This article looks at William Booth and the Salvation Army. Social justice is also discussed.

Source: Reformed Perspective, 1996. 7 pages.

'Generally Speaking'

William Booth was born in 1829 in Nottingham, England. His youth was bathed in poverty – the poverty you read about in Dickens' novels – and at the impressionable age of thirteen he was apprenticed to a pawnbroker. His father, Samuel Booth, a builder of sorts, was illiterate and of no religious persuasion. He died when William was fourteen. His mother, Samuel's second wife, ran a small shop in a poor Nottingham district, where she sold household wares.

Considering the fact that many preschool and older children worked the mines and barely survived in workhouses, young Booth was fortunate. Although misfortune surrounded him wherever he looked, he was able to eke out a living. God also protected him from greed. In a position where he could have lined his own thin pockets a bit by the dismal unfortunates who came in to pawn their goods, William did not take advantage of the situation. And then two Christian people invited the teenager to attend chapel – to hear God's Word. The words of eternal life and truth moved the young pawnbroker and the Holy Spirit flooded his heart. Not long after Booth's conversion, he heard American revivalist James Caughey speak in Nottingham. Caughey was a disciple of Charley Finney. Impressed by the number of people who seemed to commit themselves to Christ, William Booth became persuaded that “soul-saving results may be calculated upon when proper means are used for their accomplishment” (Norman Murdoch, Christian History, Issue 26, Vol. IX, no. 2, p. 6).

There is no doubt that Finney's methods (and Caughey's) were deplorable – that they flouted Biblical (Calvinistic) doctrine. They plainly taught that unbelief was a “will-not” instead of a “cannot” and that a person could freely choose to become a Christian; they allowed women to pray in public meetings and used an “anxious bench” at the front of the church; they used informal language in prayer instead of reverent language; and they worked on emotions. All in all, Finney's evangelical methods are best summed up in these words by lain Murray: “… measures were deliberately calculated to [exploit emotions].” They included such things as denunciatory language designed to alarm, pointed remarks to particular individuals delivered in public, naming unconverted people in prayer, using inquiry meetings to make individuals pray or “submit,” and other similar practices (Revival and Revivalism, p. 243.)

Booth's evangelism, modelled to some extent after Finney's, had a lasting and forceful impact. It attracted wife-beaters, cheats, bullies, prostitutes, thieves, adulterers, gamblers and drunks, and these people, through the grace of God, were changed. Commenting on Booth's ministry, Spurgeon said, “If the Salvation Army were wiped out of London, five thousand extra policemen could not fill its place in the repression of crime and disorder.” Presently, more than one hundred years after its official beginning, the Army members minister in 91 countries of the world. Booth's story is certainly one worth reading about.

Ministry to the Destitute🔗

William observed a great many people in trouble during his formative years. He saw five-year-olds, dead-drunk, reel around in alley-ways; he saw skeletal, alcoholic mothers force beer down babies' throats. You could get drunk for a penny and dead-drunk for tuppence. He saw children fashion toys out of refuse. He walked through numberless stinking tenements. And no matter where he walked, the stench of poverty and starvation hit him. The Thames was nicknamed “The Great Stink.” Sewers flushed directly into it creating an appalling odour, forcing cholera epidemics on those who had no home to call their own.

After William's conversion, he belonged to a Wesleyan Chapel. When he sat down in church, however, and listened to the comfortable sermons, he became increasingly uneasy in his pew. The gaunt, dying people of the street haunted the church aisle. Out of conviction that they too should hear the Gospel, he began preaching to them on street corners, collecting a fair handful of destitutes. Marching them to the Wesleyan Chapel, he opened the front door and led them to the first pew. It was a motley crew, comprised of roughs and drunkards. The congregation was shocked. If you must bring anyone, they told William later, at least use the side door and please sit at the back. It galled William, and together with friends he began to hold nightly open-air meetings, after which they invited people to meetings in cottages. Using lively songs, short exhortations calling for a decision, he made sure that the sick and converted were visited. (He recorded all their names in a notebook.)

By the age of twenty, William had laid down a set of rules for himself – six rules by which he would live for the rest of his life: “I will,” he wrote down,

  1. rise every morning sufficiently early… and have a few minutes, not less than five, in private prayer;
  2. avoid all babbling and idle talking in which I have lately so sinfully indulged;
  3. endeavour … to conduct myself as a humble, meek, and zealous follower of the bleeding Lamb, and by serious conversation and warning endeavour to lead others to think of their immortal souls;
  4. read no less than four chapters in God's Word every day;
  5. strive to live closer to God, and to seek after holiness of heart, and leave providential events with God;
  6. read this over every day or at least twice a week. God help me, enable me to cultivate a spirit of self-denial and to yield myself a prisoner of love to the Redeemer of the world.Christian History, ibid, p. 7 

It became more and more clear to Booth that the local churches were failing the lower class. Private pews stood empty for months, whereas the poor, no matter what their attendance, were expected to rise and curtsey as the parson strode through the aisle. “Read your Bible,” one minister told an alcoholic. “I can't read,” responded the man. “Then come to church,” the minister said thoughtfully. “I've only my working clothes,” confessed the man. The parson turned away. His solutions to this problem and to others like it were at an end. The poor were seen as a class apart and their souls were not really counted. William Booth, however, irritated with this type of attitude, began to count without stopping.

The Wesleyan pastor finally proposed that William prepare himself for ordained ministry. William did so and accepted official recognition by the Wesleyan church. By 1850, however, after he had moved to London from Nottingham as an assistant pawnbroker, the Wesleyan church felt they should call William to task, because he did not adhere to the order and regulation of normal worship services. When he would not respond to their discipline, they removed his membership from the church. Not daunted by this put-down, Booth became pastor to the Reform Methodists in Spaulding. He was only twenty-one years old.

It was at this time that William Booth first met Catherine Mumford. Born in Derbyshire in 1829 to Methodist parents, she was a sweet but strong-minded girl. During her adolescence she had back problems which confined her to her home. While convalescing, she studied both the Bible and history, also reading Finney, Caughey and Wesley voraciously. She became increasingly convinced that women, as well as men, should be free to preach the Gospel and share Christian ministry. Catherine's father was an occasional lay preacher, as well as a carriage-maker, who became an alcoholic later on in life. Her mother was a devout woman who doted on her. Catherine met William at the home of friends where she heard him recite a temperance poem. The recitation very much appealed to Catherine who, very likely because of her father's alcoholism, had acquired a taste for abstinence. A friendship sprang up between Catherine and William – a friendship which developed into deep love. In 1855 the young couple married and set up housekeeping together.

Staying within the confines of the Methodist church, Booth spent a number of years as an evangelist before he was appointed to a settled ministry in 1857. Catherine taught children's classes and led women's societies. But she was not happy. She saw no reason why a woman's ministry should not equal that of a man's.

In 1865, unable to adhere to the way the Methodist church handled services, Booth finally left. Moving to the East end of London, to the poorest districts of that city, he began to work on his own.

Neither William nor Catherine believed that they could persuade people of the truth of the Gospel if their bellies growled with hunger; nor did they think people would repent while they had cold feet. For this reason, they combined “soup” with “salvation.” By 1872 they had five Food-for-the-Million Shops under way, where the poor could buy hot soup day and night and where a three-course dinner could be had very cheaply.

The Booths' own family life was a happy one. The eight children who were eventually born to them were loved and cared for deeply. At an age where many children did not reach adulthood, it was a miracle that all the little Booths lived. Catherine once remarked, “Perhaps because I gave them so fully to God, He did not think it necessary to take them away from me.”

William's evangelism became more and more distinctive. He converted pubs to chapels. He drew people with lively music. He preached damnation as well as the cross and held audiences spellbound. An excerpt and description from one of his sermons taken from the book The General next to God, by Richard Collier, reads as follows:

Ah! Who is this? he asked, almost whispering, conjuring up a vision of a man come suddenly into view. What is this man doing? He is – counting. Coming up close to us, a hellish gleam in his eyes, he whispers, 'See, see, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, twenty, thirty!'

Then, like a lost soul, his cry rang out, Ah! THAT WAS WHAT I SOLD HEAVEN FOR – THAT WAS WHAT I SOLD MY SOUL FOR. See those lights gleaming up yonder. There is the gate of Heaven, there is the throne of God, shining in the faraway distance. Ah, for this I sold it all, I sold it all! That is Judas, the prince of backsliders. And if ever you go to Hell, he will come to you, and count his silver over in your ears, AND YOU WILL SHOW HIM THE PRICE YOU PAID FOR YOUR SOUL TOO!

In the long, sick silence that followed, the audience, coming slowly back to earth, heard Booth's whiplash finale: What shall a man give in exchange for his soul? What are you giving? You, YOU, you?

There was no middle-of-the-road policy in the Army. With conversion, as they knelt at the penitent form, or mourner's bench, men and women risked ridicule when they openly confessed their sins and said that they resolved to spend the rest of their lives in public service to God.

Booth believed this was the system whereby men and women had to accept their problems wholeheartedly.

Most of the Army's converts could neither read nor write and their testimonies were simple, spoken in the vernacular of the day. There were moments of laughter. One man went to the penitent form so often, he was thought to be mad. When asked why he went so often, he responded by saying that he thought the preacher would be in trouble if no one was saved at that particular service. Another man insisted on giving the devil, held up to be very real person, two weeks notice. As an employer, the man insisted, he would expect the same consideration.

Army Life🔗

The early Army years were financially poor years. In time there were benefactors who gave large amounts of money, keeping the work afloat. William would not accept help unless it was on his own terms. Those who enlisted in the Army were zealous. They certainly couldn't have been in it for the glamour or the money. Booth's rules and regulations saw to that. A Salvationist's private life was under his Commanding Officer's scrutiny. Marriage outside the Army was forbidden. Women officers could not marry until two years after entering the services. If officers did become engaged, William's standing advice was “Put a few hundred miles between them. That'll show whether or not they're in earnest.” Salary was lean and before it was given out, everything else had to be paid for – gas, fuel, the water bill, the hall's rental fee, and so on. It was the duty of those in the Army to secure rooms in the toughest part of town – and to live there as a living example to others. Three hours a day had to be given up to visiting converts. These were tough rules but they ensured the fact that if someone elected to live under them, he or she was sure to be a devoted Salvationist.

Thousands of young men and women devoted themselves to the rules and regulations of the rigorous Army life that Booth set up. Where were they from and why did they join?

About one-fourth of the early devotees were women. They were, no doubt, inspired by the somewhat early feminist writing and speeches of Catherine Booth. To those who pointed out that females were forbidden to preach by the Word of God, she responded:

If (a woman) has the necessary gifts and feels herself called by the Spirit to preach, there is not a single word in the whole book of God to restrain her, but many, very many, to urge and encourage her. God says she shall do so, and Paul prescribed the manner in which she shall do it, and Phoebe, Junia, Philip's four daughters and many other women actually did preach and speak in the primitive churches.

We commend the following texts from the New Testament to the careful consideration of our readers. “And I entreat thee also, true yoke-fellow, help those women which laboured with me in the Gospel, with Clement also, and with my other fellow-labourers” (Philippians 4:3). This is a recognition of female labourers, not concerning the Gospel, whom Paul classes with Clement, and other of his fellow-labourers. Precisely the same terms are applied to Timotheus, whom Paul styles a “minister of God, and his fellow-labourer in the Gospel of Christ” (1 Thessalonians 3:2).

As we have before observed, the text 1 Corinthians 14:34,35 is the only one in the whole Book of God which even by a false translation can be made prohibitory of females speaking in the church; how comes it then, that by this one isolated passage, which, according to our best Greek authorities, is wrongly rendered and wrongly applied, woman's lips have been sealed for centuries, and the “testimony of Jesus, which is the spirit of prophecy,” silenced, when bestowed on her?

Thank God the day is dawning with respect to this subject. Women are studying and investigating for themselves. They are claiming to be recognized as responsible beings, answerable to God for their convictions of duty; and, urged by the Divine Spirit they are overstepping those unscriptural barriers which the Church has too long reared against its performance.

Whether the Church will allow women to speak in her assemblies can only be a question of time; common sense, public opinion, and the blessed results of female agency will force her to give us an honest and impartial rendering of the solitary text on which she grounds her prohibitions. Then, when the true light shines and God's works take the place of man's traditions, the doctor of divinity who shall teach that Paul commands woman to be silent when God's Spirit urges her to speak, will be regarded much the same as we should regard an astronomer who should teach that the sun is the earth's satellite.Excerpt from Catherine Booth's landmark pamphlet, 1859

It is not the purpose of this article to argue the case against women in office. Let it simply be noted that, mildly speaking, Catherine was definitely not a Calvinist and that a great deal of what she recommended has been implemented into mainline churches with detrimental effects. That she influenced her husband greatly can be seen in some of the Orders and Regulations he drafted,

Women shall have the right to an equal share with men in the work of publishing salvation. A woman may hold any position of power and authority within the Army. A woman is not to be kept back from any position of power or influence on account of her sex. Women must be treated as equal with men in all intellectual and social relationships of life.

The vast majority of officers were single. When a woman married in the Army, she resigned her own right of officership to become a joint officer with her husband. This somewhat contradictory regulation did show that Army leaders were not so caught up in feminism that they lost the concept of man's conjugal superiority. The husband, as head of a household, received the pay cheque.

The Army Expands🔗

In its first years, training for the Army took but a few weeks and consisted of knowing the elementary truths of the Bible. In addition to this, a simple understanding of arithmetic and basic reading was necessary. Every morning the recruits took part in marching and physical exercises as well. In later years, however, this training lengthened into several months. Even so, a great deal of theological knowledge was not required. God and Satan; heaven and hell; Christ's death for sinners and the fact that no one could be saved without conversion, were the main points expected to be understood. Success was measured in numbers and Salvationists were told to preach to even those who did not want to listen. Booth was convinced that most ministers did not bother to speak to the people who needed it most.

It is a fact that, with God's grace, hard core Salvationists were able to help change the horrifying conditions of nineteenth century England. Today's trade unions border on the fanatic side, always pushing for more. In the nineteenth century, however, medical plans, unemployment benefits and pensions were all unheard of. Child labour was rampant. Thousands of destitutes slept outside in parks, under bridges and in hedges. They were the workless, the homeless and the rejected. They had become so for any number of reasons – from cataracts and rheumatism and other disabilities to being replaced by the new machines of the industrial revolution. Some used the pavement as dinner plates, scrounging up discarded garbage lodged in cement cracks. Water shortages frequently occurred. Many tenements had water available for only twenty minutes a week. There was juvenile prostitution – with parents often selling their daughters to brothels for a paltry sum. Through all this misery and vice the Army waded –and miracles occurred. Multitudes were picked up out of the gutter. Regiments of alcoholics stopped drinking. Thieves stopped stealing and many prostitutes, offered an alternative way of life, became officers in the Army – part of a corps that ministered, not to themselves, but to others.

It wasn't an easy life. Early officers encountered much opposition. In the town of Folkestone, England, the mayor is recorded as having said about the Army: “Drive 'em into the harbour, or else into hell. Take their flag, and tie it round their necks and hang 'em!” There were always tough thugs around to try and literally carry out such instructions. Real trouble began in the 1880s when tavern owners became worried about losing business. When the town of Sheffield was visited by William and Catherine in 1882, the success of their meetings so angered a local gang known as the Blades, that the Army was covered with blood, mud and egg yolk at the end of the day. In that same year of 1882, nearly seven hundred Army recruits were brutally assaulted on the streets, simply for preaching the Gospel. The “hearts to God and hands to man” motto was trampled upon. Meetings were often broken up; halls were burned down; officers were hauled before courts and made to answer false charges.

Eventually, however, at the turn of the century, persecution lessened. The value of the Army reform system was recognized and the expansion of their bases both in England and overseas was phenomenal. In 1882, Canada, India, Switzerland and Sweden were opened. In 1883, South Africa, New Zealand, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. The list of countries grew in the years that followed. Stories of the courage and total commitment of many of these missionary Salvationists stand as examples to Christians everywhere.

One such story is that of Elizabeth Geikie, who was stationed in a jungle in India. Living in a mud hut, villagers brought her a man one day who was in agony. He had stepped on a huge thorn –only the pinpoint of where it had entered his foot could be seen. Elizabeth had no pincers, but she did not hesitate in using her firm set of teeth. She knelt on the floor and managed to clamp her teeth around the thorn edge, pulling it free. Then she bathed the wound and wrapped up the foot. The next day the villagers returned, curious to know more about Elizabeth's God. They had not understood much of what she had preached to them previously, but they had keenly felt her love when she had knelt down and with her mouth had touched a foot.

When William Booth first began his organization, he did not intend that it should become a body specializing in social reform. Although his first object was to convert people to Jesus Christ, he soon became convinced that conversion would be more effective if the hardships created by society could be alleviated. Having bumped his nose in the Wesleyan church with regard to the people he was bringing in, he was against a church setting. Sacraments likewise did not sit well with him. He felt the wine of the Lord's Supper would be offensive and a temptation to former alcoholics. Soldiers were therefore told that at each meal they should think of the broken body of Christ. Baptism was exchanged for a dedication service – an idea rejecting God's covenant and promoting free will. Using Paul's words, “Put on the full armour of Christ,” Booth did and created an Army.

Establishing the Kingdom🔗

Booth's theology was redemptive theology. It included three aspects: sanctification, the kingdom of God and salvation.

Booth's doctrine of sanctification taught that a person's redemption begins with justification by faith. From the moment he is justified he begins to grow in God's grace until he or she is filled with perfect love. This perfect love frees from the power of sin and the agony of constant sinning, and enables one to work for the kingdom. This view is distinct from the Reformed understanding that sanctification continues after justification but is not completed until death.

Convinced that God purified not only persons, but also groups, Booth called his Army to be truly an Army of God – an Army meant to carry out the final redemptive purpose of God, which was the establishment of God's kingdom on earth. This kingdom of God would be a perfected world – a thousand year reign of Christianity – after which Christ would return. This thousand year reign would see an end to crime, vices, evil passions, drunkenness, greed, hatred, and so on. London would be the new Jerusalem, the capital of the millennial kingdom.

Before the kingdom could come, however, there was work to be done – work for personal salvation – and work for social salvation. Booth was convinced that it was not enough to only preach the Gospel but that preaching had to be complemented by ministering to the physical needs of the poor to whom they preached. A multitude of social ministries sprang up: halfway homes for released prisoners, rescue homes for prostitutes, day-care centers in the slums, and food and shelter centers for the homeless. Booth fought a war with two fronts – the war for souls and the war for a rightly ordered society.

Booth's ideas for social reform were written down in his book In Darkest England and the Way Out. He wrote it as Catherine, his beloved wife, was dying of cancer. He pictured with a gruesomely realistic pen, the plight of millions – tramps, unemployed, felons, starving children and prostitutes. He solicited money in this book for social justice and he got it. As a result, many new homes were opened and more misery was averted.

William outlived his wife by twenty-two years. He died in 1912. During his lying-in-state, 150,000 people filed by the casket and 40,000 people, including Queen Mary, attended his funeral. City offices closed for the day and as the general's funeral casket was carried along a London road, thousands of people knelt down, rededicating themselves to God. They were former thieves, tramps and prostitutes; they had been the scum of society; and they wept as the body of William Booth passed them on its way to the cemetery.


Many of us know the Salvation Army only as a place where we bring discarded clothes. Usually we even feel slightly pleased with ourselves for “giving” these away. The Army's historical past often escapes us. The truth is that the “Blood and Fire” slogan stands for the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ and the fire of the Holy Spirit. William Booth said:

While women weep as they do now, I'll fight; while little children go hungry as they do now, I'll fight; while men go to prison, in and out, in and out, I'll fight; while there is a poor lost girl upon the street, I'll fight; while there yet remains one dark soul without the light of God, I'll fight – I'll fight to the very end!

Today the Salvation Army's flag hangs in no less than 91 countries and its officers number more than 25,000. Similar to a number of mainline evangelical churches, the Army has had pentecostal leanings these past number of decades. The “baptism of the Holy Spirit” and “speaking in tongues” is something which is being experienced at retreats. Marriage outside the Army, something which was forbidden by Booth's rules and regulations, does occur. Divorce also occurs, but statistics are low.

In spite of its deviations from pure doctrine, we may learn a great deal from the Army's actions, passion and enthusiasm for others. To incorporate these virtues into the love and practice of the Reformed faith would only add to its beauty. It is possible that individual Calvinists are too much hearers of the Word and not doers.

For, What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, 'Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,' but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.James 2:14-17

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