The English evangelist William Booth (1829-1912) founded the Salvation Army, an international Christian organization for philanthropic and evangelical work.
William Booth was born near Nottingham on April 10, 1829. As a youth, he was apprenticed to a pawnbroker, but after a conversion experience he began street preaching for a Methodist chapel. In 1849 he went to London, where he worked as a pawnbroker. Three years later, however, he became a full-time Methodist lay preacher. In 1855 he married Catherine Mumford, an intelligent and determined woman. Encouraged by her in his theological studies, Booth was ordained a minister in 1858.
Booth's theology was simple and unchanging. He drew both his beliefs and his basic practice from the model set by John Wesley a century earlier. His creed required no systematic theological learning. He held that without personal acceptance of Christ as his Savior, the sinful man would die into eternal damnation. Although the opportunity for acceptance was freely offered to all, it was certain to be ignored by the masses in the sordid and pagan slums of the new industrial towns. Thus it was necessary to reach the ignorant, the drunkard, and the criminal and offer them the chance of repentance.
Driven by this purpose, in 1861 the Booths left Methodism and in 1865 established the Christian Mission in East London. During the next 12 years Booth developed the evangelical techniques later employed in the Salvation Army. Among these were the use of secular quarters and the enlistment of converted sinners as workers. Booth was not a political or social radical; he only gradually came to accept that social uplift might have to precede conversion. Thus he slowly built a social program of food kitchens, housing, and communal organization. He wrote, however, "The Social is the bait, but it is Salvation that is the hook that lands the fish."
The conversion of the Christian Mission into the Salvation Army occurred somewhat accidentally in 1878. Booth had earlier expressed his evangelical zeal in military terms, titles, and concepts. This organizational style, not unique to his army, was in tune with the current popularity of militarism and imperialism. The army's paper, the War Cry, appeared at the end of 1879. Although the army met considerable hostility through the 1880s, by 1890 Booth had become a figure of international renown. The day-today administrative labor of the Salvation Army fell increasingly to Bramwell Booth, General Booth's oldest child and his chief of staff and successor.
Mrs. Booth died in 1890, the year in which Booth wrote, with much assistance from the reforming journalist W. T. Stead, his famous book, In Darkest England and the Way Out. In it Booth colorfully and compassionately detailed the misery of the "Submerged Tenth" and insisted that the "way out" must transform men as well as their surroundings.
Further Reading on William Booth
Of the biographies of Booth, two stand out: The best is St. John Ervine, God's Soldier: General William Booth (2 vols., 1934). An earlier biography is by a friend, Harold Begbie, The Life of General William Booth: The Founder of the Salvation Army (2 vols., 1920), which is well organized chronologically but lacks clarity of detail.
Additional Biography Sources
Barnes, Cyril J., William Booth and his army of peace, Amersham, Eng.: Hulton Educational, 1975.
Barnes, Cyril J., Words of William Booth, London: Salvationist Publishing, 1975.
Bennett, David, William Booth, Minneapolis, Minn.: Bethany House, 1986.
Coutts, Frederick Lee, Bread for my neighbour: an appreciation of the social action and influence of William Booth, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1978.
Robinson, Virgil E., William Booth and his Army, Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Association, 1976.