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Salvation Army  
 
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Affectionately known as "Sal" or "Sally" Army, the Salvation Army may be best known to most modern for its chain of thrift stores, which have filled the closets and furnished the apartments of many who are unable to afford to buy new. Outside the doors of the thrift shops, urban dwellers might recognize bell-ringing "soldiers" of the Salvation Army collecting donations in trademark red kettles during the Christmas season.

Television news watchers have undoubtedly seen Salvation Army workers providing food and shelter to victims of disasters and emergencies all over the United States and in over 100 countries internationally. From its international headquarters in London and its American headquarters in New York, the Salvation Army currently operates hundreds of hospitals, drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers, community centers, and recreation facilities.

Sponsor Message.

However, the "army of volunteers" has also always been an army of the Christian church. Though it has a strong and visible tradition of public service, the Salvation Army is at its core an evangelical Christian sect, and, like much of the evangelical Christian movement of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, it has become increasingly politically conservative. What began as a remarkably egalitarian Christian-based movement of social reform has become in many ways another arm of right-wing conservatism.

Early History

The Salvation Army was founded by an English Methodist minister named William Booth (1829-1912). After preaching in the craggy moors of Cornwall for several years, Booth developed an idea for an independent ministry.

Concerned with the plight of the urban poor, who were treated with little dignity in nineteenth-century Britain, Booth moved his ministry in 1865 to the East End of London where he held revivals in tents and theaters. From the beginning, Booth blended social service and religion, offering food and shelter as well as sermons to draw the poor to worship. He called his new church the East London Revival Society. However, Booth was dissatisfied with the name and tried others, the Christian Mission and the Volunteer Army, before hitting, in May of 1878, on the dynamic appellation Salvation Army.

Booth liked the military analogy and actually called the workers in his ministry "soldiers" of Christianity. Those with authority, like Booth and his wife Catherine, were given officers' ranks. Soon, ministry workers began to wear a sort of uniform, and some formed military-style bands, using the music and the spectacle of flashing tambourines to attract new recruits.

The military trappings of the church appealed to many citizens of patriotic Victorian Britain. Many post-Civil War Americans were also attracted to the clean-cut discipline and uniforms of the Salvation Army, which quickly spread after a group of missionary "soldiers" founded the first American outpost in Pennsylvania during the 1880s.

Women in the Movement

Though the Salvation Army imitated many military practices, it differed from most armies of the day in the role it allowed women. Booth, who remained General of the Salvation Army until his death, preached that women could serve God equally with men, and though few women reached the upper levels of authority, the rank and file included many strong female soldiers and officers.

In fact, in an era when women had very few career options, ambitious young women of all classes were attracted to the social reform work, the independence, and the fairly equal opportunity offered by the Salvation Army. Poor women turned to the Army because it offered escape from the dead end of poverty, and educated middle class women joined because the Salvation Army offered them a way to use their education for the betterment of society. In this way, the early Salvation Army became one of the few truly cross-class organizations of its time.

Like other women who joined tight-knit religious orders, the women of the Salvation Army were often very intimately connected to one another. They formed lifelong friendships and family-like bonds. Some lived together in all-female rooming houses.

Some women officers worked together in partnership for many years. In 1903, Mrs. Colonel Higgins wrote in a report about two female officers, "Captain O and Adjutant A are very much attached to each other. They fit in beautifully together and one is a good deal dependent upon the other." It is not a stretch of the imagination to assume that some of these women formed sexual bonds as well.

Hard-Earned Respectability

Though the Salvation Army worked hard to project an image of serious respectability, some members of the public remained unconvinced. The press ridiculed the Army's uniforms, their drum-beating bands, and their earnest reformist zeal.

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zoom in
Top: Salvation Army founder William Booth.
Above: Soldiers of the Salvation Army collecting money in Lausanne, Switzerland.

  
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