Written by: Alexandra Palmer | Best Company Editorial Team
Last Updated: October 27th, 2019
They stand outside malls and Walmarts, ringing their bells, and staring at you in hopes that you will drop some cash in their signature red kettles.
You know them as the Salvation Army, and you know that they are raising money to help the poor. You might even shop at one of their thrift stores, but what else do you really know about this organization which has become a Christmas staple?
At Best Company we believe in knowing who you're donating to, so to get you up to speed, here is a brief collection of trivia about the Salvation Army, it's considerable history, and what it stands for:
1. The organization is a lot bigger than you think
Sometimes the few volunteers we see outside stores during the holiday season can belie the true size and scope of the Salvation Army. Known as Salvationists, their members number more than 1.5 million, and they aren't just in the U.S. and Europe. The Salvation Army operates in 127 countries across the globe with the mission of bringing salvation to the poor, the destitute, and the hungry by meeting their "physical and spiritual needs.
Of course, this doesn't include the thousands of volunteers who work with the Salvation Army but aren't official members of their faith or organization. Taken together, that's a massive force dedicated to doing good in the world.
2. They are a religious organization
From its very beginning, the Salvation Army has been a religious organization. Its founder, William Booth, was a Methodist preacher before he left the church's traditional methods to administer to the poor, needy, and wayward on the streets of 1850's London. His tendency to convert prostitutes, gamblers, thieves, and drunks further estranged him from the Methodist church, who had a hard time forgetting his followers' past lives.
In time, the Salvation Army became a Christian denomination all its own-one still very near to the tenets of the church it sprang from. For evidence, one need only look to the 11 articles of their faith listed on their website and their mission statement to pursue "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."
3. They started in a graveyard
This large organization has inarguably humble beginnings. When Booth found himself without a church to preach in, he became a travelling preacher, spreading Christianity wherever he could and on the streets. Luckily, in 1865, he was invited to preach in London's East End and provided with a piece of land on which to preach-land which just so happened to be situated in a graveyard.
Despite the melancholy surroundings, the graveyard sermons became a big success and the location became the first Salvationists' base of operations, providing an unlikely point of origin for the now-international charity.
4. Their leader goes by the title 'general'
The Salvation Army takes the "army" part of their name seriously. Since the beginning, a central idea of their religion has been that when they convert to the faith they become soldiers in an army, fighting against human suffering. The churches are called corps and the pastors are called officers.
So, yes, it's true that Salvationists call their executives generals and their mid-level managers lieutenants. Even their organizational structure follows a military pattern. Their highest governing body is known as the High Council of the Salvation Army.
5. Music is a big part of their faith
From the beginning, Booth's followers have been known to sing hymns in the streets. This was done to soften hearts and calm mobs who had congregated to attack Salvationists or drive them out of their towns. Although most Salvationists no longer face this kind of danger, they still maintain a strong affinity for music.
Of course, one well-known example of this music can be found at many a Salvation Army kettle, whether it be singing or playing a harmonica. But the organization also provides music ministries to teach people how to sing or play instruments as part of choirs, bands, or other performing opportunities.
6. The red kettle was the original crowdfunding tool
The Salvation Army itself might be the product of England, but the red kettle actually has its origins on American soil-San Francisco, to be exact. In 1891, one Salvation Army captain, Joseph McFee was struggling with the challenge of feeding the city's burgeoning poor population. He had made a personal commitment to feed 1,000 of them on Christmas Day that year, but how to pay for it?
Inspiration eventually came to McFee in the memory of "Simpson's Pot"-a large, iron kettle-at Liverpool, England, in which people would toss coins to help the poor. The story, as told on their website, continues:
"The next day Captain McFee placed a similar pot at the Oakland Ferry Landing at the foot of Market Street. Beside the pot, he placed a sign that read, 'Keep the Pot Boiling'. He soon had the money to see that the needy people were properly fed at Christmas."
Over the subsequent years, the idea would spread across the country, providing dinners for over 150,000 in 1897 alone. Today, those red kettle donations, used all around the world from Korea to Chile, go to feed more than 4.5 million people every Christmas.
7. They have a secret salute
That's right. Like any sorta mysterious organization, the Salvation Army has a salute that members give to each other when they meet. It's described as "raising the right hand above shoulder-height with the index finger pointing upwards." But what does it mean? There is some specific meaning that comes with this salute, according the organization's Wikipedia page:
"It signifies recognition of a fellow citizen of heaven, and a pledge to do everything possible to get others to heaven also... it also signifies that the Salvationist wishes to give Glory to God and not themselves."
8. Their thrift stores fund rehab centers
Outside of the red kettles during the holidays, chances are you've visited or at least driven by a Salvation Army thrift store. You probably know that you can drop off your old, unwanted stuff or buy old, secondhand stuff there for cheap. But what you might not know is that these thrift stores keep the lights on for the organization's hundreds of adult rehabilitation centers (ARCs).
Through the revenue from their thrift stores, the Salvation Army is able to provide free rehab services for alcohol or drug addicts, including a 12-step program, work training, and residential facilities.
9. They help reunite family members
As mentioned above, the Salvation Army runs hundreds of thrift stores. They also operate homeless shelters, provide disaster relief, and distribute humanitarian aid to developing nations. But one of their lesser-known programs-the Family Tracing Service-is dedicated to reuniting separated family members.
Since 1885, this program has been striving to "restore family relationships where contact has been lost, whether recently or in the distant past." Every year, this programs helps thousands of people reconnect with their families.
To see how we rate the Salvation Army compared to other charities, visit our Salvation Army review page today!