News of McDonald's matriarch Joan Kroc's record-breaking $1.5 billion gift to the Salvation Army is little more than one week old, but already pundits have begun speculating about the dawn of a new era for the Army. Best known for its change-collecting bell ringers and inner-city relief work, the Salvation Army must now adapt to heightened public scrutiny and a radically altered fundraising paradigm.

Despite a seemingly obvious name, the Salvation Army's mission as an evangelical church is less known than its charitable work. However, its mission statement leaves no doubt: "The Salvation Army, an international movement, is an evangelical part of the universal Christian Church. Its message is based on the Bible. Its ministry is motivated by the love of God. Its mission is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to meet human needs in His name without discrimination."

Still, observers have begun asking about the impact Kroc's super-sized gift will have on the Salvation Army's Christian convictions. Contrasting the modern Salvation Army with founder William Booth's nineteenth-century vision, the Los Angeles Timesdeclared, "Religion is no longer as strong a component of the organization's mission, but services are still held." This statement incited a strong response from a senior Salvation Army official. "Commitment to a Christian faith is what defines us and keeps us focused in the multitude of opportunities that are a part of the Salvation Army's daily work," Commissioner Linda Bond said. Yet if history is any guide, their future will be fraught with new trials and enticements.

Death by respectability
In early nineteenth-century America, there was no such thing as a wealthy Methodist. Circuit-riding preachers and other itinerant evangelists fanned the revival flames primarily among lower classes. Taking cues from founder John Wesley, who despite enormous earnings lived a meager existence, Methodist leaders found virtue in poverty. The only pride they fought did not reflect upper-class snobbery, but rather self-satisfaction with their humble plight. Francis Asbury even criticized upwardly mobile Quakers who capitalized on America's unique opportunities to become "respectable." "There is death in that word," Asbury warned.

By the mid-nineteenth century, however, Methodists began penetrating society's upper reaches. Power shifted away from the rural circuit-riding pastors, toward urban parish ministers bankrolled by their increasingly wealthy parishioners. Bishop Matthew Simpson, who started his career as a modest circuit rider but later became pastor of an upper-class church, exemplified the transition. He perceived that God wanted to bless Methodists for their hard work. And it didn't take long before he and other ministers realized how much they preferred wealth to poverty.

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Shunning Wesley's preference for modest chapels, Simpson encouraged wealthy Methodists in Pittsburgh to build Christ Church, the first Gothic-style structure in the denomination. Similar churches sprung up in other urban centers. Yet the money came with conditions. The affluent laymen began expecting preferential treatment within the churches, just like they received in the business world. They demanded input with the churches' teaching content. Pastors hesitated to address topics that threatened to ruffle their benefactors' feathers.

Soon, groups intent on recapturing Wesley's vision began forming within the Methodist Church. They longed for simpler times when voluntary poverty marked the road to Christian righteousness. A prominent secession was the founding of the independent Free Methodist denomination in 1860. "Free" stood for freedom from sin, freedom for the slaves (abolitionism), and the elimination of the "pew rent" system under which wealthy patrons bought prominently placed pews in their churches. From this protest against Methodism's love affair with respectability sprouted the American holiness movement (the topic, by the way, of our Issue 82—mailing this coming May). The egalitarian, socially active Wesleyan holiness groups, historians have argued, did as much as liberal Protestants to create their age's "social gospel" movement. (See Timothy L. Smith, Revivalism and Social Reform and Donald W. Dayton, Discovering an Evangelical Heritage.)

Neither young, nor men, nor Christian
Few other movements in the mid-nineteenth century could match the impressive accomplishments of the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA). By the 1850s, a mere 10 years after George Williams founded the YMCA in London, his centers had become an international hub for evangelistic activity and poverty relief. As European immigrants flooded U.S. cities on the eastern seaboard, the YMCA moved into slums to feed the hungry, treat the sick, and distribute Bibles.

Willing to overlook theological details for the sake of unified action, the YMCA gathered widespread support from Protestants. With the help of D.L. Moody, who championed its cause in the latter half of the century, the YMCA aggressively evangelized unchurched throngs. Moody himself declared that he owed more to the YMCA than to any other Christian organization.

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While not renouncing its Christian heritage, today's YMCA has become thoroughly secular. The modern YMCA has retained many of its original objectives, including a commitment to serving the poor and strengthening communities, but has divorced these principles from their origins in Christian theology.

The reasons for this transition remain unclear. The YMCA's web-based history prominently features Christian leaders like Moody and John Mott, but mysteriously ceases to elaborate on the influence of Christianity after the Great Depression era. One explanation for this change could be that the YMCA simply shifted toward the "social gospel," which also—paradoxically, given the its roots in evangelical holiness groups—diminished the importance of orthodox Christian theology in many major Protestant denominations.

However, another development was at work. As with American Methodism earlier, during the early twentieth century the YMCA, with other parachurch organizations, became an arena in which wealthy laymen could flex their muscle. Inspired by the can-do attitudes of Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, these successful businessmen advocated practical Christianity while downplaying spiritual disciplines and churchly distinctives. They placed faith in results, leaving such unimportant matters as theology to the clergy. But the influence their wealth purchased undermined the clergy. Wilson critiqued pastors as being detached from the "real world," saying that the ministry was "the only profession which consists in being something," as opposed to doing something.

Big gift, big responsibility
Without their generous supporters, neither the Methodists nor the YMCA could have touched society so profoundly by fulfilling Christ's command to preach the good news and help the helpless. The Salvation Army has likewise been given a tremendous opportunity to expand their already impressive efforts to do the same. Yet God's work transcends business models and efficiency standards. The Lord will not be chained by practicality, and he finally cares as much about our hearts as our actions. For the road ahead, history warns the Salvation Army to beware of respectability and watch for falling theological standards.

Collin Hansen is editorial resident for Christian History magazine. 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.

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Related Elsewhere:

CT also covered Habitat for Humanity's attempt to keep its Christian identity as the organization grows.

Other CT articles about the Salvation Army include:

Salvation Army Eyes Registration Victory | After a long legal battle in Moscow, the Army gets hope "that there is justice." (April 01, 2002)
Salvation Army Reverses Domestic Partners Policy | Western region action would have allowed health insurance for a "legally domiciled adult" living with an employee. (Dec. 27, 2001)
Business Principles, Salvation Army-style | What the nation's largest charity knows about leadership. (Dec. 18, 2001)
Dismantling the Salvation Army | In maintaining integrity, Salvationists got the Boy Scout treatment. (Aug. 27, 2001)
Moscow Salvation Army Rejected | Without official recognition, ministry and the elderly suffer. (Feb. 13, 2001)
Salvation Army Closed in Moscow | Moscow court decision turns city into a 'legal never-never land' for Christian charity. (Jan. 11, 2001)

Christian History Corner appears every Friday on Christianity Today's website. Previous editions include:

When God—or Allah—Is In the Details | What do Islamic "sharia" law and the colonial Massachusetts' Puritan experiment have in common? (Jan. 23, 2004)
"The Bible Alone"? Not for John Calvin! | When we seek answers to churchly and societal issues in the Bible alone, citing the Reformation principle of sola scriptura, we are actually contradicting the Reformers. (Jan. 16, 2004)
Top Ten Stories of 2003 … with a Christian History Twist | Here is our review of "the Christian history that made the stories that made the news." (Jan. 09, 2004)
Resolutions Worth Keeping | The origins of new years' resolutions, and one famous list. (Jan. 02, 2004)
The Habits of Highly Effective Bible Readers | What we can learn from the church fathers that will enrich our own Bible study (Dec. 26, 2003)
Can Anything Good Come Out of New England? | Evangelical revival in the land of the liberal Brahmins may not be as historically odd as we suppose. (Dec. 12, 2003)
300-Year-Old Man Returns to Lead His Church | Evangelicals need this grandfather figure more than ever. (Dec. 05, 2003)
Thanksgiving in the Midst of Fear | Seriously ill in the days of the Black Plague, poet John Donne still celebrated God's goodness. (Nov. 26, 2003)
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Good News to the Jew First | Critics of The Passion of Christ assume the story embodies an anti-Semitic message. But does it? (Nov. 21, 2003)
Thanks, Da Vinci Code | Tbe book sends us back to Christianity's "founding fathers"—and the Bible we share with them. (Nov. 14, 2003)
Breaking The Da Vinci Code | So the divine Jesus and infallible Word emerged out of a fourth-century power-play? Get real. (Nov. 7, 2003)
Not a Mercy but a Sin | The modern push for euthanasia is a push against a two-millenniums-old Christian tradition (Oct. 30, 2003)
John Paul II's Canonization Cannon | Why and how this pope has made over 470 saints. (Oct. 24, 2003)
Will the Next Pope Be an African? | Sixty-four years ago, the Roman Catholic Church consecrated its first black African bishop. Is it time now for the next step? (Oct. 17, 2003)
When Denominations Divide | The two-century-old "Unitarian controversy" suggests a grim prognosis for the current crisis in the Episcopal Church (Oct. 10, 2003)
Our Brothers and Sisters, the Episcopalians | The Episcopal Church needs our help. Here's why we should give it (Oct. 3, 2003)
Six 'Faith-based' Stories and a Moral | Are Christian social ministries worth fighting for? (Sept. 26, 2003)
Breaking Down the Faith/Learning Wall | How the history of Christians in higher education has stacked the deck against Robert Sloan's "new Baylor." (Sept. 19, 2003)
Learning From the Other 9/11 | Words kill. So teachers, watch what you say. (Sept. 11, 2003)
The Lord of the Rings: What Harvest? | A reader's guide to the best of epic fantasy (Sept. 5, 2003)`
J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, a Legendary Friendship | A new book reveals how these two famous friends conspired to bring myth and legend—and Truth—to modern readers (Aug. 29, 2003)