William and Catherine Booth: On a Mission From God

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Some armies make war. Some defend the peace. But in the mid-19th Century, only one army was built to help the poor. We refer, of course, to the Salvation Army, the founding of which is inextricably linked to the present day tenets and practices of Booth University in Winnipeg, Canada.

Both the Salvation Army and Booth University can trace their founding to that age-old story wherein boy-meets-girl; boy gives impassioned speech about the evils of alcohol; boy and girl get married and have eight children. Tale as old as time.

William Booth was born to a modestly wealthy family in Nottingham, England in 1829. Unfortunately for William, the family's fortunes took a turn for the worst during his early childhood. When his father was no longer able to fund William's education, the 13-year-old began an apprenticeship as a pawnbroker. It was during this experience that he adopted the tenets of Methodism and educated himself in religious writing and speech. He styled himself as an amateur preacher while still in his teens.

Meanwhile in Derbyshire...

Catherine Mumford was born in the very same year, likewise to Methodist parents, and to a father who, like her future husband, moonlit as an evangelical preacher. Catherine was also extremely passionate about her religious studies as an adolescent. She is said to have read the bible cover to cover eight times by the time she was 12, a remarkable accomplishment given that literacy was hardly a guarantee for women of the 19th Century.

Rebel Methodists

Two major forces fated the meeting of young William and Catherine: their shared interest in the Temperance Movement (which concerned the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption), and the fact that both had been expelled from the Wesleyan denomination of the Methodist church for their sympathy to a midcentury reform movement.

With William's apprenticeship completed, he struggled to find paying work in Nottingham so he departed for London. There, he landed work as a pawnbroker but the call of God boomed loudly in his heart. By 1850, he had taken to open-air evangelizing on the streets of the big city. Two years later, he went pro, joining the reform movement and gaining his own congregation.

Well, William must have been a natural because he was only at the job for one month when a fiery speech on alcohol abstinence caught the attention of pious Catherine and ultimately led to their marriage in 1855.

Seeking Out the Poorer Quarters, Where the Ragged People Go...

Evangelizing was William's greatest passion, but he increasingly found that his formal connection to the Methodist church stood in the way of this calling. He was generally assigned to pastoral work in spite of frequent requests to undertake missionary campaigns. By the 1860s, William had gone independent, focusing his efforts on the poorest and most ragged corners of London's East End.

Though he had come to attract increasingly larger crowds, he couldn't compare to the popularity of his wife. In 1859, Catherine had issued a groundbreaking pamphlet entitled Female Ministry: Woman's Right to Preach the Gospel. It was truly a landmark publication that rejected clerical claims of female inferiority. She put her ideas into action over the next decade, preaching passionately and actively to spellbound audiences.

On Salvation's Road

William and Catherine would form their own traveling ministry together but the latter would prove so popular and in-demand that she was often called to her own engagements by wealthy audiences. Still, it was the plight of the poor that moved Catherine and her husband.

They formed The Christian Mission in 1865 with the intent of bringing salvation to the poor and urging repentance among criminals, alcoholics and prostitutes. The work was difficult and even dangerous, with William in particular spending long and difficult hours engaging the populations of London's roughest neighborhoods. He would often return home bloodied, bedraggled, and emotionally exhausted from confrontations both with the street urchins that largely rejected his message and the financially comfortable Londoners who mocked his self-sacrifice.

Mobilizing an Army

Though life was hard and the work unforgiving, the Booth's became increasingly militant about their commitment to the cause, a disposition that led the Mission to adopt the name The Salvation Army in 1878. Booth made himself a General and anointed his followers as soldiers. The chosen terminology proved wholly appropriate as the Salvation Army faced staunch, even armed resistance from numerous forces both within and beyond the Christian community.

In particular, the Booth's lifelong crusade against alcoholism raised the hackles of London's spirituous beverage sector. A collective of pro-liquor parties organized the oppositional Skeleton Army, which committed itself to confronting the Salvation soldiers during their various marches against alcohol. Violent clashes often ensued, leading to injury and even a few fatalities.

Unabated, the Booths traveled the world to spread their message and movement. Even after his beloved Catherine passed on in 1890, William continued his work, initiating chapters of the Salvation Army in no fewer than 58 countries before the time of his death in 1912.

Promoted to Glory

Booth would be vindicated by his dogged determination, ultimately turning the tide of public opinion in favor of his charitable organization. His work among the poor had made him a greatly revered figure by the time he was “promoted to glory,” in the parlance of the Salvation Army. Indeed, more than 150,000 people came to pay their respects as his casket lay in the Clapton Congress Hall. 40,000 attended his funeral service, including dignitaries and royalty.

Today, the Booths are honored by numerous institutions of higher learning, including Winnipeg's Booth University College, founded in 1982 and serving a select population of just over 250 students.

To join the Booth University community, click here.

To give to the Salvation Army, click here.

And check out Blood and Fire: The Story of William and Catherine Booth and the Salvation Army to learn more about the Booths, their college, and their crusade.

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