When did The Salvation Army become “a church”?

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.

16 thoughts on “When did The Salvation Army become “a church”?

  1. Dear James,

    I was interested in your study on Booth and Hecker, so I set out to read something of Hecker. I am reading ‘An American Experience of God’ – John Farina, in this regard. I was interested to read that Hecker’s early connection to Methodism was through his mother, learning about the holy life, but when he turned to the Redemptorists, becoming very catholic in his views he denounced Methodism as heresy, (p. 92). I know your study is on Charism, but I am interested in how you will address and interface the differing theological perspectives that underpin their life’s work. Hecker believed that salvation was to be inside the institution of the Church (p. 92), certainly William Booth left Methodism and worked outside the boundaries of institutional Church.

  2. Hello Norm,

    Glad to see my post sparked some reading of Farina. You are right in pointing out that Booth and Hecker would have had very different understandings of salvation and how it relates to the visible church. Hecker was a progressive Catholic for his day, but in his day Catholicism was incredibly defensive and conservative, and Catholics viewed protestants as heretics. That is part of his historical context. Hecker upheld the Catholic understanding of the church as the historical continuation of Christ’s presence on earth, and so for him the Catholic church seemed to the the one body that had a direct and ongoing historical link to Christ. Booth of course had a much more personal (maybe even individualistic) view of salvation.

    In my project I won’t be too concerned about relating or reconciling their positions to one another on that particular point. They would have simply disagreed on the connection between visible/institutional church and salvation (they would have disagreed on a lot of other things as well!).

    I think it is a significant difference, and it is connected to the way that each movement (Paulists and SA) related to the established church. Because Hecker believed that communion with the Catholic church was essential to salvation, it would have been inconceivable for his movement to operate “independently” of the Catholic church. The Paulists wouldn’t have gotten off the ground if Hecker didn’t have bishops supporting him (and permission from the Pope). He even compromised a bit on some of his ideals to get approval from the bishops, and the result was that the Paulists ended up taking on pastoral tasks, when really all they wanted to do was evangelize. I will definitely be talking about that issue, and how the Paulist charism was hindered by the fact that the bishops wouldn’t support them unless they agreed to pastoral work.

    On the other hand, because Booth believed people were saved “immediately” by God – meaning without the church as a mediator between the person and God – that made it easier for him to lead his movement as an independent mission without formal connection to the established church. This meant he was free to lead the Army as he saw fit, without having to compromise his vision. On the other hand, because the Army was independent, and its members relied on it for spiritual nurture, it ended up taking on pastoral functions – which is what I meant in this post above when I was talking about “acting like a church.” You could argue that this hindered the Army’s charism, in that it had to be “more than a movement,” since it had to take on the functions of a church as well.

    A bit long for a comment, but those are my thoughts on your question. Hope I understood what you were asking.

  3. Thanks for the recommendation, James! I appreciate that… I look forward to your further postings on the subject, and responses, Norm.
    For my own rather eccentric views on the SA as “church”, I can offer an article, “Four Anchors from the Stern”, found on line in The Practical Theologian and Journal of Aggressive Christianity. I’m travelling away from home for some weeks so can’t be more precise, though it should be Googleable!

    • Hello Harold,

      I’ve read your article and will be drawing on it in my dissertation – if I remember the argument is that the Army was originally conceived as something like an “evangelical order.” That is basically where I’m going with my argument – though I’m adopting the category “specialized vocational movement,” which would include orders in my understanding. From the perspective of charisms (which is what my project is about) a specialized movement is formed around the cultivation of a particular charism, whereas a church should be characterized by a plurality of charisms. When I say it is a “hybrid” I mean that it also has some of the functions of a church, and has evolved into something which is no longer focused only on one particular charism. But basically I think the Army would be more coherent ecclesiologically if it understood itself as an order/specialized movement, rather than a church (and I think this is how the early Salvationists understood it, although there are some ambiguities there).

      Here is the link to Harold’s article, if anyone else is following along, starting on p. 26:

      Click to access Pract-Theo1107%20.pdf

  4. Pingback: A brief follow-up on the early Salvation Army as “a church” « James Pedlar

  5. I want to thank the blogger very much not only for this post,but also for his all previous efforts .I found this Google search to be greatly interesting.I will be coming back to your site for more information.Salvation

  6. Love the article.It just so happens I attended a 8 hour meeting on the Mission of The Salvation Army at Clearwater Corp in Florida. Very Very inspirational on many levels.Greater understanding and broader few of the mission as a whole.

    • Hello Clifford – I am not familiar with Kennedy Lawson. Where can I find that source?

      It may indeed be true that the Army was registered as a church by Wiseman with a government agency. In fact that was something the Army had done long before 1969. TSA was not against registering as a church for government / taxation purposes; but this did not signal a theological identification of the Army as a church.

  7. Until today is Salvation Army officially a church or just an christian organization movement?

    Is it officially registered as a church in England?

    I only understand that they are a registered charity organization.

    • Hello Steven,
      Thanks for your comment. I am not sure about the details of charitable registration in the UK. I would expect it is recognized as a religious denomination as well as a charity. Here in Canada churches are recognized as charitable organizations so the two categories overlap.
      In any case, beginning the mid-1970s, the SA has identified itself as a church in various ways, through official statements.
      See the mission statement on the SA UK website: https://www.salvationarmy.org.uk/our-mission-vision-and-values
      It depends in part on how you parse the words; some don’t consider denominations “churches” but rather a movement or family of churches banded together under a common banner. But to put it another way, the SA no longer denies that its local congregations (corps) are “churches.”

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