The Salvation Army describes itself as “an evangelical part of the universal Christian Church with its own distinctive governance and practices.” Most people recognize the red-and-white shield of the Salvation Army as representing a social services organization that responds to disasters, feeds the homeless, and runs thrift stores. Many do not realize the underlying purpose of those efforts is rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The Salvation Army was founded in 1865 by William Booth, who saw a great need for reaching the poor and destitute in England with the gospel of Jesus Christ (Luke 14:21). He began an evangelistic ministry on the streets, and as these people responded to the gospel, Booth directed them to the various churches and chapels in their neighborhoods. As these “undesirables” came into the very proper Victorian churches, they were often rejected because of their unorthodox dress and habits. To provide a place for them to worship and be discipled, William Booth founded the East London Christian Mission. When Booth was dictating a letter referencing believers as God’s army, the name “Salvation Army” was coined, and Booth began forming his mission in a military structure.
Booth named himself the General of the Salvation Army, and his wife, Catherine, was named “Mother of the Salvation Army.” From the beginning, women were given the same freedom and authority as men, and Catherine was an ordained minister in the organization. Ministers were given military officer ranks in keeping with their duties and experience, and church members were called soldiers. One reason for this military identification was a reminder that as Christians, they were in permanent mission to the unconverted. William Booth identified the approach to his work in “three S’s” – Soup, Soap, and Salvation. In order to give the message of salvation, the physical needs of the people were met. That method is still kept today.
While the Salvation Army was started as an independent Christian Church, Booth was careful to avoid criticizing other churches. He viewed each church as a part of the Body of Christ, and therefore harmony and cooperation were to be encouraged. One Salvationist expressed differences between churches this way: “In the overall economy of God there are no inherent contradictions, but there are creative paradoxes.” Since many in the churches seemed to rely on the outward symbols of the faith (baptism & communion), yet didn’t live out a personal faith, Booth eliminated all forms of outward observance in his church. The Salvation Army sees all of life as a sacrament to be lived for God, so baptism and the Lord’s Supper are not practiced, and the style of worship can vary significantly from location to location. The emphasis in the Salvation Army is on personal religion and individual regeneration, with a commitment to unceasingly proclaim the gospel.
The basic doctrines of the Salvation Army are like most evangelical churches: a belief in the Trinity, the full divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ, the full depravity of man at birth, the atoning death of Jesus Christ for man’s sin, and the essential need of repentance and faith for salvation. Following Arminian theology, the Army teaches that continued salvation depends on continued obedience to the Word of God and that the believer can attain whole sanctification in this life by that obedience.
Keeping with the social efforts that began the mission, the Salvation Army has always included social justice and charitable work as a key part of its ministry. In World War II, the Salvation Army operated 3,000 service units for soldiers and sailors, which led to the formation of the USO. Today the Army carries on a wide range of work, including prison visits, disaster response, refugee assistance, addiction and dependency treatment, daycare and children’s homes, homeless and domestic violence shelters, thrift stores, hospitals, clinics, and schools. They are recognized worldwide as a charitable organization which exists to help others. In fact, the Salvation Army is one of the world’s largest providers of social help. It has permanent ministries in 115 countries and 175 languages and provides assistance to millions of people every year.