An international evangelical Christian denomination structured on a military model, the Salvation Army arrived in Melbourne in December 1882 with the appointment of Majors James and Alice Barker to oversee the Army's Australasian development. Supported by additional officers from Great Britain, the Army quickly gained local backing from philanthropist Dr John Singleton and Methodist missionary the Rev. John Horsley, who subsequently assumed second in command. The national headquarters were located in the newly built Young Men's Christian Association building at 65-73 Bourke Street. Purchased cheaply (in 1894) after the land boom, the building is still in Army ownership and use, and is listed on the Victorian Heritage Register.
The Army quickly integrated with Melbourne street and political life, conducting regular marches intended to evangelise the poor. Attracting criticism for public disturbance and prompting by-laws to limit street activities, the defiant marches and open-air meetings were loud, colourful displays employing brass bands and street preaching. Street-level opposition saw the Skeleton Army formed by Melbourne's larrikins, who, in skull-and-cross-bone caps, marched alongside Salvationists, often with violent consequences. The Limelight Department adopted film as a communication medium (1898-1909), producing over 300 evangelical and commercial films. Government commissions included the Commonwealth inauguration and the ceremonial opening of the federal parliament (1901).
A sense of connection between spiritual and physical wellbeing saw Salvationists immerse themselves in welfare concerns. The official opening of a receiving home for released prisoners in Carlton (1883) is regarded as the commencement of organised Salvation Army social service worldwide. Melbourne Salvationists also received the first government grant for social-welfare activities, receiving £1000 in 1886 for institutional work. Within 25 years of arrival, the Army had established 15 institutions, including the first children's home internationally at Heidelberg (1892). Bethesda Hospital in Richmond (1906-98) was Melbourne's first private hospital offering intermediate care.
Work in Melbourne's slums and gaols brought respect, while court work led to Salvationists being among Melbourne's first policewomen (1917). The reliance on the Army's mass provision of food and shelter in times of social crisis became evident in 1930, when unemployed patrons black-banned and picketed the Bennett Lane soup kitchen demanding menu variations. Wartime and disaster-relief needs saw the Social Service Centre established in 1947 for mass distribution of goods.
A change in the Army's attitude to institutional care accelerated as homeless youth began seeking accommodation at Gill Memorial Home for Men. The resulting North Fitzroy youth refuge (1978) pre-empted Crossroads, an extensive inner-city youth housing, employment and support program. The closure of Bayswater Youth Training Centre in 1987 followed. The establishment of Westcare (1981) and Eastcare (1995) continued the trend to community-based welfare services. The relocation of the outdated Gill facility to North Melbourne in 1998 marked a significant improvement in adult accommodation services, as did developments in drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs. Having initiated Australia's first free labour bureau (1890) in Melbourne, the Army established itself as major national provider of employment services with the opening of the Employment Plus national office in St Kilda in 1998.
Evangelical Army growth failed to keep pace with service developments, with social-welfare staff increasingly drawn from the professions. Many inner-urban evangelical corps have closed, making way for large suburban corps such as Waverley, boasting four congregations and 640 attending Salvationists.