The red kettles and ringing bells of the Salvation Army have been a fixture on the landscape of the Christmas season for so long, no one alive remembers when it wasn’t so.
How those red kettles came to occupy their spots on city sidewalks is a story that has its origin in 19th century America. But the broader explanation begins – a little earlier and farther away – with a man named William Booth.
Born in Nottingham, England in 1829, Booth was apprenticed to a pawnbroker at, age 13, to help support his mother and sisters after his father died. But young William had a calling to spread religion.
As an adolescent he began preaching on the streets of Nottingham. When he turned 20, Booth moved to London to continue itinerant preaching – and pawn broking, which he gave up when he became a Methodist minister. In London he also met and married Catherine Mumford, a pious young lady who would be his lifelong companion. Together they raised eight children.
Booth eventually decided to leave the formality of the church to return to his itinerant preaching roots. With Catherine at his side, he began traveling the country to save the souls of the poor and “undesirables” of English society.
In 1865, Booth was invited to hold a series of evangelistic meetings in London’s east end. The services were immensely popular, and the Booths decided to remain there, ministering to the people other churches didn’t really want – “thieves, prostitutes, gamblers and drunkards.”
Booth’s organization grew like gangbusters. In 1867 he had 10 full-time employees; seven years later he had 42 evangelists working for him and over 1,000 volunteers serving under the name “The Christian Mission.”
As his followers fanned out to preach the gospel, they became known as the Hallelujah Army, and they referred to Booth as “General.” But in 1878, while editing an annual report, Booth noticed the statement, “The Christian Mission…is a volunteer army.” Booth’s son, his second-in-command, said they worked too hard to be called volunteers, so “volunteer army” was crossed out and replaced with the name that would become famous worldwide: “Salvation Army.”
As the Army grew it spread to other nations. On March 10, 1880, George Railton, one of Booth’s commissioners, and seven women officers landed in New York City. The Salvation Army had arrived in America.
Within three years, Railton and the seven “Hallelujah Lassies” had expanded operations to 12 states, including Ohio.
So what about the red kettles? From the beginning, Booth had emphasized the importance of helping the poor. He famously declared, “Nobody ever got saved while they had a toothache.” Providing food, services and clothing for the destitute was always an integral part of the Army’s mission.
In 1891, a Salvation Army officer in San Francisco – Captain Joseph McFee – wanted to provide a free Christmas dinner for the poorest of the poor in his city, but he had no way to pay for it.
In his youth, McFee had been a sailor in Liverpool, England. He remembered that on the dock where boats unloaded there was a large kettle called “Simpson’s Pot.” Passengers passing by would throw money into the kettle to help the local poor.
McFee decided to place a kettle at the Oakland Ferry Landing with a sign that read: “Keep the Pot Boiling.” He collected enough money to put on a Christmas dinner for a thousand of San Francisco’s poorest residents.
From there, the idea “went viral.” In 1897, with kettles nationwide, the Salvation Army provided 150,000 Christmas dinners for folks who couldn’t afford their own.
Today, the red kettles show up wherever there’s a Salvation Army chapter – which is pretty much everywhere. There are over 8,000 locations in America with more than 3 million volunteers assisting 30 million people. And there are “Army posts” in 122 other nations.
The Salvation Army is now the second largest charity in America, and red kettle donations account for over a hundred million dollars to help the Army’s causes, which include soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and drug and alcohol counseling.
William Booth was certainly a visionary, but even he likely never imagined how far-reaching his mission would become. When he died, in 1912, over 150,000 mourners came to pay tribute to the man who mustered an army, helped spawn the red kettles, and gave us a Christmas tradition worthy of the season.