British-born humanitarian Evangeline Cory Booth (1865-1950) was one of the early commanders of the Salvation Army in the United States. Her work to help the nation's poor and her efforts to provide aid to U.S. soldiers in Europe during World War I won her the admiration of the American public. In 1934 she was elected general—the Salvation Army's highest post—culminating a lifetime of service to the religious charity.
Evangeline Cory Booth was a member of the founding family of the Salvation Army, a religious organization formed by her father with the aim of aiding the needy. In her role as commander of the Salvation Army in the United States, she gained acceptance for the group's work and ideals throughout American society, particularly after organizing assistance to soldiers during World War I. Her success in expanding the Salvation Army in the United States was apparent in the increased number of centers and followers during her tenure as well as her personal popularity among the public. In 1929 her work was recognized when she was elected to the post of General of the Salvation Army, making her the head of the entire organization.
Born into Salvation Army Family
Booth was born with the name Evelyne on December 25, 1865, in London, England, and was known to her family as Eva. She was one of the five children of William Booth, who in the year of Booth's birth, founded the East London Revival Society. The Society later took the name the Christian Mission before taking its final shape as the religious and charitable organization known as the Salvation Army. Like her siblings, Booth devoted her life to the work of the Army—to assist the poor and spread Christian values. She did not receive any formal education, but spent her adolescent years among the poor of London. Becoming a sergeant in the Army at the age of 15, she sold the organization's publication, War Cry, in the streets. When she was a bit older, her assignment included selling matches in the impoverished area of Marylebone while dressed in rags like the poor around her. Although all the Booth children went on to hold high posts in the Army, it was Evelyne Booth who would serve for the longest period of time and bring the Army to a new level of influence and popularity. As an adult, she changed her name to Evangeline to emphasize the spiritual solace she hoped to bring to the poor while at the same time alleviating their physical suffering.
In 1895, at the age of 30, Booth arrived in Canada to replace her brother Herbert as field commissioner of the Salvation Army in that country. Having worked in some very rough environments in England, Booth found conditions around the city of Toronto to be relatively placid, and she worried that there would not be much for her to do in Canada. But she soon found her calling in the frontier areas of the north such as the Yukon and Alaska, where gold prospectors had formed unruly boom towns. For nine years she traveled and preached among the settlers and the native people of the area in what she later called "one of the most arduous toils in my experience."
Expanded Army in United States
But not even her challenging work in Canada could prepare her for the scope of her next task. In 1903, her sister Emma, the commander of the United States Salvation Army, died in New York City. Emma had created a solid foundation for the Army in the United States; at the time of her death its assets were worth 1.5 million dollars and almost 700 stations had been founded across the country. She was mourned as one of the country's greatest citizens—an estimated 75,000 people came to pay respects to her open casket and a New York newspaper compared the size of her funeral procession to that of president Ulysses S. Grant. Evangeline was selected to serve as the new U.S. commander, but she was intimidated at the prospect of trying to live up to her sister's greatness. Her father encouraged her, however, telling her that he believed she was destined to a career of great accomplishment. His daughter ultimately fulfilled his predictions. From the time of her induction as American commander in 1904, until her retirement from the post in 1934, the organization more than doubled the number of stations, its property holdings grew to a value of 48 million dollars, and its bank accounts increased to 35 million dollars.
Once arriving in New York, Booth immediately began to address the extreme poverty she found among immigrants there. One of the main problems was hunger; she attacked this by establishing bread lines and programs to feed school children. The public was incredibly responsive to her calls for help and surprised her by exceeding her expectations when she held donation drives. Other public service projects she took on were providing emergency relief during disasters, providing aid to hospitals, and helping the elderly. By focusing on such activities, Booth won over support from people who had initially been wary of the Salvation Army's religious overtones. She also used her oratorical talent to speak out on other topics that crossed religious boundaries, including women's rights and the prohibition of alcohol.
Won Appreciation for Wartime Service
It was her efforts to use the Salvation Army to assist soldiers in World War I, however, that won Booth and her organization the lasting respect and appreciation of the American public. Under the leadership of Booth, the Salvation Army sent members to the front lines of the war in Europe, where they cared for the wounded, established canteens, and loaned money to soldiers. This wartime aid was considered so important by the U.S. government that it excused Salvation Army members from military duty so they could be free to continue their charitable work. The country showed its appreciation for the Salvation Army after the war by donating 15 million dollars during a special nationwide project to assist the organization. In addition, the group and its leader were praised by some of the leading political and military figures of the war, including presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, British prime minister Lloyd George, and U.S. generals John Joseph Pershing and Leonard Wood. Booth herself was recognized with a Distinguished Service Medal in October of 1919.
Elected General of Salvation Army
In the 1920s, the Salvation Army suffered a period of internal turmoil. After William Booth's death in 1912, his son Bramwell had become the second general, or head official, of the Salvation Army. While Evangeline was recovering from a throat operation in 1922, Bramwell Booth attempted to undermine her position by dividing the United States command into three separate groups, each with its own commander. Americans, however, were extremely supportive of the beloved U.S. commander and were quick to voice their disapproval of her brother's move. The general was forced to back off his position, but his reputation had been weakened. In 1929, the Salvation Army held its first election for the post of general and Bramwell Booth was replaced with Edward J. Higgins. When the next elections were held in 1934, Salvation Army members turned to the woman who had done so much to raise the image of the organization, electing Evangeline Booth to the position of general. She completed only one five-year term before retiring from the organization in 1939 at the age of 74. Having served the Salvation Army in three different nations during her long career, it seemed fitting that her last years were spent overseeing an organization that had grown to an international success with volunteers in more than 50 countries. Booth died in her adopted country of the United States at Hartsdale, New York, on July 17, 1950.
Further Reading on Evangeline Cory Booth
For more information see Wilson, P. W., General Evangeline Booth of the Salvation Army, Scribners, 1948.