WILLIAM BOOTH was the most successful evangelist of the nineteenth century. In an age when travelling preachers counted their conversions – and used their weekly totals to advertise for new work – Booth certainly topped the performance league. And, although he never descended to such commercial practices himself, he took great pride in his unparalleled talent for saving souls. But his importance was the world he took as his parish. The poor were his natural congregation and, at least in his early days, the only people who listened to his sermons were the men and women to whom the Church would not reach out.
Blood and Fire
The Salvation Army
Booth abandoned the conventional concept of a church and a pulpit, instead taking his message to the people. His fervor led to disagreement with church leaders in London, who preferred traditional methods. As a result, he withdrew from the church and traveled throughout England, conducting evangelistic meetings.
In 1865, William Booth was invited to hold a series of evangelistic meetings in the East End of London. He set up a tent in a Quaker graveyard, and his services became an instant success. His renown as a religious leader spread throughout London, and he attracted followers who were dedicated to fight for the souls of men and women.
People have said that he poked his umbrella into the ground and talked to it, like a man mad, to attract a crowd. Others asserted that he was so striking in appearance, and eloquent in speech that he would not have needed such a device.
William Booth was born in Nottingham in 1829 in the terraced house in Sneinton now preserved as No.12 Notintone Place. His father, Samuel Booth, a nail-maker by trade was unable to come to terms with the world of machines and mass production which had made him redundant. He tried to set up a number of building companies but recurring trade recessions ruined him. “Make money”, he said to his son, and died a bankrupt. Booth’s mother was stern and unaffectionate. Life for William and his four sisters was not easy.
He began his working life as an apprentice pawnbroker and his daily contact with the poor and destitute made him concerned to do something for them. He became caught up in the working class movement of the day known as Chartism, and probably signed The Charter; but then conversion in a Nottingham Wesleyan Chapel gave him a new outlet for his strong feelings. He became a Methodist New Connexion minister – his lack of education preventing him from becoming a Wesleyan one. Supported and encouraged by his wife Catherine, he became a successful revivalist preacher. It was too successful, it seemed.
Constantly in demand as a visiting speaker he was refused permission by the Methodists, and resigned as a minister. Given to black moods of despair, he was tempted to give up preaching altogether; but then two missioners in East London heard him addressing the crowds outside the ‘Blind Beggar’ public-house, and invited him to ‘front’ a tent-mission in Whitechapel. The date of this mission, 2nd July 1865, is taken by the Salvation Army as the date of its foundation. Booth was then just 36, had no steady income, and had a wife and six children to support with a seventh on the way. After the tent meetings he set up the Christian Mission, designed to reach the poor of London’s East End. In this he was helped by a Mr. Samuel Morley (no relation) who promised him £100 a year.
The Birth of the Army
After one year Booth’s East London Mission had over sixty converts but the work was hard and dangerous. Catherine Booth said of her husband that he would ; “stumble home night after night, haggard with fatigue. Often his clothes were torn and bloody, bandages swathed his head where a stone had struck.” Yet progress was slow and it was not until 1878 that a change of name brought to the organisation a change of image and with it a fresh appeal. Booth’s movement had always had a slight military flavour; and he suggested that it should change its name to ‘The Volunteer Army’. However this would confuse it with the real ‘Volunteer Army’, the Victorian forerunner of today’s ‘Territorials’ – and an undisciplined rabble in the eyes of most people.
In a moment of inspiration Booth crossed out the word ‘Volunteer’ and wrote the word ‘Salvation’ in its place. A new concept had been born. The military aspect was attractive in the very ‘jingoistic’ atmosphere of Victorian England. Recruits were given ranks and a uniform was developed. A banner was devised in red, blue and gold with a sun symbol and the motto ‘Blood and Fire’, (“the blood is the Blood of Christ and the fire is the fire of the Holy Spirit”).
Marching bands were formed and in military style the Salvationists would march into a town “to do Battle with the Devil and his Hosts and make a Special Attack on his territory”. The emphasis was on saving lost souls by bringing sinners to repentance. This was symbolism that ordinary people in Victorian England could understand. They flocked to Booth’s banners. Such an approach would inevitably cause a reaction and opposition came in the form of a ‘Skeleton Army’ which marched under a skull and crossbones banner and attempted to drive the Salvation Army off the streets. Such was the strength of conviction of the Salvationists that they not only refused to be driven out but they also won many Christian converts from their erstwhile enemies. So successful was Booth’s new formula that the Salvation Army not only became a national movement but by Booth’s death had spread to 58 countries worldwide.
The Army Expands
Everything Booth did, as the Army gradually evolved from the East London Mission, was geared to the needs and the inclinations of the industrial poor. The bands and the banners were intended to lead them from the streets into church. The uniforms were calculated to appeal to the jingoism of Victorian England as well as making every officer a visible affirmation of belief in the cause and the corps. The reformed sinners who preached on the street corners attracted the attention of the passers-by because they were of the same social class as the men and women at whom their exhortations were directed. William Booth was God’s salesman as well as God’s soldier.
The success of his technique was swift and spectacular. Within ten years of the Salvation Army’s inauguration, Booth commanded 3,000 corps and 10,000 full- time officers, with outposts as far-flung as Iceland and New Zealand, Argentina and Germany. But his early preoccupation with the poor was more than a shrewd analysis of how he could best succeed. On his first Christmas Day in London, he realised that the East End unemployed visited the hated public houses because the bar rooms offered the only warmth and comfort in their lives. From then on he had no doubt that cold and hunger did the devil’s work.
Catherine – the stronger, cleverer and certainly more attractive partner in the near-perfect Booth marriage – had understood the hard facts of deprivation ever since, walking across wasteland, she had found a bundle of rags which, on closer inspection, turned out to be a woman who had given birth a couple of hours earlier. That incident inspired her lifelong campaign to improve the position of women in nineteenth-century society. Combined with her defence of women’s right to preach – supported by irrefutable scriptural evidence – her campaign to raise the age of consent and change the laws on prostitution and procuring made her one of the great social reformers of her age. Because of her, William Booth became a social reformer too.
The Cry of the Poor
In 1891 Booth returned to the social concerns which had so moved him as a pawnshop apprentice. He published a controversial book about the plight of the poor in England called ‘In Darkest England and the Way Out’. In it he outlined a programme to help the poor and needy, something he termed ‘The Cab Horse Charter’, claiming that in England, cab horses were better cared for than millions of the poorest people:
When a horse is down he is helped up, and while he lives he has food, shelter and work. Despite opposition, Booth put his programme into action. His ideas had caught the imagination of several leading businessmen; and they helped to finance the project. The first thing to be set up was a labour bureau to help people find work. He purchased a farm where the long term unemployed could be retrained for work; a bank was set up to make small loans for workers to buy tools; and a missing persons bureau was started. Booth’s book sold 200,000 copies in the first year. Nine years after its publication The Salvation Army had served 27 million cheap meals, lodged 11 million homeless people, traced 18,000 missing persons and found jobs for 9,000 unemployed people.
Booth lived to the ripe age of 83. He was a Christian activist who saw his twin objectives as the saving of lost souls and righting the social injustices of his time. He never lost his zeal for the Gospel, his love of his Lord or his heartfelt compassion for the poor. This is an extract from his last public address given on May 9th 1912:
While women weep as they do now, I’ll fight; while little children go hungry as they do now, I’ll fight; while men go to prison, in and out, in and out, as they do now, I’ll fight; while there is a drunkard left, while there is a poor lost girl on the streets, while there remains one dark soul without the light of God, I’ll fight – I’ll fight to the very end
Three months after that speech, on 20th August 1912, William Booth was ‘promoted to Glory‘.
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