Mention the names “William and Catherine” to most in our modern age and thoughts turn to a high-profile London-based couple in line for a royal destiny.
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, who will eventually follow Prince William’s father, Charles, Prince of Wales, to the British throne in the line of succession, are international celebrities whose fashion sense, parenting ideas and even social pronouncements are viewed with keen interest.
But in the London of 1865, a very different William and Catherine—surnamed Booth—had a very different impact on their world, one that continues to this very day.
The Reverend and Mrs Booth were Methodists who believed in public preaching. William, tall, quick-walking, with an intense manner that tolerated little nonsense, roved the streets of East London, looking for the “least” among those lost to sin and degradation.
The district he combed was populated by those struggling to endure grinding poverty. Flour was adulterated with chalk powder or talc; milk was watered down and other foods were unreliable as well. Beer was common for adults and even children, though not usually as strong as today’s brewery products. Poverty and abuse were rampant, as might be expected under the circumstances.
Yet the rapidly industrialising middle-to-upper-class society which surrounded the poverty-stricken enclave couldn’t always be bothered with the needs of those at the lowest end of the income scale. The fictional Ebenezer Scrooge’s lament, “are there no workhouses”, reflected very real attitudes of the period.
William Booth, a pawnbroker’s apprentice who’d grown up in poverty following the death of his father, didn’t go along with that line of thinking. Converted as a teenager, he promised God “all there is of William Booth” in the Lord’s service.
He eventually left the pawnbroker’s trade and set out as a “New Connexion” [sic] Methodist, a more observant and strict adherent to the faith first promulgated by John Wesley more than a century earlier. Preaching in small chapels and taking up out-of-the-way pulpits, young William Booth yearned to make a real difference in people’s lives, a desire intensified during his courtship of Catherine Mumford, who encouraged his preaching.
When the two married, William worked at his ministry calling with even greater intensity.
East London was a tough area, yet that is where the lanky street preacher went.
One evening, after “open-air” preaching in which William would stand on the street and exhort those in the saloons to leave and follow Jesus, he trudged home weary but excited.
Entering their rented quarters, he greeted his wife: “Kate, I’ve found my destiny.”
From mission to movement
The Booths’ organisation was initially known as the “Christian Mission to East London”. The name made sense: William preached in the open air and in a tent in that district, and he wanted to bring his hearers into a saving relationship with Jesus.
As the work grew, William discovered several things: Converts came, but they were not always “presentable” in the more “refined” precincts of some Methodist congregations. The new believers were poor, looked poor and even, well, smelled poor. It was good that these unfortunates met Jesus just as they were, but did they have to show up at the local chapel that way?
As the Christian Mission grew, so did the need for fundraising. As “general secretary” of the Mission, the Rev William Booth in 1878 prepared an annual report in which he declared his group to be a “volunteer army”, a term regarded with some derision at the time.
At age 22, Bramwell Booth, the oldest of William’s eight children, saw those words and remonstrated, “I’m no volunteer, I’m a regular!”
William changed the words to “Salvation Army”, and thus a movement was born. William was no longer a “general secretary”; he became the “general” leading a force of converts who soon adopted a military-style “uniform”.
Not only did the uniform promote equality in the Army’s ranks, it also identified members as Christians who were available to help others. The two large “S” initials seen on today’s Salvation Army uniform lapels gained the colloquial meaning of “Saved to Serve”.
From the start, women, as well as men, were permitted to serve as full clergy. William’s wife, Catherine Booth, who long advocated for females in ministry, wrote a pamphlet supporting this, and though she did not often preach in public, she spoke periodically and wrote often for Salvation Army publications. Through sympathetic portraits in those magazines, Catherine became known as “The Army Mother.”
Other women however, eagerly joined the ranks and took the gospel message into various corners of the world, sometimes at great personal risk. Catherine Booth-Clibborn Bramwell’s sister, was attacked in Paris when she sought to preach there. Decades later, Alida Bosshardt (a Salvation Army officer who cared for Jewish children during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands) gained a national prize for her ministry in Amsterdam’s “red light” district.
Perhaps the most famous Australian to have become part of Booth’s movement was the late General Eva Burrows, only the third woman to serve as General, and at age 56, its youngest leader. A friendly, charismatic woman, she was made a Companion of the Order of Australia in 1994.
Spiritual impact, social realities
The Salvation Army that William and Catherine Booth founded grew quickly during the Victorian era. William was a visionary who sought ways to end poverty, in part by “exporting” those in need to parts of the Empire where their skills could be used in developing lands.
Equally attractive was the vibrant music and worship of Salvation Army meetings. These were not the stuffy services of the upper classes, but instead were “free and easy” worship services that incorporated brass band music and melodies popular in the era. William was said to have asked, “Why should the devil have all the good tunes?”
Ellen G White, herself an innovator in the field of religion, said that while Seventh-day Adventists were not to “imitate” the Army’s methods, the group’s actions were commendable.
“There are precious, self-sacrificing souls in the Salvation Army. We are to treat them kindly,” Mrs White wrote in Welfare Ministry. “There are in the Army honest souls, who are sincerely serving the Lord, and who will see greater light, advancing to the acceptance of all truth. The Salvation Army workers are trying to save the neglected, downtrodden ones. Discourage them not. Let them do that class of work by their own methods and in their own way.”
That “class of work” led to the transformation of hundreds of thousands of people, the reformation of millions of alcohol and drug addicts, and a global church of more than 1.5 million believers. Today, the “Salvos”—as they are known in Australia (“Sallies” in New Zealand)—are respected as genuine Christians who bring hope to young and old, and restoration to the “down-and-out”.
William Booth, the pawnshop apprentice, would, I believe, be very well pleased with the fruits of his labours.
Mark Kellner is a veteran computer columnist for the Washington Times newspaper and a fellow-pilgrim following Jesus