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William and Catherine Booth

William and Catherine Booth founded the Salvation Army in 1865 to tackle the poverty of the Victorian era.

Read time: 5 minutes and 24 seconds

William and Catherine Booth founded the Salvation Army in London in 1865 to tackle the poverty of the Victorian era. It is a quasi-military Christian organisation providing practical and spiritual support to the most needy people in society. William and Catherine were passionate Christians who were inspired to tell people about Jesus Christ and that following his teachings is transformational. But they also wanted to meet human needs and to help people, without discrimination, as a demonstration of God’s love for humanity. In doing this they were following the teaching of Jesus, recorded in the Bible book, Matthew: ‘…I was hungry and you fed me; I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I was naked and you clothed me, I was in prisoner and you came to visit me…’ The Salvation Army was originally called The Christian Mission but changed its name in 1878. It is a Protestant denomination, or tradition, within the worldwide Christian Church with more than 1.6 million members across more than 100 countries.

William and Catherine Booth founded the Salvation Army in London in 1865 to tackle the poverty of the Victorian era.

Early lives

William and Catherine Booth were both born in 1829; William in Nottingham, Catherine in Ashbourne, Derbyshire. Catherine Mumford was known as a serious young girl. She was raised in a Christian family but made her own personal Christian commitment at the age of 16. William’s family were poor: his father died when he was 14. By then, William was a pawnbroker’s assistant, seeing poverty and suffering every day. As a result, it was a job he grew to hate. He became a Christian aged 15 and began to attend his local Methodist chapel, developing a passion to share his faith, particularly with the most poor and rejected in society. William preached his first sermon aged 17. He was a talented speaker and began travelling around with the Methodist church, telling people about Jesus and Christianity. By the early 1850s he was working among the poor and uneducated.

Catherine and William met when he went to preach at her church. They married in June 1855. Catherine was quieter and unfamiliar with public speaking. But she grew in confidence and stature, driven by the belief that a woman should have the same right to speak as a man. The Booths held meetings for new Christian believers and they helped alcoholics. They had eight children. Two of them, Bramwell and Evangeline, would become senior figures in the Salvation Army.

Reaching the working class

William was seen as a maverick and by 1865 he was an independent preacher, not linked to any Christian tradition. Faced by the poverty and deprivation he saw in the slums of London’s East End, he decided he wanted to provide practical as well as spiritual support. William and Catherine set up The Christian Mission from a tent in Whitechapel. William preached to the poor about Jesus while Catherine spoke to the wealthy, seeking financial support for the work. William Booth believed the church had to go out to where people were, rather than wait for people to come into church. He felt the mainstream church’s traditions were too middle class to reach the mass of the population. His followers and those who helped him were mostly drawn from the poor. They understood working class lives and values and could relate to working class people. The movement grew rapidly but William Booth maintained a strong grip on it, believing it would only succeed if he was clearly the leader.

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Christianity William and Catherine Booth

The Salvation Army

For William Booth his movement was involved in a spiritual war, fighting the forces of evil, and so it was logical to adopt a military tone. In 1878 the movement changed its name to The Salvation Army – so called because they were preaching about how Jesus could save people from a God-less eternity. It was modelled on military lines, with William the first general and other ministers as officers. Catherine was ‘The Army Mother’, providing guidance on social and faith issues. The soldiers of the Salvation Army wore uniforms and went into the most dangerous places, taking the message about Jesus Christ into Britain’s toughest inner cities. They were not always welcomed and sometimes provoked a hostile reaction: in 1882 more than 600 followers, or Salvationists, including women and children, were physically attacked.

At first the Army concentrated on preaching and prayer but was soon offering a variety of practical help. William Booth believed prayer and the lifestyles of the Salvationists would encourage people to adopt Christianity. The Army helped Christian believers and non-believers. It hoped people would become Christians but did not require them to do so. And it promised never to give up on anyone, no matter how low they had sunk. Salvationists made a point of loving those people who were the hardest to love. The Booths believed no-one was beyond God’s love and that God could rescue and restore anyone. In 1885 the Booths established a family tracing service to help heal broken relationships by reuniting people who had lost contact with relatives.

The Booths continued their tireless work among the destitute throughout their lives.

The Salvation Army also used music to attract followers, becoming famous for their brass bands. The first band was a group of ‘bodyguards’ who had offered to protect a meeting from rowdy hecklers and brought instruments to accompany the singing. William Booth saw the potential and encouraged the creation of Army bands. These often took popular songs of the day and changed the words to give them a Christian theme.

Final years and legacy

The Booths continued their tireless work among the destitute throughout their lives. Catherine died in 1890, but William carried on, travelling widely to oversee his growing army. By the time of his death in 1912, the Salvation Army had been set up in 58 countries and colonies. Their family continued the work. Their daughter, Evangeline, helped to coin the phrase ‘on the wagon’ for alcoholics who had given up drinking. She drove a hay wagon through New York to encourage alcoholics to board for a ride back to the Salvation Army base. Over the following decades, the Salvation Army has become known around the world for its work with people facing hard times including drug addicts, the homeless, young offenders, prisoners, the elderly and the disabled.