When the Salvation Army first set foot in New York City in 1880, it attracted little more than a cold shoulder from established churches, an inquisitive glance from the city's press and amused curiosity from the general public.

Now, 119 years later, the Salvation Army is the nation's top-grossing charitable organization, outpacing both the American Red Cross and the United Jewish Appeal.

A new book chronicles the growth of the Salvation Army in New York City between 1880 and 1950. "Red-Hot and Righteous: The Urban Religion of the Salvation Army" (Harvard) is a detailed account of the group's rise to charitable and cultural prominence.

Written by Diane Winston, a former newspaper religion writer and now a research fellow at New York University, the book explores the Salvation Army's strategy to sell itself and its mission by adopting elements of commercial culture to spread its gospel of physical and spiritual healing.

This marketing technique took Salvationists into saloons and poor neighborhoods where they hoped to establish "the Cathedral of the Open Air," a reference to the idea that all parts of urban America could be made holy, no matter how sinful. The group employed unorthodox techniques for reaching the masses, from changing the lyrics of bar songs to make them religious to conducting loud, almost garish, musical parades that attracted widespread attention. Publicity posters were made to look like advertisements for a carnival or street fair.

"In its early years the Army's strength was its ability to be a part of street life; its success was predicated on attracting crowds who confused it with a circus, variety show or minstrelsy," Winston writes.

Within four years, the Salvation Army had grown to 5,000 converts, 500 officers and 100 "corps" stations. Today, the Salvation Army has 472,000 members in the United States--it moved its national headquarters to Alexandria in 1991--and more than 2 million members in 105 countries worldwide.

The Salvation Army's rapid growth and eccentric recruitment techniques worried many in established churches, who said it had become nothing more than a gospelized variety show.

Well-bred members of New York's high society also lamented that "the flamboyant improprieties of the Salvationists subverted civil order and mocked genteel decorum, the bulwarks of Victorian society," Winston writes.

The Salvation Army, founded in London in July 1865 by William Booth, had its share of internal struggles. At one point, a leadership clash led to an American secessionist movement. At other times, officers were accused of misusing funds, seducing young women and making a mockery of religion.

Salvationists soon regrouped and proceeded to make a noticeable impact in a city with virtually no network of social services.

Salvationists often were the only people who ventured into poor neighborhoods to comfort the afflicted. Their reputation for selfless charity work helped calm the fears of much of the establishment, which soon provided the financial resources needed to support the Army's welfare network.

The Army matured, as well. Its message was toned down, and its marketing strategy eventually led to widespread acceptance. Winston said the Army mastered advertising techniques while corporate America did the same.

Ultimately, Salvationists were able to conquer and tame the urban landscape. During and after World War I, the Salvation Army was applauded for its charity work. It has since dominated the charitable world, and its red collection kettles and ubiquitous bell ringers are staples of the Christmas season. The Army was one of America's first successful "urban religions," thriving amid a host of other religious traditions and movements, Winston says.

One of things that fascinates Winston is the Salvation Army's ability to sell itself while preaching an evangelical Christian message. Last year, in San Francisco, the Salvation Army gave up $3.5 million in municipal contracts rather than comply with a city ordinance requiring domestic partner benefits for gay employees.

But Salvationists worked with the city to coordinate services it had to give up, such as providing meals for senior citizens. And volunteers continued to offer assistance to homosexual AIDS patients in shelters "without trying to force their point of view" on them, Winston said from her home in Princeton, N.J.

The Salvation Army's capacity to be evangelical and charitable, without offending nonbelievers, is still one of its trademarks, Winston said.

"While balancing the two is the goal of most Christian groups, very few know how to do it," she said. "The Army may recognize that they have two different identities, but much of the public does not."

Winston, who is not a Salvationist, said part of why she admires the organization is that it was the first Protestant group to give women the same duties and responsibilities as men. But she laments that more women aren't in high-ranking leadership posts today.

"The Army was initially a great place for women," Winston said. "The odd thing, though, is where once the Army was a pioneer in women's equality, it's fallen away from that."

In 1996, the Salvation Army raised $1 billion for charity. Winston said the continued strategy to reach and not preach is what keeps the Army so successful.

It "is one of those great institutions that takes care of those who the rest of society would rather forget," she said. "What strikes me as so interesting is that even though it retains a conservative evangelical theology, [Salvationists] see the world as it is and minister to people where they are."

CAPTION: At top, members of the Salvation Army chorus sing at Sunday services in the 1930s. Middle, an Army officer plays on a New York City street. Above, a volunteer named Willie rings the bell outside a District store in 1984.

CAPTION: "Red-Hot and Righteous" book cover shows an early poster.