William and Catherine Booth

11th Sunday after Trinity, year C

back to sermons year C


Did any of you hear a recent radio programme in which the relationship between war and religion was explored?   Somewhat surprisingly, I thought, the programme homed in on the Salvation Army.   They were not especially complimentary about the military imagery which the Salvation Army had traditionally adopted.   Here in the deanery of Ashbourne, we of course have a particular connection with the Salvation Army.   Its co-founder, Catherine Booth – n é e Mumford -   was born in Ashbourne in 1829.   Today I want to look at the life and work of these two pioneers of Christian faith and action, whose mission remains as relevant to us today as it was a century ago.

William Booth was also fairly local to us, being born in Nottingham, also in1829.   His home knew the bitter taste of poverty: his father died when he was fourteen, and William became a pawnbroker's apprentice. He never forgot the anxiety, the bleakness and, above all, the degradation of penury. He would eventually startle Britain with his book, In Darkest England and the Way Out . Booth knew the socially wretched intimately, the people who worked themselves into exhaustion and then died from starvation, unable to afford as much food as the British government guaranteed the worst criminals in the nation’s jails. In 1890, the year his book appeared, there were three million such people in England. Their enslavement meant unyielding despair.

Yet Booth was never tempted to become a secular programmer of social change: he was always the evangelist. Converted at age fifteen in a Wesleyan chapel, he ever after wanted only to declare that the Word of Truth which brings Life to its hears and sets them on the Way of discipleship. Ordained a Methodist minister, he was soon dismissed by church authorities as a "reformer" and was stripped of his clergy-standing.

He found a temporary new home among New Connexion Methodists, but a few years of "settled ministry" convinced him that this was not his vocation. Together with Catherine, he began conducting preaching missions in Wales, Cornwall, and the Midlands – areas that had suffered the worst economic and human blight in the shadow-side of industrialization. Once again, church authorities attempted to appoint him to a settled ministry. By now he had wearied of their inability to recognize his calling. He left. In 1865 the Christian Mission opened in East London. In 1878 it was renamed The Salvation Army.

Persecution began immediately. "Take their flag, tie it round their necks and hang ‘em," fumed the mayor of Folkestone. Following outdoor services in Sheffield in 1882, William Booth "reviewed" his stalwart soldiers. They were bespattered with egg-yolk, mud, and blood, their brass instruments battered beyond repair. "Now is the time to have your photographs taken," he commented wryly. In that year alone seven hundred Salvationists were assaulted on the streets of Great Britain.

Catherine was the intellectual genius of the organization. As highly-born as her husband was not – her father had been a clergyman – Catherine was gifted with a keen mind, undeflectable conviction, and resolute courage. Long periods of childhood illness had led her to probe philosophy, theology and history. She had read through the entire Bible by age twelve. She would eventually write compellingly on behalf of women preachers. Her husband agreed with her it this. The Orders and Regulations that he drafted maintained that "women should have the right to equal share with men in the work of publishing salvation." And in a vein that would cause modern feminists to rejoice, William also insisted that "women must be treated as equal with men in all intellectual and social relationships of life."

There was once a famous moment when Catherine cried “never!” from the first row of   church balcony, before her husband, who was about to preach, could utter a word. William had been roundly criticised for welcoming the poor and the street toughs to his services. Church leaders wanted him to promise that the welcome mat would be rolled up and put away. Catherine, by shouting ‘never’, answered for him. Little wonder that she wrote, "The more I see of fashionable religion, the more I despise it."

Booth continued his multi-pronged attack on the strongholds of evil. On the one hand, he unashamedly instructed the evangelists he trained to "preach damnation with the cross at the centre." On the other hand, he never rested until he had secured permanent changes in the world around him. No longer did dirt-poor workers in the match-making industry find their jawbones glowing in the dark and their lives at risk because of the phosphorus they were obliged to work with. Tirelessly he exposed the "white salve" trade: thirteen to sixteen year old prostitutes who were much in demand in Paris and London. Three hundred and ninety-six thousand signatures later, he saw the practice outlawed.

At his death in 1912 The Salvation Army had 9,415 congregations throughout the world. The organization is now found in ninety-four countries, stretching from India, the site of the first major overseas venture, to El Salvador, added in 1989. The most recent additions are Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Latvia and Russia.

The Booths had always known that the work of God would advance only if Christians dedicated themselves without hesitation or qualification. Catherine urged this upon all as she wrote, "There comes a crisis, a moment when every human soul which enters the Kingdom of God has to make its choice of the Kingdom in preference to everything that it hold and own." Always less reflective than his wife, William himself asserted,

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


This, then, was the kind of fighting for which the Salvation Army has become famous.   It is a far cry from the kind of militarism which ignites violence between peoples – it recognises, rather, that there are times when evil and injustice have to be fought, not just debated.  

When Booth’s funeral cortège wound its way through the streets of London, city offices closed. One hundred and fifty thousand people filed past his casket. Queen Mary was one of the 40,000 who attended his funeral. His fighting over, the General had been promoted.

With acknowledgment to Victor Shepherd