William Booth was born in Sneinton, Nottingham, England, on July 2, 1865. He was the second son of five children born to Samuel and Mary. Initially, the family was financially secure, though wealthy by some measure, but later, possibly to Samuel’s deteriorating health, the family descended into poverty. Samuel died in September 1842, leaving the young family to fend for themselves. Biographies report that William was 13 years old when his father died and went to work apprenticing as a “pawnbroker.”
After completing his first two years of apprenticeship, William experienced a powerful religious experience that he described as his conversion. Even though he was relatively uneducated, he taught himself to read, write, and deliver speeches. He later became a Methodist (local) pastor and was assigned to a local congregation. However, under the influence of his friend and co-laborer Will Sansom, he entered evangelistic ministry to preach the Gospel to the poor in Nottingham. The partnership lasted for several years until Sansom died of tuberculosis in 1849.
This period of ministry and preaching took place while he was still engaged in his longer “pawnbroker” apprenticeship, but at the end of his contract, William was unemployed for more than one year. He left his family behind and moved to London to secure work. He landed a job as a “pawnbroker” but continued to preach as a lay speaker.
In 1851, Booth left pawn brokering, joined the Methodist Reformed Church, and became a full-time preacher. Biographers note that Booth styled his preaching after the English revivalist James Caughey. In November 1853, he became the pastor of the Methodist Reformed Church at Spalding, Lincolnshire. There he married Catherine Mumford on June 16, 1855.
In 1857, Booth was a recognizable name, and with such notoriety, he was moved to Brighouse, Yorkshire, to lead Bethel Chapel Church. There he and Catherine began protesting the employment of 7-year-old girls to work in the local mill. They called it inhumane and called on the mill to release the girls from the strenuous work. It is plausible that the mill owners influenced the Methodist leadership to have the Booths reassigned to another region to protect their workforce and reputation. In early 1959, the Booth family was reassigned to a church many miles south in Gateshead.
At the annual Methodist Conference in Liverpool in 1861, Booth passionately requested to be released from his local pastoral assignments and be allowed to enter full-time evangelism. Unfortunately, the conference rejected his request. The conferences’ decision was met with anger from the Booths, and they resigned from the association. As a result, the Methodist conference barred William and Catherine from speaking in the Methodist congregations. So they became independent evangelists preaching the scriptural truth of the Gospel and the punishment of hell for those who rejected Christ.
In 1865, the Booths opened “the Christian Revival Society” in East End of London, preaching in the ghettoes of London to the homeless, poor, and afflicted. Catherine reported that her husband would often come home after long days of preaching, witnessing, and “soul-winning” that he would “stumble home night after night haggard with fatigue, often his clothes were torn and bloody bandages swathed his head where a stone had struck.” At the revival meetings, degenerates would throw stones, fireworks, or other unsavory objects at the preacher and worshipers. Despite the repeated harassment, the Booths and their ministry remained in East End, working with their identified mission field.
The organization was initially “the Christian Revival Society” but was later to “East End Christian Mission.” Still, later, it was shortened again to “The Christian Mission.” However, in 1878, by an unexpected chance, William was dictating to his secretary, George Railton, “We are a volunteer army.” William’s son, Bramwell, shouted, “Volunteer? I’m no volunteer! I’m a regular!” Railton crossed out “volunteer” and inserted “salvation.” The publication was reworded from “The Christian Mission is a Volunteer Army” to “The Christian Mission is a Salvation Army.” The name stuck and instituted a restructuring of the mission’s organization to reflect military orders, flags, and insignias. It created its own music for its marching bands using folk tunes from the pubs and bars. The workers, including Booth, started wearing their own uniform, called “putting on the armor.” William became the General, and others were given appropriate names as ranked officers and soldiers. Soon the Salvation Army sent missionaries to the United States, France, Switzerland, Sweden, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Jamacia, and other countries related to the British Empire.
William wrote his views in his first book, In Darkest England and the Way Out, in 1890. It was an immediate best-seller. It compared “civilized England” with the primitive and poor state of African countries. He preached that England (after the Industrial Revolution) was no better in quality of life than those deemed “savages” by English culture. He believed that the Christian Gospel was the answer to the world’s problems and that the Gospel would establish homes for the homeless, farms for the hungry, homes for battered women and released prisoners. He called for increased service to the poor and help for the drunkard. He also plans to provide lawyers, clinicians, bankers, and schools for the poor in society. He took Jesus’ words literally, “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40).
Despite the optimism, not everyone in London welcomed the newly formed Salvation Army. Instead, it met with considerable opposition. Booth’s preaching against the abuse of alcohol and his call for the shuttering of bars reaped the anger of the alcohol industry leaders. An anti-group was formed called the “Skeleton Army,” created by detractors to disrupt and aggravate Salvation Army. According to a historical document by Harold Hill of Victoria University, the “Skeleton Army” afflicted the Salvation army for more than 15 years and attacked 662 Salvation Army soldiers, “251 were women, and 23 were under the age of fifteen years old.”
Newspapers misinterpreted the Army’s motto, “Blood and Fire,” as a message of violence or as a judgment against sinners. Correctly stated, the motto was rooted in the belief of Christ’s atonement through his blood shed on Calvary and in the doctrine of the Holy Spirit’s fire, sanctifying the believer for continued service to Christ. Most newspapers depicted William and Catherine as thieves and charlatans, pointing to William’s past employment as a pawnbroker.
The Church of England was no friend to the Booth’s efforts either. William was labeled as the Anti-Christ and accused of heresy. Among the heresies levied against him was the accusation that he was elevating “women to man’s status.” Several of his own children left the organization to establish other organizations, angered by their father’s rigid work and belief. Even Dwight L Moody refused to support him because Moody believed Booth’s efforts would undermine the local church’s work.
Years later, after very difficult years, the Salvation Army, William and Catherine Booth, began to emerge as an honest work among the marginalized of society. Their hard work and tenacity gained them audiences with kings, queens, and presidents of nations. Even the once critical media began referring to William by his rank—General.
His biographers indicate he toured the United Kingdom for six months preaching in cities, towns, and villages. He was granted an honorary degree from the University of Oxford and was invited to the coronation of King Edward VII.
William Booth was “promoted to glory” on August 20, 1912, at the age of 83, in Hadley Wood, London. His burial and funeral service was held at London’s Olympia (exhibition center) with more than 40,000 in attendance, including the Queen Mary. King George V wrote, “The nation has lost a great organizer and the poor a whole-hearted and sincere friend.” President William Taft wrote, “his long life and great talents were dedicated to the noble work of helping the poor and weak and giving them another chance to attain success and happiness.”
The funeral procession began at the Salvation Headquarters and proceeded to Abney Park Cemetery in Stoke Newington, with more than 10,000 soldiers and officers walking behind. The marching band played the “Dead March” from Handel’s Saul, and Booth was laid to rest beside his beloved wife, Catherine. Videos of the procession and funeral can be posted on YouTube by various Salvation Army agencies and parties.
William Booth. In Darkest England, and the Way Out. (Public Domain: Project Gutenberg) Released E-book March 1, 1996. https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/475/pg475.html
Roy Hattersley. Blood and Fire: William and Catherine Booth and the Salvation Army. (Doubleday: New York) May 16, 2000
Harold Ivor Winston Hill. Officership in the Salvation Army; A Case Study in Clericalization. A dissertation submitted to the faculty of Victoria University of Wellington. 2004 https://researcharchive.vuw.ac.nz/bitstream/handle/10063/726/thesis.pdf?
W. Hugh Baddeley. “William Booth, God’s Soldier.” The Salvation Army International Public Relations Bureau Film. (1953) Educational Video. 32:07 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=87uz6s0bLOE
Further access to various materials, videos, and images can be accessed through The Salvation Army’s website “virtual heritage center”