MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up, you talk back to us. We hear your comments and letters, and get updates on stories we covered this week. And the Barbershop guys weigh in. That's all later.
But first, it's time for our regular Faith Matters conversation, where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. Today, the story behind one of the most familiar symbols of the holiday season�
(Soundbite of bells)
MARTIN: Just about everybody knows that sound, the sound of a Salvation Army bell ringer standing vigil over a kettle in front of the grocery store or at the mall. It's one of the most iconic images of the holiday season, and one of the most effective. In the 1990s, the Salvation Army raised more money than any other charitable organization in this country. But what does the Salvation Army do the rest of the year? Where do those donations go? And why do they wear uniforms?
We wanted to know more about this enduring institution, so we called Diane Winston, who tells the history of the Salvation Army in her book �Red-Hot and Righteous: The Urban Religion of the Salvation Army.� Diane Winston is Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communications. You should know we also extended an invitation to the national leadership of the Salvation Army, and they said they couldn't join us today because - they reminded us - this is their busiest time of year. Makes sense, but we will keep trying.
Meanwhile, we're happy that Diane Winston is with us, and she joins us from our studios at NPR West. Welcome, thank you for joining us.
Professor DIANE WINSTON (Media and Religion, Annenberg School for Communications, University of South California): Hey, Michel, so nice to be here.
MARTIN: So, tell us about how the Salvation Army started.
Prof. WINSTON: The Salvation Army was the brainchild of William Booth, who was a British evangelist. And in the 1860s and �70s, he tried several different missions to reach the un-churched poor in London, but none were very successful. So, one day he was brainstorming with his top command - well, I call it a command in retrospect - but with his top men, and they said, what we need is an army, a Salvation Army. And he loved the name, he was sort of autocratic to start with. And so, they had a great time making this into a living metaphor.
MARTIN: And did they wear uniforms almost from the beginning? Did they take the army metaphor from the beginning or was that - did that come later?
Prof. WINSTON: No, from the very start, Booth was ready and willing to go with the army metaphor. In fact, he was even called the general before this happened. So, you know, that was where he was at.
MARTIN: That's interesting to me because the - kind of the Christian tradition in some manifestations is very pacifist. And so, I just wonder was there any dispute about that kind of military metaphor?
Prof. WINSTON: Well, this was at the height of the British Empire, and it was very cool to be associated with the army. So, it was a positive move and it was part of this whole muscular Christianity tradition that was popular in the late 19th and early 20th century.
MARTIN: And how did the Salvation Army come to the United States?
Prof. WINSTON: In 1880, a couple of Booth's soldiers were going to be moving to Philadelphia for economic reasons. And they asked him ifthey could start an army here. And he was a little dubious about the prospects, but he told them to give it a try. And so, they moved to Philadelphia, they began parading around the streets, didn't make too much of an impact. But one night, they went out and they started burning fires in garbage pails. And for whatever reason, that attracted a crowd; the press covered it; the army took off. And within a couple of years, Booth sent a real landing party over to conquer the New World.
MARTIN: And how - what kind of reception did they receive?
Prof. WINSTON: In their early days in New York, the army would parade around town. They would make a lot of hoopla. There was one man and seven women. And in those days, you didn't see a lot of women preaching on the streets. So immediately, they caused quite a stir. Often, this was in the Lower East Side which was, at the time, a haunt for the poor and for sailors. So you had people of all races, colors, backgrounds dropping in. And the New York Times just felt this was a horrendous display of Christianity because it was kind of wild and crazy.
MARTIN: So, there were stories about them - what, as kind of outliers or as miscreants or what? As trouble makers, what? What was the sort of attitude?
Prof. WINSTON: Well, believe it or not, considering how staid they seem now, they were seen as like sensationalists.They were seen as vulgar. The Times wrote that if your daughter joins the army, she should kiss her respectability good bye.
MARTIN: Oh, wow.
Prof. WINSTON: So, it was almost a youth crusade. It was for young people who missed the Civil War and who wanted to make a difference in the world. And they would often defy their parents by joining because nice, normal, middle-class and upper-middle-class people just thought Salvation Army parading around the streets, playing brass bands and wearing these kooky uniforms - it just didn't seem Christian to them.
MARTIN: What is their theology?
Prof. WINSTON: The army is a fundamentalist Christian group. They basically believe that Jesus died for their sins, and that the Bible is inerrant, and it's a word of God. Theology is not big in the army. I mean, once you get past that they're rock-hard Bible believers, it's what they do that really counts.
MARTIN: Is the Salvation Army a church?
Prof. WINSTON: Yes, the army is a church. Initially, Booth did not want to start a church. He saw himself as an evangelical organization who would bring the poor and un-churched to other churches.
But in those days, many churches were not receptive to having poor people in them, and they either shooed them away or stuck them in the back. So, Booth realized that many of the people who he did convert needed a church for them. In fact, the army was called at first a church of the black sheep for this very reason. So out of necessity, the army became a church, and it is considered a Christian Protestant denomination.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with Diane Winston. She's written a book about the history of the Salvation Army. How did the tradition of the bell ringers start?
Prof. WINSTON: In 1893 in San Francisco, Joe McPhee(ph), who worked for the army, wanted to have a Christmas banquet. But he didn't have a lot of money. So, he was on the docks and he saw the fishermen in their kettles, and he had a great idea. He grabbed a kettle, he put it on a tripod, and he started ringing a bell and saying, keep the pot boiling, keep the pot boiling. And the idea just took off.
The one thing about the army is that they have a genius for marketing and publicity. You asked me about the uniform, and initially Booth had done it because he wanted the association with the actual British army. And he wanted to equalize soldiers who might come from different backgrounds. But it also was a branding tool. I mean, I doubt he said branding, but he was a tremendous advertiser. The army developed all these things, from the flag to the uniform to the kettle, which helped stamp the army brand in the public square.
MARTIN: But you know, that genius for marketing persists to this day. I bet you, any one of us, I could stop people on the street and they could tell you the Salvation Army slogan for the year, or at least name the image, these very evocative images. I'm just wondering how that's possible in this day and age when there's so much noise, so much competition for our attention.
Prof. WINSTON: I think the army has an iconic spot on the American landscape. I mean, they've been there long enough that you can watch a movie from the 1910s, the 1940s, 1980s, and if they want to evoke a sense of Christmas, you will see a Salvation Army bell ringer. I mean, that's the way - that's a symbol for the holidays. And so I think they've managed to create an image amidst all the clutter because they've kept it simple.
MARTIN: So, what do they do with all that money?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. WINSTON: Well, they do a lot of good works. The army has 8,000 centers around the United States that do everything from day care to group homes, to medical work to rehab, to social service delivery. They assisted 30 million people last year. They served 70 million meals. They're really on the front of social service delivery. They were there with Katrina; they've been there for disaster relief. They often are unheralded because we may not see them, given the lives you and I might lead, but they're actually on the ground, in the communities helping people.
MARTIN: Given its fairly conservative Christian foundation or fairly conservative Christian theological foundation, does the army ever come into conflict - a conflict between its sort of theology and its mission. You know, for example, in Washington, D.C. right now, the Catholic Church is engaged in - there's a dispute over a gay marriage initiative in the district. The district government is moving to legalize same-sex marriage. The Catholic Church is saying that if we are forced to offer certain benefits to same-sex partners, we can no longer continue our mission in this jurisdiction. I just wondered if the Salvation Army has ever encountered similar conflicts.
Ms. WINSTON: Well, going back to that genius for marketing, William Booth originally said that he didn't want the army to take any political positions because he didn't want to detract anyone from supporting them. He, himself, didn't listen to that, and he got really embroiled in this whole, you know, trial in Britain, which was aimed at raising the age of consent for women to engage in sex.
That said, the army here in America, for a long time, tried not to be activist but in recent years, it has run into this issue regarding gay rights. And specifically, in 2001, the army sought an exception from discriminating against the LGBT community in hiring, and it told the Bush administration that it would support the faith-based initiative if they could have that guarantee.
When the press found out about that, it caused a great brouhaha, and the Salvation Army looked quite bad, and it had to do a lot of back-stepping in order to recoup. It had similar run-ins with the gay and lesbian community in San Francisco and in New York, when the army tried to prohibit certain domestic-partnership benefits.
MARTIN: You know, more recently, there was - the Houston branch stirred a controversy when the group said it would limit its holiday toy distribution to families with at least one member who could provide a Social Security number. I think the intention was to limit the toy distribution to people who could prove legal status, and there was a dust-up about that. And then the Houston branch has now abandoned that policy as well. What do you think that says?
Ms. WINSTON: It says that the army was caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, they wanted to make sure that they were giving toys to children who really needed them, and they thought this would be a good way to make that decision. On the other hand, they probably weren't thinking about the ramifications of that, and how it would look to immigrants and to other folks.
MARTIN: You're saying that there really are probably only around - what did you say - 100,000 members or officers in this country and perhaps a million around the world. How do they sustain themselves as an organization? That is not a large core, particularly given how extensive their network is in this country. How do they sustain themselves? Who joins these days?
Ms. WINSTON: The army has 100,000 members, but they have 62,000 employees. So they almost have as many employees as they do members. So they've realized that they can't run on their ranks alone, and so they've had to reach out to folks who want to serve the mission along with them.
MARTIN: There are many organizations sort of founded in the 19th century that are no longer here, even if they were very significant in their day. And you know, it has to be said, the Salvation Army is still, despite relatively small numbers, is still going strong. Where's the future for this group, do you think?
Ms. WINSTON: The army is an evangelical church and basically, Booth believed that you had to convert people and win them to Christ, but he also realized you couldn't do that if they were physically hungry, if they were homeless, if they were really down and out. And that's how the social service aspect became so important.
Over the years, the social service delivery has almost eclipsed the evangelical outreach, and that's a cause of consternation among Salvationists. It looks like, unless they can figure out a way to make their mission, their evangelical mission, more attractive to young people, you know, they - it's possible that they could become a large social service organization with a very few clergy running it. And that would be not what the founder had in mind.
MARTIN: Diane Winston is the author of "Red-Hot and Righteous: The Urban Religion of the Salvation Army," and she was kind enough to join us from our studios at NPR West. Diane Winston, thank you so much for speaking with us, and happy holidays to you.
Ms. WINSTON: Thank you, Michel.
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