Fighting the good fight -- a history; Marching to Glory: The History of the Salvation Army in the United States of America, 1880-1980, by Edward H. McKinley. San Francisco: Harper & Row. $8.95.

"Marching to Glory" booms out the story of the Salvation Army like one of those spirited brass bands for which the religion is famous. The book commemorates 100 years since the Army's Britis founder, William Booth, first dispatched a Salvationist expedition to sail for the shores of America. Unlike what you might expect from an officially commissioned chronicle , it is lively, entertaining, sometimes humorous -- yet always affectionate.

Anyone anticipating a more sanctimonious tone is in for a surprise, starting from Chapter 1. There the leader of that first missionary expedition, George Railton, is described as an "amiable eccentric" who, alas, ultimately proved "as ill-fitted to this grand endeavor as he was to many smaller ones." (Among his earlier exploits was a one-man crusade to convert "Morocco for Christ.")

However, the chapter goes on to relate how this quixotic former clerk set about preaching the gospel inside rough New York City saloons, launching a campaign that today is still actively pursued throughout the continent.

For Railton and his successors, to be soldiers in the "army of Christ" was no mere metaphor. In their eyes, the battle for men's souls was only too real, with Satan commanding the opposition. It was natural for them to adopt military discipline -- not to mention uniforms and terminology -- in fighting the good fight. William Booth himself declared that he received "more practical help from the regulations of the British Army than . . . from all the methods of the churches."

Thus across America the Salvation Army was soon energetically conducting "knee drills" (prayers), holding "sieges" (revival meetings), taking "captives" (new converts), and enlisting recruits.

As their battleground, Salvationists chose the squalid slums of the urban poor. Although their primary objective was always to save souls -- not bodies -- the Christian soldiers tried to alleviate human suffering where they could. With time these early, often spontaneous, efforts evolved into social programs.

Originally a center of controversy, the Army first won the hearts of the American public during World War I, when a intrepid corps of "Salvation Lassies" braved the trenches serving doughnuts to doughboys in France. By the end of the depression, Salvation Army soup kitchens established the group's popular image firmly -- though mistakenly -- as a relief agency rather than an evangelical religion.

Author Edward H. McKinley is at his best re-creating the Army's early decades , when the tactics of a few colorful individuals helped shaped the future of the campaign. Later in the book, as institutions come to predominate over personalities, his narrative loses vitality.

McKinley is both a Salvationist (with the rank of sergeant-major) and a scholar (associate professor of history at Asbury College in Kentucky). A previous book (on Africa) won him an award from the Society of American Historians.

As a Salvationist, McKinley recalls the Army's past with fondness, and regards the future with optimism. As a historian, he frankly discusses the Army's growing challenges, such as erosion of its traditional urban base and difficulty maintaining numerical strength. His dual role makes "Marching to Glory" an excellent way to learn about one of America's best-known -- yet least understood -- organizations.

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