While its red Christmas collection kettles are largely packed away, the Salvation Army, an evangelical church best known for its social services, is facing a new task: electing a new "general," or international leader, to take office April 1.
The Army, which numbers 1.6 million "soldiers," or full members, worldwide, has a church membership of 107,000 in the United States. An additional 405,000 followers here are counted as "adherents," or those who also worship at one of the group's 1,252 congregations.
The Army's fundraising efforts — the signature kettles, thrift stores and direct-mail appeals — support the group's disaster-relief work, social services and adult-rehabilitation programs, such as the Harbor Light Center in Washington, D.C. But less familiar is the fact that the Army is an evangelical movement.
Founder William Booth, a British Methodist evangelist, was drawn to the poor of Victorian London's East End, people who would not be likely to set foot in a regular church and who, he found, would not be welcomed if they did.
Yet Booth saw those people as souls in need of spiritual change to escape the poverty, alcoholism, violence and other evils of that time. Returning home one evening from an open-air outreach, he told his wife, Catherine, "Kate, I've found my destiny."
From there, the Army has grown into a global effort now operating in 122 countries. In the United States, which the Army officially "invaded" in 1880 when one male officer and six "Hallelujah lasses" disembarked in Lower Manhattan, the Army has gained a higher profile in recent years following a $1.5 billion bequest from the late Joan Kroc, widow of McDonald's founder Ray Kroc, to build multipurpose community centers across the country.
And while Salvationists, as church members are called, may be best known for their dedication to helping others — "There is no reward equal to that of doing the most good to the most people in the most need," Evangeline Booth, a daughter of founder William Booth, once said — their mission requires a global administration, and every five years, the top job comes up for a vote.
"This is something we approach in deep prayer and in high expectation," said Commissioner James Knaggs, who is "territorial commander" of the Army's Western United States region.
Mr. Knaggs next week will attend the high council called to elect a successor to General Shaw Clifton, who is retiring. "These high councils are easily understood as real, potential turning points in the Salvation Army."
Mr. Knaggs, a longtime Salvation Army minister whose parents were also ministers, will be attending his first council gathering, held at Sunbury Court, a conference center southwest of London. He will be part of the largest group of Salvation Army leaders eligible to vote — more than three-quarters of the 109 delegates have never attended a high council before — and the assemblage will, for the first time, have more women, 57, than men, 52.
From its founding, the Salvation Army has given women equal rank as ministers, or "officers," as the group calls them. Two women have served as general: Booth's daughter Evangeline, who led the group from 1934 to 1939, and an Australian, Eva Burrows, whose seven years in the post began in 1986.
Any Salvation Army officer is eligible to be elected to the top spot, but candidates have typically come from its territorial, or national/regional, leaders and other executives, people who generally hold the rank of "commissioner." Mr. Clifton told The Washington Times that the fact that a majority of this year's electors are female was "a significant issue."
The number of first-time electors and their wide geographic background is a plus, Army insiders argue. Commissioner William A. Roberts, the Salvation Army's U.S. national commander, with headquarters in Alexandria, Va., said in an interview, "It's amazing how we will all meet together for the same purpose, with the same mind and intent, and something good will come out of it — a general who will lead the Army and lead it effectively."
The new leadership will have to confront a society where being identified as "Christian" may have its drawbacks. Last week, Britain's branch of the Young Women's Christian Association changed its name to "Platform 51," a reference to the fact that women make up 51 percent of Britain's population. British press speculated that YWCA officials made the switch because the word "Christian" may have made obtaining government grants more difficult.
"Many believe there is an anti-Christian bias among those who decide which charities get state funding," said Mike Judge, spokesman for the Christian Institute, a British-based religious think tank.
"It was the Christian character of the YWCA that made it great. It is a shame that its turning its back on those values," Mr. Judge added.
Will the Salvation Army, which has also accepted government funding, bow to a similar challenge?
"There are always pressures to dance to the tune being played by the world," Mr. Clifton said. "We've never done that, and we're not about to start. I do believe in understanding, we need to stay relevant; we need to be able to present ourselves with relevance to modern culture. But that's different than to say we will allow the values of that culture to change who we are."
Adds Mr. Knaggs, "There are a lot of issues pulling for our attention, but we have to remain true to our cause."
Part of remaining true is that time-honored emphasis on those most in need of spiritual and physical aid.
"There's nobody outside the pale of their concern," said Pamela Walker, a professor at Carleton University in Ottawa and author of the 2001 volume, "Pulling the Devil's Kingdom Down: The Salvation Army in Victorian Britain." The Army, she said, "cares for those people. There is no point where somebody is beyond redemption."
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