efforts would be made to discourage officers from even an amiable parting with the Army, but such a one, spokesmen say, would not be excommunicated. Officers have no personal autonomy; they obey the orders of their superiors. They are paid a modest allowance according to their needs. An officer of lower rank with a large family could receive more than a superior with fewer needs.

As far as lay ministry is concerned, there are other designated ranks: auxiliary captain, corps sergeant major, and sergeant. These are also called “local officers.” Members who make the Salvation Army their place of worship, but do not sign the Articles of War, are called “adherents.”

Salvation Army worship halls are known as “citadels.” Prayer meetings are “knee drills”; monetary contributions by soldiers to the Army are “cartridges.” A vehicle used to distribute literature is a “field unit.” And there are military-style decorations: The Order of Distinguished Auxiliary Service, the Order of the Founder, and the Order of the Silver Star. The official periodical is the weekly War Cry magazine.

Army Doctrine, Views, Practices

Salvationist literature describes their creed as “that of the great Christian Communions.” Few evangelicals or fundamentalists would quarrel with their doctrinal statement, with the possible exception of two points.

First, the Army is staunchly Arminian. One of the Articles of War states, “Continuance in a state of salvation depends upon continued obedient faith in Christ.” The book Chosen to Be a Soldier interprets this as a warning against “mistaken notions” and “deadly errors.” It dubs Calvinism “the terrible doctrine that God has predestined some souls to be eternally lost.” In spite of this rather aggressive language, there are references to the Army as not seeing it as “their God-given task to protest against the doctrines and practices of other Christians, but to attest the gospel message” (emphasis theirs).

Article continues below

Second, the Articles allude to believers being “wholly sanctified.” Chosen to Be a Soldier (which in places quotes Kierkegaard) speaks of a “crisis of sanctification,” a second work of grace. The obvious question—Does the Army believe in sinless perfection?—receives no direct answer in official literature, although regulations state, “The Salvationist will never claim for the Army that it is perfect in every respect.” Christians of other traditions might conclude that this also applies to all soldiers not yet promoted to glory.

But Army regulations are not all questions of doctrine. There is a strong emphasis on love. Concerning human relations we read, “People we may find difficult are often unhappy people. They may seem to us to be deliberately nasty. But their past history is imperfectly known to us. It may be that they have never experienced true kindness. Perhaps they had to suffer humiliation and harshness or deliberate injustice in a critical period of development. Whatever the reason, kindness and love coupled with firmness are likely to work a cure.”

The section on homosexuality states, “This psychological leviance, so long as it does not express itself in homosexual acts, is not blameworthy, nor should it be allowed to create guilt. Such persons need understanding and help, not condemnation.”

Whether an official “church” or not, the Salvation Army holds regular services, or “holiness meetings.” The buildings (like countless evangelical places of worship) are not architecturally distinguished, and the soldiers in their dark uniforms are less than sartorially resplendent. But the services are joyous and lively, featuring spirited singing and the participation of many members, who often represent a wide cross section of races. Below the platform is a “holiness bench” where repentant members may publicly confess or be reconciled one to another.

Music has played a large role in the Salvation Army since its inception. A brass band plays in services, and efforts are being made to use contemporary music, including rock, in outreach. Emmy award-winning Hollywood composer Bruce Broughton is a Salvationist. He has written scores for the “Quincy” television series, as well as for World Wide Pictures’ The Prodigal. He says, “Music was in our family because music is part of Salvation Army life. I believe that my background playing hymns was a very good foundation for my current work, because it gave me a solid background in basic musical forms and techniques.” (See also Refiner’s Fire, p.49.)

Article continues below

One of the chief distinguishing features of the Army is the absence of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, both practiced by virtually all Protestants in one form or another. When William Booth was questioned as to what they would offer in place of Communion, he replied, “Farthing breakfasts for starving children.” The current position is that “the Salvation Army does not believe the sacraments to be essential to salvation and therefore, while not opposing their use, does not observe them.”

An official book, The Sacraments, states that there were sacramental observances in the early days of the Army, but they were dropped for various reasons. It was (and is) thought that there are no specific New Testament injunctions to practice baptism and Communion (technical, textual arguments are used against “This do in remembrance of Me” from Luke 22:19). Booth seemed to hold that sacramental observations smacked of sacerdotalism. With many converts being reformed alcoholics, the use of wine was thought unwise. In addition, The Sacraments warns that outward symbols can snare believers into a merely formal religiosity. The aim of the Army, the text states, is “to make the whole of life sacramental.” The book denies that the wearing of uniforms and Army swearing-in ceremonies are in any sense substitutes for the sacraments, but another chapter urges soldiers to “recognize uniform wearing as a way of witnessing for Christ.”

The Army would also seem to avoid Falwell- or Sojourners’-style political activism (the current American commissioner says the Army is “nonpartisan”), but some of its members are politically involved. Maj. Paul Kelly recently testified to the Senate Subcommittee on Housing and Community Development that “it is essential that actions be taken now” to help those with basic needs. Derek Foster, British Salvationist member of Parliament, has written, “I am a politician because I am a Christian. I am not a politician who happens to be a Christian. I am in full-time service for God with every fiber of my being and I am endeavoring to do what God wants me to do.”

Contemporary Battles

The Army is not affected by the disputes over biblical inerrancy or prophecy that have rocked some denominations. With men and women on an equal footing in ministry, there are no divisive debates over “Christian feminism.” (Verses such as 1 Cor. 14:34 and 1 Tim. 2:12, often used to argue against the ministry of women, are considered culturally relative and applying mainly to biblical times.) They seem to have avoided internal dissension and all traces of scandal. But there have been controversies.

Article continues below

On August 24, 1981, the Salvation Army withdrew from membership in the World Council of Churches. (It is not a member of the National Council of Churches.) The issue was a grant of $85,000 to the Patriotic Front Guerrillas in Zimbabwe, then Rhodesia. This came two months after eight Christian missionaries, including two from the Salvation Army, were murdered in that country. The late Commissioner John Needham told Morley Safer earlier this year on CBS’S “60 Minutes,” a show watched by an estimated 43 million people: “The suggestion was that money from the World Council was being given to feed, to take care of medicines, that sort of program. But after all, the end result was, they were guerrillas about their work, which resulted in death and violence.” The WCC, predictably, said that Rhodesian troops were responsible. Needham also answered a charge that the Army left the council under pressure from large corporations. “Nothing could be farther from the truth,” he told Safer, adding, “I don’t know where people get those kinds of ideas.”

The only other criticism of the Army this writer could find comes from evangelical quarters. The March 1983 issue of The Other Side reviewed various organizations to whom their readers send money, and wrote of the Salvation Army that it was “supportive of the political status quo, and makes no attempt to deal with the root causes of today’s problems.” When asked if the Salvation Army should support the political status quo in Cuba and Nicaragua where it also operates, Mark Olson, author of the article, replied, “If they saw some non-biblical situations, they should speak out. “Olson cited Bread for the World as an organization that, unlike the Army, deals with root problems by working through the political process for grain reserves, increased food stamp programs, and a stipulation in Reagan’s Caribbean Initiative plan that would make poor countries meet their own needs before any of their food could be exported.

Current National Commander Norman Marshall states, “In the 86 countries in which the Army carries out its ministry, it works under many forms of governments in order to benefit the people of those countries meeting basic personal needs.”

Article continues below

The most serious charges concerned finances: “The Salvation Army’s four territorial divisions report fund balances of $965.2 million (151% of their annual budget); in 1981, these four territorial offices took in $22.4 million more than they spent; the Salvation Army appears to need less income, not more” (parenthesis and emphasis theirs). The latter part of this statement does not mean that, in the view of The Other Side, the Salvation Army is unworthy of financial support, but that more money should go to organizations that are “more poverty stricken.” Olson, who also denies that the Army makes audits available, obtained his information from the Philanthropic Advisory Service of the Better Business Bureau (BBB) in Washington.

The Army, as it happens, has been publishing independently audited statements of its income for 116 years. The New York Times of November 7, 1982, ran 800,000 copies of a Salvation Army supplement, complete with an operating budget and the notation, “Copies of the audited financial statements will be made available upon request from The Salvation Army.” But does the Army, as The Other Side alleges, have multimillion-dollar surpluses? Commissioner Marshall, in direct reply, writes:

“Possibly, a nonaccountant was responsible for the section of the magazine report concerning ‘Finances and Financial Accountability’ since the total clearly identified in the BBB report from which the information was taken as ‘Fund Balances’ is described in the magazine article as ‘Cash and Securities on Hand at End of Fiscal Year.’ The footnote in the BBB report, however, correctly defines Fund Balances as ‘All operating, endowment, land and buildings, board-designated, donor-restricted, and live income and annuity funds.’ This observation also relates to the Fund Balances of the four territories which are included in the independent audits and represents all resources, including land and buildings, for all Salvation Army Centers and activities in the United States” (emphasis mine). He adds, “All funds are raised in and reported to the local community: the Salvation Army does not conduct a national fund-raising appeal. The captions are somewhat misleading when related to the National Headquarters financial statement.”

Other evangelicals might share The Other Side’s contention that the Salvation Army often functions as “a secular social service entity with little or no overt connection to Christianity.” Is it weak on evangelism? “Evangelism and human services are obverse sides of the same coin,” says Commissioner Marshall. Officers in Los Angeles signal new outreach to Hispanics and Koreans as evidence of renewed evangelistic vigor. The Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, 1982 cites a 28 percent growth in Salvation Army ranks between 1970 and 1980. Many officers, though, are not drawn from the ranks of new converts but rather are children, even grandchildren, of other officers. This trend would seem to be similar to the “being born into the faith” of the catholic tradition, as opposed to the “baptist” style (see Martin Marty on “Baptistification”; CT, Sept. 2, 1983).

Article continues below
Still Loving The Unlovely

One thing the Army certainly cannot be accused of is using the poor to further its own ends. Many, especially bureaucrats who administer government poverty programs, have discovered that there is money in poverty. Jacques Ellul points out that there are different kinds of poor people. There are the “interesting poor” through whose plight partisan aims can be achieved and one’s political enemies can be denounced. For example, by championing the boat people, conservatives can discredit the Communist government of Vietnam, while liberal supporters of Central American refugees use the civil-war situation and its victims to denounce the Reagan administration, a kind of moral form of war profiteering.

Then, as Ellul writes, there are the “uninteresting poor,” whose difficulties concern only themselves. Certainly, skid-row derelicts and other forgotten people of society with whom the Army does so much are in this category. Unlike seals and whales, they have no high-profile advocates among celebrities, and no observer at the UN. And there is no Drunkard Liberation Front—that is, other than the Salvation Army itself.

Former President Jimmy Carter said, “We are a better nation because of the constructive work of the Salvation Army, and we are closer to the ideals our Founding Fathers envisioned as guide-posts of American life. The Army’s mission has gone hand in hand with our national progress and development. Its programs have strengthened our faith in God and our determination to perform good works in His name. I hope that in the decades ahead the Salvation Army will retain its position of spiritual, moral, and social leadership in our society. More than ever we need its steadying influence as we face the critical challenges and opportunities of the years ahead.”

In spite of such encomiums, the Salvation Army is often taken for granted. Few people have stopped to think of the torrent of problems that would be unleashed if the Army were to disappear. But, fortunately, it is still around and shows no sign of capitulating in its battle against sin. Its hand cleaves to the sword. Although the Army is more visible at Christmastime, outfighting and outloving evil is not seasonal work.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.