Utah’s Salvation Army marches to the beat of service
By peggy Fletcher Stack
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Dec 27 2013 07:15AM
A red shield and a crown-topped crest are the only unique symbols common to all Salvation Army churches.
Salvation Army buildings feature the cross, of course, signaling their Christian connection. Beyond that, it doesn’t matter to these believers if the church is large or small, round or rectangular, new or old. You might see stained glass and mahogany pews, folding chairs and Plexiglas windows or an empty warehouse.
"There is no rhyme or reason, no template for a Salvation Army church," says Lt. Samuel LeMar, outreach/evangelical director for the faith’s Ogden congregation. "Each one is built to meet the needs of a local community."
If a congregation boasts a big teen program, the church might include a youth center or gym, LeMar says. If it serves a large homeless population, it could have a shelter attached.
In Salt Lake City, Salvationists meet on the west side in a former Mormon chapel given to the group by the LDS Church in 1988. In Ogden, they worship in a ’60s-style structure.
"We consider ourselves [a part of] the holiness movement," the Army officer says. "We don’t want people just sitting in the pews. We believe in saving souls, serving suffering humanity and building saints — we go for people no one wants."
In fact, the Salvation Army’s social services are so widespread and recognizable — think red kettles and bell ringers at Christmastime — that few outsiders even think of it as a church.
But this Army of do-gooders is motivated mostly to lift burdens, feed the hungry and help the disenfranchised. They believe that is how they best serve God.
Urban ministry • Catherine and William Booth launched the Salvation Army in 1865 while working in the poverty-ridden neighborhoods of London. Originally known as the Christian Mission, it was renamed 13 years later, when it took on a quasi-military pattern. Booth became "the General" and Catherine the "Army Mother." Officers’ ranks were given to ministers.
The church’s beliefs and practices drew on Methodism, Wesleyan revivalism, the Society of Friends and the holiness movement, writes Diane Winston in "Red-Hot and Righteous: The Urban Religion of the Salvation Army."
Salvationists used a lay ministry and advocated a simple lifestyle, free from alcohol, tobacco, fancy clothes, personal adornments, rich foods and worldly entertainments. In 1883, Booth decided to forgo the sacraments as external manifestations of an inner reality in favor of using the metaphor "inner light" to describe spiritual experiences.
The church’s theology is spelled out in "Eleven Doctrines," she writes, which affirm, among other tenets, the divine inspiration of scripture, the nature of Jesus and the reality of hell.
But it was Booth’s embrace of worldly tactics that made Salvationists most distinctive.
Their crisply uniformed "soldiers" became as regular a fixture on the urban landscape as gamblers and showgirls. They used street theater to win converts for Christ among the downtrodden, and their tactics were considered almost brazen compared with the genteel Protestants of the late 1890s and early 1900s.
Booth realized early on that "a gloomy, theoretical religion would save no one," writes Winston, who holds the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. "The unchurched needed a ‘happy’ religion whose spark and sizzle were more akin to commercial entertainment than a staid Sunday service. Thus the Army prized ‘red-hot’ preachers over erudite theologians."
Booth sprinkled his sermons with funny stories and encouraged his officers to do the same.
"Why should the devil have all the dancing?" he asked his critics.
Women as equals • From the denomination’s founding, women shared most leadership roles with men. They were uniformed soldiers and officers, crusaders, preachers and performers. They often were assigned to start overseas missions.
"Although the Army competed with a growing number of occupations newly opened to women, it was one of the purely religious endeavors that welcomed them as the equals of men," Winston writes. "Several Protestant denominations were ordaining women by the 1880s, but few females entered the ministry because it was nearly impossible to find a congregation willing to hire one."
For the right kind of woman, she writes, the Army was "religious and adventuresome."
Such efforts made Salvationists — especially the women — appealing subjects for drama, film and the popular press.
They became almost stock figures, representing the triumph of virtue over sin in movies, including D.W. Griffith’s "The Salvation Army Lass" (1908) and postwar movies such as "Salvation Nell" (1919) and "Hell’s Oasis" (1920).
In later movies such as "The Angel of Broadway" (1927) and "Laughing Sinners" (1931) and even the 1950s musical "Guys and Dolls," the lassies were more ambiguous figures — at best religious do-gooders, at worst naive, even exploitable.
Evangeline Booth, the seventh of eight children of the founders, became one of the few female denominational leaders in the early 20th century, Winston writes. She deftly tapped 19th-century assumptions of women’s moral superiority and greater sensitivity to family and religion to further the cause.
She commanded nationwide respect for decades, but by the time she died in 1950, the Army’s visibility on the American religious scene had faded.
Simple worship • Official members, called "soldiers," are those who sign the church’s "Articles of War," committing themselves to the church’s beliefs about God and Christ and practices such as forgoing alcohol, drugs and gambling. They wear uniforms trimmed in blue, while officers, who go through a two-year training, sport red-trimmed regalia.
"We don’t have baptism or communion," LeMar says. "We believe in them, but we don’t believe they are necessary for salvation. Nowhere does it say that you have to be baptized to be saved."
Those two sacraments are "outward signs of an inward change," he says. "For us, the uniform serves the same purpose."
Believers who can’t, for whatever reason, agree to follow all the Army’s practices are still welcome to worship — or serve — in the faith.
Salvationist Sunday services include prayers, hymns (traditional and contemporary), a sermon (usually by one of the officers) and an altar call, during which individuals can come forward and commit themselves to Christ.
Utah’s two Army congregations are tiny, with an average weekly attendance of 50 to 60 worshippers, LeMar says, but their outreach to the needy is outsized — feeding more than 2,000 people a month in Ogden alone, for example.
That, the enthusiastic lieutenant says, is their mission.