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 his 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 (appearing daily at Christianity Today magazine's site), 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.

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.

* The story of the Salvation Army can be read in CH issue 26: William and 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).

* For links to related news stories, see Christianity Today magazine's site.

Elesha Coffman is managing editor of Christian History, and can be reached at

The online issue archive for Christian History goes as far back as Issue 51 (Heresy in the Early Church). Prior issues are available for purchase in the Christian History Store.