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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.”
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!”
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.