The Salvation Army marched around the world in the great days of the British Empire, adopting ranks like those of the soldiers of Queen Victoria. Its founders, William and Catherine Booth, came from the heart of middle England. Was this new movement, then, simply a religious by-product of British imperialism?

Clearly there was much more to the Army than that. Its roots ran far back in time—to the Methodists of the eighteenth century and the Quakers of a hundred years before. Early Salvationists, in fact, spoke of Quaker leader “George Fox and his Salvation Army two hundred years ago.”

Those roots ran not only deep but also wide—to the American frontier, where the camp-meeting movement was bringing new life to the faith. But could such methods of “revivalism” work as well in industrialized England?

A series of American evangelists came eastward and profoundly influenced The Salvation Army that was to be. Three in particular affected the Booths.

James Caughey
(c. 1810–1891), the American Methodist evangelist who, in the words of Catherine Booth, “prayed for us most fervently … expressing the deepest interest in our future … [I was] almost adoring his very name.”
“I Never Heard His Equal”

In the early nineteenth century, a debate raged within Wesleyan Methodism about revivalism. Did the techniques of the American camp meeting—imported in 1807 by Lorenzo Dow—bring heavenly rapture or mass hysteria?

Catherine Mumford and William Booth debated the question in their love letters. “Watch against mere animal excitement in your revival services,” wrote Catherine. “I never did like noise and confusion.”

Her William was a little abrupt in reply: “If you cannot bear the hearty responses and Alleluias of God’s people, then our fellowship will not be in prayer meetings.”

But Catherine knew how to convince her man. “Remember Caughey’s soft silent heavenly carriage,” she wrote. “He did not shout. He had a more potent weapon at his command than noise.”

James Caughey, to whom Catherine referred, was an American Methodist evangelist with a strong track record in revivalism. When he preached in William Booth’s native Nottingham, the local newspaper reported this:

“Every scene he drew was visibly before the eyes of the congregation, and the vacant space in front of the pulpit, which he chose as canvas on which to paint his vivid designs, was no longer a vacancy to his hearers—as was manifest from the fixed stare with which they gazed into it.”

James Caughey was a spellbinder, and he cast his spell on the young William Booth. When general of The Salvation Army, he paid his debt to this “American minister, who was making a tour through the country … filling up his sermons with thrilling anecdotes and vivid illustrations.… For the straightforward declaration of spiritual truths and striking appeals to the conscience, I had up to that time never heard his equal. I do not know that I have since.”

Caughey, a man of culture with a sense of humor, became a celebrity. His letters, published in five volumes, combine travelogue (for example, the battlefield of Waterloo described for American readers) with a defense of his methods. “Some people were offended,” wrote Caughey, “at the tremendous ‘Amens’ and shouts of victory which prevailed on every side.… The noise was sometimes tremendous—but God was in it.”

Some people were indeed offended. In 1849 the English Wesleyan Methodist Conference “affectionately requested” the American bishops “to recall Mr Caughey to his proper work in his own country.”

Caughey complied, with a heavy heart, but by now there were several branches to English Methodism. In 1858 he was back on the English revival trail again. The Booths were now married, and William was a minister in the Methodist New Connexion. Catherine made sure she heard Caughey preach in Sheffield. “He is a sweet fellow,” she wrote, “one of the most gentle, loving, humble spirits you can conceive of.”

A few days later, Caughey called to see the Booths and baptized their second son, Ballington. “He wrote an inscription in my Bible,” reported Catherine, who began thinking: If Caughey was free to preach when and where the Spirit led him, why should not her William do the same? In the following year the Booths resigned from the New Connexion and became traveling revivalists.

Phoebe Palmer: “My Dear Wife Wishes to Speak”

But first the Booths went to Gateshead, in northeast England, and came under the influence of an American husband-and-wife team—Walter and Phoebe Palmer. Phoebe Palmer was a laywoman active in the Allen Street Methodist Church in New York City. Every Tuesday a meeting “for the Promotion of Holiness” was held in her home. From 1837 she had been teaching John Wesley’s doctrines of Christian perfection, and she and Walter became proprietors of the monthly Guide to Holiness.

“American Christians were practical,” declares the History of American Methodism. “They would listen to preachers who promised to make religion work.… One of Phoebe Palmer’s famous tracts was entitled ‘Faith and Its Effects’ [which taught that] ‘Trust in God must get results.’ ” Across the Atlantic, the Booths thought so too.

But was Phoebe Palmer a teacher or a preacher? When does a lecture end and a sermon begin? Catherine Booth was in no doubt that Phoebe was “the principal figure in the meetings.” The Reverend Augustus Rees was in no doubt either. He denounced Phoebe Palmer in a twice-repeated sermon.

Catherine Booth was incensed. “Would you believe that a congregation half composed of ladies would sit and hear such … rubbish?” she declared. She sat down to answer Phoebe Palmer’s critics in a thirty-two-page pamphlet, Female Ministry: Or, Women’s Right to Preach the Gospel.

The argument is clear, sincere, concise, and convincing if you accept its premises. The Holy Spirit had been given to both sexes, Catherine pointed out. Women had prophesied in the early church, and Paul’s command to “keep silent” referred not to preaching but to gossip, interruption, and uncalled-for questions. “A mistaken application of the passage ‘Let your women keep silent in the churches’ has resulted in loss to the church, evil to the world, and dishonor to God.” Such was Catherine Booth’s plain conclusion.

Thus concluding, she could hardly keep silent herself. After much heart searching, she rose one Sunday evening in Gateshead and made her way down the aisle. William thought she might be ill, but no. “My dear wife wishes to speak,” he announced in astonishment.

Thus began Catherine Booth’s preaching ministry, which made her an international celebrity. In her final sermon, in the City Temple in London on June 21, 1888, Catherine was dying of cancer, and her hearers knew it. One of them, the American preacher S. Parkes Cadman, remembered it forty years later: “I have not heard since anything that moved me more deeply than that remarkable address, delivered … in a voice like the pealing of a silver bell across a still lake. ” Her ministry owed a great deal to the influence of Phoebe Palmer.

Charles Finney: “I Often Wish I Could Have An Hour’s Talk with Finney”

One American evangelist above all commanded Catherine Booth’s admiration. Long before her marriage to William, she had written about “a poor sinking drunkard in Russell Gardens.” She wanted to help, but should she—a single, young woman—approach such a man? “I often wish I could have an hour’s talk with Finney,” she wrote. “I think he would be able to advise me.”

But the great Charles Grandison Finney was far away in the United States. Catherine could only read, reread, and commend his Lectures on Revivals: “The most beautiful and common-sense work on the subject that I ever read.”

Finney, “the father of modern revivalism,” had experienced a profound conversion in 1821: “As I went in and shut the door after me, it seemed as if I met the Lord Jesus Christ face to face. It did not occur to me then—nor did it for some time afterwards—that it was wholly a mental state. It seemed to me a reality—that he stood before me and I fell down at his feet.… ” Thus convinced, Finney set out to share the faith with others. Rejecting the doctrine of predestination, he held that revivals, with mass conversions, could happen and should happen; if people used sanctified common sense, by God’s grace they would happen.

This heady doctrine the Salvation Army’s founders drank in from the Lectures on Revivals. In the same series as George Fox and His Salvation Army Two Hundred Years Ago, they published A Presbyterian Salvationist, or the Inner and Outer Life of C. G. Finney. The pioneer Salvationists approved of Finney because he rejected what they thought to be predestination on the one hand and universalism on the other. And they tried to follow his methods to bring about revival.

“All through the earlier part of my ministry,” wrote Finney, “I used to meet from ministers a great many rebuffs and reproofs, particularly in respect to my manner of preaching.… They would reprove me for illustrating my ideas by reference to the common ideas of men.… They said that I let down the dignity of the pulpit … that I talked like a lawyer … that I said ‘hell’ with such an emphasis as often to shock people.… Furthermore that I urged people with such vehemence as if they might not have a moment to live.” Writer St. John Ervine, when preparing God’s Soldier, his biography of William Booth, wrote concerning this passage, “Booth must have been impressed … for he too was rebuffed by ministers.”

Finney did cross the Atlantic, and he made helpful suggestions for the British Isles. “The true way to labor for a revival movement in England and Scotland is to have no particular connexion with any denomination, but to preach the gospel and make a stand in halls, or even in streets when the weather is favorable, where no particular denominational feelings can straiten the … influences of the spirit of God.” And this suggestion the Booths followed wholly. The first policy of the Booths and their helpers was that converts should go to existing churches. (They soon discovered, however, that the converts would not go—and often were not wanted when they did go.)

Influenced by Caughey, Palmer, and Finney, the pioneer Salvationists retained and restated the insight that gave revivalism its enduring strength: that the poor and the humble, in forest or in music hall, could find—and be found by—the living God. “As we spread from one part of London to another, and then to the provinces, we came to accept our mission to preach the gospel to every creature,” said William Booth. “Thus the East London Christian Mission became The Salvation Army.”

Dr. John Coutts, us an author, broadcaster, and lecturer in religious studies at Avery Hill College in London. A Salvation Army officer for twenty years, he is currently a soldier in the Army's corps in Gravesend, Kent.