William Booth, the inspiration and founder of The Salvation Army, died a century ago today. His impassioned faith, great energy and enormous appetite for saving souls, led to his extending the Army’s reach into over 50 countries during the latter years of his life. Though he kept diaries, all but a few were lost during the Blitz, However, early biographies - now freely available online - include many (largely undated) extracts.
William Booth was born in Nottingham, England, in 1829, one of five children of Samuel Booth, a builder, and his second wife Mary Moss. His father died when he was 13, and William was taken out of school to become an apprentice pawnbroker. At 15, he became a Christian, and two years later a local preacher. He was influenced by visiting revivalists, including Isaac Marsden and the American evangelist, James Caughey.
In 1849. Booth moved to London, working as a pawnbroker until 1852, when he became a preacher at a Methodist Reform Chapel in Clapham. Later that year, though, he was appointed to Spalding, Lincolnshire, but returned to London, to the Methodist New Connexion, serving as an assistant minister, and then as an evangelist. He married Catherine Mumford in 1855, and they had nine children.
In 1857, Booth was appointed to Brighouse, Yorkshire, and then served in Gateshead for several years. Subsequently, in the mid-1860s, he conducted mission meetings as an independent evangelist, leading revivals in various parts of England and Wales. A series of tent meetings in East London in summer 1865 led to the development of the East London Christian Mission, which became the Christian Mission in 1869 and The Salvation Army in 1878.
By the early 1880s, Booth was extending The Salvation Army cause into the US, and other European and Commonwealth countries. It is said that during his lifetime he established Army work in 58 countries, travelling extensively and holding ‘salvation meetings’ everywhere he went. He wrote several books, including In Darkest England and the Way Out (1890) which set the foundation for the Army’s modern social welfare schemes.
In his later years, Booth became much revered, a favourite of national rulers and the media. In 1902, he was invited to attend the coronation of King Edward VII, and in 1906 he was made a Freeman of the City of London. After his death on 20 August 1912, 150,000 people filed passed his casket during a three day lying in state at Clapton Congress Hall; and 40,000 people (including Queen Mary) attended his funeral service at London’s Olympia. Further information is available from Wikipedia, The Salvation Army website and the BBC.
Although William Booth did keep diaries, there is no evidence that they have ever been published. According to The Salvation Army’s listing of its William Booth archive (a doc file), most volumes of his diaries were lost in the bombing of the Army’s International Headquarters in May 1941. However, three volumes - between September 1910 and May 1912 - were found ‘among the rubble and slush’. These pages were repaired and rebound in 1982.
A good feel for Booth’s diaries, though, can be found in early biographies which drew on them extensively. Life of William Booth, Founder and First General of the Salvation Army by Harold Begbie, published by Hodder & Stoughton in two volumes in 1920 contains many extracts (mostly undated). Here is one which is dated, from 10 days after the death of his wife Catherine. Her body had lain in state, and large crowds had flocked to pay their last tribute. There was then a procession through the City of London to the cemetery with Booth following alone in an open carriage, standing and bowing his acknowledgments to the crowds.
14 October 1890
‘I was weary myself. I had stood, balancing myself with the jerking of the carriage in its stops and starts, 4 hours. I couldn’t see the people craning their necks trying to see me without endeavouring to gratify them. Some may find fault with me, and say I made an exhibition of myself. That is what I have been doing with myself for my Master’s sake all my life, and what I shall continue to do as long as it lasts, and what I shall do through eternity for my Master’s sake and the people’s sake. And now I am restarted on the same path, the same work. A large part of my company has gone before, and I must travel the journey, in a sense that only those can understand who have been through it, alone.’
The following extracts - all written during a trip to the Netherlands in 1908 - are taken from The Authoritative Life of General William Booth by George Scott Railton (Hodder & Stoughton, 1912) - available at Internet Archive. The same book was also published under the simpler title General Booth.
14 March 1908
‘Soldiers’ and ex-Soldiers’ Meeting fine - three-fourths men. A great improvement on anything I have seen in the way of Soldiers’ Meetings in this place. I got the truth out, and thirty-seven of them fell at the Penitent-Form [the bench at which salvation seekers kneel] to seek power to walk in its light.’
15 March 1908
‘The Doelen Hall (one of the largest auditoriums in the city) full in the morning, and crowds shut out afternoon and night. People hard at first; but twenty-two came to the Penitent-Form in the morning, and fifty-eight at night. Never saw men weep more freely.’
17 March 1908
‘A tired, restless night for some reason or other. Sleep flew. Occupied with many matters, but not very anxious. Still, did not get much refreshment or invigoration for the day’s work, and felt accordingly. On the whole, the three Meetings were interesting, and, I think, useful to the Officers present, although nothing remarkable.’
18 March 1908
‘What I said of the Councils yesterday may be repeated to-day. I had a great deal more material than I could possibly introduce into two days, and on leaving out some topics, on the spur of the moment, some were left out that might have been of great benefit. However, everybody was pleased, and, I think, profited. The only question in my mind, similar to the one that haunts me in every Officers’ Council, is whether I am making the most of the opportunity.
There is no doubt that we have here a powerful body of men and women, good, devoted, and loyal to the principles of The Army, proud to be connected with it, and ready to receive instructions, and to carry them out. The great lack appears to be a want of energy, enterprise, and daring, the being content with a little success instead of reaching out to all that is possible and promising. However, they are wonderfully improved, and I hope the present Commissioner’s health will allow of his carrying them a long way farther in the direction of enthusiasm than they have reached before.’
19 March 1908
‘Fair night’s sleep, but feeling rather tired, which must be expected. We are away to Den Helder at 9.42 a.m., so must be stirring. Den Helder is a naval port, the headquarters of the Dutch navy. We were billetted with Rear-Admiral van den Bosch, who is in command of the port, fleet, dockyards, and many other things. We were received at the station in a formal but hearty manner by the leading people of the town, in the large waiting-room (decorated for the occasion), by the minister of the State Church, who made a really eloquent address. The great point of his speech was the work of the Holy Spirit - God working through us to the benefit of mankind. As he stood there talking in that circle of sixty or seventy of the leading inhabitants of the place, including naval officers of rank, professionals of various classes, and prominent people, I could not help feeling, as I often feel now, what a change has come over the people, not only with respect to The Army, but towards myself.
I answered in a few words that I trust were useful and beneficial to all present. The whole thing, from the moment of my being received at the door of my railway carriage, until I left next morning, had been prearranged through the instrumentality of one of our Local Officers, to his great credit, to the credit of his town, and to the satisfaction of his General.
The mail brought me a request to take over a certain county council’s lodging-house for poor men, on which they are losing a large sum, also another to take over an inebriates’ home, which cost £40,000 and is an utter failure. In such exploits people will not have The Salvation Army at the onset, otherwise they might save a good deal of expense, etc.’
20 March 1908
‘Arriving at Amsterdam, the mail brought confirmation of my agreement of yesterday to postpone my South African visit to September, and to begin my Motor Tour at Dundee, and finish at the Crystal Palace. In all these things the maxim is ever present to my mind, ‘Man proposes, but God disposes.’ Closed the night at the desk, which is becoming more and more a difficult task from the failure of my eyes.’
21 March 1908
‘Good night’s sleep. That is for me, anyway, a great improvement on recent nights. So now for a good day’s work, of which there is plenty lying before me.
7.30 p.m., Soldiers’ Meeting. We have always been crowded out before, so this time the Palace Theatre was taken, as an experiment, and it justified my reckonings for several years gone by, namely, that we could fill any reasonable place on Saturday night here, and yet keep the Meeting select; that is, confine it to Soldiers and ex-Soldiers, adherents, and those concerned about religion. We were more than full, and the place holds 1,500. I had much liberty in speaking, the After Meeting went with a swing seldom known on the Continent or elsewhere, and we had eighty-four at the Penitent-Form, some of them remarkable cases.’
22 March 1908
‘The theatre again in the morning at ten. An excellent plan. Oh, that it could be adopted the world over! The senseless system of beginning at eleven makes you feel it is time to close almost before you have had time to get well started. We were crowded, large numbers outside clamouring for admission, so much so that the police called out their reserves, and fifty men guarded the entrance. We had an excellent service inside, and forty at the Mercy-Seat. It was a beautiful Meeting, and made a mark for ever on my heart, and on the hearts of many more.
Afternoon. The large Hall of the People’s Palace had been arranged for this as well as the Night Meeting. We were full, and many were turned away. I lectured on ‘The Duty of the Community.’ Great satisfaction among my own people, and a good impression made upon the minds of a good many of the leading people of the city.
Night, 7.30. Again full. It is a building erected for an Exhibition, and made suitable for a Meeting only by putting up a great screen across the centre. I suppose we could have filled the entire space; but whether my interpreter could then have been heard, I am not sure. I preached with point and power - more breathless attention I never had in my life. I reckoned on an easy conquest, but we had one of the hardest fights I ever remember before we got a soul out. I left at 10.30, completely played out. A wall of policemen on either side kept the people back while I got into the carriage, the crowd having waited a long time to catch a glimpse of me. Had long, restless, and sleepless spells during the night; but still I have not done amiss on the whole. I must now prepare myself for the coming Berlin Staff Congress.’