The history behind the Salvation Army - and its bell ringers

Among the lasting images of the holiday season, along with colored lights and crowded malls, are The Salvation Army's omnipresent bell ringers.

You probably do your part at least once, plunking your change into a red kettle on your way out of a store. But do you really know where the money goes?

Actually, The Salvation Army has a long history of social work - from thrift stores to disaster relief and day care. It got its start as a religious organization in London and remains one today - though it's more widely known for its worldwide social services. (The Salvation Army has programs in more than 100 countries.)

William Booth, who started as a pawnbroker and ended up a minister, founded The Salvation Army in 1865 in London's poverty-stricken East End. He preached regularly on the streets, finding a following in the East End. His street-corner sermons grew into regular meetings and out of it came The Salvation Army's first incarnation, "The Christian Mission."

As the movement attracted more followers, Booth changed the name to The Salvation Army, based on the idea of a Christian "army" fighting sin. And the "Salvationists" adopted a quasi-military structure that they maintain. Centers of worship are called "corps," ordained ministers are "officers," and members are "soldiers."

Booth, too, started the Army's tradition of social work in the 1890s. He set up a labor bureau and established homeless hostels, among other programs. But the social-service centers are largely independent of the corps. Thrift-store proceeds, for example, fund adult rehabilitation centers, not religious activities.

For all he did, Booth wasn't responsible for the Christmas kettles. Those were the idea of Salvation Army captain Joseph McFee in San Francisco. In 1891 he was struggling to fund a Christmas dinner for the area's poor when he remembered how a large pot was used to collect charitable donations on a wharf in Liverpool, England.

Last year, the kettles brought in more than $70 million. And those donations stay in your community, says representative James Bradley. "If you donated it in Newport News, Va., it's going to stay there."

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