America's richest fund raiser: A Salvation Army history

On Books

July 11, 1999|By Michael Pakenham

Since early childhood, I doubt a month has passed that I have not encountered the Salvation Army. When I was a kid, bands serenaded us. Uniformed Salvationists gave cheerful succor at disasters I covered as a reporter. There have been kettles, hymn-singing, and lots more jolts to awareness: G.B. Shaw's "Major Barbara," "Guys and Dolls," movies.The Salvation Army is always there.

But what is it?

In pursuit of an answer, I went to "Red Hot and Righteous: The Urban Religion of The Salvation Army," by Diane Winston, who covered religion for The Sun from 1989 to 1991, (Harvard, 290 pages, $27.95). Let me begin at the end of the story. In her epilogue, Winston writes:

"The Salvation Army entered an era of cultural respectability after World War II, but it has never lost sight of its longtime goals and strategies. Whether staging musicals based on the life of Evangeline Booth or performing rap concerts in lower Manhattan, Salvationists continue to use the vernacular culture in evangelical crusades -- even if their image as street-savvy soul-savers has been eclipsed by their reputation as dependable providers of social services."

The book is a history of the entire enterprise, from its English-origins to date, but focused primarily on its American operations. For 119 years in the United States, the Salvation Army has adapted, adjusted, shifted roles and focus -- and grown. "For much of the 1990s," Winston reports, "The Salvation Army has been the nation's largest charitable fundraiser, receiving more public support than the Red Cross, Catholic Charities, or the United Jewish Appeal." It collected $1 billion in 1996, the last year reported in this book.

Catherine and William Booth founded the Army in England in the 1870s as a revivalist wing of the Methodist Reform Movement. Catherine was a minister's daughter. William spent a painful childhood amid slum life and became a Wesleyan enthusiast as an adolescent. The doctrine they evolved insisted on a simple life without alcohol, tobacco or fancy clothes, personal adornment, rich food or worldly entertainment. That doctrine evolved from ideas drawn from Methodists, Quakers, evangelicals of various sorts.

The Army came to New York City on March 10, 1880. Amid teeming, unregulated slums, there was much to do. "Redeeming the world," Winston writes, "according to the Army's founder, William Booth, meant facing its challenges (poverty, unemployment, alcoholism, and prostitution) and turning its secular idioms (advertisements, music, and theater) into spiritual texts."

To the established and influential, they seemed quaint, faintly ridiculous, but were highly focused. Evangeline Booth, the enormously forceful, imaginative and successful daughter of the founder, commanded the group in America from 1905 to 1934. Early in her tenure, she wrote:

"The American, when you come to religion, is not a theorizer, an Oriental dreamer or a philosophical speculator. He has little use for a religion which is sedate, or ornate, or ceremonial. He needs a religion that does something for him and in him, and provides something for him to do in the way of helping others. ... Push, go, hustle is the spirit of the country. As tacticians, we of The Salvation Army take note of this. We have something alive to offer America -- an active, energetic, hustling religion."

And offer it she -- and lots of others -- did.

From their early days in America, they were radicals. Army leaders often went to jail for civil disobedience. They appalled the comfortable, while gaining attention and recruits. All publicity was good publicity, according to William Booth.

In New York they offended the nice, polite churches that charged pew rent and discouraged the poor from attending services. There were other mission movements, but the Army began to dominate. By 1895, they claimed 40,000 Salvationists in America.

A New York Times editorial in 1885 clucked: "The Salvation Army appears to be organized for the purpose of applying the methods of the variety show to Christianity. It undertakes to minister to the same craving for vulgar modes of excitement ... [and] holds that a man need not be civilized in order to be Christianized." The Times left no doubt about its own view of theological civility.

Yet, by 1910 Adolph Ochs -- owner of the New York Times, a faithful Jew and a man of stern standards of propriety -- had become a close friend of Evangeline Booth and one of many high-placed, supporters of the Army.

As the American economy became more boom-and-bust prone, and produced even more urban poor, the Army increasingly moved away from its almost purely evangelical roots into social welfare: Home aid, shelters, disaster relief, clothing and household goods recycling, a huge troop-support effort in World War I, and then again, in different form, in World War II.

The structure of Winston's book is formal, the prose often unfortunately stiff -- academic in the dreary sense of that word. Although Winston has a lively story to tell, her language often fails to live up to it.

For example, Winston writes of the development of "industrial homes," paying subsistence wages, and concludes: "As opportunistic and exploitative as this scheme sounds, it dispensed with the moralizing and scrutinizing attendant upon distinguishing between the deserving and undeserving poor. If a man was willing to work, then investigating his past or present circumstances was irrelevant."

The subject deserves brisker, more vibrant language. If you can navigate the prose, the book is worthy reading for its rich story of a complicated human institution full of men and women spending their lives truly doing good.

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