The Salvation Army & its role in substance abuse recovery

Commonly known today for its second-hand stores, homeless shelters, job training programs, and food pantries, one of the Salvation Army's earliest missions was the rehabilitation of people addicted to alcohol.

Many people don't realize that this continues to be a significant mission of the Salvation Army, which provided inpatient and outpatient substance abuse treatment programs, adolescent substance abuse treatment programs, and other addiction services.

The Salvation Army was an outgrowth of the ministries of William Booth, an English Methodist minister, whose wife, Catherine Booth, was also involved in the work. Founded as the Christian Revival Association in 1868, it was renamed the Salvation Army in 1878.

The Salvation Army came to the United States in 1880, its early American work headed by Booth's daughter, Evangeline Booth. Eliza Shirley also came from England to establish the SA in America.

Booth considered a
lcoholism to be a disease, often inherited, always developed by indulgence, but clearly a disease.

Salvation Army workers carried on an outreach program to alcoholics on the street. Originally, the SA did not provide specialized treatment, but people who were addicted to drink made up a large percentage of those who made use of its homeless shelters and soup kitchens.

In the early years, SA shelters would turn away men who were intoxicated. However, large number of intoxicated people seeking service prompted the SA to set up detoxification programs, which were places where intoxicated men could sober up in safety.

As many of the poor, homeless, and destitute people who the Salvation Army ministered to were addicted to alcohol, Booth's strategy was to attract them with food and shelter. The SA would provide temporary employment, providing a sense of stability, while teaching responsibility and the value of sobriety.

Since then, the Salvation Army has become one of the largest rehabilitation programs for transient men addicted to alcohol.

Over the years, the Salvation Army tried a variety of approaches. In 1911, the Jersey City SA organized a "Boozer's Brigade," which was a modified ambulance that picked up drunken men, transporting them to the SA's Industrial Home for detoxification. Using buses in Manhattan, men were transported to recovery-oriented gospel meetings.

In 1939, the Salvation Army opened its first facility designed specifically as a treatment center for men addicated to alcohol, known as the Detroit Harbor Lights Corps.

That same year, a Philadelphia Salvation Army center started an Alcoholics Anonymous Group. During the 1940s, the SA established a program that integrated medical assistance, professional counseling, Alcoholics Anonymous, and Christianity, and several SA centers adopted formal casework and counseling services for men addicted to alcohol. In some, social workers were employed to provide more structured treatment programs.

Salvation Army practice has long encouraged the hiring of men who were rehabilitated through SA programs. Thus, many of the leaders of the organization were those who had entered the program seeking help with their own addiction to alcohol or other substances. Some of these men, such as Tom Crocker, went on to have a signficant effect on the organization.

Although its early mission was to men, the Salvation Army now offers its services to men, women, and children, including LGBTQ support.

Besides substance addiction programs, the SA also offers disaster relief services, homeless shelters, food pantries, anti-poverty services, job training, veteran services, assistance for those suffering domestic abuse, prison services, after-school programs for children, services for the aging, and other services. The Salvation Army is also, and has always been, an evangelical part of the Christian Church.

The Salvation Army

  • The Salvation Army website
  • Slaying the Dragon: The History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America, Second Edition, pp. 101-103