Salvation Army and Religious Liberty

2012-08-29 22:52:19

No Gilded Age group fought more doggedly for openair speech and assembly rights than did the Salvation Army, a religious and social welfare organization founded in response to the social and religious changes that accompanied urbanization.

As cities grew and neighborhoods split along class lines during the nineteenth century, many established churches abandoned poor neighborhoods and followed wealthy congregant uptown. Church services changed in tone as well as location, becoming increasingly exclusive. Poor and working-class city dwellers often felt alienated and drifted beyond the fold.

The Salvation Army, which began in England in 1865 and subsequently invaded the United States, sought to become ‘‘[t]he church of the churchless.’’ Aided by its evangelical fervor, its attention to the welfare needs of the urban down-and-out, its organizational efficiency, and its irrepressible zeal, the group flourished. By the mid-1890s, the Army’s American branch contained more than 500 local corps.

Military-style parades and energetic outdoor meetings were central to the group’s success. ‘‘[W]e do not wait for [the churchless masses] to come to us,’’ an Army officer explained, ‘‘but we go to them.’’ Although designed to spread religious feelings, these assemblies were so noisy and disruptive that they often provoked ‘‘the chief qualities of irreligion— wrath, profanity, and hatred of one’s fellow man.’’ To unappreciative ears, such Salvationist rites as the ‘‘Grand-hallelujah eye-opener’’ sounded less like devotional acts than like ‘‘preaching clap-jack’’ accompanied by ‘‘brayings from brass instruments blown by players who have received their only instruction from ‘the Spirit!’’’ As the Nation reported in 1897, ‘‘the noises of the Army are unpopular everywhere.’’

The Salvation Army’s cacophonous ministry collided with the resolve of Gilded Age cities to keep order on their streets. The result of this clash, in the words of one Salvationist, was ‘‘Arrests! Arrests! Arrests!’’ Determined to ‘‘march to prison or anywhere Jesus would call them,’’ Salvationists purposefully violated open-air speech ordinances. One Ohio Salvationist put on old clothes before attending openair meetings ‘‘so as to be ready for the lock-up.’’ Similarly anticipating arrest, members of a Jersey City corps marched with a reporter, a lawyer, and two men ready to furnish Bail. Colorado Salvationists, when asked what they planned to do about a newly restrictive open-air assembly ordinance, replied that the local jail staff ‘‘may as well prepare supper for about fifty.’’

The religious ardor that underlay the Salvationists’ willingness to break the law affected the way in which they thought about legal issues. Army members strongly believed that the nation’s constitutions protected their street preaching. Almost without exception, however, when discussing their cases in and out of court, they invoked the constitutional provisions regarding religious liberty, not ones pertaining to speech or assembly.

Judges were generally unsympathetic to the Army’s freedom-of-religion approach to open-air speech disputes. In 1889, a Massachusetts court held that: ‘‘The provisions of the Constitution which are relied on, securing freedom of religious worship, were not designed to prevent the adoption of reasonable rules and regulations for the use of streets and public places.’’ In the same year, after another Salvationist claimed that an open-air ordinance in Bloomington, Illinois, violated religious freedom, a unanimous state court ‘‘fail[ed] to see . . . that any such question is involved.’’

In contrast to religious liberty, which appeared repeatedly and explicitly in Salvationist arguments, the liberties of speech and assembly were all but absent from Salvationist briefs, except (arguably) for occasional and vague assertions that city measures violated ‘‘private right,’’ were ‘‘oppressive,’’ or were generally ‘‘unconstitutional.’’ Because Salvationists did not make free speech claims, judges did not decide them. By the turn of the twentieth century, then, the American branch of the Salvation Army could claim an achievement that, in retrospect, seems rather unusual: it had fought vigorously, and in some cases successfully, for the right to speak in the open air, while making virtually no impression on the formal constitutional law of free speech.

Around 1900, Salvationists began to drop off of court dockets. By no means, however, did they disappear from street corners. Rather, cities opened enforcement loopholes large enough to accommodate Salvationist bass drums. By the early 1920s, the Army was allowed to conduct unlicensed open-air meetings ‘‘almost everywhere’’ in urban America. Later, even enclosed shopping malls, not known for First Amendment solicitude, often created special exceptions that permitted Salvationist bell-ringers to set up their kettles. Consequently, political activists and labor organizers replaced the Salvation Army on the front lines of the legal battle for open-air speech and assembly rights in the United States.


References and Further Reading

  • Booth-Tucker, Frederick. The Salvation Army in America: Selected Reports, 1899–1903. New York: Arno Press, 1972.
  • McKinley, Edward H. Marching to Glory: The History of the Salvation Army in the United States of America, 1880–1980. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1980.
  • Taiz, Lillian. Hallelujah Lads and Lassies: Remaking the Salvation Army in America, 1880–1930. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.
  • Winston, Diane. ‘‘Living in the Material World: The Changing Role of Salvation Army Women, 1880– 1918.’’ Journal of Urban History 28:4 (2002): 466–487.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Commonwealth v. Plaisted, 148 Mass. 375 (1889)
  • Lloyd Corp. v. Tanner, 407 U.S. 551 (1972)
  • Mashburn v. City of Bloomington, 32 Ill. App. 245 (1889)