According to a memo leaked to The Washington Post last week, the Salvation Army was hoping to swing a deal with the Bush administration: the Army would support Bush's faith-based initiatives if he protected them from local laws requiring employers to provide benefits for employees' same-sex partners. As extensively documented in CT Weblog, the media went bananas, accusing the Salvation Army of everything from "injecting religious views into secular activities" to issuing a "call to hate." According to the rabid newspaper columnists, letting city councils adjudicate doctrine is more appropriate than letting a church (for the Salvation Army is first and foremost a Christian church) manage its own affairs. So that "wall of separation" is really more of a one-way door?

At any rate, aggravating as this assault must be to the Salvationists, they've weathered worse.

William Booth (1829-1912), who founded the Army along with his wife, Catherine, started his ministry in England's Wesleyan Methodist church. Soon after his conversion, teenage Booth invited a group of street people to his chapel. The elders resented the intrusion and told him not to bring them again. Booth eventually became a minister with the denomination, but in 1850, due to a misunderstanding, the church kicked him out. He tried the Reform Methodists and the Methodist New Connexion but decided by 1861 that he was done with "settled ministry." A few years later he organized the East London Christian Mission, which, in 1878, became the Salvation Army.

Booth's organization focused on evangelism, announcing, "The Christian Mission has met in Congress to make War. It has organized a Salvation Army to carry the blood of Christ and the fire of the Holy Ghost into every corner of the world."

At first, though, Booth's "world" included almost exclusively England's urban working-class and poor, from which he and 94 percent of the Army's officers hailed. Preaching the gospel in that environment naturally led to other sorts of ministry, like serving breakfast to homeless children and saving women from prostitution. Even Booth's theology of redemption grew to encompass both soul and body. He wrote in the article "Salvation for Both Worlds," "As Christ came to call not saints but sinners to repentance, so the New Message of Temporal Salvation, or salvation from pinching poverty, from rags and misery, must be offered to all."

Soon after its founding, the Army came under fire from a variety of sources. Some Christians didn't like Booth's interpretation of the Gospel. Passers-by resented street preachers' calls for repentance and the noise of Army bands. Bar owners bristled when formerly faithful customers got saved and stopped drinking. While concerned Christians usually attacked the new movement in print, other antagonists used fists, clubs, and knives. In 1882 alone, some 700 Army personnel in England were assaulted.

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That's not all. According to Cyril Barnes in God's Army (1978), "Some of the persecution suffered by Salvationists had much more serious effects. In Guildford, England, a woman died after being kicked and knocked insensible. … In the U.S., a soldier of the corps at St. Louis was clubbed, stoned, and jumped upon until he died. A woman soldier was murdered at Pontiac, Michigan. A doorkeeper died from stabbing in San Francisco. A woman captain was shot and killed in Spokane, Washington."

In the midst of this persecution, the Army's ministry exploded. The number of officers grew to 190 by the end of 1879, then 233 eight months later. Work spread to the United States in 1879, Australia in 1880, and Canada, India, Switzerland, and Sweden in 1881. By 1883 the church had founded well over 500 centers of worship, each with at least one presiding officer.

Once, in 1882, an Army band in Sheffield was attacked by a gang called the Blades, who beat the Salvationists, pelted them with eggs, and ruined their instruments. When the troops mustered for inspection by Booth, he told them, "Now is the time to have your photographs taken!" Today's media snapshot of the church is equally unflattering, but if the ministry holds its ground, Booth would be equally proud.

Elesha Coffman is managing editor of Christian History magazine.

Related Elsewhere

More Christian history, including a list of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at Subscriptions to the quarterly print magazine are also available.

The Salvation Army's official site includes basic information, bios on historical figures and a response to the current controversy.

The Salvation Army story became a Washington Post regular feature after the story broke on July 10. Articles focused on White House reaction, politicos revising their story, and administration-Army meetings. A Posteditorial called the Army an "institution that performs good works" but forgot it was a church.

Christianity Today's has covered the current controversy in Weblog installments including: "The Salvation Army Under Attack Here and Abroad" (July 10, 2001), "White House to Salvation Army: No Soup for You! (July 11, 2001)," and "Salvation Army's 'Call to Hate'?" (July 16, 2001).

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Lauren F. Winner reviewed several books on Salvation Army history in Christianity Today's sister publication, Books & Culture. Her article, "From Drum-Bangers to Doughnut-Fryers | Material culture, consumerism, and the transformation of the Salvation Army," appeared in the magazine's September/October 1999 issue.

For more on Salvation Army history, see issue 26 of Christian History. Another Christianity Today sister publication Christian Reader adapted one of the articles on Catherine Booth.

Historian Diane Winston chronicles the Army's shift in emphasis from evangelism to social services in Red-Hot and Righteous: The Urban Religion of the Salvation Army (Harvard, 2000).

Previous Christianity Today stories on the Salvation Army include:

Salvation Army Closed in Moscow | Moscow court decision turns city into a 'legal never-never land' for Christian charity. (Jan.11, 2001)

Still Red-Hot and Righteous | The Salvation Army's International Congress meets outside London for the first time since its founding. (July 12, 2000)

Saving Bodies, Rescuing Souls | Chechen Muslims find Salvationist care has compassionate accent (Apr. 11, 2000)

Salvation Army General Seeks Refocus on Gospel | Newest world leader faces modern challenges (June. 14, 1999)

Did Somebody Say $80 Million? (Dec. 7, 1998)

Salvation Army Youth Spell Out New Methods (Mar. 3, 1997)

Christian History Corner appears every Friday at Previous editions include:

Historical Hogwash | Two books—one new, one newly reissued—debunk false claims about the "real" Jesus.

Ghosts of the Temple | Soon after Jerusalem fell, the Roman Colosseum went up. Coincidence? (July 6, 2001)

Endangered History | The National Trust's list of imperiled places gives unnoticed gems a chance to shine. (June 29, 2001)

The Communion Test | How a "Humble Inquiry" into the nature of the church cost Jonathan Edwards his job. (June 22, 2001)

Visiting the Other Side | The Israelites spent time on both sides of the Jordan. Now tourists can, too. (June 8, 2001)

Beyond Pearl Harbor | How God caught up with the man who led Japan's surprise attack. (June 1, 2001)

Rivers of Life | In Africa, survival depends on open waterways. Missionary explorer David Livingstone believed that salvation did, too. (May 25, 2001)

Intro to the Inklings | C.S. Lewis's intellect was stimulated at one of the most fascinating extracurricular clubs ever. (May 18, 2001)

How Not to Read Dante | You probably missed the point of The Divine Comedy in high school. (May 11, 2001)

If My People Will Pray | The U.S. National Day of Prayer Turns 50, but its origins are much older. (May 4, 2001)

Mutiny and Redemption | The rarely told story of new life after the destruction of the H.M.S. Bounty. (Apr. 27, 2001)

Book Notes | New and noteworthy releases on church history that deserve recognition. (Apr. 20, 2001)