When Andrea Mehesy, Danish-born wife of Salt Lake City’s premier furrier, wanted to bring Christmas cheer to some of the city’s neediest children in 1908, she knew exactly who to ask to find those children: Ensign D.S. Baldwin of the Salvation Army.
The Salvation Army had its roots in the ministry of William and Catherine Booth who sought out the poorest of the poor in London’s slums and people in the extremes of crime, prostitution, and drunkenness. They preached an evangelical Christianity of hope and spiritual direction to those whom other churches were not seeking.
The Booths and their followers adopted the name The Salvation Army in 1878. In 1879, the first Salvationists came to the United States, with formal missions being established in the Eastern U.S. in 1880. As early as 1887, and perhaps earlier, they reached Utah.
Because their structure was wholly unlike other Christian churches, because they focused on society’s outcasts, and because they adopted dress and proselyting styles unique to themselves – most colorfully, their street preaching signaled by the music of a small marching band – Salvationists were subject to ridicule and low-level official harassment.
Utahns treated them no differently at first, mocking their missionaries as “Hallelujah Lassies.” The Tribune laughed at the “damp powder” used in their “skirmishes” that summer, but also dutifully reported on their fitting out of a tidy headquarters that fall. Local residents heckled them during their street meetings, but when heckling got out of hand, as it did in November 1887 when John R. Hunt disrupted their preaching, the city police intervened; Hunt paid a $7 fine for his unruly behavior. In August 1889, the Rev. J.B. Thrall of Salt Lake’s First Congregational Church stepped between four Salvationists and a mob of 300 men and boys whose rowdiness was threatening to turn violent.
In 1890, two Salvationists were arrested for disturbing the Sunday peace by blowing horns and beating drums preparatory to an open-air meeting. Some Salt Lakers objected to the unfairness of the charge, noting that Sunday funeral processions were often accompanied by bands playing dirges, and that the city’s churches rang bells throughout the Sabbath. One Salt Laker wrote a letter to the editor, noting that the city had just gone through an election, where “Drums, fifes, brass bands, tin oil cans, horns and tin pans have been brought into use, accompanied occasionally by sky rockets, roman candles, firecrackers, bombs, bonfires, etc.” Where was the fairness in objecting to a cornet and a bass drum?
The Salvationists gradually won the trust and respect of other Utahns. By 1900, the Salvation Army had begun to serve holiday meals to the homeless. They served a Thanksgiving dinner to more than 300, mostly men and boys, that year, and in December they delivered 200 baskets of donated food, including turkeys, to families in need, regardless of religious affiliation.
So in 1908, Mrs. Mehesy, a Jewish woman, turned to the Salvation Army to find Christian children who might otherwise go without a holiday. Ensign Baldwin gave her the names of 20 little boys and girls, and Mrs. Mehesy invited them to a party on Christmas Day. When the children arrived at the elegant Mehesy home on East 500 South, they found a huge Christmas tree festooned with tinsel and candles. Tied to its branches were sleds and wagons and dolls and tea sets, which Santa Claus – who had, said Mrs. Mehesy, agreed to stay in Salt Lake all day just so he could meet the children whose homes he had not been able to find the night before – untied and distributed. Twenty children feasted on cakes and cookies, and left happy.
In the century since the Mehesy party, the Salvation Army has woven itself ever more firmly into the fabric of Utah life, becoming a trusted conduit for the donations of those who can help with those who need a helping hand.
Ardis E. Parshall (AEParshall@aol.com) is a Utah historian whose parents’ LDS ward partnered with the Salvation Army every year to provide Christmas food baskets.