August 20 – William & Catherine Booth

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

20 – William & Catherine Booth, reformers of the Church

William Booth, founder and first general of The Salvation Army, was born in relative poverty in Nottingham, England in 1829. By the age of 14 he was supporting his family by working as a pawnbroker’s apprentice which exposed him further to the reality of the lives of the poor.

Early spiritual influences came from the Broad Street Wesleyan Chapel and from contact with the preaching and methodology of American revivalist James Caughey. As an adolescent he led lay evangelistic efforts to Nottingham’s poor before moving to London in 1849 where he was involved in various groups within the Methodist Church. In 1861, aged 32, he left the Methodist New Connection to become an itinerant evangelist, commencing The Christian Mission in 1865, later re-named The Salvation Army.

Booth had an intense love for God. As a man, he was a risk taker with a strong commitment to continuous improvement. He was a person of ceaseless industry and innovation, with a passion to make the gospel accessible to the poor. This synthesised with a radical social conscience. He didn’t want to just bring the poor to faith in God (to get them ready for heaven) but he wanted them to experience redemption in the broader social and political environment. Furthermore, this vision of salvation was for the whole world, not just the slums of East London.

Booth’s commitment to social campaigns, such as the Purity Crusade of 1885 (a far-reaching campaign against teenage prostitution) was indicative of a growing activism around social issues. This was progressed further by the publication of In Darkest England and the Way Out, an ambitious plan to rescue 19th century England from her most pressing social woes.

In all this William was influenced and shaped by his relationship to Catherine Mumford, who he met in his early twenties. Catherine had grown up in a very protective Christian home where she had some long bouts of confinement due to ill health. In this environment she proved to be an assiduous reader and self- directed student, not only of the Bible (which she studied extensively) but also of a broader sweep of literature, including general and church history, spirituality and theology.

This immersion in text prepared her well for a future in which she took the step of preaching and speaking publicly based on her own conviction that this was something God required of her and being convinced herself that women had an equal right to speak. In this respect, Catherine made an important contribution to the ongoing expansion of the boundaries of women’s ministries in the broader church.

Like William, her gifts and capacities were recognised outside of The Salvation Army as well as inside it. A pre-eminent evangelist of the Victorian era, she was widely regarded as a deeply spiritual woman whose teaching was sound, convincing and enlightening.

There is no doubt that she exerted a huge influence in the shaping of the theology and practice of The Salvation Army, even though her death in 1890 came very early in the history of this fledgling movement. Writing fifty years after Catherine’s death, one Salvationist leader noted, “So much of the foundations of our Movement were built upon the character of this great woman, and so much of her beliefs, methods and teaching was woven into its early super-structure…”

William’s death in 1912, some 22 years after Catherine’s, was marked by a remarkable outpouring of public support and honour for the man who had risen from a life of poverty to create a worldwide movement that concerned itself with the salvation of the poor.

Written by by Major Christine Faragher