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Sunday, 17 February 2013

William Booth

William Booth was born on April 10, 1829. He was the only son of four surviving children born to Samuel Booth and Mary Moss in Sneinton, Nottingham, England

Booth's speculative builder father was wealthy by the standards of the time, but during his childhood, as a result of bad investments, the family descended into poverty and Samuel Booth became an alcoholic. William said of him "He set his heart unduly upon worldly gains and was miserable when his fortune melted away."

In 1842, Samuel Booth, who by then was bankrupt, could no longer afford his son's school fees, and 13-year-old William was apprenticed to a pawnbroker.

A "careless" lad up to the age of 15, after a bad illness William's spirit became awakened and he joined a Wesleyan chapel. Inspired by a hellfire preacher from USA, he was converted to Methodism. He then read extensively and trained himself in writing and in speech, becoming a Methodist lay preacher.

On his 23rd birthday Booth left pawnbroking and became a full-time preacher. He travelled through England as an itinerant preacher of the Methodist Reform Church and took on several minister's jobs.

In 1861 Booth resigned from the Methodist ministry as he was unhappy that the annual conference of the denomination kept assigning him to a pastorate, the duties of which he had to neglect to respond to the frequent requests that he do evangelistic campaigns. Instead he became an independent evangelist.

William Booth in about 1862

In 1865 Booth began work as unattached evangelist heading up 'The Christian Mission' aimed at the unprivileged classes that lived in unspeakable poverty in the East End of London.

The 1878 circular for William Booth’s Mission's Christmas appeal was in dialogue form. One of the questions was “What is the Christian mission?” to which the answer was “a volunteer army”. Suddenly Booth seized a pen, crossed out “volunteer” and wrote instead “salvation”, thus coining the title “Salvation Army” for his movement.

In 1878 his mission adopted the name Salvation Army as churches were reluctant to accept his converts.

In 1880 William set up the first Salvation Army branch in USA.

Booth explained the authoritarian framework of his Salvation Army by remarking that if Moses had operated through committees the Israelites never would have got across the Red Sea."

William first met Catherine Mumford when he came to preach at her church. She had to go home sick from the meeting, and he escorted her. They soon fell in love and became engaged on May 15, 1852. During their three year engagement, Catherine constantly wrote letters of encouragement to William as he performed the tiring work of a preacher.

Catherine and William Booth

William and Catherine married on June 16, 1855 at Stockwell Green Congregational Church in London. Their wedding was very simple, as they wanted to use their time and money for his ministry. Even on their honeymoon Booth was asked to speak at meetings.

Catherine bore William eight children and they were reared with an iron disciple. His granddaughter Catherine Bramwell-Booth (1884-1987) was a regular on British chat shows including Parkinson in the 1970s and 80s. His son William Bramwell (1856-1929) succeeded his father as general of Salvation Army.

Booth once ordered his children's pet dog to be shot when it snapped at a servant. He was surprised when they were heartbroken and retrieved the carcass in order to have the pelt made into a rug. The Salvation Army leader was bewildered when they received this with hysteria rather than gratitude.

Catherine was a temperance advocate and banned her husband’s medicinal port.

Willam and Catherine lived on a small income partly settled on him by a friend and partly derived from the sale of his publications.

Booth's Salvation Army pinched the pop songs of their day and added Christian words. The bearded wonder's reaction to this was "Why should the devil have all the best tunes." Their loud processions with their drums and bass and dancing Christians disrupting the Sunday peace and quiet annoyed a lot of people.

As a preacher Booth was a populist crowd puller. For example he was known to demonstrate the easy road to Hell by sliding down the stair-rail of his pulpit. A champion of the poor he railed against those who “reduce sweating to a fine art, who systematically and deliberately defraud the workman of his pay, who grind the faces of the poor and rob the widow and the orphan.”

In 1904 Booth took part in a 'motorcade' when he was driven around Great Britain, stopping off in cities, towns and villages to preach to the assembled crowds from inside his open-top car.

Booth's Salvation Army learnt that Under 16-year-old girls were being exploited as prostitutes. They were trapped and lured into brothels in London by adverts in county newspapers requesting "domestic help needed." Lured inside, drugged, raped and shipped off in caskets to Brussels and Antwerp, they were delivered to businessmen who had put in orders. The Salvation Army exposed this trade in a series of articles in the Pall Mall Gazette in the mid 1880s. As a result a 400,000 petition persuaded Parliament to change the age of consent from 12 to 16.

Booth's 1890 In Darkest England and the Way Out contained proposals for the physical and spiritual assistance of the great mass of down and outs. As a result a scheme was launched the following year for the spiritual and social betterment of the submerged tenth. Booth asked for £100,000 - more than that came in.

In Darkest England And The Way Out not only caused a sensation after its 1890 release, but it set the foundation for modern social welfare schemes.

In their early days Booth's "hallelujah band" of converted criminals and others met violent opposition. A skeleton army, supported by brewers which opposed Booth's teetotalism as a threat to their trade, was organised to break up meetings and for years the rank and file and the general himself incurred fines and imprisonment for breaches of peace. In 1882, 642 Salvation Army officers including women were assaulted and 60 Salvation Army buildings damaged. Even leading evangelical, Lord Shaftesbury referred to him as "anti Christ."

When King Edward VII invited Booth to be officially present at his 1902 coronation ceremony, the public changed their views. By 1905 he was the cat's whiskers. The Salvation Army General went on a tour of the country and was received in state by many mayors and corporations.

Reverend William Booth, General of the Salvation Army

William Booth was 83 years old when he died on August 20, 1912 at his home in Hadley Wood, London. He had been in poor health for several years. At the three day lying in state at Clapton Congress Hall 150,000 people filed past his casket.

On August 27, 1912 Booth's funeral service was held at London’s Olympia where 40,000 people attended, including Queen Mary, who sat almost unrecognized far to the rear of the great hall.

The following day Booth's funeral procession set out from International Headquarters. As it moved off 10,000 uniformed Salvationists fell in behind. Forty Salvation Army bands played the ‘Dead March’ from Handel’s Saul as the vast procession set off.


Booth was buried with his wife Catherine Booth in the main London burial ground for 19th century non-conformist ministers and tutors, the non-denominational Abney Park Cemetery in Stoke Newington.

Memorial to William and Catherine Booth in Abney Park Cemetery

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