My introduction to rap music came, of all unlikely places, in the gray and dusty stacks of the Library of Congress. I had been prowling through century-old records of anti-poverty organizations. The stacks were generally closed to readers, who normally sat in the glorious reading rooms and had books and magazines brought to them. As a result, librarians did not impose the typical library demands for quiet.
Many of the rap songs were awful and many of the historical records dull, but some of each evoked a streetwise reality worthy of attention. The most vibrant newspaper from the old days that I ran across was The American War Cry, published by the Salvation Army’s national headquarters beginning in 1881. This rap song of a publication boldly stated its faith in God transforming lives and its arguments about the power of hard work and prayer to lead to a way out of poverty.
Those newspaper stories come to life again in Diane Winston’s just-published book, Red-Hot and Righteous. It shows how the “Sallies” invaded New York City in 1880 and overcame those who derided the “vulgarity” of their blaring ads and brass bands. It records the Army’s central role in returning tramps and hobos—not yet dignified as “the homeless” and therefore not patronized—to civil behavior.
Winston, a research fellow at the Center for Media, Culture and History at New York University, does a good job describing the Army’s offer of spiritual and material help to the down-and-out. This help included preaching in the streets, invasions of brothels and saloons, and distribution of ice in summer and coal in winter. Like other poverty-fighting groups supported by volunteer time and contributions, Sallies set up shelters that demanded work from those sheltered, and employment bureaus that found permanent jobs for those who showed a willingness to work.
The book’s look at the Salvation Army from 1880 to 1950 is multi-faceted, but one part particularly relevant to our age shows how many of the Army’s female leaders supported opportunities for women in education, work, and sports, all without lessening the centrality of home, family, and church.
For instance, the leaders of the Salvation Army in the United States from 1896 to 1903 were Frederick St. George Lautour Tucker and his wife Emma Booth-Tucker (she was the daughter of Army founder Willliam Booth and wanted people to know it). Press accounts depicted Booth-Tucker as the mentor of many of the young female recruits who flocked to the Army during those years, but she continued to cut the hair of her seven children, sew their clothes, and supervise their studies.
When she died in a train wreck in 1903, the New York Tribune noted, “The subject in which Mrs. Booth-Tucker took the least interest was, perhaps, the great feminist movements of her generation. . .. She never talked women’s rights. She took them.” And she extended them to prostitutes and other women in trouble, for whom she oversaw 21 “rescue homes.” Her belief was that many “fallen women” had suffered from a lack of mothering and that older women could be God’s instruments in placing those prodigal daughters on the right path.
Mrs. Booth-Tucker believed that prodigal daughters have many of the same problems as prodigal sons, plus one: Their rebellion not only leaves them eating food fit only for animals, as in the New Testament parable, but eating for two. Seduced, abandoned, and pregnant, prodigal daughters risked hurtling toward their own and their unborn children’s destruction—until they found a second chance in a Salvation Army matron who could teach them about Christianity, the second-chance religion.
Diane Winston does a good job of covering the glory days of the Sallies, ending her account in 1950. That is probably for the best. Unfortunately, many Army posts have been tamed over the past several decades by, among other things, federal grants that come with restrictions on evangelizing. Such restrictions often mean that no one offers drifters the Good News that they can change. In return, they receive surplus cheese and some spare change.
With the emphasis on salvation gone, many Army outposts have become government lookalikes. Yet, many in the Army (and many outside it) pray for the organization’s revival, hoping to make it red-hot and righteous once again.
Dr. Olasky is a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, the author of The Tragedy of American Compassion, and senior fellow of the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan.