Material History of American Religion Project

Uniforms and fund-raising:
Material practices in the Salvation Army

In the 1860s William and Catherine Booth began working among the poor in London's East End, founding a ministry they called the Christian Mission. Booth, an independent revivalist, was strongly influenced by American evangelists, including Charles Finney and Phoebe Palmer. In 1878 the Booths renamed their movement The Salvation Army. In late February 1880 Booth sent his protege, George Scott Railton, and seven "Hallelujah Lassies," young women who were dedicated to the Army, to plant the Salvationist flag in New York. In the one hundred and twenty years since its founding, The Salvation Army has become an international evangelical church as well as America's largest charitable fundraiser.

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Diane Winston, one of the project scholars, focuses on the Army's urban ministry. She sees the Army's material practices as crucial to its efforts. She discussed her findings with the project's staff.

The uniform

Salvation Army woman in bonnet

Q: When was the uniform introduced to The Salvation Army?

A: William Booth wanted his followers to dress simply. He was influenced by the Holiness and Quaker movements which taught that Christians should live simply, eschewing all forms of worldliness. At first Army soldiers wore dark blue or black but there was a lot of variation in uniform styles. Men, for example, wore pith helmets, derby hats, berets and sailor caps. Women donned all kinds of bonnets. The first standardized uniform was worn by George Scott Railton when he embarked for America in 1880. It was plain, dark blue cut-away uniform that eventually became standard issue. But it took a long time not only to standardize the garb but also to persuade soldiers to follow Army specifications.

Q: In our modern context we see the uniform as being very formal and, therefore, not simple.

A: It was simple in the sense that it was a plain blue uniform. There might have been a little brass "S" for Salvation on the collar, but it wasn't fancy, and wearing it was a hardship for some. Clothing was beginning to be mass-produced and there were more options for people of all incomes. Meanwhile the Army required its members to wear drab blue suits. So, they were formal, but they also appeared homely.

Q: And probably in late Victorian England as fashion was becoming more ornate that did look simple.

A: The uniform was distinctive. Booth wanted his Army to have its own look. He had a good sense of public relations, and he realized that, while the Army's distinctiveness might bring them ridicule or even persecution, it would also imprint their image in the public mind. Booth also sought to eradicate class and social distinction. By putting everybody in the same outfit you could no longer tell who was rich and who was poor. So the uniform had an egalitarian purpose, too.

Q: What role do you think materiality played in the armies' self-understanding? Was this just Booth, or was this part of the message of the movement?

A: Materiality is central to the Army's self-understanding and theology. Salvationists were post-millennial perfectionists who sought to redeem the world and, unlike pre-millennialists—who focused on getting saved for the hereafter—their orientation was here and now. The Army wanted to reform society be in preparation for the Second Coming. Therefore all aspects of that society were fair game. Salvationists explained in their writings—especially their weekly newspaper the War Cry—their goal was to "religionize secular life" and to "secularize religious life," that is, to "sanctify the commonplace." Thus, they were very interested in transforming material practices from profane and secular to holy and sanctified.

The uniform is a good example of that. The Army took dressing, a daily material practice, and turned it from a worldly profession of status, vanity, and luxury, into a spiritual exercise which glorified God and bespoke religious commitment. You also see this transformative endeavor in their performative strategy. Salvationists attracted attention from the unchurched and even those hostile to religion by making their evangelical outreach resemble secular entertainment. Many stories in the War Cry start like this: "I was walking down the street and heard loud and excited singing. I thought it was a new musical and rushed inside to see. Lo and behold it was a Salvation Army meeting. Before I realized it, I was singing and testifying too." When Salvationists marched into small towns, locals compared their coming to a circus. There were banners, floats, and marching brass bands. In effect The Army suffused the material practices of popular entertainment with spiritual content. This concern with materiality also made the Army one of the few theologically conservative groups working with the poor in this period, and starting shelters, soup kitchens, and hospitals. Unlike many religious conservatives of this era who were cool to what became known as the Social Gospel movement, The Salvation Army served as a model to Social Gospel pioneers like Lyman Abbott and Josiah Strong. I argue that the Army's commitment to people's material well-being grew out of a theology which sought to sanctify the world.

Q: Let's talk more about the uniform as a material practice. The Amish and Hasidim have distinctive dress, but their simple dress is the dress of another era brought forward. In contrast it appears that the Army is very deliberate in choosing one of the options mid-Victorian society provided—the martial uniform. Why did they choose the army as a metaphor for appearance and behavior, as opposed to some other class based uniform of the day? They could have adopted the clothing of working men or the petit bourgeois of London.

A: Religious groups with distinctive dress are interested in setting their members apart; that is something that the Army shares with groups such as the Amish and the Hasidim. What is interesting is how adherents of different theological beliefs come to a similar understanding of separation from the world and how they act on it. The Amish are in the Anabaptist tradition; their distinctive dress expresses their belief in simplicity and their rejection of worldliness. The Hasidim adopted the fashions of the Polish noblemen because they wanted to claim a status and identity that had been denied them. Both the Hasidim and the Amish share a practice of pietism which keeps them insular and inwardly focused. This is what makes the Army so interesting. On the one hand, it embodies the military metaphor—with its outward focus and active evangelicalism. But it also a pietistic group, as its Holiness theology indicates. The balance of these two facets may have prevented the uniform from becoming reified in the same way as Amish and Hasidic dress did. The uniform was simple and to set wearers apart, but it was not frozen in time because the Army was always interacting with the world. To some extent, Salvationists were always in the world even when they were not of it.

The Army adopted the military uniform to echo and emulate the British Empire's imperial power. This was the peak of the British Empire, and the English took great pride in their world conquering army. Volunteer armies, local militia, were popular among the working classes, so the metaphor, over-all, had a positive resonance. In the United States, too, the army also had a fairly positive connotation. Many young people, disappointed that they did not serve in the Civil War, joined the Army because it seemed like another opportunity to fight the good—and godly—fight. The War Cry often alluded to the noble cause at the heart of the Civil War. (Salvationists were anti-slavery and tried hard to reach African Americans.) The Army also played off the imperial trope. A cover of the War Cry in the 1890s blazed "The Sun Shall Never Set on The Salvation Army." Illustrations depicted its work in Asia, Australia, Europe and the United States.

Q: What did individual members say about what the uniform meant to them? What did it mean to put it on or have it on in a given setting?

A: In the 1880s and 1890s the War Cry printed inches and inches of copy about the uniform. Sometimes these were letters to the editor from a non-Army person praising the garb because it indicated someone who would be of service. Women wrote confessionals about how hard it was to give up their "velvet and lace" for the homely blue outfit. Then there were articles by Army officers explaining why members had to follow regulations—for example, no lace trim, brass buckles, or frizzed hair. The sheer volume of this copy suggests that the uniform was a highly contested issue. Remember, this was a period when women's interest in clothing was stoked by mass production and the proliferation of catalog houses and department stores. Articles in the War Cry indicate that the buying, wearing and displaying of fashion had an especially strong hold on the female sex. Adopting the uniform meant renouncing the very trappings which society deemed essential for a feminine identity. In essence, the uniform served as a spiritual test. It declared one's relationship, in a very public way, to God, self, and society. One woman wrote that, even though she had been a professing Christian for years she was really a slave to fashion before she joined the Army. Another said she struggled with putting on the bonnet until, tossing it on her bed, she saw its strings hang down to form a cross. She knew then it was her cross to wear and never had a second thought. All these writers were extremely self-conscious about what wearing the uniform meant in terms of what they gained and what they gave up. Suzy Swift, a Vassar girl and who joined the Army with her sister Elizabeth when touring Europe, said the uniform separates one not only from the world but from the old self. She meant that giving up fashion entailed a psychological and emotional break, representing both a separation from worldly attachments and a rejection of one's old identity. In this way, the uniform was a beacon to the outsiders as well as a benchmark of personal commitment.

Salvation Army man in uniform

Q: Is the giving up of fashion a largely middle-class sacrifice?

A: I think it was hard across the board. In an age of mass production, working and lower middle class women had unprecedented access to stylish clothes. People were able to reinvent themselves, obscuring class and regional markers. Shop girls wore elegant gowns and matrons donned rags for slumming. When a farm boy traded his overalls for a shirt and tie, he could be a junior law clerk. It wasn't only the middle class used clothes to change their social location. People of all levels of society did it. Wearing an Army uniform was a way of changing one's social identity too, but it wasn't the one most young girls initially felt comfortable making.

Q: It was a very radical move for them.

A: Yes, especially since in the 1880s and much of the 1890s, The Salvation Army was not the organization that a respectable person joined. Salvationists were considered vulgar and sensational. In the United States and Great Britain, the notion that a religious group would stage parades with brass bands and waving banners was offensive to many Christians. That its women preached in public, and that converts were encouraged to publicly testify were equally repugnant. Articles in both the secular and religious press claimed that any girl who joined the Army lost her reputation forever. Writers alleged that Army barracks were co-ed and young women officers were routinely ruined.. So putting on the uniform was not only a religious statement; for a time, it was a social declaration and not a respectable one.

Q: Was it like having your child become a Moonie?

A: The Army was the late nineteenth century equivalent of the Unification Church and the Hare Krishna Movement in the 1970s. They claimed to another religious movement but the public at large looked askance at their practices..

Q: Did parents try to have their children de-programmed?

A: I don't recall reading any accounts of parents forcibly removing their children from the Army, but there were many stories about children who asked their parents to let them join the Army and were refused. Parents often issued an ultimatum: If you join, don't come home again.

From church to charity

Salvation Army woman and child with fund-raising pot

Q: How has the military trope worn over time? The uniform and brass bands seem of a different era. What role does this distinctive dress and performative aspect of the religion carry forward to our time, through the twentieth century?

A: The Army achieved widespread support during World War I. A very small number of Salvationist soldiers and officers went to the front line in France to "mother" the American troops. These Army women—who were called "Sallies"—became famous for dedication and service, specifically their coffee and homemade doughnuts. The Sallies generated such good publicity for the Army that any remaining suspicions or fears about its sectarian nature were dispelled. In fact, the Army was heralded as the apotheosis of religion of action. The notion that The Salvation Army represented the best of American ideals—mother, home and God—lasted through World War II. You don't read much about the Army's work—that was because it served through the USO, an organization the Salvationists were instrumental in establishing.

Up until the 1960s, the military metaphor worked very well. Of course, if you read The New Yorker and other secular publications from the 1830s, the Army often appears a bit stuffy. Guys and Dolls is probably the most familiar take on how the secular world saw Salvationists. Sister Sarah and her missionaries were old-fashioned but they still won some souls. With the 1960s and 1970s, and the decline in respect for the military in many segments of American society, the Army was not just seen as old-fashioned, but also—and much worse—irrelevant. Yet there's a real irony there. On the one hand, what the Army is, why it's even an Army, is a mystery to many people. On the other hand, The Salvation Army is the nation's largest charitable fundraiser. In 1996, The Salvation Army raised $1 billion, up from $741 million a year earlier. It ranked number one of the nation's four hundred largest charities for the fifth straight year, raising more money than the American Red Cross, the United Jewish Appeal, the American Cancer Society, or any university. People may not understand what the Army is. Often, they don't even know it's a religious group. But it still has some strong hold on the American psyche.

Q: You talk at the end of your book about how the public doesn't get the religious aspect. Is this a case of the movement's identity getting away from it as it moves from a church to a charity? Are there any dangers of having a very strong material distinctiveness taking on a life of its own?

A: I'm not sure if it was the Army's material distinctiveness that caused the problem. It could be the blurred boundaries between materiality and materialism, or even the nature of religion in the United States. By the early twentieth century, in order to survive and thrive, the Army had to appeal to the general public. It did not have a natural constituency like other religious groups—or at least it didn't have a constituency economically robust enough to support it. To win widespread public support, the Army had to tamp down its sectarian strain. It needed to enlist Protestants across the board and also Jews and Catholics, and even atheists—the very people whom it wanted to evangelize. The Army succeeded at focusing its public mission on helping the poor. It became a religion of action whose theology was expressed through non-sectarian outreach. In that sense the Army's material identity functioned like a brand name, and, in time, it became known more for its good works than its distinctive Holiness theology. The Army did this because of its mission but also to ensure its survival.

Q: So their relationship to materiality and their involvement in material practice had some interesting consequences. A: Yes, the whole thing is fraught with irony, especially since the Army considers itself, primarily, an evangelical church, and in countries around the world it is perceived as a religious group. The United States is the exception rather than the rule. Most Salvationists here would like Americans to understand that the Army is a Christian church with an evangelistic mission. Salvationists have a very strong commitment to service because they believe service and evangelism go hand and hand. But, in a sense, they have become captive to their own material practices—the kettle, the red shields, the blue uniforms are symbols of a non-sectarian, activist religion.

Q: Is that charitable focus a deviation from Booth's original vision?

A: One of William Booth's early slogans was "soup, soap and salvation." You'll notice "salvation" comes last of the three. Booth always realized that you couldn't preach salvation to someone whose stomach was empty. In a sense Army theology presumed a materialist interpretation of religion's role in society. Religion wasn't only about the hereafter; it was also about the here and now. That may be one of the reasons why the Army moved easily and effectively into social service delivery.

Q: They had a same diagnosis of society as Marx but a different reading of the reality of God.

A: William Booth once said that since socialism was impossible on earth, he was a Christian. His great 1890 opus, In Darkest England and the Way Out was am ambitious attempt to Christianize the social order through humanitarian relief One his officers, who helped with the book was, in fact, a socialist and eventually left the Army for a career in politics.

Method: texts as objects and objects as texts

Q: There's a good deal of scholarship out there on the Army written by its own members. But you have written a very different book, largely because of your interest in this material culture element. How has that changed the interpretation of the Army's history? How does your methodology change or enrich our understanding of the Army and other American religious groups?

A: From the beginning I wanted to situate the Army in the urban and commercial culture that has been written about by scholars such as William Taylor, William Leach and Jackson Lears. Their work on the late nineteenth and early twentieth century city—and the affect that advanced industrial capitalism had on it—offer intriguing indicators for assessing our own era. While their work at times refers to religion, it is not treated as a full-fledged factor in the urban equation. My objective was to put religious ideas and practice into the center of the city and see how that re-visions our understanding of urban culture. Taylor calls New York "Gotham", seeing the city as a "cultural marketplace, as the site of a lively exchange between the city's commercial life and the media it developed." (William R. Taylor, In Pursuit of Gotham: Culture and Commerce in New York (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. xvii) Religion was part of this cultural marketplace as The Salvation Army amply demonstrates. The Army used and was used by urban commercial culture and urban media. That dialectical relationship—spanning from the Army incorporation of vaudeville techniques to vaudeville's satirizing Salvationists and from the Zeigfeld Follies apotheosizing the Sallies as the "doughboy's goddess" to the Army enlisting uniform-clad chorines to collect money on Wall Street—illustrate the lively exchange between religion, commercial culture, and the media. This is an important story for historians who have either neglected urban religion or assumed its declension.

To study urban religion I turned to material practices and material objects to ground my research. The Salvation Army was an ideal focus because its theology put it on the streets and involved them in the quotidian culture. The Army paraded down the streets, boulevards, and avenues. It sought to sanctify the brothels, dance halls, and saloons. It subverted the city's entertainment with its own religious vaudeville, pageants, slide shows, and theatrical extravaganzas. It made feeding, sheltering, and nursing a spiritual engagement. There were few aspects of the city's material cultural the Army wasn't involved with. So my research makes several points. First, it challenges the paradigm of religious declension in American cities by showing how that the Army was an integral part of city life, how, in fact, it became an urban religion. Second, I complexify the discussion of religion and commercial culture that has been studied by Laurence Moore, Leigh Schmidt, and Jenna Weissman Joselit, to name a few. By using the Army as a case study to explore religion and urban commercial culture, I build on their work, demonstrating the dialectical relationship between religion and culture and the transformation of one strain of evangelical Christianity in the response to a pluralistic, urban environment. The use of material culture as a methodology also reveals the practices of people whose voices we don't normally hear. The whole discussion around the uniform is pretty much a gendered discourse. There are some aspects of it directed to men, but the War Cry is mostly aimed at women. Reading these stories gives us a sense of who Army women were, what they cared about, and how they saw themselves. I find it so poignant that even as many looked to make a religious commitment they still struggled with very mundane concerns. I think we tend to compartmentalize our view of the past; we have urban history, political history, economic history, social history, and so on. This work shows how all these strands come together. Women's history is part of religious history which is part of economic history which is part of fashion history which is part of social history and so on. Whether it's the use of the streets, the function of clothing, or the role of food such as the doughnut, all these material practices have symbolic and ideological ramifications that tie religion to the wide spectrum of social history.

Q: What advice would you give to someone coming to you as an historian looking at any religious group in the nineteenth or twentieth century? What clues would you have them stay attentive to in material culture or practices? What have you learned as an interpreter that you would want to pass on?

A: One of the most important methodological devices I used was to read the War Cry cover to cover throughout the almost seventy year period that I studied. There were days in the microfilm room when I thought my eyesight would fail, but nothing provides a better look at on-the-ground religion as a religious publication. Reading the War Cry told me what the gatekeepers, the paper's editors and the Army command, wanted the public to know. Still in the cracks and crevices—the letters to the editor, columns written by readers, or little filler stories—I gleaned a sense of other issues that were going on. The Army's peculiar fascination with performance, its involvement in issues of fashion—were aspects I picked from studying the War Cry, and reading it against other periodicals of the day. It was important to see how cultural influences flowed back and forth between the religious and secular press. I think that very basic and routine sifting through primary evidence is key. There weren't a lot of Army diaries or letters I could use, unfortunately, because I think those yield similar results. In the absence of those kinds of materials I was glad to have heard so many peoples' voices very clearly in the pages of the War Cry.

Q: Ironically, you were able to find these material practices in texts themselves, by attending to different questions than textual historians usually ask.

A: Exactly, and I think Army ephemera was useful too. When I began the project, I visited an Army museum in New York where there was a collection of buttons, bonnets, uniforms, among other collectibles. Even though I had not started doing primary research, I realized how important material objects were to this group. In a display case of Army badges and buttons there were literally hundreds of items. It was mind-boggling—who saved these? What did they signify? When did the practice begin? The rich collection of things that Salvationists themselves keep—there are several museums and private collections—supplies additional evidence that objects have voices; and part of my job was to hear what they had to say.

Q: Things spoke to you, and the text spoke to you, and between the two you were able to get a lot more out of it than attending to either one. Some material culture people will not read records but will just read objects.

Q: It is hard for me to understand that, because I consider performances and texts as revealing as objects themselves. I learned a lot from looking at Army postcards, posters, and handbills. But looking at text and objects together can be so revealing. For example, in 1919, the Army worked with Paramount on a film called Fires of Faith, based on it war work in France. The movie was a melodramatic romance, hoping to succeed as a box office winner as well as an Army propaganda tool. Reading the press packets and the posters illustrate the tensions between the goals of the Army and the studio. But the War Cry reports none of this. There is no mention of the film at all—which indicates the bind that the Army's material practices has resulted in. On the one hand, here's a film designed to make the American public understand its work. Yet the Holiness tradition opposes such worldly entertainments, making it impossible to address the move in the Army's own publications. To get the full story, you need consider everything: the press packet, the studio stills, the posters, the newspaper reviews, the War Cry, the Holiness tradition and even the Army's own institutional histories. That why reading a variety of texts, sources, and artifacts is crucial.

Diane Winston is a visiting fellow at the Center for the Study of American Religion at Princeton University. Her book on the Salvation Army is due out from Harvard University Press in 1999. She was interviewed by Project director James Hudnut-Beumler and associate director Daniel Sack.

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