In 1865, a Methodist minister named William Booth took to the slums of London's east end and began his battle against hunger and homelessness. In these streets, he saw that sin and suffering did not discriminate.
Suffering plagued people from all walks of life-old men, young women, children, the rich who lost it all and the poor who never had it. Booth, recognizing the physical and spiritual needs of these people, established a ministry based on the philosophy of "soup, soap and salvation." Along with his wife Catherine and an evangelical crusade of soldiers, Booth hit the streets of London with the fervor of a military crusader.
He preached hope and salvation to those assembled, most of whom were desperately poor and many of whom were drunkards. Booth's plan had been to send his converts to the established churches. But he soon discovered that former prostitutes and gamblers and thieves were not welcome by mainstream denominations.
By 1867, the East London Christian Mission (later renamed the Christian Mission) was formed with William Booth as General Superintendent. There were ten fulltime workers. Seven years later the mission had 42 evangelists and more than 1,000 volunteers. Concurrent with his preaching, Booth established social services (shelters, feeding programs, homes for unwed mothers, etc.), which eventually resulted in a world-wide network of institutions and programs to meet the needs of the disenfranchised.
In 1876, The Salvation Army became a legal entity with a military structure. Reading a printer's proof of the 1878 annual report of the Christian Mission, Booth found this sentence: "The Christian Mission, under the superintendence of the Rev. William Booth, is a volunteer army." At that time the British government had "volunteer forces," who served on a part-time, as-needed basis, not unlike the present-day National Guard in the USA. Muttering "We're regulars or nothing," Booth drew a line through the word "volunteer" and substituted "salvation." The Christian Mission...is a salvation army.
The name stuck!
Booth became a General, rather than the General Superintendent. Converts became soldiers. Clergy became officers. To this day The Salvation Army maintains a quasi-military form of government, and military ranks and titles are still in vogue.
The Army grew dramatically. In 1880, just two years after The Salvation Army name was adopted, Commissioner George Scott Railton, assisted by seven "hallelujah lassies," invaded the United States. Within five years The Salvation Army was operating in Canada, India, Switzerland, Sweden, Sri Lanka, South Africa, New Zealand and Pakistan.
During World War I, Salvation Army "Doughnut Girls" served coffee and doughnuts to soldiers battling on the front lines. A Brainerd, Minn. woman named Signa Leona Saunders was among the first Doughnut Girls. Her family recently released 26 pages of her memoirs, which can be read here.
General Booth's death in 1912 was a great loss to The Salvation Army. However, he had laid a firm foundation and even his death could not deter the ministry's onward march. His eldest son, Bramwell Booth, succeeded him.
Today The Salvation Army serves in more than 120 countries and territories, preaches the gospel in 160 languages, operates hundreds of rehabilitation centers for the physically and socially handicapped, provides education at every level in more than 1,700 schools-and much more.
Feeding the poor, loving the unloved and meeting human needs in the name of Jesus became the mission of this group.