“Generals in God’s Army”

The chief danger of the 20th century will be religion without the Holy Ghost, Christianity without Christ, forgiveness without repentance, salvation without regeneration, politics without God, and Heaven without Hell.1

William and Catherine Booth grew up at the dawn of the industrial revolution. Unemployment, homelessness, labor abuses, and child prostitution were rampant in the British Isles. Both William and Catherine, from very young ages, were moved by the plight of the poor and the devastating social injustice of their time—and both longed to serve the Lord in a mighty way. Neither separately might have changed the world for Christ, but together they were an unstoppable force for spiritual revival and social reform that would change history. Best known for founding the Salvation Army, which evangelized the poorest areas and provided food and shelter for the homeless, the Booths were also tireless advocates for the rights of factory laborers, working women, and homeless children.

William’s and Catherine’s Childhoods
William was born in Sneinton, Nottingham, England in January of 1829, the only son of his three surviving siblings. By the time he was thirteen, his family was too poor to continue sending him to school, so they apprenticed him to a pawnbroker. The next year his father died leaving his family in poverty. During the next six years of his apprenticeship, he started attending church and came to a personal revelation of Christ. He read the Bible hungrily and taught himself how to write and speak articulately in order to become a Methodist New Connexion minister (or lay preacher). He disliked the pawn broking business, and as soon as he was released from his apprenticeship in 1849, he headed for London to find more suitable work and opportunities to preach. Unfortunately, all he found were few chances to preach and only another pawn broking position offering much needed room and board.

Catherine was born in Ashbourne, Derbyshire, England in January of 1829, and suffered from several debilitating illnesses growing up rendering her housebound for most of her childhood. During her times of convalescence, she studied the writings of John Wesley and Charles Finney among others, and by the age of twelve had read through the Bible eight times. Even as a youth, she was concerned about society’s ills and wrote articles for magazines about the dangers of drinking alcohol. She was an avid supporter of the national Temperance Society and from an early age, felt called to preach. She also looked to reform the church’s view of female ministers.

Divine Appointments 
In 1851, William joined the Wesleyan Reform Union. It was about and a year later, on his twenty-third birthday in April of 1852, that he left pawn broking to work full-time for the Reformers at their headquarters. It was during several meetings of this group that a mutual friend, Mr. Rabbits, introduced Catherine and William. The attraction between them was immediate, and after a long carriage ride home after the third time they met, they knew their lives would ever be connected.

William struggled between his affections for Catherine and his longing to become a traveling evangelist. After many sleepless, prayerful nights, barely one-month after that carriage ride, they became engaged on May 15, 1852. However, the two weren’t married until three years later. In the interim, William was sent to Spalding in Lincolnshire, some one hundred miles away, to oversee several churches there.

Throughout this period of separation, William and Catherine grew ever closer through daily correspondence by letter. They shared their deep affection for one another, as well as their political, social, and religious views. In addition, Catherine penned several well-articulated discourses on the biblical foundation regarding the equality of men and women in ministry. Most importantly, however, they encouraged each other in their faith and trust in the Lord.

Reunited At Last
William and Catherine were finally wed on June 16, 1855. William was so successful in his preaching duties on the Spalding circuit that he began to receive invitations from other areas. Booth was accepted as the Connexion’s traveling campaigner but was given only a small stipend. It was a hard way to start life for the newlyweds, especially with a baby on the way, but they continued strong in their passionate pursuit of winning souls for Christ. In 1857, William was given charge of another pastorate. And a year later, he became a fully ordained minister and was transferred to yet another church. Frustrated at being “pinned down” by pastoral duties, William made the decision to follow his heart and give up his position with the Methodist New Connexion.

In 1861, William launched out as an independent preacher, and without any guarantee of income, the Booths traveled the country with a renewed evangelistic fervor. By now they had four children and had to rely completely on the goodwill of the churches where William preached. At Catherine’s urging, William began holding tent meetings in London in 1865. It was during this time that William would come home bruised and bloody from the persecution he received on the streets. However, Evangelistic outreach to the roughest parts of London would be a turning point for the Booths and provide the framework for the remainder of their ministry efforts together. By the close of 1865, the Booths were the parents of seven thriving children, three boys and four girls. Their youngest, and eighth child, Lucy, was born in the spring of 1868.

The Rise of the Christian Mission
It was later that same year the Booth’s founded the Christian Revival Association, which soon became known as the East London Christian Mission. Before long stations were opened in other parts of town so the work became known simply as the “Christian Mission.” For the next decade, the Booth’s labored under the banner of the Christian Mission all throughout London establishing what became twenty-six mission stations training and launching hundreds of voluntary speakers, holding thousands of meetings in all sorts of places, and increasing their numbers with every passing year.

The Booths outreach efforts focused on the poorest areas, the slums and red light districts—they taught repentance, salvation, and Christian ethics to the most destitute including alcoholics, criminals, and prostitutes. They preached outside pubs and dancehalls, so often taking business away from the bars and public houses that a “Skeleton Army” was formed to harass and assault them as they ministered. It was dangerous work and many of the workers were severely injured and bloodied. The Booths and their volunteers, however, wore their wounds like badges of honor.

It was also during this time that the Christian Mission took on a social service aspect opening their “Food for the Million” soup kitchens and offering shelter to the homeless for a small price, or payment in labor hours. The Booths believed that to preserve a person’s dignity and sense of self-worth that they should be required to pay something for the assistance they received, even if all they had was time and two hands. Many of the mission beneficiaries became full-time volunteers – some speaking at meetings, others working as skilled laborers – to promote the growing cause.

The Volunteer Army Becomes The Salvation Army
In 1878, fifty-one new mission stations were opened. In May of that year, the “Volunteer Army” that the Booths were equipping to battle evil, officially became known as the “Salvation Army.” By early 1879, Booth was in command of 81 mission stations staffed by 127 full-time evangelists with over 1,900 voluntary speakers holding 75,000 meetings a year. In March of 1880, the Army opened work in the U.S. soon to be followed by missions being established in France, Australia, and India.2 In the next ten years stations would be opened in Switzerland, Sweden, and most of the countries in the British Empire including Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, and Jamaica.

Booth was referred to as the General, he and all the Salvationist wore a uniform, and they carried a banner of red, blue, and gold with a sun symbol and the motto “Blood and Fire”—for the blood of Christ and the fire of the Holy Sprit—and were accompanied by bands marching military style playing military songs that were given Christian lyrics. The bands also played traditional drinking songs that they substituted Christian lyrics to, and of course, an occasional hymn. The Army was a sight to behold and hear as they marched down the street waving their banner in full military regalia, drawing crowds as they played loud, victorious songs with a full array of instruments. Soon, because of their good works and persevering love, they became more welcomed and supported by both the local citizenry and public officials who offered donations and police protection during their open-air crusades.

The Dangers of Match Making 
During the 1880’s, the Booths, Catherine in particular, were concerned by “sweated labor” where women and children worked long hours for low wages in very poor conditions. One particularly unfortunate circumstance was found in the cities’ match making factories. The chemicals used for dipping the end of the matches were so toxic that the workers teeth would corrode before they were eventually poisoned to death. It was not uncommon for the entire side of the face to give way to decay, turning green and then black, leading to a certain death.

The Booths began campaigning to force the company to use safer chemicals. They publicized the affects of the toxic gases on the workers, and inquired about compounds used in other countries that were safer. The company insisted the matches would be prohibitively expensive and refused to change their methods.

In a bold move, the Booths set up their own match making factory that was well ventilated and used safer chemicals. They began selling their matches advertising that no workers were harmed in their manufacture and scolding shop owners who continued to carry the harmful matches. Although the Booths couldn’t ultimately keep the factory open, combined with the bad press and competition, the old factories did make the necessary changes and provided working environments equal to what the Booth factory boasted.

Exposing the White Slave Trade
In one of the boldest moves, and certainly one of the most widely publicized in the late nineteenth century, the Booths, with the help of a journalist named W.T. Stead, set out to expose the white slave trade. This was a child prostitution ring that took advantage of poor, struggling families by buying their young girls to be placed in homes with false promises of a better future. The girls were put to work in brothels and sold to other prostitution rings throughout Europe.

Mr. Stead posed as a buyer and “purchased” a young girl from her mother with the help of a Salvationist who had been saved out of this prostitution trade. Stead documented the girl’s travels right up to the point she was to be shipped off to the European mainland. When the story was printed in the paper, there was such a public outcry that Parliament was forced to change the legal age of consent for young women from thirteen to sixteen. This public exposure also brought the force of the law down on the brothels. But this wasn’t the end of the story.

Those who were profiting from the prostitution ring found the girl’s father and charged Stead with kidnapping. By now the girl was saved and working at a Salvation Army mission in France. After a long and much publicized trial, the Booths were finally absolved of any charges brought against them as a result of their association with Mr. Stead, and the journalist spent three, short months in prison. In the end, the Booths were recognized for all the good work they were doing and the Salvation Army received a boon of public support and publicity.

The Darkest Days
In 1888, Catherine was diagnosed with cancer. During her last years, the Booths, with the help of Mr. Stead, wrote a book exposing the tribulations of the poor and proposed solutions for widespread social reform. The Darkest England and the Way Outoutlined the formation of employment offices, small loan bureaus, immigration and missing person services, and other social welfare strategies that seem the norm today.

The book was published in 1890, the same year that Catherine entered paradise. The book was revolutionary and became a bestseller for that time period selling two hundred thousand copies its first year. It has been reprinted several times, most recently in 1970. Widely read and considered a forerunner to textbooks on social change, The Darkest England and the Way Outleft a legacy of social awareness that seems commonplace today.

Brought Before Kings
After Catherine’s death and the success of The Darkest England, the Salvationist Army exploded onto the world scene. In that decade, the Salvationist Army continued to gain momentum under William’s leadership and its presence was felt in all spheres the world over. By 1900, the Army was in twenty-five countries and had become a commonly known and widely accepted Christian service organization. Booth was highly respected by the general public, heads of state, and the mass media, all of who used the title of “General” with great reverence. He was granted audiences by the world’s great leaders. In 1904, William was invited to visit with King Edward VII at Buckingham palace, and the following year was awarded a prestigious badge of honor on behalf of the city of London.

Throughout the last ten years of William’s life, he tirelessly worked on behalf of the poor and continued to oversee the growing work of the now worldwide Salvation Army. In 1907, General Booth made his last visit to the United States. Yet in 1909, at eighty years old, he set out on a six-month tour of England by motorcar, a novelty of that day. And then in 1910, he traveled throughout northern Europe and Italy encouraging the troupes only to return to England for yet another motor tour around the country.

He made his last public appearance on May 9, 1912, addressing seven thousand Salvationists at Albert Hall in London. He was now blind and his health had begun to deteriorate rapidly. He lost consciousness on August 18, and went home to Glory on August 20, 1912.

What are you living for? What is the deep secret purpose that controls and fashions your existence? What do you eat and drink for? What is the end of your marrying and giving in marriage—your money-making and toilings and plannings? Is it the salvation of souls, the overthrow of the kingdom of evil, and the setting up of the Kingdom of God? If not, you may be religious . . . but I don’t see how you can be a Christian.”3

Works Consulted

  1. Trevor Yaxley, William and Catherine: The Life and Legacy of the Booths, (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers, 2003):
  2. .www.sacollectables.com/postcards_bios/boothbio.htm
  3. T. Yaxley, William and Catherine: 63.