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The Salvation Army: Yes, They Really Are a Denomination

Most people are familiar with the Salvation Army because of their Christmas fund-raising with the red kettles. Yet there is more to the Salvation Army than taking donations in December. As a matter of fact, even though many people think of the Salvation Army (SA) as a charitable organization, it is a denomination just like Southern Baptists and United Methodists. Yet the SA had a different beginning than most denominations, and it is reflected in its primary mission: to work with the poor and needy. And it all began in the slums of England in the same year that America ended its Civil War: 1865.

William Booth (1829-1912) and his wife Catherine (1829-1890) are the founders of the SA. William became a licensed Methodist minister in 1852, and, after marrying Catherine in 1855, continued as a Methodist minister until 1861. In that year he resigned and became an independent evangelist, working mainly with the poor, the prostitutes, the drug users, everyone who he felt other denominations were not reaching. Eventually he and his wife founded the Christian Mission in Londonís East End in 1865, which at that time were slums.

While reading the annual report from the Mission in 1878, William saw the sentence "The Christian Mission is a volunteer army." He altered that phrase to "a Salvation Army"; it stuck and caused other military-type changes to occur in Boothís ministry, including William becoming the "General," Catherine becoming the "Army Mother," and other ministers given military designations. All Salvationists rise in rank as they progress in the denomination. The rank structure, from highest to lowest: General (there is only one, and he/she holds the office for five years), Chief of the Staff, Commissioner, Colonel, Lieutenant Colonel, Major, Captain, Lieutenant, and Cadet. Accordingly, the dress of Salvationists (the ministers) is military in nature.

Williamís primary goal was to bring people to God, yet he always focused on the urban poor. He wrote a book called In Darkest England and the Way Out, published in 1890, which laid out his views of reaching the poor for Christ. SA missionaries arrived in New York City on March 10, 1880.

Since it is a denomination, the SA has churches (they refer to each church as a "Corps"). The Corps meets on Sundays for worship services, just like any other denomination. As a matter of fact, other than the military veneer, a SA church service is much like any Christian church service.

In closing, here are some statistics about the Salvation Army from their 2002 Year Book. The SA works in 109 countries, and in those countries there are 15,456 Corps or other SA group. 25,662 Officers (ministers) serve the SA, which has a bankroll of 107,724 employees. The SA numbers a little more than a million members (what the SA calls Senior Soldiers). As noted above, the social programs of the SA are its strength. Accordingly, the SA has: 539 hostels for homeless people; 202 childrenís homes; 6 schools for the blind; 255 womenís and menís refuge centers; 25 general hospitals; 8 maternity hospitals; 540 community centers (usually attached to a Corps); 757 emergency mobile units; 1,398 thrift stores; 52 day centers for the elderly; 178 drop-in centers for youth; and supplies 50 chaplains to the military. In all, the SA aided almost 20 million people in 2002.

That is where the Christmas donations go.

©2004 Mark Nickens

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