Modern history and God’s Army
By MARK A. KELLNER –
History we are told “belongs to the winners.” And freedom of the press, media critic A.J. Libeling once said, “belongs to him what owns one.”
The combination of being on the “winning” side of culture and owning or having access to a printing press can cause a rather interesting form of history to emerge. In the case of The Salvation Army, in which I was a soldier for 17 years and of which I have been (and remain) a student, the emerging history should, I believe, give dedicated Salvationists pause.
With the notable and laudable exception of Dr. Lillian Taiz, a California State University at Los Angeles history professor, two of the three recent historical volumes about the Army released by “secular” publishers have sidestepped or ignored key elements in the movement’s history, or minimized their importance. Encouraged by the success of these two volumes, I fear other historians will repurpose the events of the Army’s history in ways far removed from reality.
Roy Hattersley, a biographer of note and a devoted member of Britain’s Labour (cq) Party, is staunch in his view of William Booth as a social reformer on the side of the underclass. This Booth was seeing the need to feed and clothe and clean those who needed it but Booth was much more than that. He was someone who wanted to “put a new man in every coat,” by means of spiritual conversion, something Hattersley downplays somewhat.
One of the most serious disappointments in my view was the book written by Diane Winston, a reporter-cum-religion scholar who spun extensive access to Salvationist archives into a proto-feminist tapestry which either caricatured or ignored the men who helped build the American movement in its early years. Harvard University Press, in words that gave form to my unease over this volume, called it the first history of the Army “from a feminist perspective.”
I’m no chauvinist, I think: I married an officer, happily sat under the ministry of women officers, and have worked and prayed with some of the best women in this movement. But anyone with a cursory knowledge of the Army’s growth in this country particularly long-time readers of New Frontier will know that the late Commissioner Samuel Logan Brengle was as central to the movement’s growth on these shores as was his wife, Elizabeth Swift Brengle. Yet it was Mrs. Commissioner Brengle whose Paris-tailored uniforms merited lengthy discussion in Winston’s book, while her holiness-preaching husband received barely five words in passing.
According to Taiz
Dr. Taiz, thankfully, rescues the story of the American Army from such a fate. Taiz gives a riveting account of the arrival on these shores of George Scott Railton and his eight “Hallelujah Lasses.” From humble beginnings, Railton’s troops blossom into a movement that attracts controversy as it did in England and converts, again as it did in England. In the new world, the Army was a religious movement that had to deal with a distant but demanding headquarters, contentious local troops, and opposition from the public and the press.
The latter is illustrated by Harrison Gray Otis, onetime editor of the Los Angeles Times. Responding to a letter-writer who praised the street-marching troops, Otis retorted the boisterous Salvationists “cannot do the cause any good with their ill-advised and clownish methods, while they must surely do a good deal of harm in shocking the sensibilities of those who have real veneration in their hearts.” (Decades later, son-in-law Harry Chandler, Otis’ successor, doted on the Army as a favorite charity, according to Ralph E. Shaffer, a retired Cal State Polytechnic–Pomona history professor who studied early letters to the editor.)
Starting with dramatic conversions of street-corner drunks in New York, Taiz notes that the Army’s two-pronged reform effort evolved into what became almost competing camps. The church part, its membership drawn from the working and nascent “middle” classes, wanted just that: a church. Those tasked with what became the “social wing” of rehabilitation centers for men and shelters for women and children wanted more resources and respect from the American leadership.
Challenge to leaders
Those leaders, however, had their own problems. William Booth was brilliant, motivational and thoroughly committed to the Methodist-born holiness he preached relentlessly. He was also an autocrat of the first order: when “The General” said you were to do something, it was to be done.
America, however, had its own seductive charms for the leaders Booth sent. Almost all did not want to surrender their commands when told to “farewell” for another posting. One tried to incorporate The Salvation Army as totally independent of its British parent. Another, Booth’s son Ballington, sent to quell that uprising, left with his wife Maud to found the Volunteers of America, rather than return home at his father’s instruction.
Only with the arrival of Commander Evangeline Cory Booth, one of William’s daughters, did the Army come into its own. “The Commander in Rags,” as the flamboyant Ms. Booth styled her self during a stage performance, won the hearts of American Salvationists, quelled dissension, solidified control and won admirers ranging from merchant prince John Wanamaker to Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.
But even Eva, as the Commander was called, didn’t work alone, and almost all of her subordinate leaders were men, many of whom carried out the hard tasks of reorganization and management she directed. Taiz acknowledges this, while Winston, again, gave somewhat less emphasis to the men involved in the Army’s growth.
Neglecting the spiritual
Such lapses might be forgiven someone totally new to the subject, but that wouldn’t describe this author. Ms. Winston, whom the book’s promotional material points out was three times nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, was not only a veteran reporter for the Baltimore Sun, Dallas Times Herald and Raleigh News and Observer, but someone who wrote about The Salvation Army for the Dallas Morning News in 1995 and was quoted as an authoritative expert on the group in a 1997 Religion News Service wire story both events having taken place long before “Red-Hot and Righteous” reached any bookstore’s shelves. What’s more, the author made extensive use of Salvation Army archives (from which the majority of illustrations for her book were taken) and she spoke and corresponded with many people inside the movement as well as three other historians who specialized in the subject.
Yet while some of the women get pages of copy, their male equals and successors are also absent. One example is Capt. Rheba Crawford, a Salvation Army “lassie” whose open-air meetings on Broadway drew massive crowds and, once, her arrest by New York’s finest for disturbing the peace. But her tenure as an officer was short-lived; Crawford went on to Aimee Semple McPherson’s Foursquare Gospel church in Los Angeles, then to three marriages and jobs with state and county welfare departments. Of perhaps equal and certainly longer-lasting impact was the late Lt. Col. Lyell Rader, who followed Crawford and ran the Army’s “Soul-Winning Station” in Times Square for many years, had great success in getting people to respond to the Army’s message, and whose son Paul served the West as Territorial Commander and the Army world as General for five years. Look for Lyell Rader in Diane Winston’s book, however, and you shall not find a trace of him or his accomplishments.
It’s not just Winston’s neglect of Brengle and Rader that would surprise those familiar with Salvation Army history, however. It is that the author largely backs away from the actual spiritual content of the Salvationists’ message, especially when it comes to any conclusions about what that religion meant in practical terms. This omission is doubly curious when you consider that Winston, who claims an interest in “cultural history,” seems oblivious to the religious atmosphere into which Booth’s brigade plunged.
The time just before (and just after) the Salvation Army “invasion” of 1880 was a hotbed of religious activity. By the end of the 19th century, America was beginning its evolution into the spiritual supermarket that’s in full bloom today. The first “World Parliament of Religions” was held in Chicago, bringing Hindu swamies and Shinto priests to American public consciousness for the first time. Within the first decade of the twentieth century, the Azusa Street revival in Los Angeles launched the Pentecostal church.
Yet, while Ms. Winston makes repeated reference to the Army’s “cathedral of the open-air,” as early street meetings were termed, she ignores the spiritual impact of the movement, concentrating instead on its intersection with the emerging “consumer culture.” Her research yielded many interesting points, to be sure, including a little-known film starring Clark Gable and a very young Joan Crawford as a pair of backsliding Salvationists who are redeemed in the third reel. But her overall treatment would be as if a history of the U.S. Presidency concentrated on the “boom” in Teddy Bears and “Billy Beer” while neglecting the achievements of the presidents themselves.
When men do surface in Winston’s thesis, they often end up as caricatures. Winston depicts the late Commissioner Norman S. Marshall, whose son and grandson became officers and leaders in the movement, only through the lens of a 1940s “New Yorker” magazine writer who viewed him as a barrel-chested loony, “barking” orders at unwitting seminarians. Those who knew him however, uniformly recall a thoughtful and gentle man, facts that seem inconvenient to Winston’s thesis.
By contrast author Lillian Taiz does what Winston failed to do, and that’s offer a fully-orbed picture of the movement. Where Winston concentrated overwhelmingly on the accomplishments of women officers, Taiz notes the hard work of male officers such as R.E. Holtz, Brengle and Lyell M. Rader.
Hattersley presents challenge
Perhaps the greatest challenge for future historians comes from British politician Hattersley. Concentrating on the social implications of Booth’s work, and sprinkling his text with odd anecdotes (Booth was amazed when, after a pet dog’s death, his children didn’t appreciate their father’s remanufacture of the animal’s pelt into a throw rug), Hattersley recasts Booth as a saint more secular than spiritual. But where Winston’s secularism grates, Hattersley’s beguiles with its rich historical detail and sharp portraits of William and Catherine Booth, distanced from the hagiography of the 19th and 20th centuries. This is not your grandmother’s literary portrait of the Founder.
The combination of gripping writing and frankly socialist politics makes Hattersley’s Booths appealing to a certain intellectual class, one which values social service above spiritual discovery and sanctification. Both Hattersley and Winston ignore and at their literary peril, I believe the thing that made the Army into the Army. Diane Winston’s Salvation Army becomes a Potemkin village in which there is a veneer of religion but one heck of a lot of fund raising. Roy Hattersley’s Salvation Army could be a British Labour Party training camp.
While the fulsome praise of earlier Booth biographies may no longer be needed Richard Collier’s The General Next to God, though well written and even romantic, could induce insulin shock in some readers the Army’s history is, I believe, too unique, too precious to merely entrust to any and all comers. No one can stop a Diane Winston or Roy Hattersley from offering their image of the Army. But neither should Salvationists and their friends sit by and allow those to be the histories that get the most attention from a world seeking to understand what motivates the people who stand behind the kettle, the ringing bell, and the Red Shield.
Red-Hot and Righteous: The Urban Religion of The Salvation Army,
by Diane Winston, Harvard University Press, 1999 $23.50
Blood and Fire: William and Catherine Booth and the Salvation Army,
by Roy Hattersley, Doubleday, 2000 $22.75
Hallelujah Lads and Lasses: Remaking the Salvation Army in America, 1880-1930,
by Lillian Taiz, University of North Carolina Press, 2001 $17.00
The books are available from the Supplies and Purchasing Department.
Mark A. Kellner is a freelance writer and speaker in Marina del Rey, California, who regularly contributes to the news and book review pages of Christianity Today, and is the computer columnist for The Washington Times.