On July 5, 1865, William Booth, an ordained Methodist minister and his wife Catherine, established the Christian Mission in London’s poverty-stricken East End. Renamed the Salvation Army in 1878, the Booths were determined to assail the twin enemies of poverty and religious indifference with the efficiency of a military organization. Booth modeled his organization after the British army, labeling ministers “officers” and new members “recruits.”
He espoused the religious doctrines subscribed to by mainstream Protestant evangelical denominations at the time. The Salvation Army was unique, however, in its commitment to establishing a presence in the most forsaken neighborhoods and in its provision for the absolute equality of women within the organization.
In 1880, the Salvation Army expanded to the United States. The movement also spread to Canada, Australia, France, Switzerland, India, South Africa, and Iceland. It now serves more than 100 countries.
As early as 1898, the Army had garnered enough attention for its unorthodox practices to become the subject of a popular satire, Captain Shout, S.A., a farcical comedy included in Rare Book Selections. The play tells the story of a Mrs. Gay, a “gay widow,” and her romantic conquest of a Salvation Army captain intent on converting her:
Ah–that charming Captain Shout is coming to convert me to-day. Ha, ha…I’ll just let them go ahead, as long as they send the Captain to me, for I do like him so much…I must have the piano open for him, for these Salvationists do love to sing and make a noise wherever they go.
North Carolina mill worker Enoch Ball discovered his life’s work at a meeting of the Salvation Army. “When I was about 22 year [sic] old,” he told writer Anne Winn Stevens in “Shave Them,” an interview for the Federal Writer’s Program of the Works Project Administration, “the Salvation Army came to town and started a big meeting in the old Methodist church…Me and my wife both went to the meeting. We was converted the first night.”
For Ball, the Salvation Army lived up to its name:
After I was converted I stopped drinkin’. The other boys in the gang made fun of me. They persecuted me at first and prophesied it wouldn’t be long before I’d be back drinkin’ with ’em. But I went right on livin’ right. Before long they began going to the meeting too. One by one they was converted…. Us boys that had been called the Wheathearts from the storeroom where we used to meet, was now called the Sweethearts – meaning good hearts.
[Shave Them]. Enoch Ball, interviewee; Anne Winn Stevens, interviewer; Asheville, N.C., August 1, 1939. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940. Manuscript Division
Within a few decades, the Salvation Army had become a respected charitable organization in the United States. During World War I, it was one of seven groups designated to raise money for the United War Work Campaign, an effort publicized in an “Address by John D. Rockefeller, Jr.,” featured in American Leaders Speak: Recordings from World War I. The Salvation Army operated 3,000 service units for the armed forces during World War II—and was one of the six civilian agencies folded in to the United Service Organizations (USO) when it was established in 1941.
The Salvation Army was aboot the only sect I had much respect for. They used to do a lot of good, and they got dom little thanks for it. That’s why they wear those droopy hats, you know. When they first come around, the people would pelt ’em with rotten eggs and vegetables and dom near anything they could lay their hands on. Durin’ the war, after they helped oot the soldiers the way they did, they built up a fine reputation.
“MacCurrie.” Francis Donovan, interviewer; Thomaston, Connecticut, February 15, 1939. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940. Manuscript Division
During the Great Depression, the Salvation Army provided food and lodging for those in need. The storefront pictured here, identified as the Newark, Ohio, Salvation Army headquarters, advertised the provision of “Transient Social Service, Meals and Lodging.”
A panhandler tells Depression-era stories about his colorful colleagues:
Sammy would take a job once in a while if he thought there was something extra in it, like playin’ Santa Claus on the corner at Christmas. He liked to stand and figger how to get his hand in the little hole where the money goes down the chimney. I guess he never did figger that one out because the Salvation Army has been hirin’ guys like Sammy for years and knows its oats.
“The Letter.” J. D. Stradling, interviewer; Chicago, Illinois, 1938-1939. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940. Manuscript Division