Who are The Salvation Army?

The Salvation Army – what a strange name! What does it mean? Just what it says – a number of people joined together after the fashion of an army; and an army for the purpose of carrying Salvation through the land, neither more nor less than that.
William Booth, 1878

In June 1865 William Booth was invited by the East London Special Services Committee to preach for three weeks at their tent mission on a disused Quaker burial ground off Mile End Road in Whitechapel. William began preaching and became leader of this congregation, soon to become known as the Christian Mission.

Tent meeting poster, 1865
Poster advertising a ‘Tent Meeting’ held by William Booth at the Quakers’ Burial Ground, 1865
William Booth preaching at a tent meeting
William Booth preaching at a tent meeting, late nineteenth century

Under Booth’s leadership, ‘mission stations’ were opened along Whitechapel Road to cater for a growing audience. As well as engaging in evangelism, Booth’s new converts began to care for the poor and needy. In 1870 the first permanent meeting hall was established at a covered market in the Whitechapel Road known as the People’s Market. It was renamed the People’s Mission Hall and adapted to include a hall to seat 1500, a tea room, shop and soup kitchen. The spiritual and philanthropic work of the Christian Mission expanded across London and to towns beyond – the beginning of what was to be The Salvation Army.


Clapton Congress Hall
Clapton Congress Hall, opened 13 May 1882

The Salvation Army is an evangelical part of the universal Christian Church. Salvationists make a pledge with God affirming their faith in Jesus. Organised within a quasi-military structure, officers and members wear a uniform. The early Salvation Army adopted several symbols that, along with the uniform, have become instantly recognisable to the general public: a crest, a shield and a flag.



The Salvation Army has its own crest.

The original design was produced by Captain William Ebdon in 1878 and had appeared on the Salvation Army letterhead by 1879. It is similar to the crest still in use today.


Letter with the original crest
Letter from William Bramwell Booth to ‘Mr Davey’, 18 March 1879, with the original crest design [PBB/1/1]
The original crest
The original crest designed by Captain William Ebdon in 1878
The current crest
Design of the current Salvation Army crest

Each part of the crest has a different meaning:

The sun in the centre represents the light and fire of the Holy Spirit.
The letter ‘S’ wrapping around the cross stands for Salvation.
The two swords represent the ‘war of salvation’.
The seven shots at the bottom of the circle represent the truth of the gospel. 
The crown at the top of the crest, represents the crown of glory, which Salvationists believe God will give to all his ‘faithful soldiers’.



From its earliest days, The Salvation Army has used flags.

The use of flags has done more than anyone could have imagined to bind all our soldiers together and to encourage and develop the spirit of enterprise and resolution.
George Scott-Railton, 'Heathen England'
The sun flag
General William Booth preaching and holding the original Salvation Army (sun) flag, 'The War Cry', 4 August 1881

During the 1880s, many local corps were using flags of various kinds in their processions. General Booth saw the need for the movement to have one standard flag design. Early flags had a ‘sun’ in their centre, but since 1882 the standard flag has had a yellow star in its centre. This star represents the Holy Spirit. The present star is also eight-pointed; the number has been varied from time to time but no significance has been attached to this.

Norwich Citadel band marching with the flag
Norwich Citadel band marching with The Salvation Army (star) flag, late twentieth century
Soldiers of Christ sessional flag
Soldiers of the Chris sessional flag with the star design

The crimson colour of the flag represents atonement, and the blue, God’s chosen emblem of purity. The motto ‘Blood and Fire’ stands for the blood of Christ and the fire of the Holy Spirit. 



As well as having a crest, The Salvation Army also uses a shield symbol. Today the shield is The Salvation Army’s most highly recognisable logo, used across the world. The shield represents the ‘fight’ of life on a ‘spiritual battlefield’ and that God is a shield to protect and save us. 

Metal shields were worn as badges by Salvationists from the early 1880s.

Advertisement for a shield badge
Advertisement for the Regulation Army Shield badge, 'The War Cry', 25 April 1891
Shield badge
Sterling silver Salvation Army shield badge, circa.1910 [M595]
Florence Booth wearing the shield badge
Florence Booth sporting the shield badge, 1889


By 1878, when the Christian Mission became The Salvation Army, military terms and symbols had become standard across the movement. Church halls were now ‘corps’ and flags, badges, brass bands and uniforms were all used - together with a rank system for officers (indicated by uniform trimmings).
The Salvation Army uniform did not become standardised until about 1880, when a navy blue serge uniform was introduced for both men and women. Men wore a high neck tunic with a stiff collar over a scarlet jersey. Their headgear was a cap with a red band.  Women wore long navy skirts and high neck tunics with white lace-edge collars. They also wore bonnets, which had been introduced by Catherine Booth.


Salvation Army uniforms, 1880s-1990s

Due to economic necessity officers and soldiers have always had to purchase their own uniforms, and in 1890 a uniform would cost on average, three weeks' salary. Many Salvationists wore their uniforms on any occasion where formal clothes would be expected.

As Army work developed overseas, different uniforms were developed to adapt to local culture and climate. Variations included white, grey and beige uniforms – as well as sari uniforms with a Salvation Army sash.

Overseas uniforms, 1880-1990

The uniform, which has changed and developed greatly over the years, is still worn today by Salvation Army soldiers and officers.

Virtual Heritage Centre

Visit our London museum virtually.


Find out more about The Salvation Army’s founders, leaders and early pioneers.


Find out about opposition to The Salvation Army’s expansion in the Victorian era.


Find out about the role that music and song plays within The Salvation Army.