Not letting the streets alone.

When William Booth came to preach in Brixton Theatre he stayed at the London home of Alexander and Helen Glegg. More than sixty years later, their younger son Lindsay told me about that weekend with the founder of the Salvation Army.

The General’s secretary came in advance to make the arrangements. He fixed a bell by the side of his leader’s bed, and carried a wire up the stairs to his own room, where a battery and bell were connected. “The General might be ill in the night and require me,” explained the officer. “He might even die in the night, and I should be by his side to take down his last words.”

But there was no sign of the General’s dying just then. Lindsay says he kept them very much alive over that weekend. “I will never forget his face or his sermon in the Brixton Theatre. He gripped you by his dominating personality. His piercing eyes seemed to look right through you, and his long white beard made you think of the rugged prophets of old. The General preached that night on the Flood, and his very appearance almost made one think that Noah himself had returned to warn us of judgment to come. I can see him now describing the breaking of the storm and the men beating on the door of the ark and in their anguish crying out, ‘My God, it’s shut!”

The General had just been to see King Edward VII at Buckingham Palace, and was full of his visit and of how interested the King had been in his conversion accounts. To Lindsay, Booth said, “I never had the advantages you had. I never had the education you have. But there came a day in my life when I said to God, ‘Lord, thou shalt have all there is of William Booth’—and thereafter God blessed me.”

Yet the man received by royalty and given the freedom of the city of London had been sneered at and pilloried at the start of his career. Born on April 10, 1829, he had grown up amid poverty, became a pawnbroker’s assistant, then a Methodist pastor. But he was restless even when preaching to a full congregation on industrial Tyneside. His preface to In Darkest England and the Way Out explains why: “When but a mere child, the degradation and helpless misery of the poor stockingers of my native town, wandering gaunt and hunger stricken through the streets … kindled in my heart yearnings to help the poor which have continued to this day.” He saw too that here were men and women as sinners needing a Savior, so he concentrated all his power in seeking to snatch them from the jaws of something worse than death.

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For Booth, the Lord’s requirements involved loosing the chains of injustice, freeing captive and oppressed, sharing food and home, clothing the naked, and carrying out family responsibilities. He could claim good biblical warrant, but such views disturbed a Victorian England that upheld God-appointed stations, especially for the poor. Even Booth’s colleagues of the Methodist New Connexion were uneasy about this. Booth was unmoved: to speak of godly poverty was no indication that God approved destitution. For him there was here no theological issue: people did not stop dying in hopelessness and squalor while theologians discussed nice points of controversial divinity (they still don’t). Happily, God is never particular about giving all of his most-used servants a good education. Booth pressed on, warmly supported by the remarkable Catherine, whom he married in 1855.

Ten years later he began in London’s East End “The Christian Mission,” a rescue operation aimed at what Matthew Arnold called “these vast, miserable, unmanageable masses of sunken people.” One summer evening he was found supervising preparations for his first evangelistic service in London’s Mile End Road. As a boy was attaching to a length of rope the naphtha lamps that would illumine the big tent, William Booth murmured, “One of these days they will be stringing lights like that around the world.”

From the outset his Salvation Army (a name adopted in 1878) waged war on a dual front: against the pinch of poverty and the power of sin. The cause was hindered during early years as the Army was shunned by the establishment and roughly handled by the very submerged tenth of humanity that was Booth’s special concern. Mobs jeered, threw stones, broke windows, vandalized property. Magistrates and police offered little protection. By the end of 1884,600 Salvationists had gone to prison in defense of their right to preach in the open air. “Why don’t you people stop in your buildings and let the streets alone?” demanded one furious police superintendent.

That was precisely what William Booth would not do. Bound for the land of the pure and the holy they might be, but on the way Booth and his helpers went into places the church never knew existed. They sought the castaways, exposed vice, provided homes and food and employment and medical care, reconciled families, and gave unwelcome publicity to frightful social conditions no other agency would tackle. Even after the turn of the century the Cheapside branch of Thomas Cook’s could tell novelist Jack London: “We are not accustomed to take travelers to the East End. We receive no call to take them there, and we know nothing about the place at all.”

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Booth followed the sixteenth-century Thomas More in holding that the devil was a proud spirit who could not bear to be mocked. So they mocked him, identified him as the chief enemy, challenged his monopoly of “all the best tunes,” and adapted to the latter such disrespectful words as “The old devil’s crown has got to come down, And that with a hullabaloo!” The avowed purpose of the big drum was, of course, to deafen the devil.

The General fearlessly waged war against such evils as sweated labor and girls sold into prostitution (“the career in which the maximum income is paid to the newest apprentice”). Booth, incidentally, anticipated Women’s Lib in establishing from the beginning the principle that women share in the work equally with men.

There were dark moments. Catherine died of cancer in 1890, and William faced the last twenty-two years of the campaign alone. Two sons and a daughter defected because of personal differences and disputes over discipline. Accused of lining his pockets at public expense, Booth agreed to an investigation of his financial affairs by an impartial committee chaired by a former governor of New Zealand. In December 1892, a 69-page report completely exonerated him.

His Army spread throughout the world—to the Americas, Africa, Australia, Asia, as well as into Europe—but Booth was always very much in control. A writer sent to interview him said he expected to meet a visionary and saint, and found instead the astutest businessman in the city. “You feel,” said the reporter, “if he had applied himself to winning wealth instead of to winning souls, he would have become the Rockefeller of England.… When he passes the Stock Exchange, he must say, ‘There but for the grace of God goes William Booth.’ ” Instead, Booth was responsible for a whole network of social and regenerative agencies throughout the world. Lord Wolseley once described him as the world’s greatest organizer.

As the nineteenth century closed, Booth gradually became acceptable: freeman of London, honorary doctor of Oxford, guest at the coronation of Edward VII, and of the U.S. Senate, which he opened with prayer. There remained pockets of resistance in the Church of England. Bishops might no longer air malicious and unproven charges in the privileged confines of the House of Lords, but there was a vague feeling that the Army was somehow uncouth. When Booth tried once to get permission for a service in St. Paul’s, the Dean’s refusal of such hospitality was not unlinked to his question about whether any of the guests would wear hobnailed boots likely to scratch the marble.

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And, of course, the Army observed no sacraments, though they denied they were against them. Perhaps the wranglings these had caused in other churches did not encourage Booth to change his mind. “Your people do not have the Lord’s Supper,” said a school inspector once to a Salvationist pupil. “No, sir.” “Then what do they put in its place?” “Farthing breakfasts for starving children, sir.”

Yet as early as 1882 Randall Davidson, later archbishop of Canterbury, offered four reasons for the Salvation Army’s progress: nothing succeeds like success; the new movement put its converts to work; the personal testimony of those converts was an effective method of evangelism; and preaching and teaching were given in language people could understand.

And they had William Booth, who knew and could speak to the condition of ordinary people. Here he is, electrifying an audience, talking about Judas, seeing him in his mind’s eye. “What is this man doing?” he asks. “He is—counting. And whispering, ‘One, two, three … ten, twenty, thirty!’ Then like a lost soul he cries out, ‘Ah! That was what I sold heaven for—that was what I sold my soul for. There is the gate of heaven, there is the throne of God, shining in the faraway distance. Ah! For this I sold it all.’ And if ever you go to hell, Judas will come to you, and count his silver over in your ears—and you will show him the price you paid for your soul too!”

In 1912 William Booth died—or, as the message said, “The General has laid down his sword”—and people of all ranks were among the many thousands of mourners who gathered in London for a farewell that was both tearful and joyful.

In 1965 I was in an Albert Hall crammed to capacity for the centenary celebrations. William Booth’s Army had marched a long way since that tent meeting in the Mile End Road. Now among the speakers testifying to the Army’s splendid record of service through many an arduous campaign were Queen Elizabeth II and Britain’s Home Secretary. The many distinguished guests included Cardinal Heenan of Westminster, whose entry was the signal for an astonishing standing ovation.

When Dr. Michael Ramsey, archbishop of Canterbury, told the assembly he had never met a gloomy Salvationist, a solitary “Hallelujah” resounded from the balcony. William Booth would have approved that.

G. Douglas Young is founder and president of the Institute of Holy Land Studies in Jerusalem. He has lived there since 1963.

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