The Salvation Army is an internationalist protestant Christian denomination. It's members are properly known as Salvationists, though around the world they have many nicknames: 'Sally Ann' in the UK; 'Salvos' in Australia; 'Sallies' in New Zealand.
Salvationists have been labeled as “killjoys” because of their teetotalism; their anti-gambling stance; and most recently, by the Sun newspaper, because they wouldn’t stock the paper (due to its titillating ‘page 3‘ content), in their shops serving the British armed forces in Germany. However, they would probably prefer to be seen as aiding (in Christ’s name) those who are dependant on drugs and alcohol, and standing against the commercial exploitation of female sexuality.
It is generally accepted that the Salvation Army began in 1865 in London’s East End, though it wasn’t known by that name until much later. It’s founder (a Methodist minister called William Booth) didn’t actually start out to form a new denomination. At the time, Victorian England was the world’s major industrial and military power, and officially a Christian nation. Yet there were large numbers of the working classes, who had almost no contact with any of the churches. Booth’s intention was that his ‘Christian Revival Association’, (later ‘East London Christian Mission’, later simply ‘The Christian Mission’, and finally in 1878, ‘The Salvation Army’) should target, and convert these ‘churchless’ people and bring them back into the churches. While he succeeded in gaining large numbers of converts, many of these reformed characters found it difficult to integrate into, or be accepted by, the existing churches, and instead kept coming back to Booth’s meetings, which had a distinctive style that they preferred.
The Salvation Army spread rapidly, first within Britain then internationally. Currently it has a presence in 111 countries. This internationalism helps to explain why despite its quasi-military style, it has such a strong pacifist tradition. (Through World Wars 1 and 2 it remained active in both Britain and Germany.) However, its ‘Red Shield’ sections provide welfare services and volunteer canteens to military personnel in peacetime and in war – often close to the frontline.
Salvationists have campaigned against social-injustice on many fronts. A joint campaign with W.T.Stead's Pall Mall Gazette against child prostitution, led in 1885 to legislation raising the age of consent from 13 to 16. In 1891 the Salvation Army opened its own match factory, in order to pressurise Bryant and May (one of the last remaining match manufacturers using the hazardous yellow phosphorous) into abandoning its use in favour of the safer red phosphorous.
Although Salvationists consider themselves principally a church, to many it is for their welfare and charity work that they are best known. The range of their social programs has varied over the years in different parts of the world but has included soup kithchens; children's homes; hospitals and maternity homes; homeless hostels; drug/alcohol rehabilitation programs; tracing missing persons; employment exchanges; emigration services; prison visiting; womens shelters; leper colonies, disaster relief, etc..
In many countries, this social provision is on a scale second only to the government. However, many Salvationists are involved in worship and evangelical activities only, and may have no direct connection with these social/charity progams at all.
The other thing that Salvationists are well known for is the importance they place upon music, particularly their brass bands. Some of which are rather good.
They also have choirs - known as 'songster brigades', and have had several popular-music groups; the most sucessful of which was the 'Joy Strings'.
Structure and Beliefs
There are three differerent categories of Salvationists: officers, soldiers, and adherents. Officers, the equivalent of ministers in other denominations, hold quasi-military ranks from Lieutenant up to Commissioner, and are under the command of the General of the Salvation Army. Soldiers, the equivalent of confirmed or baptised church members, wear uniform and make personal commitments on joining (such as abstention from alcohol) by signing the Army’s “Articles of War”. Adherents are those who adopt the Salvation Army as their church, but who do not make the same personal commitments as soldiers. The Commissioners periodically meet, as the High Council, in order to elect the next General.
The committment expected of officers is absolute. They may only be married to another officer; can expect a basic wage; may be 'posted' almost anywhere in the world; and if they leave 'the work' before retirement age, will forfeit their pension.
Salvationists call their chuches 'corps', though some of their older buildings are called 'Forts' or 'Citadels'. These are organised regionally in 'Divisions', and internationally into 'Territories'.
Salvationists base their beliefs on the New Testament teachings of Jesus. Their formal statement of doctrine would be unremarkable for the majority of protestant churches, and contains little that even the Pope would disagree with. However, most of the things that make Salvationists distinctive cannot be derived or explained simply from these beliefs.
Their robust anti-alcohol position, for example, is well known. Although it can be explained by reference to Booth’s Methodist background, and in particular, by considering that many of his converts had previously suffered from alcohol problems: it is nowhere mentioned in their statement of doctrine.
Other distinctive practices that are not specifically part of the doctrinal statement are the quasi-military structure and embellishments; the abandonment of the sacraments of Holy Communion and Baptism; and the more or less equal role played by women as ministers.
Role of Women
Women ministers are now common in many protestant churches, but before Booth appointed women as officers (following the example of his feminist wife Catherine), it had been completely unheard of.
Even today the Salvation Army is unusual in having been led not once, but twice, by women.
While Salvationists have had progressive attitudes on many subjects, they remain very conservative regarding matters like same-sex marriage, pornography, homosexuality and neo-paganism. This has caused difficulties in some cases where the Salvation Army has undertaken programs with government financing, particularly in the United States, and has come under pressure to run these programs in accordance with equality legislation, and the principle of separation of state and religion.
The position on homosexuality is curious. Homosexuals are welcome in the Salvation Army, but like all Salvationists they are expected to be celibate before marriage. However, since the Salvation Army considers same-sex marriage to go against Bible teaching: this is effectively the same as saying that homosexuals should be celibate for life.
'Banners and Bonnets'
Salvationists are readily recognised by their semi-military uniform. The precise style varies in different territories,and according to rank etc.. However, there is usually a distinctive cap (or bonnet), as well as the inital 'S' for 'Salvation' on the collar or lapels. The initial varies depending on the local language - so that in Germany it is an 'H', and in Russia it is a cyrillic 'C'.
They are also known for their flags. These show a yellow eight-pointed Sun (emblazoned with the motto 'Blood and Fire'), on a crimson background with a dark blue border.
The Salvation Army has had frequent references in popular culture. Notable works include George Bernard Shaw's 'Major Barbara', Frank Loeser's musical 'Guys and Dolls', and Vachel Lindsay's poem 'General William Booth Enters into Heaven' which was later orchestrated by Charles Ives.
In popular music the Salvation Army has appeared both as an incidental motif (as in 'Life in a Northern Town' by The Dream Academy; or Leonard Cohen's 'Suzanne'), and as the central theme (such as 'Long Live Love' by Olivia Newton-John; and 'Bannerman'by Blue Mink). The Beatles hit 'Strawberry Fields For Ever', was inspired by the Salvation Army run children's home of the same name.
There have been myriad cameo appearances in TV and film, as well as the sitcom 'Hallelujah', starring Thora Hird.
"With heart to God, and hand to man", is a slogan which the Salvation Army has used recently to describe itself. In summary, while Salvationists may seem like killjoys on many issues, they are generally more likely to want to help than to say 'I-told-you-so' if it all goes horribly wrong.