This story was originally published by Religion Unplugged.
NEW YORK — In what has become an annual holiday tradition, Salvation Army volunteers have flooded the streets across the United States and in countries around the world seeking donations for the organization’s annual Red Kettle campaign.
The volunteers — some dressed as Santa Claus and known for ringing bells — have been out for a few weeks in some places, but Black Friday, which marks the start of the busy holiday shopping season, saw them appear on street corners and in front of department stores.
In fact, The Salvation Army’s annual appeal, which began in 1891, officially kicked off on Thanksgiving Day. The Salvation Army assists 4.5 million people each year between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Famed singer Dolly Parton performed live last Thursday during the charity’s “Red Kettle Kickoff Halftime Show” at AT&T Stadium when the Dallas Cowboys took on the Washington Commanders on CBS.
“Those red kettles,” Parton said ahead of the Nov. 23 game, “have long been a symbol of hope for our friends and neighbors who are facing hard times.”
Parton, who donated $1 million to the campaign, said her goal is to “encourage everyone who can to donate and support their neighbors in need. Every small act of generosity helps and together we can all love our neighbors this holiday season and beyond.”
The campaign raised $102 million last year.
The Wesleyan-Holiness movement
The Salvation Army is not just an international charity but a religious movement within the Protestant church. The U.S. officers are headquartered in Alexandria, Virginia, and aligned with the Wesleyan-Holiness movement. The organization claims a worldwide membership of over 1.7 million adherents, known collectively as Salvationists.
It was founded to bring salvation to the poor and hungry by meeting both their “physical and spiritual needs.” Present in 133 countries, the church operates thrift shops, shelters and disaster relief programs. While members are active all year, they are widely known for their efforts during the holiday season, when volunteers ring bells near red kettles to collect donations.
The Salvation Army’s origins date back to mid-19th century England with a founding by minister William Booth in 1852. As the organization grew, Booth used military-style rankings to classify the group’s leadership. Members adopted military uniforms with their mission to serve others in Jesus’ name by meeting not only physical needs, like food and shelter, but also spiritual ones.
The Salvation Army expanded to the United States in 1880.
“From the very start, Booth was ready and willing to go with the army metaphor,” Diane Winston, the author of “Red Hot and Righteous: The Urban Religion of the Salvation Army,” told NPR in a 2009 interview. “Initially, Booth did not want to start a church. He saw himself as an evangelical organization who would bring the poor and un-churched to other churches,” she added, but the “army” quickly became one, since many churches at the time “were not receptive to having poor people in them.”
In 2019, the Salvation Army, which is headquartered internationally in London, ran into some controversy regarding allegations over the group’s history of discriminating against the LGBTQ+ community.
David Hudson, national commander of the Salvation Army, wrote an op-ed for USA Today in November of that year dismissing the allegations.
“Why take the time to read, research and rebut when we can simply scan and swipe?” wrote Hudson, the organization’s highest-ranking U.S. official at the time. “Assumptions are regularly presented as foregone conclusions, and facts are drowned out by fiction.”
The controversy eventually faded, but the Salvation Army addresses the concerns on its website: “The Salvation Army serves everyone. With love. With hope. And without discrimination.”
History of red kettles
It was in 1891 that Salvation Army Capt. Joseph McFee became distraught because so many poor people in San Francisco had been going hungry. During the holiday season, he resolved to provide a free Christmas dinner for them but needed funds for the project.
As he tried to come up with a plan to raise money for the 1,000 people he had planned to feed, McFee recalled his time as a sailor in Liverpool, England. He remembered how at Stage Landing, where the boats came in, there was a large, iron kettle called “Simpson’s Pot,” where passers-by tossed in coins to help the poor.
McFee placed a similar pot at the Oakland Ferry Landing at the foot of Market Street. Beside the pot, he placed a sign that read, “Keep the Pot Boiling.”
Six years later, the kettle idea spread across the country to Boston. That year, the nationwide effort resulted in 150,000 Christmas dinners.
In 1901, kettle contributions in New York City provided funds for the first mammoth sit-down dinner held at Madison Square Garden.
Largest provider of social services
The Salvation Army isn’t only around at Christmas. It remains the country’s largest private provider of social services, supporting nearly 24 million people living in the United States.
“The donations we collect during the holiday season not only help us provide gifts to children who would otherwise go without, but they also help us provide food, shelter, and utility assistance to those who need it most every day of the year,” according to the Salvation Army’s website.
The Salvation Army also operates its Angel Tree program in cooperation with Walmart to provide new clothing and toys to more than 1 million children in need each year.
The Salvation Army accepts donations in cash, checks and digitally through Apple Pay, Google Pay, PayPal and Venmo at any Red Kettle across the country. For more information on how to donate this holiday season, visit www.SalvationArmyUSA.org.