Part church, part charity, the Salvation Army is best known for ringing bells for the needy on street corners. But the Army does far more than collect coins during the Christmas season. It is one of America’s largest charitable organizations and has helped millions, including many thousands of North Carolinians.
It began with William Booth. He and his wife Catherine, both evangelical Christians, founded the “Christian Mission” in 1865 to minister to the poor living in London’s East End slums. The Christian Mission became the Salvation Army in 1879. Members described themselves and their practices with military terms: Booth was “the General,” members were “soldiers,” converts were “captives,” and prayer was “knee drill."
The Army officially came to America in 1880, brought by a Salvationist (Salvation Army member) named George Railton and seven “army lassies.” At first they faced violent opposition. Gangs attacked Army members when they entered city slums; bystanders pelted Army parades with mud, rotten vegetables, and even dead animals. Five Army officers were killed between 1880 and 1896. Yet the organization grew rapidly. Its first American convert was a tramp with a colorful name, Ash-Barrel Jimmy. From 1882, when it had 11 officers, the Army grew to 79 officers in 1883 and 200 officers in 1884.
Even before Railton and his lassies arrived in America, the Army had made inroads in North Carolina. A visiting Salvationist conducted meetings at a Raleigh penitentiary in January 1879. The first North Carolina corps was established that same year. The Army “invaded” Charlotte in 1887, taking dozens of “captives” in only a few weeks. Sometimes there were setbacks. North Carolina policemen occasionally arrested Army bands on charges of disturbing the piece.
The Great Depression—and the poverty and desperation it created—made the Salvation Army indispensable in North Carolina. Army members donated food and clothes to impoverished Tar Heels; they also provided temporary lodging for the tens of thousands of homeless. In Greensboro, for instance, the Army provided 1,245 meals and 400 garments in one month alone. For some, however, this was not enough. North Carolina’s Communist Party attacked the Army for its “discriminating, slave-driving, insulting” tactics, and further accused them of dropping African-Americans from its welfare rolls.
In the years since the Depression, the Army has remained an important source of charity in North Carolina. They have been especially active in the wake of devastating storms like Hurricane Hazel (1954) and Hurricane Fran (1996). More recently, Army members took part in Operation Easter Blessing, sending care packages to North Carolina troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Salvation Army corps can be found in more than three dozen North Carolina cities and towns, from Asheville to Wilmington. The Army also operates Camp Walter Johnson, a children’s summer camp in Denton, North Carolina.