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Lauren F. Winner

From Drum-Bangers to Doughnut-Fryers

Material culture, consumerism, and the transformation of the Salvation Army.

For most Americans, the Salvation Army is a trusted, if peripheral, organization: We are happy to toss loose change into the Army's shopping-mall kettles at Christmastime, and are relieved to know that their cheerful employees will take unfashionable clothes and tattered children's toys off our hands once or twice a year, leaving us with more closet space and a welcome tax deduction. Many of those who pull into the Salvation Army's parking lot to unload boxes of polyester knit suits and fraying sweaters from their station wagons do not seem aware that the roots of this established charity are religious. The last time I made a run by the Salvation Army— I was finally parting with shorts and skirts I hadn't been able to get into since ninth grade—I overheard a trim Jewish woman commenting to her friend that she was thrilled to have access to a Salvation Army: she'd just moved from a small town in northern Florida where the only philanthropic shop had been run by a Baptist organization, and she "just didn't feel comfortable donating to a Christian charity, regardless of how much good work they do."

The origins of the Salvation Army, of course, are every bit as religious as those of any Baptist orphanage. Founded in midnineteenth-century England by William Booth, the Army began as a rag-tag mission devoted to evangelizing London's poor. Booth, whose theology was influenced by classic holiness teachings as well as by Wesleyan revivalism, Quakerism, and Methodism, was a flamboyant leader who believed that any publicity was good publicity. As Diane Winston writes in her new study of the Army, Booth understood that "to capture the unchurched, no less than practicing Christians, the Army first had to attract their attention." (Case in point: The Salvation Army arrived in America in 1872, but it floundered until the 1880 arrival of George Scott Railton and seven "hallelujah lassies," who disembarked their ship at a Manhattan port waving the brightly colored Salvationist ...

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