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Ringing up the history of God's soldiers

Looking back and ahead, these books chart shifting concepts of God,

By Ruth Walker / July 8, 1999



RED-HOT AND RIGHTEOUS: THE URBAN RELIGION OF THE SALVATION ARMY By Diane Winston Harvard University Press 253 pp., $27.95

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The casual bookstore browser might not expect a history of the Salvation Army to be illustrated by a picture of Mae West.

But there she is, with Cary Grant, in a shot from the 1931 movie "She Done Him Wrong." Grant played a Salvation Army officer, and West played an underworld chanteuse whom he tried to woo and win back to the side of virtue and wedlock.

This is only one surprising example that New York University scholar Diane Winston identifies of the Army turning up in popular culture - and particularly in New York City.

"Upon arriving in New York in 1880," she writes, "The Salvation Army staked a claim to city life as no religious group had done before.... A living metaphor bent on territorial conquest, its members regularly occupied city thoroughfares. Commanded by Holiness theology to transform the secular world into the Kingdom of God, Salvationists marched up the avenues and down the boulevards - even raiding brothels, saloons, and dance halls - in pursuit of lost souls. Their 'Cathedral of the Open Air,' a figurative canopy spread over the city, turned all of New York into sanctified ground."

This book, written from the perspective of an outsider, though an obviously admiring one, is full of interesting bits, such as the history of the Christmastime red kettles and a discussion of the coffee and doughnuts Salvation Army "lassies" distributed to World War I doughboys as a form of "secular communion."

But the book also explores much broader cultural history, such as how the Salvationists' pursuit of lost souls engaged them in many of the major issues of their day: economic development and social justice, for example.

In the years around the turn of the century, big business was booming, but with evidently little "trickle-down" effect: A 1900 survey by the United States Industrial Commission found that between 60 and 88 percent of Americans were poor or very poor.

Salvationists countered these pressures with policies to strengthen families and put people to work - within their own shelters if necessary. They were not uncomfortable with capitalism per se, however, and numbered some of the country's leading industrialists and merchant princes among their strong supporters.

The Salvation Army was also on the front lines of women's struggle for a new place in the world. Built on a military metaphor, the Salvation Army presented an obviously "masculine" face of Christianity. But at a time when women were discouraged from even reading the Bible in public, the Army's women preachers were a radical new development.

One leading female Army officer who encouraged her male colleagues to learn to cook and sew was on to one of the home truths of 20th-century feminism: There will be no real revolution until men share in the housework.

The mission and marketing aspects of the Army's story sound even more contemporary. Salvationists adopted a posture of service to humanity both as an end in itself and as a way to win souls.

When some of their methods turned out not to win souls, they kept up anyway - because it was the right thing to do. But they also changed their methods to respond to new demands. This aspect of their story will be particularly relevant for any religious or service organization trying to ensure that its mission remains timely and relevant.

*Ruth Walker is the Monitor's correspondent in Toronto.