The GOSPEL TRUTH
FOUNDER and FIRST GENERAL
of the SALVATION ARMY
In Two Volumes
THE DEATH-BED OF CATHERINE BOOTH
So tragic and so agonizing was the last year of Catherine Booth's life, that we should not make any further reference than has already been made to those sufferings did not the diary of William Booth at this period furnish us with exceptional material for a more intimate understanding of his character.
There are two things which the reader must keep constantly in his mind if he is not to be greatly shocked or entirely baffled by the history of this tragic episode. He must remember, first of all, that Catherine Booth was two years dying; that this was no swift and beatific approach of Death; that she suffered from time to time excruciating pain, and for the last year of her life was stretched on a veritable rack of agony. Next, he must remember that not only William Booth and his children, but the dying Catherine Booth herself, were by this time so absorbed into the Salvation Army that many of the ordinary reticences and restraints which govern conventional existence exercised little influence on their minds, but were voluntarily, and indeed of set purpose, set aside as they pressed forward, always thinking of eternity, to the conversion of the people.
"The sick-bed proved for Mrs. Booth," says her historian, "a world-wide platform from which her very sufferings enabled her to preach the most eloquent and heart-appealing sermon of her life."
If we are honest with ourselves we must confess that it is beyond the power of the human mind to support a prolonged strain of this dreadful character without violent reaction. Men have longed for the death of those they love after witnessing only a few days of their agony. Doctors have been implored to end such sufferings. The first hours of heart-broken longing for recovery, the first days of devoted watching at the bedside, the first days of anxious and fearful listening for the footfall of Death, give way to a dull and aching ennui and an almost mechanical visitation heavy with despair, finally to a longing for the end.
A few extracts from the diary of William Booth will put the reader into the position of realizing something of the ordeal which he was called upon to face in these difficult years. We purposely refrain from quoting the most terrible descriptions given in this diary of Mrs. Booth's sufferings, descriptions more harrowing than anything we have read in Tolstoy or Dostoevsky.
A large part of the breast has fallen off, and Carr has cut it away and left the gaping wound which is simply; one mass of cancer.
She exclaimed again and again as she started with the stabbing pains, which like lightning flashes started in her poor bosom, "Oh these fiery scorpions! these fiery scorpions!"
Two nurses are required, seeing that she is so very helpless, and the breast has to be repeatedly dressed to keep the fiery flame that burns night and day anything like down.
My darling had a night of agony. When I went into her room at 2 a.m. she had not closed her eyes. The breast was in an awful condition. They were endeavouring to staunch a fresh hamorrhage. Everything was saturated with the blood.
He speaks frequently of the scorpions writhing and stinging in that ghastly "gaping wound," and of the agony she struggled to endure without crying out when what she called "the fiery darts" rained in upon her burning flesh.
Again and again the family was hastily summoned to the bedside, nine and ten months before death actually came to end these sufferings. Days of great pain, heroically borne and in part employed by the dying saint for preaching faith and exhorting to service, culminated in unspeakable distress, and in unconsciousness so like to death that over and over again the watchers thought--they must have hoped--the end had come.
After they had gone we settled down for a sleep. Then I got up and found that she had started from her slumber in great anguish. We did not know what was the matter. Her eyes at times were transfixed, and with violent spasms she struggled for breath. It was the heart. We did not comprehend it at the moment. Once or twice it was terrible to behold. The agony expressed [itself] in her countenance and especially in her eyes; but midst it all she managed to gasp out "Don't be alarmed, this is only physical. He has got me. He has got me."
It is not to be wondered at that William Booth, being an honest man, cried out to Heaven for an explanation of this trial. His faith never once deserted him; but again and again his theology seemed to break in his hands. God, who had the power, refused to act. God, who bids us pray, refused to answer. God, who promises joy to the believer, "sent" to this holy and beautiful saint agony as intolerable as it was hideous.
Mrs. Booth refused morphia, largely on religious grounds; and William Booth, who implored her to relent, was therefore forced to witness her quite conscious struggles with this indescribable anguish. Again and again, Bramwell Booth tells me, his father broke down utterly when he came from his wife's room to take up the accumulating burden of his work. "I don't understand it! I don't understand it!" he would cry out, and covering his face with his hands, he would walk to and fro in an excess of grief, or throw himself upon his knees and implore the Almighty for help.
Even in his diary we find mention of these dark hours:
I am 60 years old, and for the first time during all these long years, so far as memory serves me, has God, in infinite mercy, allowed me to have any sorrow that I could not cast on Him.
He grows tired of the inscrutable mystery.
It seems incredible that she should die. Like many good people, to this moment I have very strong feelings about it, and there are many good people at the present moment who are strongly believing that this sickness after all is not unto death. My mind grows bewildered when I think of the subject, so once more I dismiss it with perhaps the laziest feeling of, "The Lord must do what seemeth Him good in His sight."
He feels that he is assailed by temptation:
I was very weary. A great part of the night I had had a strong conflict myself with the enemy and great darkness and heaviness in my soul.
At one moment he is at her bedside, holding her hand and singing with her:
On this my steadfast soul relies: Father, Thy mercy never dies;
at the next he is on his knees in his study agonizing in spiritual darkness for strength to find, with hands groping through the gloom, the Hands of God's Fatherhood.
He interrupts his history of these appalling days to set down what he calls:
MY REFLECTIONS BY THE RIVER.
I. The reality of the existence, personality, and power of the Devil.
II. Of the utter insignificance of all other props and helps apart from God.
III. That God's mercy displayed in Jesus Christ is the only ground on which a man can appear before God.
IV. How the delusions and coverings, hiding-places and refuges of lies are torn away by the skeleton hand of Death.
And yet there came to this tempted, half-doubting, bewildered, and heart-broken man hours of such wonderful beauty as cannot be depicted, cannot even be remembered:
By this time she was completely worn out, and I sent them all out, resolving to have the remainder of the night alone with her. What passed that night can never be revealed. It will never be half remembered by myself until the day of Eternity dawns. It was a renewal, in all its tenderness and sweetness and a part of its very ecstasy, of our first love. It seemed, I believe to us both, in spite of all the painful circumstances of the hour, a repetition of some of those blissful hours we spent together in the days of our betrothal. Oh the wonderful things! . . .
I wept, prayed, and believed and exulted. We were in Jordan as it were together. Evidently she could not bear to let me go from her bedside or loose my hand. She had come back, she said, to her first love. I saw how exhausted she was, and again and again entreated her to consider her poor body and try and get a little sleep; and when I made as though I would leave her she upbraided me in the gentlest, most expressive, and most effectual manner, by saying, "Can you not watch with me one night? It will soon be over, and what matters a few hours shorter or longer now? I have done with the body. I shall soon leave it for ever."
And so we watched and counselled and prayed and believed together through that long night.
In another entry we read:
She took hold of my hand almost at the very beginning, and took the ring off her finger, and slipping it on to mine, said: "By this token we were united for time, and by it now we are united for eternity." I kissed her, and promised that I would be faithful to the vow and be hers and hers alone for ever and ever.
That ring became William Booth's most cherished possession. One may say that it was his only "personal property."
There are references in the diary to a young doctor, an agnostic, who attended the dying woman, and whose soul, even in her agonies, she endeavoured to influence. It is striking to think of the spirit of Catherine Booth, labouring on her death-bed to save the soul of a man whose science was unable to save her body:
She said to him when he came out that she really did not see what was the use of her staying here any longer as she could not do any good. "Indeed you do," he answered; "you are benefitting all about you." She said she could not see it. He said,
"You have done me good; you see your courage and anxiety for my welfare are so beautiful."
She spoke to him beautifully, saying that she would like to hear when she got on the other side that the Dr. who had attended her had been brought to Christ through her words. I had a few words with him further about spiritual matters downstairs, and he went away in a very subdued manner. In fact, again and again the tears came into his eyes. We must pray for him.
Mrs. Booth had a nice talk with the Dr. and discovered that he had some patients in great poverty, whereupon she asked him if he would distribute a sovereign amongst them for her, to which he readily assented. And then she tacked on to it a commission to distribute a War Cry to each as well. To this he assented in a most ready manner. It was curious to see this young Scotch agnostic Doctor go off to his conveyance with a bundle of War Crys for personal distribution.
In the midst of his vigil at the dying-bed the machinery of the Army had to go on. William Booth was not only attempting to compose an epoch-making book, but was directing the international activities of his yearly expanding forces. We find in the diary of this period continual references to a new enterprise, a difficulty with Officers, lawsuits, purchase of properties, trouble with some subscriber who has believed the lies and calumnies of a wretched backslider, and the growing work of the Army in foreign countries:
Had a great sorrow on top of all the other sorrows with one of the most devoted and, as we thought, and I think still, one of the most godly Officers we have, married to a lovely wife. It is too painful almost to write here. Through some marvellous moral blindness he committed himself before his conversion and, as far as that goes, since his conversion. He has continued in the wrong, and now it has all come out and I see nothing for him but to go away into obscurity. It was pitiful to behold the fellow's anguish.
Oh these grumbling, dissatisfied, selfish, ambitious souls, who vow one day and break their vows the next without compunction. What a curse they are to the Army, what a hindrance they are to the Kingdom. There is a needs be that offences come, but woe be to them through whom they come. Woe! Woe!! Woe!!!
It is very mysterious how all the way through life I have noticed that men who marry rich wives, for some reason or other, mostly from good reasons in their own estimation, drop out of the fight.
Some gifts arrive for the dying woman of fruit and flowers, and he says of the givers:
These are ex-Officers . . . and not so very long ago they went out in a dreadful passion and said some very unkind things about us, and now they are at every turn expressing their sorrow that ever they left, and pleading that they may be taken back. Such is the course of things.
He goes away to address meetings, and overhears what people in the crowds he passes through have to say about him:
As I passed through them one said, "There goes their God." Another said, "General, cannot you let us go in?" And another, as I neared the door, said, "There goes a grander old man than Gladstone."
World-wide attention, of course, was aroused by the bulletins from Clacton, and the diary contains records of some of the strange visitors who besieged the Booths with importunate beseechings to see the Mother of the Army:
Two women have just been announced as having come all the way from Manchester to see her. I cannot imagine what it is for, except it is on some Faith-Healing Mission. I shall have to see them. She will be too ill. There is some mystery about them. They appear poor, belonging to the working-classes. They say they are Soldiers, and yet are dressed in tawdry fashionable finery. Several of the girls tried to show them how ill Mrs. Booth was, but they said they had come all the way to see her, and they just wanted to look at her face. They were in no hurry--they would wait.
Eva supplied them with refreshment, and when Mamma was informed of them, although very ill, she said, "Let them come in." She was touched with their interest in her, proved by coming so long a journey.
Mrs. O----'s two daughters have just come to look, if that were possible. Mrs. Booth saw them--the same train brought a poor demented man from London. He said he wanted to see her. Said Jesus Christ had sent him, but he was evidently insane! He stayed at Clacton for some days, after calling up every day saying he wanted to see one or the other of us, and it was with difficulty after several days that we got him to take the train for London, for which journey we paid his fare.
Mrs. -- has been for a long time in a very excitable condition with nerves highly strung and kept at a very considerable tension. I was always afraid of the consequences. To my amazement on Friday night after the Staff-meeting she announced that she had embraced the Agapemone Doctrine. I reasoned with her for half an hour, then had to leave her to catch my train. Sent for her to see me the next day. Found that she was hopelessly involved, talking in the wildest and most random fashion and doing several things that had the appearance of cunning and deception so unlike her that I feared her reason was giving way. On Sunday she was down at Clapton, talking the strangest rubbish, and on Tuesday night, as I have said, I found her here. I sent Secretary Fry up with her, and she wanted me to promise at parting that I would send Mamma's dead body to her and that she would raise it from the dead!
The dramatic element in the Booth character, fostered by a public life so devoted to eternal and invisible realities that the conventions of this world appeared not merely insignificant but ridiculous and grotesque, seized upon the tragedy of this long dying and used it in a heart-moving appeal addressed to the whole world of perishing sinners. Mrs. Booth was not dying, but preaching. Her bed of death was a "world-wide platform." The eloquent sermon of her sufferings was to be given to mankind.
No curtain is drawn across those windows, no screen is set round the death-bed, no silence is posted at the door to keep guard over those struggles and prayers. The bed is draped with the Army flag. Photographs of the absent children are arranged where she can see them. The family assemble in uniform. The chief Officers of the Army are summoned for a last farewell. The faithful servants are called from the kitchen. And the company pray together, and sing together.
"With streaming eyes and faltering voices," says Commissioner Booth-Tucker, "the gathered family sang again and again her favourite choruses, watching with inexpressible emotion as the loved lips moved in the effort to take part:We shall walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death,
We shall walk through the Valley in peace!
For Jesus Himself shall be our Leader,
As we walk through the Valley in peace.
"Although her voice could not be heard, and the breathing was hard and difficult, each time the word peace was repeated her hand was raised as a signal that such was indeed her experience."
The interest of the world flowed into that Clacton villa, and claimed the dying woman. Everything she said must be recorded, and even her very smile must be given to the world. We read in the diary:
The Chief [Bramwell] would have one more attempt to get a portrait of darling Mamma. The Stereoscopic Company were equally anxious, and sent down their manager and two of their best men and a sort of artist to endeavour to get a group in order to get a portrait. They made an attempt this evening with the lime-light. I don't know whether it will be a success.
Death came to her on the 4th of October, 1890, after a night of thunder, lightning, and torrential rain. She called William Booth by an endearing name, drew him down for her last kiss, and passed away, as Commissioner Booth-Tucker records, to "the singing of the larks and the dull murmur of the waves beating on the shore."
So passed away from this earth one of the most remarkable women of the nineteenth century, whose beautiful spirit impressed itself alike upon the most exacting of her intellectual contemporaries and upon vast masses of the poor. The development of her personality in conjunction with that of her husband is a most interesting study in psychology, and the growth of her spiritual power seems to me like one of the miracles of religious history. In her frail body the spirit of womanhood manifested its power and the Spirit of God its beauty. It is a tribute to the age in which she lived that this power and beauty were acknowledged by the world during her lifetime. She exercised a spell over many nations.
Her body lay in state; immense crowds flocked to pay their last tribute to the Army Mother, and in the procession through the City of London to the cemetery, which was a Salvation Army Pageant, William Booth, we are told, "followed alone in an open carriage, standing and bowing his acknowledgments to the sympathetic greetings with which he was continually met."
At her grave, in Abney Park Cemetery, he delivered a remarkable and most characteristic address, mastering his emotion, frankly rejoicing in the multitudes who had paid tribute to his wife in the streets, and declaring his determination to use her death for religious ends.
The Daily Telegraph said of this scene at the graveside:
It was a most touching sight when the tall, upright General came forward in the gathering darkness to tell his comrades of the loss he, their chief, had sustained. He spoke manfully, resolutely, and without the slightest trace of affectation. Not a suspicion of clap-trap marred the dignity of the address. He spoke as a soldier should who had disciplined his emotion, without effort and straight from the heart. Few wives who have comforted their husbands for forty years have received such a glowing tribute of honest praise. It is clear enough where the strength of the Salvation Army is to be found, where its courage, its indomitable energy, where its unswervingness of purpose. To hear General Booth speak, and to see the man, is to understand a great deal of the success of the Salvation Army. [In his diary, October 14, 1890, William Booth anticipates the natural criticism of this action as follows: "I was weary myself. I had stood, balancing myself with the jerking of the carriage in its stops and starts, 4 hours. I couldn't see the people craning their necks trying to see me without endeavouring to gratify them. Some may find fault with me, and say I made an exhibition of myself. That is what I have been doing with myself for my Master's sake all my life, and what I shall continue to do as long as it lasts, and what I shall do through eternity for my Master's sake and the people's sake. And now I am restarted on the same path, the same work. A large part of my company has gone before, and I must travel the journey, in a sense that only those can understand who have been through it, alone"]
Here follows the address:
You will readily understand that I find it a difficulty to talk to you this afternoon. To begin with, I could not be willing to talk without an attempt to make you hear, and sorrow doesn't feel like shouting.
Yet I cannot resist the opportunity of looking you in the face and blessing you in the name of the Lord, and in the name of our beloved one who is looking down upon us, if she is not actually with us in this throng to-day.
As I have come riding through these, I suppose, hundreds of thousands of people this afternoon, who have bared their heads and have blessed me in the name of the Lord at almost every revolution of the carriage-wheels, my mind had been full of two feelings, which alternate--one is uppermost one moment, and the other the next--and yet which blend and amalgamate with each other; and these are the feeling of sorrow and the feeling of gratitude.
Those who know me--and I don't think I am very difficult to understand--and those who knew my darling, my beloved, will, I am sure, understand how it is that my heart should be rent with sorrow.
If you had had a tree that had grown up in your garden, under your window, which for forty years had been your shadow from the burning sun, whose flowers had been the adornment and beauty of your life, whose fruit had been almost the stay of your existence, and the gardener had come along and swung his glittering axe and cut it down before your eyes, I think you would feel as though you had a blank--it might not be a big one --but a little blank in your life!
If you had had a servant who, for all this long time, had served you without fee or reward, who had administered, for very love, to your health and comfort, and who had passed suddenly away, you would miss that servant!
If you had had a counsellor who, in hours--continually recurring--of perplexity and amazement, had ever advised you, and seldom advised wrong, whose advice you had followed and seldom had reason to regret it; and the counsellor, while you are in the same intricate mazes of your existence, had passed away, you would miss that counsellor!
If you had had a friend who had understood your very nature, the rise and fall of your feelings, the bent of your thoughts, and the purpose of your existence; a friend whose communion had always been pleasant--the most pleasant of all other friends --to whom you had ever turned with satisfaction, and your friend had been taken away, you would feel some sorrow at the loss.
If you had had a mother for your children, who had cradled and nursed and trained them for the service of the Living God, in which you most delighted--a mother, indeed, who had never ceased to bear their sorrows on her heart, and who had been ever willing to pour forth that heart's blood in order to nourish them, and that darling mother had been taken from your side, you would feel it a sorrow!
If you had had a wife, a sweet love of a wife, who for forty years had never given you real cause for grief; a wife who had stood with you side by side in the battle's front, who had been a comrade to you, ever willing to interpose herself between you and the enemy, and ever the strongest when the battle was fiercest, and your beloved one had fallen before your eyes, I am sure there would be some excuse for your sorrow!
Well, my comrades, you can roll all these qualifies into one personality, and what would be lost in each I have lost all in one. There has been taken away from me the delight of my eyes, the inspiration of my soul, and we are about to lay all that remains of her in the grave. I have been looking right at the bottom of it here, and calculating how soon they may bring and lay me alongside of her, and my cry to God has been that every remaining hour of my life may make me readier to come and join her in death, to go and embrace her in life in the Eternal City.
And yet, my comrades (for I won't detain you), my heart is full of gratitude, too, that swells and makes me forget my sorrow, that the long Valley of the Shadow of Death has been trodden, and that out of the dark tunnel she has emerged into the light of day. Death came to her in all his terrors, brandishing his dart before her for two long years and nine months. Again and again she went down to the river's edge to receive his last thrust, as she thought, but ever coming back to life again. Thank God, she will see him no more--she is more than conqueror over the last enemy!
Death came to take her away from her loved employment. She loved the fight! Her great sorrow to the last moment was: "I cannot be with you when the clouds lower, when friends turn and leave you, and sorrows come sweeping over you: I shall no longer be there to put my arms round you and cheer you on."
But she went away to help us! She promised me many a time that what she could do for us in the Eternal City should be done! The Valley to her was a dark one in having to tear her heart away from so many whom she loved so well. Again and again she said, "The roots of my affection are very deep!" But they had to be torn up. One after another she gave us up; she made the surrender with many loving words of counsel, and left us to the Lord.
This afternoon my heart has been full of gratitude because her soul is now with Jesus. She had a great capacity for suffering and a great capacity for joy, and her heart is full of joy this afternoon.
My heart has also been full of gratitude because God lent me for so long a season such a treasure. I have been thinking, if I had to point out her three great qualities to you here, they would be: First, she was good. She was washed in the Blood of the Lamb. To the last moment her cry was, "A sinner saved by grace." She was a thorough hater of shams, hypocrisies, and make-believes.
Second, she was love. Her whole soul was full of tender, deep compassion. I was thinking this morning that she suffered more in her lifetime through her compassion for poor dumb animals than some doctors of divinity suffer for the wide, wide world of sinning, sorrowing mortals! Oh, how she loved, how she compassioned, how she pitied the suffering poor! how she longed to put her arms round the sorrowful and help them!
Lastly, she was a warrior. She liked the fight. She was not one who said to others "Go," but, "Here, let me go," and when there was the necessity she cried, "I will go." I never knew her flinch until her poor body compelled her to lie aside.
Another thought fills my soul with praise--that she has inspired so many to follow in her track.
My comrades, I am going to meet her again. I have never turned from her these forty years for any journeyings on my mission of mercy, but I have longed to get back, and have counted the weeks, days, and hours which should take me again to her side. When she has gone away from me it had been just the same. And now she has gone away for the last time. What then is there left for me to do? Not to count the weeks, the days, and the hours which shall bring me again into her sweet company, seeing that I know not what will be on the morrow, nor what an hour may bring forth. My work plainly is to fill up the weeks, the days, and the hours, and cheer my poor heart as I go along with the thought that when I have served my Christ and my generation according to the will of God, which I vow this afternoon I will to the last drop of my blood--then I trust that she will bid me welcome to the Skies, as He bade her. God bless you all. Amen!
William Booth, we may say without exaggeration, rose up from the death-bed of his beloved and noble wife to offer the very first hours of his widowerhood as a sacrifice to the Salvation Army. There was no touch of perverted Byronism in this spontaneous and emotional action; it came from a temperament naturally impulsive, naturally dramatic, and naturally philanthropic; and it flowed also from the reaction of a heart which, given long since to the public service of mankind, had borne for two intolerable years the burden, the desolation, of this inscrutable bereavement.
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