I wrote a Christmas column this past December about the Salvation Army in Utah. The Salvation Army has been a charity I’ve respected since my long-ago Las Vegas ward partnered with the Salvation Army to provide Thanksgiving and Christmas baskets — they furnished a minimum list of items to include, the Latter-day Saints assembled the boxes (usually with added food items), and the Salvation Army picked them up and delivered them to families. They were so well organized and so efficient that the Relief Society could have taken lessons from them — and you know there aren’t many organizations I would say that about.
Since writing that column, I have been on the lookout for evidence of how the Latter-day Saints have treated Salvationists in the past. I have some indications, but not conclusive ones (the 1870s branding by the Salt Lake Tribune of any Salvationist-harrassing crowd of hoodlums as “young polygamists” is not reliable testimony), that we may have jeered them, perhaps even thrown refuse at them.
This week I came across an 1893 Juvenile Instructor editorial, presumably written by George Q. Cannon, or at least approved by him, concerning some harrassment of Salvation Army preachers in Chicago. The editor condemned that behavior, noting that American civilization should have progressed beyond that in the 400 years since Columbus’s discovery of the continent, and especially in the city that was hosting the world that year at the Columbian Exposition (the world’s fair where the Mormon Tabernacle Choir competed for a prize). The Salvation Army, noted the writer, had many admirable qualities:
[T]here is much that is worthy of admiration in the methods and operations of the Salvation Army. They may be in the minority in assuming that in the military form and in the mimicry of war there is aught that lends strength or symmetry to the gospel of peace. By many their tastes may be considered vulgar, since they seek converts in the byways and the slums; yet the Savior of mankind did not withhold the message of salvation from the humblest and most despised sinner.
They may lay less stress upon the life eternal than upon improvement in the mortal plan, and thus by narrow constructionists be accused of casting the gospel’s priceless pearls before swine; yet the earthly life is but a preparation for the eternal — an indispensable and, in its consequences, all-important part of it.
And much of the good they do must be accepted without cavil at its true value. They are a consecrated band of workers for the betterment of the poorest of human circumstances. They are never happier than when relieving the wants of the needy; and the aid and comfort they unostentatiously furnish the wretched in localities where such an element exists would be a credit to the most liberal charity organizations of the land. No religionists, no friend of human kind, can feel to ignore such claims as these upon public consideration and esteem. Their exponents are certainly entitled to toleration and decent treatment at least.
We cannot believe that any reader of the Juvenile Instructor has ever been one of a party to ridicule or disturb the services of these people. The Latter-day Saints themselves know too well the value of religious liberty to deny it to others.
Our mission upon earth is not to tear down and ravage, but to improve and build up. Out duty is to point out men’s errors, not to treat them with scorn and contumely unless they are willing to be measured by our standard. As to the value of a human soul, whether high or low according to worldly notions, we think there can be no question.
We hope no one will deny to the Salvation Army the credit it deserves for the good it does and tries to do; and we are sure no believer in the true gospel will so far depart from the teachings of the Master as to offend and treat despitefully even the most unpopular of those who in sincerity are seeking the improvement of mankind.
This is obvious counsel, and I imagine that almost anyone reading this far is probably nodding in agreement.
But do we really follow this counsel, which has been repeated in different words and by different leaders through the years? I’m reminded of how many times I’ve snickered at witty remarks about the way some church prays, or sings, or dresses its clergy, or responds to the Spirit. Just last week in Sunday School, someone — who meant no harm, I’m sure — laughed at the “silliness” of a church that had erected a small “sprinkling”-type baptismal font on the bank of the River Jordan. I’m embarrassed that as the teacher I let the ridicule pass, because I didn’t know how to respond without embarrassing the ward member and derailing the lesson.
We have legitimate differences of doctrine (say, over the method of baptism), and we sometimes must defend our right to practice our beliefs in the face of disapproval (say, over baptism for the dead), and to preserve the kind of society we find best to raise our children in (say, concerning liquor laws). But none of that should ever descend to mockery of the forms of others’ sincere worship. Our obligation is to recognize in every church “the credit it deserves for the good it does and tries to do.”