September 2001 Church & State | Featured

Mention the Salvation Army, and most people conjure up images of bell ringers who seek contributions outside of stores at Christmastime or large trucks that collect donations of used clothing and furniture for resale at second-hand shops.

But the Army isn't just a collection of charitable workers concerned about the plight of the poor. First and foremost, it is an evangelical Christian religious denomination. And, although it's not usually thought of as political, the Salvation Army has in the past employed Religious Right-style assaults on the constitutional principle of church-state separation.

Three years ago, the Salvation Army publication The War Cry ran a strident attack on church-state separation. The article, written by Sam Silligato, recycled the Religious Right's bogus history, contending that the United States was meant to be an officially "Christian nation."

The wall of separation, Silligato charged, "has caused oppression and aids the spread of crime, violence, immorality and false ideology, enslaving our society....The wall is constructed of lies, false interpretation of laws and enforcement of laws contradictory to the intent of the Constitution."

Silligato noted that Thomas Jefferson had used the wall metaphor in a letter to the Danbury Baptists in 1802 (although Silligato got the facts wrong about why the Baptists wrote to Jefferson). But the writer dismissed Jefferson as unimportant since the distinguished Virginian was in France at the time the First Amendment was drafted.

Concluded Silligato, "When the Berlin Wall finally came down, thousands crossed the border to freedom and the opportunity for a prosperous life. So, too, as the mythical wall of separation is removed, thousands will be able to learn of America's true Christian heritage and the principles and morals that this heritage has bestowed."

It's ironic that the Salvation Army would drift toward the Religious Right camp, given its origins as a progressive organization concerned about the needs of the poor. The Army's beginnings go back to 1865, when William Booth, a Methodist minister, began preaching in the slums of London's gritty East End.

Booth soon learned there was a real need for his services. The East End at that time was a place of almost unimaginable squalor, and its denizens had been more or less left to their own devices. Under the auspices of his East London Christian Mission, Booth sought to provide relief.

The minister's operation grew rapidly and within a few years spread beyond London. With the broader geographical focus came a new name. Booth had often boasted of the military-style discipline of his followers. In 1878 he adopted the name "Salvation Army" and christened himself "the general." Twelve years later, he outlined his views on the social role of Christianity in his book In Darkest England and the Way Out.

The Salvation Army was soon firmly entrenched throughout England, and some of Booth's disciples began to contemplate overseas missions. A few followers had immigrated to the United States and were holding irregular meetings. They begged Booth for an official Army presence in America, and eventually he agreed.

In 1880, Commissioner George Scott Railton sailed for the United States. Accompanied by seven female officers, known as the "Seven Hallelujah Lassies," Railton established a Salvation Army beachhead in New York City. The organization soon spread to other cities and, in time, other nations. By the time of Booth's death in 1912, the Salvation Army was operating in 58 countries.

In America the fledgling religious group was never afraid to engage in histrionics to attract attention. Salvation Army bands marched down New York's main thoroughfares, banging on drums and tooting on horns. In 1895, the organization's New York office became one of the first buildings in the city to erect an electric sign.

Salvation Army branches tackled issues that today seem far-sighted and progressive. According to Diane Winston's book Red-Hot and Righteous: The Urban Religion of the Salvation Army, the organization in the 1890s spoke up on behalf of striking workers and criticized the excesses of unregulated capitalism. The Chicago arm in 1900 opened a day-care center for working mothers. The following year, it created a center for unwed mothers and women who had been deserted by their husbands.

But after the turn of the century, the Army began relying increasingly on big-business donors for funding. Winston reports that the denomination, then under the leadership of Evangeline Booth, daughter of William Booth and his wife, Catherine, turned to the corporate world to finance its growing activities. Years later, the Army would begin tapping government sources.

According to religion scholar J. Gordon Melton, the Salvation Army today has about half a million members and 10,000 U.S. churches. Its American headquarters is in Alexandria, Va., a suburb of Washington, D.C. Worldwide it operates in more than 100 countries, with its staff and volunteers speaking more than 160 languages.