William Booth: A General for God

by Bernard R. DeRemer

William BoothWilliam Booth (1829-1912) grew up in England during hard times. The area was "in the grip of the Industrial Revolution and the poor were paying the price." Working conditions were horrible and cholera was a nightmare, without today's sanitation and medical facilities.

Samuel booth, a builder, suffered a business failure which forced him to discontinue the education of his son, William, who was then apprenticed to a pawnbroker. Here poor people pledged their treasures-rings, watches, and the like-for a loan at interest. The sensitive boy detested that trade, but providentially he came face to face with enormous human need.

He was brought up to attend Church of England services, but changed to the more interesting Wesleyan Methodists, where he came to know the Lord at age 15. Years later he would testify about the "rolling away from my heart of the guilty burdenand the going forth to serve my God and my generation from that hour."

Methodism was moving into the third and fourth generations since John Wesley. Revivalism kept the fires of faith burning brightly. This meant "passionate preaching with full emotional participation and response from the people."

Booth arrived in London during 1849, a pawnbroker by trade and a free lance preacher by calling. He worked long hours to make a living, then spent evenings visiting the sick, preaching on the street, and attending cottage meetings.

He got a brief theological education at a Methodist seminary, but observed, "My studies were sadly interrupted by the more practical business of saving souls." He became a minister of the New Connexion, another Methodist branch.

Booth married Catherine Mumford; eventually they would have eight children. She became the ideal companion and helpmeet for him. Little did he realize that one day she would be famous for her "heavenly carriage" in the pulpit. Booth was dubious about women preachers: "I do not encourage a woman to begin preaching although I would not stop her."

The Booths were called to be evangelists and they led campaigns in various areas. The evangelical awakening that began in Ireland during 1859 had swept into England with much preaching in the open air and theaters.

In 1865 he took over leadership of the East London Christian Revival Society (later the Christian Mission). Gradually the work gained ground. Strong personalities joined their efforts and urged thousands of men and women to "join the Hallelujah Army." Military images went back to the Bible via the writings of John Bunyan. Melodies from the American Civil War were pressed into service of the gospel. Why should the devil have the best tunes? The report of the 1878 annual conference proclaimed: "The Christian Mission is a Salvation Army."

The new name soon superceded the old one; the movement acquired uniforms, brass bands, and a system of officers' ranks. It spread rapidly in the 1880s, attracting ridicule, admiration, persecution, and contempt.

In middle age, Booth found himself leading a growing army in five continents. He had become an international celebrity. Probably his greatest work, In Darkest England and the Way Out, appeared in 1890. Other titles followed.

But in 1888 Catherine developed breast cancer. She preached her last sermon in June, 1890, and went to be with the Lord Oct. 4. Now Booth must "travel the journey alone." Famous now and received by kings and presidents, Booth returned to his calling as a traveling evangelist.

Blind at the end, Booth gave his last address in the in the great Royal Albert Hall of London on May 9, 1912. He joked, "I am going into dry dock for repairs." On August 20 he was promoted to glory. What an abundant entrance he must have had.

The Army marches on. In 2004 it spent $2.6 billion, providing services to 34.5 million people. It has 427,000 members in the U.S. including 113,500 "soldiers." William Booth planned and performed well.


1. From "God's General," by John Coutts, in More Than Conquerors; ©1992 Moody Bible Institute; excerpts used by permission.

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