The Salvation Army

The Christmas of 1891 was coming and Joseph McFee of The Salvation Army was determined to provide a free holiday dinner for the poor in San Francisco. But how would he pay for it?

Mulling over the problem, he recalled a scene from his past. God inspired him. He saw himself years earlier as a sailor again, back in Liverpool, England. He remembered a landing where he saw a large, metal pot. Kind-hearted passersby threw charitable donations for the poor into the kettle. That was it!

The next morning McFee sought permission from local authorities to place a similar pot at the Oakland ferry landing at the foot of Market Street. Permission granted, he tracked down a pot and placed it conspicuously, so it would be seen by everyone going to and from the ferryboats. He put a second cash receptacle, a brass urn, in the room where passengers waited before boarding. The plan worked. By Christmas 1895, kettles were used in 30 Salvation Army locations up and down the West Coast. The Sacramento Bee newspaper published a description of the Army’s Christmas services and mentioned contributions to the street corner kettles. 

The idea spread so quickly there were kettles in Boston by 1897. More than 150,000 people ate free Salvation Army dinners that year across the country. By 1901, kettle contributions paid for the first mammoth sit-down Christmas dinner in Madison Square Garden, and the custom continued for many years.


“When an opportunity presents itself to do something positive, even if it inconveniences me a little bit, I do it because I believe it's the right thing to do.”
Harold Pierce, Salvation Army volunteer

As the warm Florida sun filters through palm branches on a  December afternoon, the frenzy of this hectic season is palpable. The automatic door of the grocery store opens and closes at a steady rate as shoppers hurry in and out, passing by the always-smiling Harold Pierce. 

Standing next to a bright red kettle, Harold clutches a small bell between his fingers and joyfully sings Christmas carols to the cadence of his bell ringing. He interrupts his song only to encourage passersby to, “Have a blessed day.” His genuine greetings are hard to ignore.

A young girl, hand-in-hand with her mother, approaches to push a wadded-up dollar bill into the kettle, and Harold immediately praises her. “Oh, my goodness, thank you so much—you’re helping the needy, bless your heart!” His genuine thanks lift her spirit and make her feel good about herself, and for Harold that’s what it’s all about. The girl could have given a penny or a hundred dollars, and no one would have known the difference—Harold’s praise was not for the amount given but for the act of generosity.

For eight years, Harold has volunteered his time to help with the Red Kettle Campaign for The Salvation Army. “I have survived two bouts with cancer and a stroke, so I can talk about blessings in my life,” Harold says. “I try to live as though I appreciate it, and the only way to do that is to be kind and helpful to others.” 

Part of The Salvation Army’s mission statement declares a commitment to “preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to meet human needs in His name without discrimination.” Harold lives his life with the same charge. He has a deep love for God and for humanity. “Consequently, when an opportunity presents itself to do something positive, even if it inconveniences me a little bit, I do it,” Harold says, “because I believe it’s the right thing to do.”  

A History of Good

The Salvation Army is a remarkable organization with a long heritage of doing good in Jesus’ name. It was established by William and Catherine Booth in 1878 when they saw a desperate need for hope. 

Walking the streets of East London, they witnessed children begging for food next to filthy, open sewers. They also saw men with push carts they were loading with the bodies of those who had died in the night. The situation was dire. 

With hearts moved by compassion, the Booths abandoned the comfort of a church pulpit where they had labored for the Lord and began preaching in the slums. They took the message of salvation to the poor, homeless, hungry and destitute, and hearts were awakened by the love of God.

Volunteers and evangelists were drawn to William and Catherine’s fervor and joined their mission. Between 1881 and 1885, some 250,000 people became believers through the minisitry. Although the Booths hoped to lead people to Christ and then link them to local churches for further spiritual guidance, they quickly found that the converts were not always welcomed in traditional churches in Victorian England. As a result, The Salvation Army became a church where all could worship. 

“The people were hungry and hurting and they needed a ministry that cared for the whole person,” says Lt. Col. Ron Busroe, community relations and development secretary for The Salvation Army’s national headquarters. “William Booth was a practical man who supposedly said, ‘Nobody ever gets saved with a toothache.’ He was very much committed to meeting the needs of the poor and the marginalized.” 

Responding to a recurring theme in Christianity which sees the Church engaged in spiritual warfare, The Salvation Army adopted a quasi-military command structure that has allowed the ministry to march onward throughout generations. Today, the organization ministers in 126 countries and will celebrate its 150th anniversary next year in London. 

Certain that the Christian faith calls believers to roll up their sleeves and get to work, Salvation Army employees and volunteers meet the material and emotional needs of a person before ministering to them spiritually. It’s that holistic approach to ministry that appeals to Ron. “We are triune beings—body, mind and spirit—and we have to minister to the whole person,” he says. 

In Duluth, Minnesota, where Major Betsy Cox ministers, The Salvation Army serves families on the frontlines. In addition to food assistance, emergency aid and a thrift store. The staff also operates character-building youth programs such as rookie basketball and a junior band. It also provides transitional housing that has an 86 percent success rate of stability for families at the time they leave the program. 

Motivated by her love for God and a desire to do His will, when Betsy sees a need in her community, she approaches it with a servantlike attitude.

“I want to see people through God’s eyes and see them succeed,” she says. 

While The Salvation Army’s Christian roots and long tradition of helping the poor have stood the test of time, the unfortunate truth is that its ubiquitous presence has seemingly blurred people’s knowledge of its broad ministry. 

“We are a large organization in this country and we want to know what people think about us. What we find out is a bit disconcerting,” Ron says. “When asked about The Salvation Army, people think three things: old clothes, Christmas kettles and disaster work. They do not know we are a church. For the most part, they know we are a faith-based-Christian organization, but they don’t know the extent of that.” 

While thrift stores, red Christmas kettles and disaster relief are all good things, they are just outward signs of an underlying faith and a mission to share the Gospel.

During the holiday season, food assistance and the distribution of Christmas presents are compassion-driven social services that become a gateway to sharing the love of God. This year, Betsy estimates the Duluth Salvation Army will provide food and Christmas gifts to 1,700 local families. The Army’s ministries in Minnesota aren’t unique, similar work goes on every day in communities throughout the country.  

Men and women that enter Salvation Army centers on distribution day during the Christmas season may be greeted by a sweet 85-year-old woman in a Santa Claus hat. Then, a volunteer escorts them from room to room, helping people collect food—enough for a delicious Christmas dinner—and two or three presents for each of their children. Containers overflowing with donated toys, clothes, hats and mittens line the room as parents hand-select gifts that will make their children’s eyes light up on Christmas morning. 

“We have wonderful volunteers and employees,” Betsy says. “You can tell they choose to be here—they always have a smile on their faces—and they genuinely treat people with dignity.” 

Although Betsy admits looking forward to the distribution days is like looking forward to craziness, she sees it as a blessing and knows firsthand the impact it can make. “My mom and dad had some rough Christmases and I know now that The Salvation Army delivered food baskets and Christmas toys to us. We kids didn’t know it came from them but, that’s the God part of it,” Betsy says. “We don’t have to have our name on the gifts. When kids have two or three presents under the tree, and think they’re from Mom and Dad, that’s the best part.” 

Ron hopes no little boys or girls wake up on December 25th without understanding the significance of Christmas and that it’s a time of giving. “There are four million children during this season that will have a gift because someone cared enough to provide The Salvation Army with the gifts to give,” he says. Most of those families will also receive a Bible and material about the motivation behind what The Salvation Army does. 

“God saved me through Jesus Christ,” Ron says. “I believe that God loves me and, if God loves me, I ought to love other people. If I love other people, I ought to be engaged in helping them any way I can. I’m very pleased to be a part of an organization that allows me to do just that.” 

The Season of Red Kettles 

Red kettles are an American tradition now seen throughout the world.  Salvation Army staff and volunteers set them up and ring their bells in Korea, Japan, Chile and many other countries. Everywhere they are used, kettles enable the Army to help others—the forgotten, aged, lonely, ill, imprisoned, poor and unfortunate—in the name of Jesus.  

Volunteers are people like:

• Christine Haynes of California. Proudly flying a Salvation Army flag on her motorized wheelchair, Christine gives more than her time while ringing the bell. She hands out crocheted stockings stuffed with a candy canes—and a message. With hopes of prompting a spiritual conversation, she asks, “Would you like a stocking and the letter J?” She explains that a candy cane is actually the letter J—for Jesus—and the stripes represent the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. For over 12 years, she has volunteered with the Red Kettle Campaign. “Christmas is about Jesus’s birth and the candy cane letter J means the world to me – He’s my Savior.”

• Tracy Jemison of Ohio. Tracy volunteers to ring the bell every holiday season. He knows that 100 percent of the money that goes to Salvation Army returns to help the needy in his community. “It’s my way of doing something for our friends and neighbors,” he says. 

• Roxy Baker of New Hampshire. For 10 years, Roxy has been volunteering during Red Kettle season. One year, she asked a 6-year-old bell ringer why she joined the team. The girl answered, “I have warm clothes and lots of toys, and lots of people don’t. I’m doing it for them.” Those words were affirmation that the sacrifice of time is worth it. “I believe we were put on this earth to help one another,” says Roxy. “It’s something that’s very important to me. I get so much more back than what I give.”

The Salvation Army is a remarkable organization with a long heritage of doing good in Jesus' name. It was established by William and Catherine Booth in 1878 when they saw a desperate need for hope.
“If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
James 2:15–17 ESV
The Salvation Army crest is a meaningful symbol of the Salvationist's beliefs. Captain William Ebdon designed the crest in 1878 and the only alteration to his original design was the addition of the crown.

The Salvation Army Crest

The crest is a meaningful symbol of the Salvationist’s beliefs. Captain William Ebdon designed the crest in 1878 and the only alteration to his original design was the addition of the crown. The emblem was designed to symbolize these leading doctrines of The Salvation Army:

The crown speaks of God’s reward for His faithful people

The sun (radiating from the “Blood and Fire” circle) represents the light and fire of the Holy Spirit

The ‘S’ stands for salvation from sin

The cross of Jesus stands at the center of the crest and the faith of the Army’s staff

The swords represent the fight against sin

The shots (seven dots on the circle) stand for the truths of the Gospel

“Blood and Fire” is the motto of The Salvation Army. “Blood” is the blood of Jesus shed on the cross to save all people, and “Fire” describes the Holy Spirit, who purifies believers

“In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
Matthew 5:16 ESV
Contributions to The Salvation Army's Red Kettle Campaign enable the organization to continue its year-round efforts of helping those who would otherwise be forgotten.
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Contributions to The Salvation Army’s Red Kettle Campaign enable the organization to continue its year-round efforts of helping those who would otherwise be forgotten.

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Harold Pierce is one of about 25,000 Red Kettle Campaign bell ringers working across the United States each Christmas.
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Harold Pierce is one of about 25,000 Red Kettle Campaign bell ringers working across the  United States each Christmas.

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Volunteers like this woman are critical partners in helping fulfill the Army promise of "Doing the Most Good."
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Volunteers like this woman are critical partners in helping fulfill the Army promise of “Doing the Most Good.”

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An unemployed father searches through stacks of toys, looking for Christmas gifts for his children. Donations and financial assistance provided by local branches of The Salvation Army make it possible for needy families to enjoy the holidays.
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An unemployed father searches through stacks of toys, looking for Christmas gifts for his children. Donations and financial assistance provided by local branches of The Salvation Army make it possible for needy families to enjoy the holidays.

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The Salvation Army operates hundreds of after-school programs for children from low and moderate-income families. Kids are safe when they play in these supervised places.
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The Army operates hundreds of after-school programs for children from low and moderate-income families. Kids are safe when they play in these supervised places. 

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When hard times hit, The Salvation Army makes sure people's basic needs are met. Whether it's a box of groceries to get through the weekend or assistance paying a bill, every local center has representatives ready to help.
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When hard times hit, The Salvation Army makes sure people’s basic needs are met. Whether it’s a box of groceries to get through the weekend or assistance paying a bill, every local center has representatives ready to help.

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More than 3 million volunteers assisted the Salvation Army in 2014.
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Over 3 million volunteers assisted the Army in 2014.

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Spirit-led Salvation Army workers, such as this woman, are sent out to help the hurting, broken, lonely, dispossessed.
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Spirit-led Salvation Army workers, such as this woman, are sent out to help the hurting, broken, lonely, dispossessed.

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Red kettles and shiny bells have become signature symbols of The Salvation Army. Through the organization's partnership with private and public philanthropy, it continues to bring comfort to the needy while proclaiming God's redemptive love.
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Red kettles and shiny bells have become signature symbols of The Salvation Army. Through the organization’s partnership with private and public philanthropy, it continues to bring comfort to the needy while proclaiming God’s redemptive love.

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Knowing that Jesus said, "The Kingdom belongs to such as these," the Salvation Army is committed to reaching children with the transforming message of Jesus.
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Knowing that Jesus said, “The Kingdom belongs to such as these,” the Army is committed to reaching children with the transforming message of Jesus.

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