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Messengers of the Word
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Messengers of the Word
BORN IN 1829 to a poor family in Nottingham, England, William Booth was forced to leave school at the age of 13 years to earn a meagre living for himself, his mother, and three sisters, after his father’s death. Apprenticed to a pawnbroker, the sight of hungry, desperate mothers pawning their wedding rings to feed their families became etched on his memory. At the tender age of 15 years, William experienced a profound religious conversion and knew with sudden clarity that “God should have all there was of William Booth.” Without delay he began open-air preaching in the tradition of his hero John Wesley, choosing the poorest districts of the city.
The move to London
As he grew from youth to manhood, the pressing needs of his family drew William to London to seek better employment, and this he found at a pawnshop in Walworth. Hating the work which made him more painfully aware than ever of the abject poverty of so many people, he found satisfaction in joining the local Methodist Church where he became a well-respected lay preacher. William’s release from the pawn broking business came when a Methodist Reformer heard him preach and recognized his potential. He offered William 20 shillings a week as a travelling evangelist with the Methodist New Connexion, and the young man’s destiny took shape. While serving at a church in Brixton, William met and fell in love with Catherine Mumford, a deeply consecrated young woman, his ideal partner, and they were married in 1855.
Changes in prospect
For two years William travelled with Catherine from coast to coast conducting energetic revival meetings, and there were said to be an average of 20 converts a day. But serving for a term in Brighouse, Yorkshire, and later in Gateshead, Tyneside, William became somewhat disheartened, feeling he should be doing more to reach the ordinary people. The New Connexion were no longer sympathetic to his energetic evangelistic activities, and he abhorred their attitude of social rigidity and exclusiveness. “Religion,” he said, ‘means loving God with all your heart, and your neighbour as yourself.” With Catherine’s support, William broke with the Methodist New Connexion, but with a wife and four children to support, his prospects were dismal.
The Booths carried no dogma, but along with their belief that the unconverted were destined for eternal punishment, they felt deep pity for the outcast, and hated the dirt, the squalor, and the suffering. Somehow William spared money from his meagre resources to hire secular buildings even a circus tent to which the lost and degraded could come. His chief concern was to stand up in the market place and shout out a message of hope and salvation to all lost creatures in need of comfort and hope. This concern finally found its focus among the poverty-stricken folk of London’s East End in the mid1860s, when William and Catherine started a movement called “The Christian Mission.” It grew quite slowly, being but one of several hundred charitable and religious groups trying to help the poor at that time. Then an unexpected touch of inspiration transformed the scene completely. A new name and a new approach caught the imagination and the enthusiasm of thousands
A banner, a uniform, a rank. Military-style brass bands, and a marching campaign to lift the spirits of the people and enlist soldiers of the cross! And a General to lead the battle.’
William Booth’s fiery style of preaching fitted the military image a little flamboyant and melodramatic but it roused thousands to repentance and hope. After early opposition, the movement took hold nationally and internationally. Money was poured in to finance such projects as homes for the homeless and for released prisoners, legal aid for the poor, and practical help for alcoholics. The military tactics were reflected in “The War Cry” journal; seven bonneted lasses “laid siege” to New York; daughter Kate “opened fire” in France. And the world’s concept of Christianity was transformed. General William Booth concluded a speech at the Royal Albert Hall on 9th May. 1912, with these words:
“While women weep as they do now, I’ll fight; while little children go hungry as they do, I’ll fight; while men go to prison, in and out, in and out, as they do. 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.’’
After his death three months later, 150,000 people filed past the old warrior’s casket, and at his funeral Salvation Army officers knelt in love and respect, along with thieves, tramps, harlots, the lost, and the outcast.
The General had laid down his sword.
CO-FOUNDER OF THE SALVATION ARMY
CATHERINE’S BIRTHPLACE was Ashbourne, Derbyshire. Born in January 1829, she was a grave and sensitive girl, given a strong Christian upbringing by her father, a Methodist lay preacher, and her deeply religious mother. By the time she was 12 years old, Catherine had read her Bible through eight times. At 14 she became seriously ill and was confined to bed, but her mind was remarkably active, and being concerned about the dangers of alcohol she wrote articles for a Temperance magazine. At 16 she made her full commitment to the service of God.
By 1844 the family had moved to London and Catherine became an active member of the Methodist Church in Brixton. There she met William Booth, and their firm friendship led to marriage in June 1855. Actively sharing in all his evangelistic work, enduring many hardships, and at the same time raising a large family, Catherine developed her own reputation as an outstanding speaker and campaigner especially for the rights of women and children. She and William parted company with the Methodists who were uncomfortable with such religious zeal, and eventually founded The Christian Mission in the East End of London, devoted to preaching the Gospel and working for social reform which they saw as their commitment to serve God and man.
Catherine organized “Food-for-the-Million” shops where the poor could buy a cheap meal, and at Christmas food was distributed to hundreds of needy families. One of her campaigns was against the abuse of women and children as “sweated labour.” She discovered red-eyed women stitching 11 hours a day in poorly lit tenements for a wage of nine pence, while a man doing similar work in a factory earned five times as much. She learned that in the match-making industry the use of dangerous substances caused many early deaths among the workers, mainly women. Catherine and others tried to shame employers into paying higher wages and providing better working conditions for these women. A persuasive speaker to the outcasts of society, she was well able also to gain the ear and the financial support of the wealthy for the Mission’s charitable work. In 1885 she took part in a campaign, which resulted in the passing of the Criminal Law Amendment Act, which protected young girls by raising the age of consent to 16 years.
The best men?
When in 1878 the movement adopted the new title, “The Salvation Army,” women officers enjoyed equal rights with men. This caused much hostility at first, as woman s place was generally regarded as being in the home. But Catherine’s example was outstanding. In spite of poor health and a workload that would have broken many a man, she raised eight children, all of whom became active in the work of The Salvation Army. Catherine Booth was influential in the setting up of the movement, contributing to the formulation of its basic principles of conduct and its position as to matters of belief. On the lighter side, she also designed a flag, and bonnets for the ladies, which for many years unmistakably identified as “Salvationists” those courageous women and girls whose commitment often took them into danger among the wilder elements of society.
Catherine died of cancer in October 1890, at 61 years of age. A small commemorative plaque sits above the door of the humble house where she was born. But perhaps the best tribute was from her husband. Though opposed in his earlier years to the idea of women taking an active role in the Gospel ministry, he admitted in later life that ‘the best men in my Army are the women,” and for him, Catherine was undoubtedly the best of all.