The GOSPEL TRUTH
WILLIAM BRAMWELL BOOTH
HIS LIFE and MINISTRY
A Very Short Biography
Founder of the Salvation Army. William Booth was born in Nottingham, England. He was converted to Christ through the efforts of a Methodist minister, and soon became interested in working with the outcasts and the poor people of Nottingham. He preached on the streets and made hundreds of hospital calls before he was 20 years of age. From 1850 to 1861 he served as a pastor in the Methodist Church, after which time he and his wife left the church and stepped out by faith in evangelistic work in East London.
It was there that he organized the East London Christian Revival Society. Out of this beginning came the Salvation Army, with its uniforms, organization, and discipline. By 1930 there were branches in 55 countries. Its main emphasis under General Booth was street preaching, personal evangelism, and practical philanthropy. More than 2,000,000 derelicts have professed faith in the Lord Jesus Christ through the work of the Salvation Army since its founding by the general.
William Booth: BORN: April 10, 1829
DIED: August 20, 1912
LIFE SPAN: 83 years, 4 months, 10 days
"GO FOR SOULS, and go for the worst!" was the constant cry of William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army. The multitudes in London's slums convinced him he had discovered his life's work and no one ever took the Gospel to the "down and outer" like he did. In 1865, Booth started with only his wife at his side...unappreciated by the established churches of his day, ridiculed and jeered by most everyone. His death 47 years later sharply contrasted as 40,000 attended his funeral service, including Queen Mary of England. His "Army" including 21,203 officers and 8,972 societies were working in 58 countries preaching the Gospel in 34 languages!
William Booth was born of Church of England parents and was "baptized" when he was two days old. His mother was a devout Christian. His father, Samuel, even though he brought in considerable income, had the misfortune to lose money. At thirteen, Booth was apprenticed to a pawnbroker, limiting his education to that of a private tutor from the Methodist Connexion Church. Thus he was deprived of the advantages of a good common school education and grew up in poverty. His work day was long, sometimes running sixteen hours a day, with very little pay. That same year his father died, accepting Christ on his death bed. This left William and his mother to struggle on in their poverty. In his teens he was already interested in social reform and longed to do something to alleviate the sufferings of the poor. He joined a civic reform movement, but found this full of corruption as well.
He had broken from the Church of England and was now attending Wesley Chapel of Nottingham. One night at 11 p.m. on a street coming home from one of the services, he was saved. This was in 1844 when he was fifteen years of age.
A commemorative table marks the spot at the chapel where Booth began to seek the Lord. Many have knelt near it. One was heard saying, "O God, do it again..."
Soon after Booth's conversion, James Caughey, a spirit-filled American evangelist, visited Nottingham and preached the Wesleyan message of sanctification with great unction and power. This preaching made a great impression on young Booth and kindled in his own heart a great desire to win souls for Christ. Timid for a while, he finally ventured to read the Bible and deliver some comments on the local street corners. Although he was jeered and scorned and bricks were thrown at him, young Booth did not get discouraged...this was just a foretaste of the battle ahead of him. At 17 he preached his first sermon and was licensed by the New Wesleyan Connexion.
One day he brought a group of poor, rugged boys from the slums into the church. Instead of being pleased, the minister was angry and Booth was told next time to bring them through the back door and seat them where they couldn't be seen. As he had feared, the Methodist Church of his day was becoming too "respectable." His long hours in the pawnshop stretched out for six years and though he often worked until 8 p.m., he would hurry to prayer meetings which would last until 10 p.m. Sometimes after this he would call on the sick and dying. It is said that he made hundreds of hospital calls before he was twenty years of age. He also did much street preaching late at night during these years. He soon became a leader in these enterprises and at seventeen he was made a local preacher by the Wesleyan Methodists.
Working with the outcast and poor of Nottingham brought increased burdens for the larger cities. Seeing London in 1849 at age twenty, he said, "What a city to save!" Sixteen years later he began to help save it.
Here in London, he was without a friend and almost broke. For three years he worked as a clerk for a pawnbroker in the day giving leisure time to working among the poor and did street preaching at night. A number of Methodist chapels opened to him for Sunday ministries but his Superintendent discouraged him from entering the regular ministry. In 1851 a controversy arose in the Wesleyan Church over the question of lay representation and a large number of ministers formed a group known as "Reformers". Those Reformers offered Booth the pastorship of one of their chapels in London and a businessman offered to support him. He accepted and in 1852 went into full-time preaching at a Methodist circuit in Spalding. Here he met Catherine Mumford, falling in love with her the third time he saw her on Good Friday, April 10. For two or three years he preached in various places with great success. Many souls were won.
Because the Reformers had an unsettled policy and organization, he and a number of others joined the "Methodist New Connexion" movement in 1854. His fame as a revivalist began to spread all over England. Hundreds professed conversion to Christ in almost every series of meetings held, while his sensational methods of preaching on the slum street corners often provoked disorder.
Catherine Mumford became his wife and an ideal co-worker on June 16, 1855 at Stockwell, New Chapel in South London. They were pressed into service immediately. As they arrived at the pier on the Island of Guernsey for their honeymoon, they found crowds of people begging them to conduct revival meetings there. The crowds were so large that the doors of the church had to be opened at 5:30 in order to allow the people to come in for the evening service. He was soon preaching in England's leading cities...Lincoln, Bristol, Bradford, Manchester, Sheffield--and thousands professed faith in Christ. Once in a space of a few months, Booth saw over 1,700 converts, an average of 23 per day. As the fourth month passed, the number rose past 2,000 and the Connexion leaders saw him as going too far too fast. His methods were "lusty American, not Victorian English," they said. How soon Wesley had been forgotten.
Their first child, William Bramwell, was born March 8, 1856. Six other children followed, all active in the work of the Army. They were Ballington (born July 28, 1859), Emma (born Jan. 8, 1860), Evangeline (born Dec. 25, 1865), Catherine, Herbert and Lucy, the youngest born in 1868.
In 1857 the Connexion cut short Booth's country-wide travels. He was given charge of one of their least-promising circuits, Brighouse, in Yorkshire. Yet pastoral work did not tie him down. He went to the local masses who needed him and initiated labor reforms and other worthwhile projects to help the residents. In 1858, the year that he became a fully ordained minister, he was given another circuit--Gateshead. Contrary to his own judgment, once more he obeyed and went, but his eyes strayed beyond the 1,000 strong congregation of Bethesda Chapel. It was the masses beyond the walls o the church that he was interested in.
The Methodist Church continually denied his request to be released from his regular circuit work as a pastor so that he could return to the field of evangelism again. Weary with the constant controversy, in July 1861 the Booths stepped out by faith doing what they felt God had called them to do. He was 32 years old. About the same time, the Booths were both led into a Christian experience following John Wesley's views and teaching on sanctification, heart purity, and holiness.
Now traveling in evangelism, he started in Cornwall, on to Cardiff, Wales and Walsall. The crowds at Hayle, Cornwall were too great to be accommodated in any building and great open-air meetings were held. The campaign stretched out to eighteen months. Fishermen rowed ten miles and villagers walked up to four miles to hear him. Booth claimed 7,000 Cornishmen became Christians. At Cardiff a tent was used. At Walsall in Staffordshire, he used many converts as testimonies of God's saving power. This 1863 visit drew 5,000 to the open-air preaching of Booth.
The beginnings of the great Salvation Army started July 2nd, 1865, as a large tent was erected on a Quaker burial ground in the Whitechapel neighborhood in East London. William Booth was now 36 years old. Another evangelist became ill and Booth was substituted. Meetings were held every night for two weeks among the poor lower classes of the London slums. At midnight upon returning home after a serious soul-searching, he said, "I have found my destiny!" This was July 5, 1865. Converts streamed to the tent the next night. Soon they were using an unused warehouse.
The work was first called the East London (Christian) Revival Society, then the East London Christian Mission, and then the Christian Mission, firmly established by 1869. Open air meetings were held from 6 to 7 p.m. with an invitation to come to the evening meeting at the tent. These meetings continued on past the scheduled allotment and after rain, howling winds and a gang of ruffians had torn the tent down twice, they finally rented a large dance hall. Up to 600 would gather on Sunday following a night of dancing by citizens of another world the preceding night. Later he held evangelistic meetings at a wool warehouse and finally at an unused theater. Sometimes some would pour gunpowder in the room and create a blinding flash by setting fire to it. Frequently mud and stones were hurled through the windows also.
Toiling on from this difficult beginning, a chain of missions was gradually formed with the power of God manifest in meeting after meeting. From now on Booth was to be found preaching wherever people would listen to him...dancing saloons, stables, sheds adjacent to pig sties, theater stages, circus rings, race course grandstands, footboards of railway carriages, ship-captain bridges and African huts! But he was foremost a specialist in open-air services and street corners. People were often stricken down in his meetings, overwhelmed with a sense of the presence and power of God.
Opposition came...it was not uncommon to see Salvationists end up with broken ankles and wrists. One had a piece bitten out of his arm--another, alone on inspection tour, was pelted and mobbed for one and a half hours. Another had lime thrown into his child's eyes. One woman convert was kicked in the womb and left to die. The first march Mr. and Mrs. Booth made to Albert Hall in Sheffield ended up in a riot. They, their officers and soldiers, arrived at the Hall wounded, bleeding and battered. Their clothes were torn and covered with filth, their band instruments smashed. This was not to be uncommon. Often every available hall or room would be denied them. Booth once wrote from Salisbury, "The evangelists have to get off the street and into houses to escape this mob. Police refuse protection. Nevertheless, there is a good society. A lot are saved. We must not give up! We will not!" Many times in his life he would be stoned, battered, shoved, cursed and almost killed. In 1889 at least 669 Salvation Army members were assaulted, including 251 women. Some were killed and many were maimed. A "Skeleton Army" of ruffians devoted themselves to disrupting Salvation Army meetings. They frequently stormed the meeting halls by the hundreds (on one occasion, 4,000), broke out windows and wrecked the inside of the buildings. Fifty buildings were wrecked. The police did little to assist Booth. Once while defending themselves 86 Army members were arrested and imprisoned on disorderly conduct charges. Booth had his own private bodyguard, Peter Monk, an Irish prize fighter and one of his converts. By 1872 he was running five "Food-for-the-Million Shops," selling cheap meals.
This militant evangelism culminated in the adoption of the title, "Salvation Army," and the reorganization of the movement along the quasi-military lines of a well disciplined army on August 7, 1878. Booth had been distressed at the lack of direction and with this new setup could really assert himself as the leader. The name developed from an incident in May, 1878. Booth was dictating a letter to his secretary, George Scott Railton (his faithful associate for 48 years), and said, "We are a volunteer army." Bramwell, his son, heard his father and said, "Volunteer, I'm no volunteer, I'm a regular!" Railton was instructed to cross out the word volunteer and substitute the word, salvation. Soon they were tagged, "Soap, Soup and Salvation Army."
The new, almost dictatorial leadership of Booth--now called "General" Booth--was dynamic. By January, 1879, he had 81 stations, 127 full-time evangelists (100 of his converts), and 75,000 services a year going. In 1880 it expanded to the United States and adopted uniforms. The same year, the first band was formed in Salisbury. A new headquarters was opened in London in 1881, as well as the work in France. In 1882 India was sent workers.
Its orders and regulations were patterned after those of the British Army. All workers assumed military titles, its trainees became "cadets," local units were designated as "Corps," places of worship became known as "Citadels" or "Outposts" and their evangelistic undertakings were called "Campaigns." The converts were organized into a carefully disciplined group. Of course the uniforms, officers, organization, regulations and discipline, plus the title "General" for Booth, attracted derision and criticism at first. Nevertheless, the "Army" was reaching people ignored by more staid church bodies! He launched a successful crusade against white slavery in 1885.
A whirlwind, eleven-week campaign was conducted in 1886 with Booth preaching from New York to Kansas City. Town after town listened spellbound as he thundered at the crowds, his long body swaying back and forth on the platform, his hair and flowing beard rumpled, his arms clasped behind his back. He spoke for 200 hours and was heard by 180,000 people. He pulled together the U.S. organization that had fragmented into three parts.
Back home in London, the sight of homeless men leaning on the rails of London Bridge prompted the beginning of heavy social work. Now the image of the Army suddenly changed as in 1887 the social service programs began to expand as General Booth fought poverty with practical philanthropy. He realized that the physical and social environment of the masses made it difficult for them to appreciate the message of the Army. He accordingly embarked upon the social work to clear the way for evangelism. These services ranged from night shelters and free breakfasts to the selection and training of prospective immigrants and their settlement overseas.
Booth's best-selling Darkest England and the Way Out was published in 1890 showing Victorian England how to deal with poverty and vice plus the need of religious and social redemption. He proposed the concentration of the nation's philanthropic funds upon the slums, hitherto largely left to the care of the local parish churches, and suggested a list of practical expedients to this end such as advocating the reclamation of unemployable persons in farm colonies.
No small credit for gain in prestige is due General Booth's wife. Catherine was a woman of charm and ability, winning the sympathy of many of the upper classes for the new movement. When she was 59 it was discovered she had cancer. General Booth had already accepted meetings in Holland, and upon hearing the news, was about to cancel. But she insisted that he go. "I'm ready to die, but many of those people over there are not." He did go for an abbreviated visit, and upon his return, found her very weak. She died October 4, 1890. The streets of London were crowded for four miles as the funeral procession went by! More than 10,000 people went to the cemetery. Added to this sorrow was the death of General Booth's daughter, Emma, in a railroad accident.
At the time of Catherine's death (after 25 years of ministry together in the work of the Army) the Salvation Army had 2,900 centers in 34 countries and was receiving 600 telegrams and 5,400 letters a week.
Another trip to America was made in 1895, and Booth found over 500 people engaged in the work of the Army. He held 340 meetings in 86 cities, speaking to 437,000 people resulting in 2,200 converts. In 24 weeks he spent 847 hours on a train. Twice, while in America, he opened the Senate with prayer. He talked to President McKinley for twenty minutes on one of his tours.
General Booth was now being praised by such diverse men as Charles Spurgeon, Winston Churchill and Cardinal Manning. The Prince of Wales became a most ardent patron, and, upon his coronation as Edward VII in 1902, Booth was officially invited to the festivities. On June 24, 1904, in a visit to Buckingham Palace, the King asked the General what his recreations were. Booth, writing in his autograph album, replied, "Sir, some men have a passion for art, fame and gold. I have a passion for souls."
Many found him dictatorial and hard to work with. Members of his own family denounced him as their leader and founded separate organizations. Gipsy Smith had left him because of his rigidity and D.L. Moody would not support him because he felt there was a threat to the local church. But no one could deny his compassion.
He was constantly telling his family, his soldiers, all England, to go and do something. He could not rest--once writing, "I am very tired, but must go on...on...I cannot stand still. I have worked today and laid down again when I could sit no longer and then got up to go on again. A fire is in my bones..." Once in South Africa, he talked for seven hours, his heart so yearning over the lost. Souls possessed him day and night, well or ill. Once his son found the old warrior pacing up and down the floor late at night. "What are you thinking about?" asked the son. "Ah, Bramwell, I'm thinking about the people's sin. What will people do with their sin?" When Booth denounced sin, people sat spellbound. They wept, hung their heads with conviction, their bosoms heaving with emotion. Conviction and conversion usually followed. As many as 3,000 at one time were known to have been moved to tears. Once in an outburst of concern for the lost, he exclaimed, "Oh, God, what can I say? Souls! Souls! Souls! My heart hungers for souls!"
Passing from one side of Great Britain to the other, General Booth made a 29-day, 1,224-mile motor tour in 1904, holding 164 meetings, gathering crowds from day to day. He visited the United States one more time in 1907. His farewell message was given on the steps of New York City Hall to 2,500 people. The year 1908 found him in Scandinavia, 1910 in Switzerland, Holland, Germany, Italy, and Denmark. On May 9, 1912, he gave his last major speech to 7,000 Salvationists at London's Albert Hall.
As his aged eyes became weak, an unsuccessful operation was performed on May 23rd. Two days later it was found that he had an infection and that he would lose his sight completely. "God knows best. I have done what I could for God and the people with my eyes. Now I must do what I can for God and the people without my eyes."
When asked for the secret of his success, William Booth said:
I will tell you the secret. God has had all there was of me. There have been men with greater brains than I, men with greater opportunities. But from the day I got the poor of London on my heart and caught a vision of all Jesus Christ could do with them, on that day I made up my mind that God would have all of William Booth there was. And if there is anything of power in the Salvation Army today, it is because God has had all the adoration of my heart, all the power of my will, and all the influence of my life.
As he died, he turned to his son Bramwell and said, "I'm leaving you a bonnie handful." As his body lay in state, 65,000 to 150,000 marched by to pay tribute to the man who not only talked, but did something for the masses. The funeral was held at a vast exhibition hall on Hammersmith Road, drawing 40,000, including Queen Mary, who sat next to an ex-prostitute, a convert of General Booth's. Traffic in London stopped for two hours as his funeral procession of 10,000 marching Salvationists went through the downtown streets.
He was succeeded by his son, Bramwell Booth. Eventually his daughter, Evangeline, became the Commander-in-Chief.
It is estimated Booth traveled 5 million miles and preached 60,000 sermons in his 60 years of ministry. This included five trips to the United States and Canada, three to Australia and South Africa, two to India, one to Japan and several to the various European countries. Sixteen thousand officers were serving in his Army.
Booth was the author of many favorite revival hymns and several books, such as Salvation Soldiers (1890) and Religion for Every Day (1902). Some of his works have gone into twenty languages. He started War Cry, the official organ of The Army, on December 26, 1879 with 17,000 copies.
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