General William Booth by George Edward Wade.
The year 2012 marks the one hundredth anniversary of the death of William Booth (1829-1912), the founder of the Salvation Army and an outstanding English religious leader and social welfare pioneer. Although his ideas for remedying social ills in Victorian England were largely utopian, many of the schemes proposed and implemented by Booth and his wife anticipated modern social relief work.
Childhood and Youth
William Booth was born on April 10, 1829, at 12 Notintone Place, a red-brick terrace house at Sneinton, a south-eastern suburb of Nottingham, as the son of Samuel Booth, an impoverished builder of houses for artisans, and his second wife Mary. He had three sisters, Ann, Emma and Mary, and an elder brother, Henry, who died on his second birthday. At age six he was sent to Biddulph's Academy in Nottingham, and also, together with his sisters William attended Sunday School. William completed six years at school and at the age of 13 he was apprenticed to an Unitarian pawnbroker, Francis Eames, in the poorest part of Nottingham in order to earn a meagre living. He hated his job, but the contact with human misery in the pawnbroker's shop aroused in him a lifelong vocation to help the poor and destitute in finding a way to a more respectable life. When Samuel Booth, became ill and died in September 1842, William's mother had to support herself and her four children by keeping a small shop in a poor district of Nottingham selling toys, needles, and cotton.
Conversion and Marriage
William Booth grew up in poverty during the Hungry Forties and in the period of Chartist agitation, but instead of joining working-class radicalism, he found his vocation in Methodism, which, as he believed, was more concerned with social issues than the Anglican Church, in which he was reared, or the Unitarian Church. At that time Booth began to attend the Methodist Broad Street Wesley Chapel, and in 1844 he had a conversion experience. One night when he was going home through the streets of Nottingham from a religious meeting, he realised that he “went downhill morally” (Bennett 28) and had to renounce sin in order to start a new life which would be entirely devoted to the salvation of the lost and destitute people. In 1846, when he heard the American revivalist James Caughey, who came to preach in the Wesley Chapel, under his influence he decided to preach in the open air to the poor. Booth delivered his first sermon when he was only seventeen in a cottage in Kid Street, Nottingham, to a group of 'unchurched' urban poor who wanted to live a true Christian life. Next he went to preach in the Bottoms, Nottingham's infamous slum area.
In 1849, William Booth, aged 21, moved to London, where again he found employment in the pawnbroking business of William Fillmer in Kennington Common, South London. On weekdays he worked hard almost until midnight, but on Sundays he was active in a Wesleyan chapel. In 1852, William Booth worked as a full-time Methodist preacher in Spalding, where he met Catherine Mumford, a high-principled Methodist, who shared his interests in evangelisation of the poor and social work. He married her on June 16, 1855, at Stockwell New Chapel. The Booths had eight children, seven of whom became world-known preachers and leaders.
Catherine Booth. William Booth in 1862
In 1854, William Booth attended the Reverend Dr. William Cooke’s training home-school for New Connexion Methodist Ministers in London. He became ordained and began work as an assistant minister in London. He conducted religious services among the poor and soon he became known as an efficient preacher. In 1855, William Booth became a Methodist New Connexion Minister in Gateshead on Tyneside, and in 1856 he revisited his native Nottingham with an evangelistic mission. He was greeted by the town authorities, and the effect of his visit was, as he noted, seven hundred religious conversions. (Stroup 102) In the summer of 1857 the Booth family moved to Brighouse, a grimy milltown in West Yorkshire, where William was appointed preacher at the old Bethel Chapel. It was in Brighouse that William and Catherine Booth waged their first war against the employment of seven-year-old girls in a local mill. In January 1859, Booth started a series of revival meetings at Bethesda Chapel in Gateshead. His preaching was very popular and the chapel was packed with people. However, in 1861, Booth left the New Connexion because he found it too passive and ineffective. He then became an independent itinerant preacher travelling widely around the country. Booth preached in Cornwall, Cardiff, Birmingham and many other towns.
Finally, he and his wife settled in London in 1864 and in the following year they formed the independent Christian Revival Association, organised after the Wesleyan methods, which was renamed the East London Christian Mission, later the Christian Mission and finally, the Salvation Army. The main goals of William Booth's organisation were street preaching, personal evangelism and practical philanthropy. Booth's initial intention was to offer pastoral care to the poorest groups in society who were generally left alone by many churches. William Booth, like his wife, was engaged not only in evangelical work but also in the pressing social issues of late Victorian England. Unlike many Victorians he did not make a difference in his social work between the deserving and undeserving poor. The Salvation Army tried to offer spiritual and social help to both the “honest” poor and to those who lived by vice, but wanted to reform. As part of their strategy, which combined evangelistic and welfare work, the Booths opened a cheap food shop, free medical dispensary, a match factory, where employees earned decent wages, and a bank for the poor. Booth visited and ministered in some of the vilest slums in England.
General of the Salvation Army and His Staff
William Booth late in life. [Click on image for additional information.]
In the Christian Mission William Booth assumed the title of the General Superintendent, but his followers called him “General” for short. In 1877, one of Booth's local evangelists in Whitby presented his leader to the audience not as “The Rev. William Booth,” but as “The General of the Hallelujah Army.” For the first time the title of General was announced publicly, and Whitby was the town of England where his organisation was first described as an Army. (Begbie 404) After the establishment of the Salvation Army in 1878, which adopted a quasi military structure, Booth retained the title of General and his employees (officers) were called accordingly, majors, captains, lieutenants, and cadets.
[Click on image to enlarge it.]
William Booth consolidated leadership of the Salvation Army within his family. His wife Catherine exerted a major influence on the various schemes undertaken by the Army. The oldest son Bramwell Booth became “Chief of the Staff,” and after the death of his father, succeeded him as the General of the Salvation Army. Ballington Booth and his wife Maud Booth established the Salvation Army in the United States, but after disagreements with Bramwell, they founded a similar organisation, Volunteers of America. Catherine Booth-Clibborn (Katie Booth) established the Salvation Army in France. Emma Moss Booth became the Principal of the Salvation Army's first training school for women. Next she went to India with her husband Major Frederick Tucker to organise the Army's activity. Finally, the couple went to the United States to manage the Salvation Army there. Herbert Henry Howard Booth was in charge of the Limelight Corps and the editor of Soldiers of the Cross. Marie Booth was an invalid and she did not hold an official function in the Salvation Army. However, she received the rank of the Staff Captain. Evangeline Cory Booth was Field Commissioner between 1888 and 1891. Next she was appointed Territorial Commander of the United States, and subsequently, Territorial Commander of Canada. Between 1834-39, she was the Army's first female General. Lucy Milward Booth was the Territorial Commander for Denmark, Norway, and South America.
Like his wife, William Booth wrote a number of tracts and articles for internal publications of The East London Evangelist, renamed The Christian Mission Magazine; The Salvationist, The War Cry, The Officer and All The World; and also for British and American magazines. Booth's first book, How To Reach the Masses with Gospel, was published in 1872. Earlier he had compiled several hymnbooks, and some of his sermons were printed in Christian magazines and as pamphlets.
The General's Home. [Click on image to enlarge it.]
William Booth's most important work is In Darkest England and the Way Out (1890), a classic in the field of social welfare, which he wrote with the assistance of the journalist W. T. Stead. His other works include The Doctrines and Discipline of The Salvation Army (1881), Salvation Soldiery (1890), The Doctrines of the Salvation Army(1891), and Religion for Every Day (1902).
Death and Legacy
Grave of William and Catherine Booth in Abney Park Cemetery, Stamford Hill, London N16.
Towards the end of his life William Booth enjoyed a great fame and respect in England and overseas. In 1898, he was invited to open the US Senate with a prayer, and in 1904 King Edward VII invited him to Buckingham Palace. He was also made a Freeman of London and granted an honorary doctorate by the University of Oxford. William Booth travelled extensively in England and overseas holding salvation meetings and establishing the Salvation Army mission stations in almost 60 countries and colonies during his lifetime. He made trips, amongst others, to Stockholm, Melbourne, Johannesburg, Jerusalem and Tokyo.
On August 17, 1912, The War Cry, The Salvation Army weekly, reported that the General, who was blind in one eye, was “not so well. ” Three days later, on August 20, 1912, he died at his home in Hadley Wood, London in 1912. His body lay in state at the Congress Hall in Clapton. The funeral, conducted by his eldest son Bramwell Booth, attracted vast silent masses lining the streets and watching a procession of 7,000 uniformed Salvationists and forty Salvation Army bands. William Booth was buried in the nondeminational Abney Park Cemetery next to his wife. Wreaths were sent, amongst others by King Edward VII, Kaiser Wilhelm, and the American Ambassador Whitelaw Reid. The American poet Vachel Lindsay wrote a poem dedicated to him, “General William Booth Enters Heaven.“
The most important single theological influence on William Booth was John Wesley, who said: “The Gospel of Christ knows of no religion, but social; no holiness but social.” (593) Booth believed that religion without a strong social message lacks its relevance. The Salvation Army's first General implemented Wesley's words in his revivalist evangelicalism which helped him develop various social schemes aimed at improving the material and spiritual conditions of the destitute and marginalised people. General Booth and his wife Catherine enacted the war against poverty, squalor, homelessness, destitution and unemployment. Together they stand prominently behind the modern welfare practice. Their concern for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of society contributed significantly to the introduction of more effective forms of human welfare services and social care.
- The Origin and Early Development of the Salvation Army in Victorian England
- Catherine Mumford Booth: The "Mother" of the Salvation Army and an Early Christian Feminist
- William and Catherine Booth: A Chronology of Founders of the Salvation Army
- The Hallelujah Lasses
- Bibliography and Further Reading
- Opposition to the Salvation Army: Questions in Parliament about the Torquay Harbour and District Act, 1886
Last modified 27 September 2012