“The more I see of fashionable religion, the more I despise it,” wrote Catherine Booth. “Indeed, how can fashionable religion ever be other than despicable?”

While preparing this issue, I was arrested by these strong words. Perhaps it’s the historian’s bent in me, but I confess that I enjoy the polite and quiet comfort of refined discussions, superb music, carefully articulated discourses. If I’m not careful, however, I can apply these tastes to religious expression, and soon I may find myself an adherent of “fashionable” religion.

The Salvation Army, especially in its salad days under William and Catherine Booth, was anything but fashionable. It was raw-boned, disheveled religion, boisterous and forceful. It attracted—indeed, it was designed for—“wife-beaters, cheats and bullies, prostitutes, boys who had stolen the family food money, unfaithful husbands, burglars, and teamsters who had been cruel to their horses,” according to historian E. H. McKinley. “Respectable people might quail before this avalanche of ‘claptrap’ and ‘rowdyism’: the Army sniffed at their opinion; what did it matter if the Army complied with established customs, so long as the Army attracted sinners.”

The record speaks for the results of this forceful approach: 112 years after its official beginning, the Army’s 3,000,000 members minister in 91 countries of the world. But numbers alone fail to capture the Army’s effectiveness. Consider these statements:

• Charles H. Spurgeon: “If The Salvation Army were wiped out of London, five thousand extra policemen could not fill its place in the repression of crime and disorder.”

• Booker T. Washington: “I have always had the greatest respect for the work of The Salvation Army, especially because I have noted that it draws no color line in religion.”

• Josiah Strong: “Probably during no one hundred years in the history of the world have there been saved so many thieves, gamblers, drunkards, and prostitutes as during the past quarter of a century through the heroic faith and labors of The Salvation Army.”

The lives of Catherine and William Booth force us to ask the question: Is our Christianity fashionable or forceful? Religion, it seems, tends toward either pole, and history shows that the people and movements of lasting impact have been the forceful.