William and Catherine Booth were remarkable people, not because of their own making, but because they were completely given over to God and His mighty vocation for their lives.
They followed the calling of God wherever it led them, and never looked back. They experienced extremely difficult days, persecution, and failures, but their determination to go with God did not falter. That is what made William and Catherine Booth the kind of people they were. That is why history remembers their names and their story.
William Booth, commonly known as the Founder of The Salvation Army, was, like John Wesley before him, a tireless organizer. He began his Army in East London in 1865 as a mission to the poor of that part of London with the intention of sending his converts back to the established churches. East London was at that time the home to tens of thousands of people who barely survived on the menial wages of the most noxious of industries, and poverty and degradation were descriptive of the lives of people living in East London at the time. Proper Londoners looked down on people in East London, and about 1880 derisively labeled East London the East End. But Booth was convinced that these are “our people” and launched a mission in the face of great odds and in extreme circumstances.
However, his mission took hold and evolved into The Salvation Army in 1878, and Booth had, for all intents and purposes, a denomination on his hands. And by the time he died in 1912 The Salvation Army was in 58 countries around the world. But that is only half the story. The move to London in 1865 that set off a series of events ending in the founding of Booth’s mission had more to do with his wife, Catherine, than with William.
By that time she had a wide reputation as a preacher. A woman preaching was scandalous to many religious Victorians, but to others it was a source of either inspiration or curiosity. And so, for whatever reason, Catherine was receiving invitations apart from her husband. One such invitation came from a group of Christians in London, and in 1865 William and Catherine moved to London so that Catherine could fulfill her destiny.
Providentially her parents lived in Brixton, just outside of central London, and she had a place to stay while engaged in her preaching. William initially went back to the north to continue a preaching campaign there, but eventually came back to join Catherine in London, and history tells us the rest of the story. But we turn first to how this story began and unfolded. William Booth was born in Nottingham, England on April 10, 1829 into a nominally religious family. He was one of five children of Samuel and Mary Booth, and he was baptized two days later at the local Sneinton Anglican Church, St. Stephen’s. Samuel Booth’s fortunes ebbed and flowed, but basically throughout Booth’s childhood the family was poor and struggling.
Because he had to be the primary means of support for his mother and three sisters (William’s only brother died years earlier) after his father’s death, William reluctantly continued to be an apprentice to a pawnbroker, a job that he had entered at age 13 when the family was in financial ruin. In that dreaded occupation he was a witness every day to the horrific poverty brought on by the Industrial Revolution. Nottingham was a hotbed in central England of social upheaval during Booth’s boyhood. The Chartists were the group best know for fighting for social reform, and were active in Nottingham, laboring to unite the workers of the industrial cities. Even then Booth seemed acutely aware of the daily tragedies brought about by the poverty surrounding him, undoubtedly heard Chartist orators, and may have even been attracted to the Chartist cause by them.
However, he ultimately experienced solace from his own physical and spiritual impoverishment in a vital religious life with the local Methodists. Although he had been baptized in the Anglican Church, William found a nurturing home in the Wesleyan chapel where he was, by his own witness, saved by faith in Christ and converted to true Christianity. He was inspired by the Methodist preachers, the robust singing of the hymns of Charles Wesley, and the opportunities for witness and service that Methodism supported and promoted.
He and a like-minded friend, Will Sansom, were active Methodists, conducting open-air meetings, preaching in cottage prayer meetings, and helping some of the local poor. Booth’s nineteenth year was a difficult one. He was out of work, and was discouraged that none of the members of the Methodist church who had the means offered him employment, missing an opportunity to care for the neighbor as Christ had commanded. Booth was forced to move to London where he found employment — again as a pawnbroker’s assistant — but still reserved Sundays for preaching, as had been his custom back home. When he moved to London he knew no one except his sister, Ann, and her husband, a fact rather remarkable when one considers the worldwide fame accorded to him by the time of his death. In April 1852 he left the pawnbroker’s shop and, supported by a man named Mr. Rabbits, devoted himself to preaching.
It was also through this friend that he met Catherine Mumford, with whom he fell in love immediately. A three-year courtship culminated in marriage on June 16, 1855. Catherine Mumford, born on January 17, 1829 in Ashbourne, Derbyshire, England, had an easier and more fulfilling childhood than the man she would marry twenty-six years later. Her father was able to provide a relatively stable home for the small family—Catherine, her mother, and one brother. Catherine was educated at home by her mother, who was ever suspicious of the company Catherine would keep if she went to school outside of the home, and of the evil influence of that company. Although her mother was protective and ever vigilant, this was no problem.
Catherine was close to her mother, and was a diligent student with great interest in the Bible. She read the Bible through eight times by the time she was twelve years old, a remarkable accomplishment. The family eventually moved to Brixton and Catherine and her mother, Sarah, ever-faithful Methodists, began attending a Methodist chapel known as Binfield House in Binfield Road, Clapham. One Sunday they heard a lay preacher by the name of William Booth, and two weeks later Catherine Mumford and William Booth were introduced to each other by Mr. Rabbits.
Who could have imagined that such an introduction would be so providential! An engagement followed, and William and Catherine were married by the Reverend Dr. David Thomas, with only two witnesses to the marriage. Catherine had occasionally attended Dr. Thomas’ church, and had great admiration for him. However, the marriage did not guarantee that their lives would be immediately settled. William was still searching for some leading by God, some clear sign from God for the direction in his life.
William Booth had been considering many possibilities for Christian service, including ministering on a convict ship to Australia or moving to America. He thought about joining the Congregationalists, but their Calvinistic doctrines as well as his innate love of Methodism kept him within the Wesleyan fold. He joined the Methodist New Connexion, one of the many Methodist denominations that sprung up after Wesley’s death, and was ordained in 1858.
Both William and Catherine felt that William would be best suited to this denomination because it seemed to embrace many of the teachings of John Wesley, including clear proclamation of the gospel of salvation to the sinner and the gospel of sanctification to the saint. William studied for the ministry under the Reverend Dr. William Cooke, one of the leading lights in New Connexion Methodism, and, according to George Scott Railton in The Authoritative Life of General William Booth, a person whom William Booth would later recall as “a man of beautiful disposition. . .and an imposing presence” (p. 41).
After two appointments with that denomination, William resigned over conflict with his leaders — he preferred itinerant evangelism to the settled ministry of the pastorate. However, his leaders thought otherwise and knew better. After a period of independent ministry with Catherine, who had begun preaching in 1860, William followed her to London so that she could fulfill a preaching engagement while she lived with her parents in Brixton.
It was in London that William Booth formed a ministry in East London, and found his destiny. He began preaching in the area of Mile End Waste, a park area stretching back to medieval London and in Booth’s day one used for various religious and political activities. He attracted a following of like-minded evangelists with whom he founded a mission in 1865 that would have several name changes until resolving that the mission would be called The Christian Mission.
The original intention of The Christian Mission–to save people and send them back to the churches—eventually proved impossible, largely because the people were attracted to the preaching of both William and Catherine, and also because the churches were reluctant to welcome into their folds those lowly sorts from East London. Life in East London was raw and dangerous.
There was a downturn in the economy during this time as well as a rise in unemployment. For thousands of people the only employment available was in the sweated trades, the mass manufacture of cheap goods in the most vile circumstances possible to imagine. And just when William Booth’s mission was hardly a year old, greater tragedy struck that place that would eventually be known as the East End.
In My East End: Memories of Life in Cockney London by Gilda O’Neill we read the following: That autumn, a cholera epidemic killed almost 4,000 East Enders and left many more sick and ailing. When the costs of treatment—such as it was—and of burial were added to the rocketing bread prices, the result of a disastrous harvest, the financial burden on the people already close to pauperism was catastrophic. Then the winter of 1866-7 brought weather so severe that the remaining river trades were brought practically to a halt. (p. 31).
It is amazing that any mission could survive in those circumstances, but constant financial support from the preaching of Catherine in the West End of London enabled William to concentrate on establishing the Mission in East London on firm financial and theological ground. Occasionally when William had to recuperate from illness Catherine was in charge of the Mission, a task to which she was well suited by temperament, by her ability to preach, and by firm theological convictions Christian Mission locations — called “Preaching Stations” — eventually flourished well beyond East London in various parts of Great Britain, and by 1878 this fledgling organization was getting established.
There were a total of 57 Christian Mission Stations, and while preaching the gospel, converting the sinners, and raising up the saints were the primary responsibilities of The Christian Mission workers, social ministries were carried out by the local stations as there was local need. The one social ministry that was undertaken by all Christian Mission Stations was a feeding program called “Food for the Millions.”
This operated under the direction of the eldest Booth child, Bramwell Booth, and a missioner by the name of James Flawn from 1870 to 1874, and although it closed in 1874 it would be a preview of the extensive organized social ministry that would be undertaken by The Salvation Army years later. These ministries were a reflection in Christian Mission Wesleyan theology to obey the command of the Lord to love God and love one’s neighbor, the heart Wesleyan holiness theology.
The Christian Mission naturally evolved into The Salvation Army in 1878, bringing military terminology and warfare evangelism to the service of the Gospel. British flair for the military, the wearing of uniforms, the use of brass bands, and marching in the streets served this transition well, and the broader British public eventually realized that they had another Army in their midst, albeit a Christian Army of some sort.
Some members of the Mission had already used military terminology, and Mission workers envisioned themselves as being at war with sin. Also, with the increase of Christian Mission Stations and William’s dislike for the constraints of committees, William abandoned supervising committees and took control of The Christian Mission, and the leaders of the Mission approved. William Booth, already comfortable with the title of General Superintendent of the Mission, naturally became the first General of The Salvation Army in command of officers (ministers) and soldiers (laypersons), identified by their uniforms and military language. The Army used military tactics to take the gospel to the world. All eight of the Booth children became officers, and Catherine Booth, while never commissioned as a Salvation Army officer nor ordained by any denomination to the Christian ministry, nevertheless labored tirelessly on behalf of The Salvation Army in preaching, teaching, writing, and ministering on behalf of the poor until her Promotion to Glory on October 4, 1890.
Her followers gave her the honorific title of “The Army Mother”. It was Catherine who had helped to shape so much of the Army life. She was a champion of women in ministry and by the time of her death thousands of women had joined the Army, many of them having opportunities for ministry worldwide that would never have been the case had it not been for Catherine Booth. She was an avid preacher and teacher of the doctrine of holiness.
She helped to shape the Army’s sacramental view that all of life is holy and that no particular observance of baptism or the Lord’s Supper as outward signs were needed to demonstrate this great truth. And so the Army took a non-observance position with regard to the sacraments in 1883 largely because of the influence of Catherine Booth. She was influential in shaping the Army’s identity with her insistence on the wearing of uniforms for officers and soldiers, and helped to design the original uniforms. And make no mistake—she was a woman with as strong a will as her husband.
She often advised people to get “settled views” by which she meant her views! Catherine Booth’s last public appearance before a great crowd was in the City Temple at the invitation of the Reverend Dr. Joseph Parker in June of 1888. She was so inflicted by cancer that she had to insist that at the conclusion of the sermon she would not be able to meet the people in the congregation. After she preached and everyone had left the church, Catherine Booth was escorted home by Salvationists. In the meantime, Salvationists around the world were reaching out to the poor and the disenfranchised with the good news of the gospel for the poor. Many efforts took place and William Booth would learn about them after they had been launched.
And concerned for the poor and the disenfranchised since his Nottingham days, William Booth was encouraged as Salvationists around the world met the needs of people in difficult circumstances in response to the Lord’s command to love God and love the neighbor. The love of neighbor became a natural response to the love of God and a desire to obey His command. The compassion of Salvationists varied as local needs demanded, but eventually included half-way homes for released prisoners, homes for the homeless, orphanages, food depots for the poor, legal aid, and factories with safe working conditions and fair wages, to name but a few. The social ministry became internationally expansive.
In 1890 William organized such diverse acts of mercy and wrote In Darkest England and the Way Out, a book carefully outlining the needs of and the remedies for the poor in urban industrial England (the “submerged tenth”), and written to raise funds from the British public to support that ministry. This is still the one written work associated with William Booth by a public that knows very little else about Booth. The book carefully outlined the Army’s social campaign.
However, Booth, ever the evangelist with an eye to full salvation, stated this for all the public to read: It will be seen, therefore, that in this or in any other development that may follow, I have no intention to depart in the smallest degree from the main principles on which I have acted in the past. My only hope for the permanent deliverance of mankind from misery, either in this world or the next, is the regeneration or remaking of the individual by the power of the Holy Ghost through Jesus Christ. But in providing for the relief of temporal misery I reckon that I am only making it easy where it is now difficult, and possible where it is now all but impossible, for men and women to find their way to the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ (pp. 3-4).
But by this time Booth had become a military strategist, and he knew that before going to the British public with his idea for ministering to the “submerged tenth” of the British population, he had to get his officers and soldiers on board with this. And so in 1889, before publishing In Darkest England and the Way Out, he published an article entitled “Salvation for Both Worlds” in the Army’s missionary magazine, All The World.
Here he explained the direction into organized social ministry that the Army would be taking, and provided a biblical and theological groundwork for that direction. Most of his loyal followers applauded this expanded vision for the Army, but of course a few rejected it, feeling that it would detract from the primary task of converting sinners and making saints. But the Army made the move forward. The year 1890 proved to be a turning point for Booth and his Army in more than one way, however. At the time of the launching of the Darkest England Scheme William Booth lost his companion for life, Catherine. As mentioned, she died of cancer on October 4, 1890, and Booth and the family were devastated by this loss But William continued on with his ministry in spite of the loss of Catherine, and in spite of other family difficulties and losses.
Three of his children and their spouses eventually left the ministry of The Salvation Army, and one of his daughters, Emma, died in a railroad accident in America. There were also defections from the Army and those who left often went public with their disagreements with the Army leadership. But William, again the strategist, continued in his worldwide role as the General of the Army and preacher of the Gospel, using every means available for preaching. He became famous for his seven motor campaigns throughout Great Britain, and made several trips overseas, including six trips to America. And William Booth’s Salvation Army became admired throughout the world in spite of difficulties and hardships.
Booth lived to enjoy much personal recognition, including the Freedom of the City of London and of Nottingham, receptions by His Majesty King Edward VII of England as well as Queen Alexandra, the Emperor of Japan, and other heads of state. He also received the Doctor of Civil Law degree from Oxford University. And by 1912 he lived to see the Army flag waving in 58 countries. It is little wonder that in August of 1912 the business and traffic of London ceased for the funeral procession of General William Booth as 10,000 of his Salvationist soldiers marched behind their fallen leader to the place of burial beside his beloved Catherine in the Abney Park Cemetery. The commendations of this Founder of an Army were international.
He provided the world with an enduring legacy in the history of Christianity — a grand vision for an Army of God winning the world for God. Roger J. Green, Ph.D., D.D. Professor and Chair of Biblical Studies and Christian Ministries Terrelle B. Crum Chair of Humanities Gordon College Wenham, MA