The Woman Behind the Salvation Army Bell Ringers

The Salvation Army bell ringers, introduced in the U.S. by Evangeline Booth in the early 1900s, can still be found on city streets at holiday time. They have transformed themselves with the times, however. Near Rockefeller Center in midtown Manhattan, you may hear the ringers rocking out to songs like “Jingle Bell Rock” and “All I Want for Christmas is You.”

While the updated songs make the street scene fun, the national organization has also begun a new Red Box campaign to address the number of people who are going hungry this year.  For a $65 donation the national group says they can put together a box of nonperishable foods that will provide a family with a holiday meal and also some staples that will last a little longer.

Who Was Evangeline Booth?

Evangeline Booth (1865-1950) started the U.S. division of the Salvation Army more than 100 years ago, and while their mission has changed somewhat over time, the intent is still to help those in need. Booth was a transformative figure for her time, and an appearance by her might be compared to what happens when crowds near that Madonna will be onstage.

Evangeline’s parents, who lived in London, were the original energy behind was to become the Salvation Army. Her father was a Methodist minister who left the church to “take religion to the people.” Aided by his wife, Catherine, they traveled around Britain, intending to provide religious salvation to the lower classes. Both husband and wife believed that men and women could serve the Lord equally, and as a result, their sons and daughters, there were eight children, assumed leadership roles in what was to eventually become known as the Salvation Army.

The organization began to spread internationally, and in 1904 Evangeline became the commander of the American Salvation Army, a position she held for thirty years (1904-34). In 1934 she was chosen as the first female commander-in-chief of the international organization and served in that job for her final five years before retirement (1934-39).

Offering Disaster Aid in U.S.

In 1906, San Francisco was devastated by an earthquake, and in response, Evangeline added disaster relief to the organization’s mission, a commitment that remains strong today. In addition, she established soup kitchens, emergency shelters, hospitals for unwed mothers, services for the unemployed, homes for aging adults, and provided services to those in prison throughout the entire country. In some cities, the Salvation Army built housing for working women, and they were known as “Evangeline residences.”

When the United States entered World War I, Evangeline intended for “her Army” to accompany “her country’s Army,” and with a wire sent directly to President Wilson, she obtained permission for the Salvation Army to sail with the first men going overseas. (The New York Times, March 9, 1930). At the front lines, the Salvation Army established canteens that provided everything from home cooking to uniform mending, and reading materials to religious services. The “doughnuts for doughboys” came about because some of the Salvation Army “lassies” decided that morale would be higher if the men had something good to eat, and doughnuts became the refreshment of choice because of the limited supply of ingredients available to them. Evangeline had instructed her army not to hobnob with officers, and the soldiers were particularly appreciative that the offerings were available specifically for the enlisted men. For the work of the Salvation Army during wartime, Evangeline Booth was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal in 1919.

Booth Was Nationally-Known Figure

As a figure of national prominence, Evangeline Booth’s opinion was sought on many topics. Anyone who has seen Guys and Dolls knows where she and the Salvation Army stood on prohibition. When a reporter posed to her that prohibition was hurting the country’s economy, Evangeline fired back that while the rich man could still drink (“to death if he wants to,”) she explained: “I live in a suburb. Many a time when I have been returning late from a meeting have I had to stop my car to help some child who was trying to take home a drunken father. Now I never see that.” (NYT 3-9-30)

In the years following the war, Booth transformed the Salvation Army’s on-the-street begging to a more professional level of fundraising by cultivating a coalition of business people and community service agencies who were willing to “invest in better citizenship.” At the conclusion of her stint as head of the U.S. organization, the American Salvation Army had assets of 35 million dollars. By that time the Salvation Army was represented in 81 countries, in 53 languages, and had 200,000 soldiers spreading the word that redemption could be found in this world, that “every man has a chance” in this lifetime.

Set Great Example

From building shelters for the poor to providing “doughnuts for doughboys,” Evangeline Booth was an exemplary leader and a tireless public servant who fully captured public respect and attention in her day. She filled auditoriums whenever she spoke, her opinions on issues of national importance were sought by the media, and her whereabouts and the state of her health were reported in newspapers regularly.

As you walk past this year’s bell ringers, give a moment’s thought to an amazing woman who was an important leader of her time.

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