For many people, the phrase ‘Salvation Army’ conjures up images of bell ringers at Christmas time or a place to take donations of unwanted stuff. When I was telling a friend about my search for an ancestor who was a member of the Salvation Army church, she said to me, “The Salvation Army is a church?” Her question is one that many people might have.
In the Beginning
The Salvation Army, founded by William Booth, began its ministries as the Christian Mission in England in 1865. The name was eventually changed to the Salvation Army to reflect the new religion’s somewhat military style. The Salvation Army’s theology was radical for its time. Booth believed that people who were homeless and poor needed the gospel of Jesus Christ but churches of the time did not welcome these people in, so Booth decided he would. His mission to minister to those less fortunate began a religion that is based on a mixing of the gospel of Jesus Christ and social service. The Army spread into America in 1879 when teenager Eliza Shirley held the first meeting of the Salvation Army in Philadelphia. Her father, who had previously immigrated to the United States, had written her about the need in America for the Army due to the ungodliness found here.
Researching your Salvation Army Ancestor
Whether your ancestor was in the Salvation Army in America, England or perhaps New Zealand, the Salvation Army has a website that can be of use. One of the more disappointing pieces of news I learned as I was researching my ancestor is that the Salvation Army was not as diligent about membership records as some other Christian traditions. It was common for individual Salvation Army churches to throw away records when a new officer took over. So if your ancestor was only a member and not working on becoming an officer, you may find little to nothing. But if you ancestor traveled with the Salvation Army or was trying to become an officer, you may have better luck.
The Salvation Army Archives and Research Center, http://www.salvationarmyusa.org/usn/www_usn.nsf/vw-sublinks/85256DDC007274DF85256B92005517CD?openDocument, is a 10,000 square feet facility in Alexandria, Virginia that holds records, periodicals, and photographs documenting the history of the Salvation Army in the United States. While they don’t hold membership records for all of those involved in the Salvation Army, they do have some. They also have the official Salvation Army periodical, The War Cry. Microfilmed copies of The War Cry dating back to 1884 are available through interlibrary loan. This periodical most likely will not mention your ancestor, but it can provide you with information about what it was like to be in the Salvation Army during your ancestor’s time. In searching for my 2nd great grandfather I found a small mention of when he worked in the Salvation Army ministry.
The Salvation Army’s Southern Historical Center located in Atlanta, Georgia is a museum and research facility that showcases the work of the Salvation Army in the Southern Untied States. While the museum showcases over 3,500 square feet of historical displays, the research library and the services offered through that library can help the family researcher possibly learn more about their ancestor. Periodicals, both current and out-of-print, records and photographs are part of this archive. Research inquiries can be sent via mail, phone, fax or email. The Historical Center’s website can be found at http://www.salvationarmysouth.org/museum/.
Unfortunately because of poor record keeping and the devastating loses during World War II, many early records from the Salvation Army have been destroyed. The archivist at the Salvation Army International Heritage Center in London holds what records still remain. This archive has everything from uniforms, to books and periodicals dealing with the Salvation Army. The Heritage Center will reply to research requests by letter, phone, email and fax. I would suggest calling and discussing with the archivist what you would like to find out about your ancestor so you can get a sense of whether they even have the records you need. Check out the International Salvation Army website at http://www1.salvationarmy.org/ihq/www_sa.nsf.
It is important to know if your ancestor was an officer or a soldier. Officers were full time workers for the Salvation Army, very similar to full-time missionaries. There is a chance that the Officer Career Card may still exist, if it was not destroyed during World War II. This card details appointments and promotions that they had. You will also want to check Salvation Army periodicals for mentions of promotions, reports or tributes.
For Salvation Army soldiers, some membership rolls and history books have survived but most information about soldiers would be held with the local church they belonged to and not the archives. These also may have been destroyed.
When all else fails…try eBay
Ok, now it may seem absurd but one of the useful tools in my search for more information about my great-great grandfather and his Salvation Army life was eBay. From looking at Salvation Army photographs for sale, I was able to identify the era his Salvation Army uniform was from because I was able to match to pictures being sold on eBay of Salvation Army members. I was also able to identify some of the buttons on his lapel from the pictures on eBay. EBay also provided me with an opportunity to purchase some books to help me better understand the Salvation Army historically.
Salvation Army records and research is not going to record events that will help you go back a generation in your family tree but it might just give you some great background information that will help fill in the missing years of an ancestor’s life.
A few books to consider using in your social history research on the Salvation Army include:
Hallelujah Lads and Lassies: Remaking the Salvation Army in America 1880-1930 by Lillian Taiz, published by the University of North Carolina Press, 2001.
Sweeping Through the Land: A History of the Salvation Army in the Southern United States by Allen Satterlee, published by The Salvation Army Supplies, 1989.
Women in God’s Army: Gender and Equality in the Early Salvation Army by Andrew Mark Eason, published by Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2003.
Pulling the Devil’s Kingdom Down: The Salvation Army in Victorian Britain by Pamela J Walker, published by University of California Press, 2001.
Red Hot and Righteous: The Urban Religion of the Salvation Army by Diane H Winston, published by Harvard University Press, 2000
William and Catherine: The Life and Legacy of the Booths, the Founders of the Salvation Army by Trevor Yaxley, published by Bethany House Publishers, 2003.