The Urban Religion of the Salvation Army

By Diane Winston

Harvard Univ. 290 pp. $27.95

Reviewed by Jonathan Groner

What a book this could have been. Here's the concept: An experienced journalist who presumably knows how to tell a tale -- a three-time Pulitzer nominee, no less -- takes up the tools of the historian as a second profession and delves into a subject that combines historical importance and popular interest. (Who hasn't wondered what the Salvation Army really does with all the money collected in its Christmas kettles and what happens to all that old furniture? How do those people's beliefs fit in with good old Protestantism, anyway?) It doesn't hurt that former newspaper reporter Diane Winston's decision to write about the Salvation Army comes at a time of renewed interest in indigenous American religion in all its varied forms.

And what a send-off for this book! Red-Hot and Righteous, no less. The book jacket: "Engrossing study of religion, urban life, and commercial culture. . . . Vivid account of a street-savvy religion." Drama, storytelling, suspense, perhaps even muckraking seem to await the reader.

Well, not exactly. Winston, now a research fellow at the Center for Media, Culture, and History at New York University, has written a book that is serious, methodical, intelligent -- but also limited in scope and frustrating to the non-historian. Rather than "The Urban Religion of the Salvation Army," a better subtitle would be "The Urban Religion of the Salvation Army, Mostly in Manhattan, Mostly From 1880 to 1920."

Winston uses four chapters and 180 pages to traverse less than 40 years, from 1880 to 1918, and one final chapter, 60 pages, to gallop from 1919 through 1950, and gives us nothing on the history of the Salvation Army after that. Anyone who wants to learn about the salvationists of the 1990s -- and theirs was the largest single American charity in 1997, with $1.2 billion collected -- will be disappointed. Salvationists meeting human needs in Kosovo? Salvationists living in this decade's urban slums? Salvationists responding to Kansas tornadoes and Maine winters? All that has happened, but you won't find it here.

Moreover, instead of the incisive, dramatic prose we expect from a journalist, we get this: "Salvationist pragmatism encouraged a protean, performative dimension of evangelical selfhood which was intriguingly at odds with the Army's stated goal of unifying external and internal appearances." Or: "Salvationists offered a religious vision rooted in a vernacular faith and expressed in the coalescence of the Army's Holiness theology and the culture's regnant consumerist ideology." Don't misunderstand me: Winston clearly has a good many important things to say, but this type of social science jargon is barely comprehensible to the typical educated reader.

Winston's points, when they do come through, are quite interesting. For example, she documents how deeply the Salvation Army, now an established, staid element of the American religious and charitable landscape, was scorned by respectable citizens at its outset -- both in England, where the Army was founded, and in the United States. Salvationists' unrestrained hymn-singing on city street corners, their embrace of popular lower-class culture, and their egalitarianism in matters of gender, all shocking to the bourgeois Victorian mind, caused many to make little distinction between the salvationist and the loose woman.

One area where Winston excels is in her detailed examination of the image of the Salvation Army on Broadway and especially in the movies. Her analysis of the treatment of the Army by the entertainment world, from a D.W. Griffith film of 1908 to Damon Runyon's "Guys and Dolls," which premiered in 1950, is extraordinary. Salvationist "lassies," she shows, were depicted alternately as stock figures of virtue and as "bad girls" who had turned good but in whom badness still lurked.

Winston's basic contentions are that the Salvation Army successfully adopted the strategies of mass marketing to "sell" religion as no one had ever done before in the United States; that it was a much more avid advocate of the "social gospel" than most historians have believed; and that its dedication to helping the poor, the wounded, and the suffering finally brought it respectability in the course of a couple of generations. These are all notable ideas, and Winston's careful documentation, based on original Salvationist and other sources, convinces me that she is correct about them. Still, what we have here is a missed opportunity.

The goals of the journalist and the historian are not so terribly far from each other, and Winston should have done a better job of harking back to her professional roots as a storyteller.

Jonathan Groner is managing editor of the Legal Times.