Salvation Army Marches to America

  • Religion
  • 1880

Methodist minister William Booth and his wife, Catherine, founded the Salvation Army in London in 1865 to help prostitutes, drunks and drug addicts, and the poor—using his “three S’s” approach: “first, soup; second, soap; and finally, salvation.” Some observers were put off by the flamboyance of the “Sallies,” with their brass bands and bright uniforms and their direct engagement with the lower classes. But they achieved great success, and then strong support from the public in dollars and volunteer hours.

In 1880, the Salvation Army arrived in the U.S. with its flags flying (emblazoned “Blood and Fire”). Fascinated reporters were told that the arriving officers were part of an “army of men and women mostly belonging to the working class” who had been saved from immorality and wasted human potential. They immediately strode into saloons, brothels, and slums, engaging the most desperate residents, and established what became one of America’s largest and best-run charities.

In less than a decade this combination church and social movement created a citywide service network. By 1900, reports historian Marvin Olasky, the Army had 20,000 American volunteers, its employment bureaus placed 4,800 persons a month into jobs, and it operated 141 relief operations including 52 shelters, 14 homes for women facing crisis pregnancies, and two children’s homes. The Army’s massive disaster relief after the 1900 Galveston hurricane and the 1906 San Francisco earthquake further enhanced its reputation. Disaster relief continues to be offered—Army workers and volunteers gave more than 900,000 hours of service after Hurricane Katrina.

Today, the Salvation Army’s several thousand uniformed officers oversee 7,600 centers and a multibillion-dollar budget serving tens of millions of Americans. Its lean, decentralized management system pays officers the minimum wage and raises and spends all money locally. Management expert Peter Drucker called it “by far the most effective organization in the U.S.”—nonprofit or for-profit. “No one even comes close with respect to clarity of mission, ability to innovate, measurable results, dedication, and putting money to maximum use,” he concluded. Forbes calculated that if the Army’s employees and volunteers in 126 countries were paid market wages, it would be one of the world’s largest companies.

In 2003, McDonald’s heiress Joan Kroc left more than $1.5 billion to the Army, the largest philanthropic gift ever given to one charity. A recent National Commander in the U.S. explained its unchanging view on helping the needy: “You can’t divorce individual responsibility from the societal ills that create poverty. Low-income persons begin to see their own self-worth as they take responsibility for themselves.”