1829 – 1890
by Toni Gonzales
Every December, we see Salvation Army workers ringing bells outside department stores and shopping malls. We applaud their efforts in soup kitchens and blanket drives for the homeless. Many of us have seen their trucks collect household items from neighbors preparing to move. William and Catherine Booth started the Salvation Army over a century ago in London, England when local churches refused to care for the poor. Their straight-forward approach to ministry has helped them carry the Gospel throughout the world. Catherine Booth’s life illustrates her own words, “We are made for larger ends than Earth can encompass. Oh, let us be true to our exalted destiny.”
Born on January 17, 1829, Catherine Mumford was raised in Nottingham, England. Her parents were strict in their political beliefs and religious practices. Catherine completed much of her schooling at home due to health problems and a concerned mother. She used the solitude to study God’s Word, reading the Bible through several times during her childhood. As a teenager, Catherine loved to debate social issues of the day with her father after dinner.
Thought to be an intellectual, Catherine was encouraged to critique a young minister travelling through town. William Booth’s passion made his message hard for the congregation to ignore. His charm made him hard for Catherine to forget. The two became instant friends and were engaged shortly before he was assigned to a new post some distance from London. The couple exchanged many letters throughout their three-year separation. Most of her correspondence was encouraging, but Catherine also warned against the fleeting results brought on by highly emotional pleas to the altar and prodded him to reconsider his views on women in ministry.
After marrying in 1855, William traveled the English countryside. Catherine’s fragile health and the needs of their growing family kept her from joining in his travels. She raised eight children; one daughter was born with severe disabilities. Catherine began her writing career with a rebuttal to a local pastor who demeaned women’s spiritual understanding. She argued that nurture, not nature, was to blame and set out to change the status of women in the church through speaking engagements and self-publishing. Monies she earned were funneled back into her husband’s growing ministry to the poor.
William left his position as a traveling preacher to start The Christian Mission in London in 1865. What began as a group of recently converted volunteers soon became a well-organized operation of getting the Gospel and practical assistance to the downtrodden and forgotten in the East end. Catherine was the first to contemplate the greater possibilities of their work – an army set on nothing less than the salvation of the world. Mission volunteers were often harassed and sometimes physically assaulted as they marched through the streets with their signs and musical instruments calling everyone to their outdoor tent meetings. William would return home late each night with his clothes soaked from the liquor, mud and rotten eggs thrown at him during his crusade. During a strategy meeting in 1878, held at Catherine’s bedside, the name of the Mission was officially changed to The Salvation Army.
The Booths’ commitment to personal discipleship and cooperative evangelism helped Army converts became able workers for the cause. They share their testimonies, brought friends and family members to tent meetings and gave generously to the Army as they were able. Catherine helped William maintain his vision for the growing ministry, worked with other leaders to establish guidelines for each rank in the Army, and fashioned official Army uniforms when public appearances became more formal than saloons and brothels. Most of the Booth children remained involved in their parents’ work throughout their lives. In fact, two of their eight children were the first workers to carry the Army’s mission to other continents, including America. Sons-in-law often took Booth as part of their own sir name to align themselves with the respected family. Franklin Booth-Tucker, in his biography of his mother-in-law, The Life of Catherine Booth, explained how the couple’s ministry began in the home and kept expanding until it reached the whole world.
Catherine Mumford Booth died of breast cancer on October 4, 1890. Some 36,000 friends and converts attended her funeral. William spent his remaining years ministering to London’s working poor, visiting foreign Army stations, and writing manuals for future soldiers to live and work by. At his death in 1912, the Salvation Army had 9,415 units. This Christmas, Catherine’s bells will ring in 94 countries throughout the world including India, Czechoslovakia, El Salvador and Russia. Truly ‘large ends’ for a sickly woman with little formal education and eight children to raise.
Toni Gonzales writes for Christian magazines on women’s and parenting issues. She can be reached at ToniMGonzales@hotmail.com.