c. 1999 Religion News Service
UNDATED _ When the Salvation Army first set foot in New York City in 1880, it attracted little more than a cold shoulder from established churches, a inquisitive glance from the city’s press, and amused curiosity from the general public.
Now, 119 years later, the Salvation Army is the nation’s top-grossing charitable organization, outpacing both the American Red Cross and the United Jewish Appeal.
That history is the subject of a new book chronicling the growth of the Army in New York City between 1880 and 1950.”Red-Hot and Righteous”(Harvard University Press) is a detailed and readable account of the group’s rise to charitable and cultural prominence.
Written by Diane Winston, a former newspaper religion writer and now a research fellow at New York University, the book explores the Salvation Army’s deliberate strategy to”sell”itself and its mission by adopting elements of commercial culture to spread its gospel of physical and spiritual healing.
It was a marketing strategy that took Salvationists into saloons and poor neighborhoods where they hoped to establish”the Cathedral of the Open Air,”a reference to the notion that all parts of urban America could be made holy, no matter how sinful.
The group employed unorthodox techniques for reaching the masses, from changing the lyrics of bar songs to include religious lyrics to conducting loud, almost garish, musical parades that attracted widespread attention. Publicity posters were made to look like advertisements for a carnival or street fair.”In its early years the Army’s strength was its ability to be a part of street life; its success was predicated on attracting crowds who confused it with a circus, variety show or minstrelsy,”Winston writes.
Within four years, the Salvation Army had grown to 5,000 converts, 500 officers and 100″corps”stations. The Army’s rapid growth and eccentric recruitment techniques worried many in established churches, who said the Salvation Army had become nothing more than a gospelized variety show.
Well-bred members of New York’s high society also lamented that”the flamboyant improprieties of the Salvationists subverted civil order and mocked genteel decorum, the bulwarks of Victorian society,”Winston writes.
The Army had its share of internal struggles. At one point, a leadership clash led to an American secessionist movement. Officers were accused of misusing funds, seducing young women and making a mockery of religion.
Salvationists soon regrouped and proceeded to make a noticeable impact in a city with virtually no social services network.
Salvationists often were the only people who ventured into poor neighborhoods to comfort the afflicted. Their reputation for selfless charity work helped calm the fears of much of the establishment, which soon provided the financial resources needed to support the Army’s welfare network.
The Army matured, as well. Its message was toned down, and its deliberate marketing strategy eventually led to widespread acceptance. Winston said the Army had mastered advertising techniques well before corporate America. Essentially, the public had bought the Army’s message.
Ultimately, Salvationists were able to conquer and tame the urban landscape. During and after World War I, the Army was applauded for its charity work. It has since dominated the charitable world, and its red collection kettles and ubiquitous bell ringers are staples of the Christmas season.
The Army was one of America’s first successful”urban religions”that thrived amid a host of other religious traditions and movements, Winston says.
One of things that fascinates Winston is the Army’s ability to sell itself while preaching an evangelical Christian message. The Army’s capacity to be evangelical and charitable, without offending nonbelievers, is still one of its trademarks, Winston said.”While balancing the two is the goal of most Christian groups, very few know how to do it,”Winston said from her home in Princeton, N.J.”The Army may recognize that they have two different identities, but much of the public does not.” Winston, who is not a Salvationist, said part of why she admires the Army is the equal status of men and women. But Winston also laments that more women aren’t in high-ranking leadership posts in today’s Army.”The Army was initially a great place for women,”Winston said.”The odd thing, though, is where once the Army was a pioneer in women’s equality, it’s fallen away from that.” There is little more the Army could do to improve its near-spotless reputation. In 1996, the Army raised $1 billion for charity. Winston said the continued strategy to reach and not preach is what keeps the Army so successful.”The Army is one of those great institutions that takes care of those who the rest of society would rather forget,”Winston said.”What strikes me as so interesting is that even though it retains a conservative evangelical theology, (Salvationists) see the world as it is and minister to people where they are. I find that very admirable.” DEA END ECKSTROM