Catherine Booth, Mother of the Salvation Army
For 140 years The Salvation Army (SA) has been ministering to the material and spiritual needs of underprivileged people in different parts of the world. This Perspectives article will sketch Catherine Booth’s vital role in the founding and dramatic early decades of The SA’s ministry.

In 1865 Catherine Booth’s husband, William, established The Christian Mission to minister to lower-class individuals in London’s degraded East End. Over the course of the next ten years The Christian Mission expanded to more than thirty ministry centers and preaching stations in towns scattered throughout England. In June of 1877 The Christian Mission was reorganized and renamed The Salvation Army.

William and Catherine Booth ministering in a street meeting

William and Catherine Booth ministering in a street meeting

Considerable military terminology and symbolism soon came to be used. Lay members of the mission were now soldiers, and evangelists were captains and lieutenants. Mission stations were called corps. William Booth, The Salvation Army’s general superintendent, was referred to as the General. Catherine never held a rank in The SA, but she did eventually assume the honorary title of the Army mother.

During 1878 and 1879 Catherine was kept constantly on the go, speaking at “war councils” in various cities and towns, presenting The Salvation Army flag to new corps, and explaining as well as defending the Army’s mission and methods to supporters and critics alike. Such ministries took her to fifty-nine towns in 1879. The SA was then experiencing explosive growth, growing to 130 corps and 195 officers in England that year.

Beginning in 1880 The Salvation Army’s ministry mushroomed beyond England and Wales to other parts of the world. That year and the next a dozen corps were established in both the United States and Australia. Within a year and a half of the first Salvation Army street meeting in Canada, a whopping 200 corps under the direction of 400 officers had been established in that country.

Despite its dramatic success (or because of it), The Salvation Army attracted many critics and opponents. Catherine played a major role in defending The SA against its numerous detractors. Anglican clergy denounced the Army as having no part in historic orthodox Christianity. Upper class individuals and members of the Established Church were especially critical of some of the Army’s novel methods: SA soldiers marching in the streets; “Hallelujah Lasses” preaching in the streets or speaking publicly in churches; the Gospel being preached in theatres and circuses; adapting secular tunes to many of the spiritual songs employed in their services; showcasing in public meetings trophy converts rescued from notorious pasts.

William and Catherine Booth, Founders of The Salvation Army

William and Catherine Booth, Founders of The Salvation Army

To one critic of such measures Catherine responded earnestly: “Oh, my dear sir, if you only knew the indifferent, besotted, semi-heathenish condition of the classes on whom we operate, you would, I am sure, deem any lawful means expedient, if only they succeeded in bringing such people under the sound of the Gospel. It is a standing mystery to me that thoughtful Christian men can contemplate the existing state of the world without perceiving the desperate need of some more effective and aggressive agency on the side of God and righteousness.”

The Salvation Army also experienced persecution from the “Skeleton Army.” Mobs, many of which were incited by individuals with vested interest in the alcohol industry, used intimidation and physical violence in an effort to silence Nonconformist groups that dared to challenge traditional social customs and religious beliefs. Quakers, Methodists, Baptists, Congregationalists and The Salvation Army were all targets of such mob violence. Police and local magistrates often turned a blind eye to the brutal attacks.

In 1882 alone, sixty buildings used for Salvation Army purposes were attacked (and sometimes all but destroyed) by rioting crowds. That year 669 Salvationists were assaulted, including 251 women and twenty-three young people under the age of fifteen. A group of SA lasses in Whitechapel, East London, were tied together with rope and pelted with live coals. Two female Salvationists died as the result of injuries sustained in an attack at Guildford.

Such harrowing incidents drew considerable attention to the unjust treatment The Salvation Army was experiencing in various parts of Britain. Public sympathy began turning in its favor. The right of the Army to conduct street marches was defended in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

In 1885 the number of SA corps in Great Britain increased from 637 to 802 while foreign corps rose from 273 to 520. By the end of that year the Army had 1,322 corps and 3,076 officers stationed around the world.

Catherine Booth's Gravestone

Catherine Booth’s Gravestone

In the closing years of her life Catherine was one of the key individuals who assisted her husband in working out an extensive plan to minister to the pressing economic needs of England’s “submerged tenth,” the percentage of the nation without the basics of food, shelter and work. The Salvation Army launched a greatly expanded program for addressing those needs.

But in the Booths’ minds, social work was clearly secondary to the primary spiritual ministry of leading people to Christ. Social ministry was appropriate and necessary to alleviate human suffering and to gain a hearing for the Gospel. But lasting economic and moral reform in individual lives and in society could only come about as people were led to saving faith in Jesus Christ and had their lives transformed by His Spirit.

#          #          #

A much-fuller account of Catherine Booth’s life and ministries is related in my book Women of Faith and Courage (Christian Focus, 2011). Roger Green’s Catherine Booth, A Biography of the Cofounder of the Salvation Army (Baker, 1996) provides a more comprehensive account of her life. Other encouraging and instructive incidents from the lives of William and Catherine Booth are included in my book Timeless Stories, God’s Incredible Work in the Lives of Inspiring Christians (Christian Focus, 2010).

Copyright 2017 by Vance E. Christie

William and Catherine Booth with the first five of their young children

William and Catherine Booth with the first five of their young children

With Mother’s Day and Father’s Day just around the corner, here’s some encouragement for Christian parents from the examples of William and Catherine Booth, founders of the Salvation Army. The Booths carried out their parental responsibilities with a great blend of diligence, wisdom, seriousness and even fun. Though William and Catherine were heavily involved with their public ministries, they were also devoted to the healthy upbringing of their children. Their pronounced influence on their nine children (including an adopted son) resulted in all of them growing up to become dedicated believers, with most of them entering vocational Christian service.

The Booths sought, under God, to lead each of their children to receive Jesus Christ as their personal Savior at a young age. Once after an evangelistic meeting that was being held in a tent, Catherine approached their oldest son Bramwell, who was then seven years of age. It was obvious he was under deep spiritual conviction. “You are very unhappy,” she stated tenderly, then asked, “You know the reason?” He indicated he did. But when she asked if he was ready to make a public decision for Christ, he immediately and emphatically responded, “No!” Years later he related of that moment: “She put her hands suddenly to her face, and I can never forget my feelings on seeing the tears fall through them on the sawdust beneath our feet. But I still said ‘No!’”

Bramwell Booth (son) and Evangeline Booth (daughter) as Salvation Army leaders in adulthood

Bramwell Booth (son) and Evangeline Booth (daughter) as Salvation Army leaders in adulthood

Not many months later, however, following a meeting conducted specifically for children, Catherine was delighted to find Bramwell kneeling among the group of young penitents at the close of the service. The tenderhearted lad wept aloud over his sins. When his mother knelt and prayed with him, he experienced God’s forgiveness and knew he had been saved through faith in Jesus.

Family Bible reading and prayer was an everyday occurrence in the Booth household. In keeping with William and Catherine’s conservative convictions (which were common among many Evangelical Christians of their era), drinking alcohol, smoking, dancing, playing cards, going to theatres and dressing in worldly fashions that called attention to oneself were strictly forbidden.

While the Christian Sabbath was carefully observed, the Booths believed Sunday should be a happy day. When the children were younger, Catherine held Sunday meetings for them at home. Those services included singing, praying and a Bible lesson she always sought to make interesting for her children. The children began attending public services after they were old enough to take an interest in them.

The Booths were great believers in fresh air and encouraged their children to play outdoors a great deal. The children especially enjoyed tennis, soccer and cricket. Occasionally William Booth would join his children for a lively game of Fox and Goose in which he always led the chase and provoked the squeals of excitement.

William and Catherine Booth

William and Catherine Booth

Catherine insisted on having a good degree of peace and quiet in her home, but she did not want to thwart her children’s energetic play. So the Booths had a double floor (packed with sawdust between as a sound barrier) installed between the children’s upstairs playroom and the ceiling of the house’s main story. The children could thus romp upstairs without disturbing the tranquility of the rest of the house. Many of the games the children played reflected their Christian upbringing, as when they reenacted Bible stories or held pretend revival meetings.

The Booth children were encouraged to keep a variety of pets, both as a way of enjoying some of God’s creatures and as a means of learning to care responsibly for others. Dogs, rabbits, mice, guinea pigs (the latter numbering nearly 100 at one time!) and other creatures made up the family’s revolving menagerie.

Most of the educating of the children was done at home under their mother’s watchful eye and with the help of a governess. Catherine considered it of greatest importance not only to impart knowledge but also to shape character and train the heart. Over the home’s five-foot bookcase she exercised a vigilant though broadminded censorship aimed at reserving the children’s attention for literature that was really worth their time.

William and Catherine diligently taught their children that their lives were not their own to do with as they pleased. Rather, they rightly belonged to God who had redeemed them, and their lives were to be devoted to serving Him and the needy world around them. From the time they were teens the Booth children were given significant responsibilities in their parents’ mission work. Each of William and Catherine’s children (except one daughter who had a significant learning disability) eventually served as officers in The Salvation Army, some at the highest levels.

#          #          #

A much-fuller account of Catherine Booth’s life, public ministries and parental practices is related in my book Women of Faith and Courage (Christian Focus, 2011). Other encouraging and instructive incidents from the lives of William and Catherine Booth are included in my book Timeless Stories, God’s Incredible Work in the Lives of Inspiring Christians (Christian Focus, 2010).

Christian Men and Their Godly Moms

In addition, Tim Challies is currently running a series of Saturday blogs on the helpful theme of “Christian Men and Their Godly Moms.” You’ll find a number of examples of devoted Christian mothers who profoundly impacted the lives of their children in that series at challies.com.

Copyright 2017 by Vance E. Christie

Catherine Booth

Catherine Booth as a young woman

When Catherine (Mumford) Booth, the future “Mother of the Salvation Army,” was just nine years old, she once saw a raucous crowd coming down the street of her girlhood town of Boston in Lincolnshire, England. The crowd shouted and jeered at a young man, obviously intoxicated, who was being dragged along by a policeman.

Catherine had often heard her father, a zealous proponent of total abstinence, speak publicly on the evils of drunkenness. A tenderhearted child, she instinctively felt pity for this individual who was obviously under the destructive influence of alcohol. Though normally shy, she now boldly stepped forward, took the drunkard’s hand and smiled up at him. That simple act of compassion and support had a calming effect on the man. Ignoring the continued ridicule of the crowd, Catherine bravely walked alongside the drunk, helping to steady him as he was led off to the town jail.

William Booth as a young man

William Booth as a young man

Catherine married William Booth, an itinerant Methodist evangelist, in June, 1855. Three years later William was appointed to be the pastor of a large Methodist congregation in the city of Gateshead in northern England. There Catherine devoted two evenings a week to house-to-house visitation in the lower-class neighborhoods of town where alcoholism and poverty prevailed. She prayed and read Scripture with people, shared and showed God’s love to them, invited them to church and succeeded in persuading a number of “drunkards to abandon their soul-destroying habits.”

Of one particularly pitiful home situation Catherine wrote: “I found a poor woman lying on a heap of rags. She had just given birth to twins, and there was nobody of any sort to wait upon her. I can never forget the desolation of that room. By her side was a crust of bread and a small lump of lard. … I was soon busy in trying to make her a little more comfortable. The babies I washed in a broken pie-dish, the nearest approach to a tub that I could find. And the gratitude of those large eyes, which gazed upon me from that wan and shrunken face, can never fade from my memory.”

In the years that followed William returned to itinerant evangelistic ministry, and Catherine began a fruitful public speaking ministry of her own. After they moved to western London in 1865, Catherine was invited to minister at a meeting of the Midnight Movement for Fallen Women. Two or three hundred prostitutes were at the meeting, and she spoke to them “as one sinful woman to another.” So fervent was her appeal, that some of them responded to her plea to reform their lives.

William and Catherine Booth

William and Catherine Booth

That summer William carried out a six-week mission in London’s East End. That section of the city was infamous for its extreme poverty, degradation and despair. Unemployment, drunkenness, prostitution and all variety of crime abounded. The East London Christian Revival Union (later renamed The East London Christian Mission) was formed to help raise prayer and financial support for the fledgling ministry. Through Catherine’s expanding ministry to well-to-do audiences in London’s West End she was able to acquaint them with and raise support for the East End mission.

William soon sensed the Lord’s leading to discontinue itinerant ministry in order to dedicate himself to this new mission. One night after walking from the East End to their home in the West End, he announced to his wife: “O Kate, I have found my destiny! As I passed by the doors of the flaming gin-palaces tonight I seemed to hear a voice sounding in my ears, ‘Where can you go and find such heathen as these, and where is there so great a need for your labors?’ And there and then in my soul I offered myself and you and the children up to this great work. Those people shall be our people, and they shall have our God for their God.”

CaCatherine Booth by Roger Greentherine later recorded her initial responses to that declaration: “I remember the emotion that this produced in my soul. I sat gazing into the fire, and the Devil whispered to me, ‘This means another departure, another start in life!’ The question of our support constituted a serious difficulty. Hitherto we had been able to meet our expenses out of the collections which we had made from our more respectable audiences. But it was impossible to suppose that we could do so among the poverty-stricken East Enders—we were afraid even to ask for a collection in such a locality.

“Nevertheless, I did not answer discouragingly. After a momentary pause for thought and prayer, I replied, ‘Well, if you feel you ought to stay, stay. We have trusted the Lord once for our support, and we can trust Him again!’”

That further step of faith and obedience eventually led the Booths to found the Salvation Army with its pronounced emphases on ministering to the spiritual and material needs of the lower classes of society. The remainder of their lives was devoted to promoting and carrying out multifaceted, large-scale ministry to hurting, needy individuals throughout Britain and the world.Women of Faith and Courage by Vance Christie

#          #          #

A much-fuller account of Catherine Booth’s life of compassionate Christian service is related in my book Women of Faith and Courage (Christian Focus, 2011). Roger Green’s Catherine Booth, A Biography of the Cofounder of the Salvation Army (Baker, 1996) provides a more comprehensive account of her life.

Copyright 2017 by Vance E. Christie

William Booth

William Booth

In August, 1886, William Booth delivered a stirring challenge at London’s Exeter Hall, encouraging support of the Salvation Army so it could expand its ministries around the globe.  In the audience sat Salvation Army Major John Carleton, a one-time Irish textile executive.  He was surrounded by wealthy “civilians” who jotted lavish sums on their “canaries,” the Army’s term for the yellow pledge cards individuals submitted.

Carleton was already living on a shoestring budget.  Unlike the well-to-do people all around him, he had no discretionary funds with which to work.  Suddenly he was struck with an idea of how he could contribute to this special offering.  On his pledge card he wrote: “By going without pudding every day for a year, I calculate I can save 50 shillings.  This I will do, and will remit the amount named as quickly as possible.”

This offer touched Booth more deeply than any of the generous pledges made that day.  But the thought of one of his officers skimping on his meals for an entire year did not set well with him.  The next morning he burst into the office where his son Bramwell and Major Carleton were working.  He had come up with a unique plan of his own.  No member of the Salvation Army should have to go without something for an entire year.  Instead, they could all unite to deny themselves some normal expense for a week and donate the money saved to Army funds.

The first Self-Denial Week was confined to the United Kingdom and raised a whopping 4,820 pounds (equaling over $24,000).  To Booth’s delight, the bulk of that amount came in pennies and halfpennies.  His aides were troubled by the scarcity of gold coins but the General stated enthusiastically, “Never mind! There is plenty of copper.”  He realized that many had given their coppers at greater sacrifice to themselves than when gold and silver coins were contributed by wealthier individuals.

William & Bramwell Booth

William & Bramwell Booth

Self-Denial Week became an annual event in the Salvation Army.  It was observed wherever Salvationists ministered throughout the world and came to be held one week each spring.  Booth always contributed ten pounds to the special offering.  Despite his overwhelming schedule, he kept bees and invested the proceeds from the honey sales to the cause.  Bramwell and his family lived on bread and water for a week to support the fund.  Officers trimmed each other’s hair to save a sixpenny which could then be donated.

When the Salvation Army came to Zululand in South Africa’s eastern republic of Natal, an elderly, half-blind Zulu widow named Maria begged a local farmer for a single week’s work hoeing Indian corn.  Touched by her strong faith and desire, he eventually consented, stipulating that this woman in her eighties could work in the fields for a week at the same rate as the village girls—sixpence a day and her food.

During the service at the Army hall the following Sunday morning, the presiding officer invited congregants to present their Self-Denial offering envelopes at the altar.  Led by the hand by a young girl, Maria made her way to the altar with an envelope containing her week’s wages.  Kneeling, she lifted her largely sightless eyes heavenward and prayed:  “Lord Jesus, take my gift.  I wish it were more, but it is all I have.  May this help You to send light to people who are in greater darkness than I am.”

*          *          *

Timeless Stories: God's Incredible Work in the Lives of Inspiring Christians by Vance Christie

Timeless Stories by Vance Christie

My book Timeless Stories, God’s Incredible Work in the Lives of Inspiring Christians contains a chapter on “Stewardship.” The chapter is full of inspiring and instructive examples of how committed Christians viewed their material possessions and sought to use them to the glory of Christ and in the service of His kingdom.

Copyright 2014 by Vance E. Christie