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Christianity in Action: The International History of the Salvation Army

Most people know that the Salvation Army is a highly effective poverty-fighting nonprofit.  A few people have seen George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara and realize that the Army is also an evangelical church.  But in its 145-year history, the Salvation Army has developed many quirks and traditions that need to be understood if we are to know why it’s so successful at its charitable activities.

Henry Gariepy’s Christianity in Action is a highly informative guide to the Salvation Army’s history and purpose.  Colonel Gariepy, who has written nearly 30 books of theology, has worked for the Salvation Army for his entire life, and currently teaches courses on Salvation Army history and the Bible at the Army’s Officers Training College.

His book has problems.  It’s not very well organized and is very lightly sourced. He should have provided references for some of the unusual claims, such as that British tavern owners in the late nineteenth century deliberately kept piles of rotten eggs on hand so that patrons could throw them at crusading Salvationists. Nonetheless, Christianity in Action should be required reading for anyone interested in the history of the Salvation Army.  Col. Gariepy’s account, with a preface by the current head of the Army, Gen. Shaw Clifton, and endorsements from three former Salvation Army commanders, is an authorized account.  His book shows how Salvationists see themselves. 

Like most long-lived organizations, the Salvation Army carries on its traditions as long as possible.  The Army not only encouraged its local parishes to form brass bands for evangelistic activities, but from 1889 until 1972 it also operated a factory to produce musical instruments.  Female officers wore prim Victorian bonnets as part of their uniform until the early 1980s.  Until about ten years ago, Salvation Army officers could only marry other officers, and had to obtain permission from London before they could tie the knot.

Much of what Col. Gariepy writes about has been little known by outsiders.  For example, three major nonprofits in the U.S. can trace their roots to the Salvation Army.    Two of these American nonprofits are rooted in nineteenth-century schisms.  The first came in 1884, when Thomas Moore, who was in charge of the Salvation Army’s activities in the U.S., asked permission to have the Army’s property controlled in the U.S. instead of London.  When permission was refused, Moore made all of the Salvation Army property in the U.S. his personal property, and declared himself “General of America’s Salvation Army” (134).  The Salvation Army successfully sued in U.S. courts, and “America’s Salvation Army” was forced to change its name to the American Rescue Workers. Moore’s schism took away nearly all the Salvation Army property in the U.S. as well as 83 of the 100 Salvation Army officers. 

Salvation Army co-founder William Booth came to the U.S. in 1886 and successfully led an effort to rebuild the Salvation Army’s American division.  In 1889 control of the Army’s American operations was assumed by one of Booth’s many children, Ballington Booth.  But Ballington Booth chafed at what he saw as his father’s “despotism,” (135) and in 1896 he and his wife Maud Booth launched the Army’s second schism. A meeting at New York City’s Cooper Union to launch the schism fizzled when Ballington Booth’s sister, Evangeline, stormed the stage and passionately persuaded most of the Salvationists not to secede.  Those who stayed with Ballington and Maud Booth formed the Volunteers of America, which still continues as a secular counterpart to the Salvation Army.

The third nonprofit created from the Salvation Army came about as a result of World War I.  When America entered the war in 1917, Evangeline Booth, still national commander of the Salvation Army in the U.S., volunteered the Army’s services in support.  The U.S. commander, Gen. John J. Pershing, had personally received Salvation Army assistance after a fire destroyed his San Francisco home, so he eagerly agreed. Over 250 “Sallies,” all women, went to France.  Their first major effort came in August 1917 in Moutiers, where American troops were exhausted after 36 days of rain.  The Salvationists decided to make hot doughnuts, using a wine bottle to roll out the dough and frying the doughnuts in a helmet. The hot doughnuts proved wildly popular. The Salvation Army women not only fried doughnuts but also “mothered the troops by the thousands, doing every useful, kindly act that came to hand.  They darned socks, sewed on buttons, and wrote letters home” (142).  When World War II started, the Salvation Army realized that it needed help.  So along with five other nonprofits—the YMCA, YWCA, Jewish Welfare Board, Catholic Community Service, and Traveler’s Aid Society—the Salvation Army transferred its military support activities to a new nonprofit, the United Services Organization or USO.   

Gariepy extensively discusses the Salvation Army’s current activities. He shows that the Army is an international organization, not just a British or Anglo-American one. While most of the Army’s leaders have been British or American, two Swedes and a Finn have headed the Army over the years.  While most of the donations to the Army come from the U.S. and Britain, over 40 percent of the officers live in Africa.  According to Col. Gariepy, the Army’s hospital in Chikankata, Zambia, “provides over 30 percent of the health services” (156) for that country, and includes a high school and schools to train nurses and biomedical technicians. Salvation Army’s African and Asian activities include farming, adoption agencies, and old age homes.  The Army has also been involved in nearly every conflict in the past hundred years.  At one point in the 1980s, it was feeding 100,000 Afghan refugees in Pakistan.  (In 1991, however, the Pakistani government severely curtailed Salvation Army activities in that country.)  The Army sent tens of thousands of volunteers after the 2004 Asian tsunami and provided five million meals and four million articles of clothing after Hurricane Katrina. 

Anyone interested in the Salvation Army’s history and mission will learn a great deal fromChristianity in Action.


Martin Morse Wooster is a senior fellow at the Capital Research Center and a contributing editor to Philanthropy. He explores the ideas of William Booth in By Their Bootstraps (Manhattan Institute). 

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