THE SALVATION ARMY was established in 1865 when William Booth, a minister from London, brought the Gospel to the homeless, the poor and the hungry in the streets of London.
Booth’s original aim was to direct these converts to the established churches of his day. But when he found that these new believers were not welcomed in the churches and chapels of Victorian England, he decided to start a church and he named it the East London Christian Mission. The mission grew gradually and in May 1878, Booth renamed it The Salvation Army.
By the 1900s, the Army had spread beyond England to diﬀerent parts of the world, including America. Today, the Army has established work in more than 106 nations around the world. In 1935, Brigadier Herbert Lord established The Salvation Army in Singapore. In line with its strong emphasis on social outreach, the Army collaborated with organisations like the Rotary Club and the Singapore After-Care Association in relief and rehabilitation work. In 1937, the Army established a home for women in Paterson Road that cared for victimised women, the destitute, the poor, and women who were forced into prostitution. It also set up a school to teach English and simple skills like tailoring.
Since its founding, the Army has laboured indefatigably to provide a wide range of social and community programmes, including a nursing home, children’s home, child care centres, tuition centres and family support services. Currently, the Army has six churches (corps) that conduct worship services in three languages (English, Tamil and Tamil).
Although the Army has a distinctive approach to government and practice, it embraces and teaches almost all the basic tenets of the Christian faith and could therefore be considered as a part of the Christian Church. In its 1980 Act, the Army declares that its main objective is “the advancement of the Christian religion … of education, the relief of poverty, and other charitable objects beneficial to society or the community of mankind as a whole”.
The movement adopted the military metaphor and organises itself in a quasi-military command structure because it claims that Christianity sees the Church as being engaged in spiritual warfare. In taking warfare as its central theme, the Army employs military features – uniforms, flags, and ranks – to mark its identity as followers of Christ.
Theologically and doctrinally, the Army can be located within the broadly evangelical but especially Wesleyan tradition. William Booth was an ordained minister of the New Connexion, a Protestant nonconformist group formed in 1797. Known also as the Kilhamite Methodists, the New Connexion and its founders claimed their doctrines to be in agreement with “those of Methodism, taught by Mr Wesley”. The doctrinal standard of the Army, expressed succinctly in its 11 Articles of Faith, are profoundly influenced by the teaching of John Wesley and spiritual emphases of the evangelical awakening of the 18th and 19th centuries. us, the Army’s strong emphasis on regeneration and sanctification, its stress on evangelism and on human free will can all be traced to the Wesleyan tradition it has embraced.
The Army further maintains that its doctrinal commitments are consistent with the teachings of the classical creeds of the Church, for example the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed.
Perhaps the most distinctive feature of The Salvation Army is its replacement of water baptism and the Eucharist with other practices. In place of water baptism, which is the initiatory rite of the Christian Church since its founding, the Army practises the swearing-in of the new believer (soldier) beneath the Trinitarian sign of its flag.
Everything that the Church traditionally associates with the rite of baptism is attached to the Army’s swearing-in ceremony.
In addition, Salvationists do not celebrate the Eucharist because they believe that “no particular outward observance is necessary to inward grace”. Instead Salvationists celebrate love feasts and find creative ways of hallowing meals in homes and corps in remembrance of Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross. When Salvationists attend other Churches, they may participate in the Holy Communion if they choose to do so.
SALVATIONISTS GENERALLY DO NOT SUBSCRIBE to the traditional understanding of the sacraments because of the belief that “God’s grace is freely and readily accessible to all people at all times and in all places”.
There has been some debate among Salvationists about the Army’s status as a church. Can e Salvation Army be considered as a church in its own right? Can Salvationism be seen as a denomination alongside other Christian denominations? In its early history many Salvationists were reluctant to call the Army a church.
In 1887, George Scott Railton could write in Heathen England that The Salvation Army does not seek church status, “avoiding as we would the plague every denominational rut, in order perpetually to reach more and more of those who lie outside every church boundary”. Some Salvationists would consider their movement as para-church, “an arm of the Church”. However, in a document entitled, “ The Salvation Army in the Body of Christ: An Ecclesiological Statement” published after its 2006 Theology and Ethics Symposium in Johannesburg, Salvationists come closer to identifying the movement as a church with a permanent mission to the unsaved and marginalised.
Be that as it may, e Salvation Army is not sectarian in its outlook. It firmly believes that God has brought it into existence and given it a very definite mission. It believes that all that it has been able to accomplish was due to the grace of God. But the Army recognises the work of other churches and is willing to collaborate with the larger Christian community.
In its 2010 edition of the Handbook of Doctrine it clearly states: “We do not believe that we alone are called to these sacred and awesome tasks, and therefore rejoice exceedingly because in other Christian churches we find co-workers for God.”
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.