Of course, the question of when The Salvation Army became a church is a loaded question. First of all, there are many who would debate whether or not The Salvation Army ever became a church. Is today’s Salvation Army a church? The key sticking point is, of course, the sacraments, and whether or not they are key “marks” of the church. That requires a separate post, I think, and I’ll attempt that in the next couple weeks.
To put my own view in a nutshell, however, I would say that The Salvation Army is a peculiar hybrid of church and specialized movement. This will be part of the argument I put forward in my thesis. On the one hand, it has always acted like a church in terms of the functions it performs for its members. It is the spiritual home for Salvationists, the place where they are converted, the place where they are nurtured, where they fellowship and serve, mark significant moments in their life, and raise their children. On the other hand, it has often maintained that it has a special vocation, to be something more than, or other than “a church.” And for a long time, Salvationist leaders explicitly and publicly insisted that The Salvation Army was “not a church.”
William Booth insisted that their original design was not to set up another church or denomination, but to evangelize people, and then send them to established churches. In an oft-quoted passage, he explains why this didn’t happen:
My first idea was simply to get the people saved, and then send them to the churches. This proved at the outset impracticable. 1st. They would not go when sent. 2nd. They were not wanted. And 3rd. We wanted some of them at least, ourselves to help us in the business of saving others. We were thus driven to providing for the converts ourselves (“How We Began,” in Boundless Salvation: The Shorter Writings of William Booth, 39)
So, from an early date, even before it was known as “The Salvation Army,” Booth’s movement was functioning as a “spiritual home” for its converts and workers. This is what I mean when I saw the Army “acted like” a church from the early days. It was functioning as a church.
How early did this start to happen? Harold Hill, in his fascinating book Leadership in the Salvation Army: A Case Study in Clericalisation, suggests that 1867 was a “turning point” for the young movement, when it became established as a “distinct body.” Drawing on Sandall’s official account, Hill notes a number of important things that happened in 1867, including the formal naming of the movement as the East London Christian Mission, the acquisition of headquarters, the hiring of workers, and the establishment of a system of processing converts.
But if 1867 was a turning point, Hill goes on to argue, it was the beginning of a decade-long transition towards something very much like a “denomination.” 1878, the year when Booth assumed full, autocratic control of the movement, and the year when its name was changed to “The Salvation Army” marked the end of this transition.
Between 1868 and 1878, then, the process took place whereby an independent mission staffed by volunteers from a variety of church backgrounds evolved into a highly centralised, sect-like organisation, a people with a distinct and common identity, and its own full-time, employed leaders, analogous to clergy (Hill, Leadership in the Salvation Army, 49).
With a distinct identity as a Christian body, members who were not part of other churches, and a clergy-like leadership structure, the newly-named Salvation Army was certainly acting like a church, and therefore from the perspective of “function,” was a church (leaving aside those difficult theological questions which I’ll take up another day).
Yet, in the first Orders and Regulations, issued in the same year of 1878, William Booth wrote: “We are not and will not be made a Church. There are plenty for anyone who wishes to join them, to vote and rest.” Subsequent Salvation Army Generals continued to maintain this view through the mid-20th century. It wasn’t until the 1970s that Clarence Wiseman publicly affirmed his conviction that the Salvation Army was “a church” while still affirming that it was “a permanent mission to the unconverted” and that it shared some features of a religious order.
So, while acknowledging that the question of when The Salvation Army became “a church” is a very complicated one, I would argue that, functionally speaking, it began to act like a church from as early as 1867, even if it refused to self-identify as a church. Whether or not we should say that the early Salvation Army was a church from a normative, theological sense, will depend upon how we define “a church,” and specifically, whether we believe the observance of sacraments is essential to ecclesiality.