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Christian History Home > 131 Christians > Activists > William Booth

William Booth
First General of the Salvation Army
posted 8/08/2008 12:56PM

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William Booth

"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?'"

After he died, 150,000 people filed by the casket, and 40,000, including Queen Mary, attended his funeral. It was a remarkable end for a man born into poverty and who worked in the midst of poverty his whole life.

But William Booth was a remarkable man, who was given the title "The Prophet of the Poor." He is best known today as founder and first general of the Salvation Army.



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William Booth born


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Pawnbroker's apprentice

Booth was born in relative poverty, in Sneinton, a suburb of Nottingham, England. His parents were not religious and at best laboring class, with little education. His father, "a Grab, a Get," by William's definition, died when William was just 14. By that time, William was helping to earn the family income as a pawnbroker's apprentice.

Sometime during his fifteenth year, William was invited by a Wesleyan couple to attend chapel, where he was converted. He wrote in his diary, "God shall have all there is of William Booth."

Then came another life-changing experience: he heard an American revivalist who led "a remarkable religious awakening" at Nottingham's Wesleyan Chapel. The rush of souls to hear the gospel led Booth to see that "soul-saving results may be calculated upon when proper means are used for their accomplishment." Booth went on to make a lifelong commitment to the scientific revivalism methods of Charles G. Finney.

Booth and a group of friends set out to evangelize the poor. They held nightly open-air addresses, after which they invited people to meetings in cottages. Their use of lively songs, short exhortations calling for a decision for Christ, and visitation of the sick and of converts (whose names and addresses they recorded) anticipated methods Booth would write into Salvation Army Orders and Regulations 30 years later.

When he was criticized for using secular tunes to attract crowds, he replied, "Secular music, do you say, belongs to the devil? Does it? Well, if it did I would plunder him for it, for he has no right to a single note of the whole seven."

When his pastor proposed that William himself prepare for ordained ministry, he accepted, and soon found himself pastor to Reform Methodists in Spaulding, though their disorganized ways repelled him.

During this period, William met Catherine Mumford. Beginning with their second meeting on Good Friday 1852, they entered one of the most remarkable relationships in religious history. They married in a South London Congregational chapel in June 1855.

By 1861 William was finding that "settled ministry" did not suit him, and he resigned. He and Catherine became itinerant evangelists in Wales, Cornwall, and the Midlands, Britain's "burned-over" districts. The Booths preached in naphtha-lit tents on unused burial grounds, in haylofts, in rooms behind a pigeon shop—anywhere to fulfill his famous words, "Go for souls and go for the worst!"

Labyrinth ministry

An invitation for Catherine to preach in London in 1865 led him to accept support from lay-run East London missions as a temporary ministry. East London in the 1860s was, in the words of one writer, "a squalid labyrinth, with half a million people, 290 to the acre … Every fifth house was a gin shop, and most had special steps to help even the tiniest [children] reach the counter."

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