The Ministry of William Booth

The Life of William Booth

In the mid-eighteen hundreds, England’s inner cities were fearful places. They were places where poverty, disease and alcoholism was everywhere. On any given night, those walking about might come across beggars, drunkards, and even dead persons lying in the street. They might also come across a young street preacher, named William Booth, shouting these words: “There is a Heaven in East London for everyone… for everyone who will stop and think and look to Christ as a personal Savior.” 2 Who was he? And what hope did he offer to the many suffering all around him? What message did he have for the destitute, the homeless and the hungry, who would wander from beneath the bridges and out from the alleys, seeking help and rest ? Who were his opponents and were they justified in their opposition? Overcoming great obstacles and opposition, William Booth was driven by an intense zeal to serve Jesus Christ in offering practical and spiritual help to others; this zeal was passed on to those companions of his who would become known as the soldiers of the Salvation Army, and together they would have a significant, positive impact on the nineteenth and twentieth century’s poor.

To understand this great zeal that burned in Booth and his companions, we must begin with the history of William Booth. He was born on April 10, 1829 in Sneinton, England, the son of Samuel and Mary Moss Booth. 3 Booth’s father died when Booth was only fourteen. 4 Before his death, Booth’s father encouraged him to get into the pawn shop business. The Booth family, like most families in England, was quite poor. At an early age, William Booth began to identify strongly with the plight of the struggling poor. Working as a pawnbroker, Booth was moved many times by the sight of impoverished individuals trying to sell their personal possessions.

Sometime in these early years of Booth’s life, he had a spiritual conversion that would change him profoundly. Booth did not come from a religious home, 5 but upon invitation, he had gone to meetings at a local Methodist church. Booth made a conscious decision to surrender his life to Jesus Christ, and one evening around 11:00 P.M. in 1844, as he was walking home, he encountered God in such a way that “a sudden spiritual exaltation flooded his whole being.” 6 At fifteen years of age, Booth exclaimed, “God shall have all there is of William Booth.” 7

Having committed his life to God, Booth continued in his faith. To further understand Booth’s zeal, we need to consider another spiritual experience that he had. Sometime after this conversion, Booth had an amazing vision that would change his entire outlook on life. In the vision, Booth saw himself become sick and die. Upon dying, he was taken to a heavenly setting where he saw a great book. Inside the book was a record of his life. Upon reviewing it, Booth saw detailed records of all of his actions, motives and even thoughts. Booth was immediately overwhelmed by the realization that he had wasted virtually all of his life, living for himself. As the vision progressed, Booth was approached by Jesus Christ Himself, but before Christ, there was a long procession of faithful and devout Christians, many of whom had been martyred, and all of whom had gone far in the faith. Booth felt very small and unworthy to be in their presence, and this feeling escalated to its greatest intensity as he finally stood before the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. Christ simply stared at him silently. Booth said: “How I wish that some mountain would fall upon me and hide me forever from His presence.” 8A Then, Booth said that he felt Christ say to him: “Go back to earth. I will give thee another opportunity. Prove thyself worthy of My name. Show to the world that thou possessest My Spirit by doing My works, and becoming, on My behalf, a savior of men.” 8B

Newly converted, and having experienced this dramatic vision, the young Booth was filled with drive, vision and purpose to help everyone around him in both practical and spiritual ways. Seeing his zeal, leaders from the Methodist church began allowing him to lead some of the meetings. The young Booth preached, with much vigour and intensity, the message of repentance from sin and faith in Jesus Christ. It was said of him that “his voice, powerful even then, cut like a stock whip.” 9 Mr. Rabbits, a businessman, approached Booth and insisted that Booth quit his job as a pawnbroker and go into full- time ministry. Rabbits also offered to support Booth for the first three months. 10

Booth accepted Mr. Rabbit’s offer and, at the age of twenty-five, began speaking in various churches. It became apparent that Booth’s preaching was not ordinary. It was said that “[h]is sermons were charged with thunderous fervor, once, picturing the world’s sinners as like shipwrecked men whom only Christ could save, he leapt on to the seat at the back of the pulpit, wildly waving his pocket handkerchief by way of a distress signal.” 11

Booth’s fervent, fiery preaching became more and more popular, and before long, he was given the position of London Circuit Superintendent. 12 Booth married a Miss Catherine Mumford in 1855. 13 By 1858, he was an ordained minister and he was assigned to another circuit of churches in Newcastle, England. At this point, Booth reached a crisis. Despite his success, he knew that he was drifting away from his real purpose, which was ministry to the unchurched and the poor. Booth decided to turn down his new appointment. 14

Having declined his new appointment, Booth began holding meetings in secular buildings rather than in churches. People began coming in crowds, but it wasn’t long before Booth began running into obstacles. For starters, Parliament had passed a law in 1860 forbidding services from being held in theatres. 15 It was felt, by much of society, that church meetings needed to be held in proper church buildings for the sake of keeping with tradition and order. It was also forbidden to hold services in parks. But there was no law saying that you could not preach in a graveyard. So Booth began holding services in a giant tent situated at a one-time graveyard on Whitechapel Street. Two to three hundred of East London’s poorest citizens filled the tent night after night. 16 Booth comments on the eagerness of the crowds with these words: “We found that though the aversion of the working classes to churches and chapels was strong as could readily be conceived, yet they eagerly listened to speakers who, with ordinary ability, in an earnest and loving manner, could set before them the truths of the Bible in the open-air. At any season of the year, in nearly all kinds of weather, at any hour of the day, and almost any hour of the night, we could obtain congregations.” 17

One man who visited the tent meetings was a Mr. Peter Monk. Mr. Monk was a boxer. Previous to coming to the tent, Monk met Booth at Whitechapel Street where Booth invited him to attend the tent meeting arranged for that evening. Monk said that he could not, because he was boxing that night. He, however, did come the following evening, and by the time the meeting was over, Monk found himself on his knees, praying to God for forgiveness for his sinful life. He committed his life to following Christ and became one of Booth’s most loyal converts. 18

Monk’s conversion was followed by others. Another young man who visited the tent was Jack. While attending a meeting, Jack came under deep awareness that he was a sinner and that he needed God’s forgiveness. However, he was hesitant to commit his life to Christ. Twenty or thirty Christians gathered around him and prayed fervently, pleading with God, for Jack’s salvation. After a long time, Jack began to groan and for the next twenty minutes bellowed out a prayer to God, appealing to God’s mercy: “[h]e then sprang to his feet, and stretching out his long arms he cried, with glaring eyes, ‘I do believe! I do Believe!’ The tears had made two clear alleys down his face. And then he jumped, and shouted, again and again, ‘The blood of Jesus cleanses me from all sin!’” 19

Conversions like Monk’s and Jack’s continued and Booth secured the use of an old dance hall. This dance hall held the reputation of being one of London’s worst moral pest-houses. Booth converted it into a Christian mission and began holding services. 20 He would alternate between using the tent and the mission. As well as out-reach meetings, prayer meetings, that sometimes lasted eight hours, were also held in the mission. Booth and those around him would pray fervently and loudly for the salvation of sinners. One observer commented on the sound of this with these words: “All night, so desperate, so unceasing, and so tremendous was the uproar that towards dawn the Irish living around, finding sleep impossible, gathered round the door. ‘Sure, they’re killing themselves,’ they whispered with awestruck looks!” 21 Their prayers, however, were answered as visitors continued to come and commit their lives to following Christ, and as the ministry continued to expand.

With the expansion of the ministry, Booth needed a larger facility to hold meetings. The law forbidding preaching in theatres was never enforced and Booth began filling the East London Theatre with attentive crowds. 22 The crowds seemed to be afraid of missing even one word that Booth would preach. 23 Booth’s preaching was unconventional and yet it drew people in and its intensity and earnestness could not easily be dismissed. 24

Responsive crowds continued to come and Booth opened up new missions. Throughout this time, Booth’s wife was very supportive of the work. She told William not to consider her, for she could trust God and even live on bread and water if she had to. Instead, she wanted William to fulfill his duty. 25

In duty to God, and in response to the pressing practical needs of the masses around him, Booth began renting the Cambridge Music Hall, where he and those with him, began holding services and providing free breakfasts for the poor. The “Morning Adviser,” a local newspaper, printed a lengthy article on this work, commenting on its recipients: “The congregation … had come from the back slums, from foetid courts and alleys, from the casual wards, from the registered lodging houses, from sleep on doorsteps and in railway arches … a mixed multitude; the negro, the mulatto, and other denizens of distant countries were there … every variety of feature … all were thinly clad, the bulk in rags and tatters.” 26 In 1872, Booth set up five “Food-for-the-Million Shops,” where the poor could obtain hot soup by day and a three-course dinner at night for six pence. 27 His compassion for the poor increased daily. Booth’s daughter, Evangeline, had this to say in reflection: “My parents did not have to say a word to me about Christianity. I saw it in action.” 28

As Booth put his Christianity into action, many volunteers gathered around him to help with the work. Most of these were his own converts who had come to faith in Jesus Christ while attending the various meetings. It wasn’t long before many others began sharing in the preaching work and actively leading the practical outreaches as well. Booth’s wife asked him about where all this was leading. Booth answered, “I don’t want to found a new sect.” 29 Some within Booth’s mission began saying that the mission was a “volunteer army.” Booth’s son, Bramwell, upon reading this off of a piece of paper, objected, saying to his father, “Here, I’m not a volunteer. I’m a regular or nothing!” 30A Booth paused for a moment, took the piece of paper, crossed out the word “volunteer,” and wrote “salvation” in its place. From this time onward, the movement was called the “Salvation Army.” 30B

In 1878, fifty-one Salvation Army stations (outreach centres) opened. Also in 1878, the Salvation Army began publishing a weekly magazine called “The War Cry” and began distributing thousands of copies. 31 By 1879, the Salvation Army was running eighty-one stations manned by one hundred and twenty-seven full-time leaders, a hundred of whom were converted at Salvation Army meetings. Assisting the leaders were 1,900 voluntary speakers, holding 75,000 meetings a year. 32

While people continued to come to Salvation Army meetings, Booth and his army became more and more aware of another terrible problem in England, juvenile prostitution. British parliament had fixed the age of sexual consent to be thirteen years, and one member of parliament had suggested that it be lowered to age ten. The Salvation Army launched a major campaign in 1882, in which they gathered 393,000 signatures to petition the raising of the age of consent. The petition was delivered to the British parliament and the age of consent was raised to sixteen. The Salvation Army formed “vigilant societies” that worked hand in hand with the local police in identifying and removing vice traffickers. They went on to open thirteen homes in England that would house over three hundred women who wanted to escape this life-style, and a further seventeen homes outside of England. By the mid twentieth-century the Salvation Army was running 119 of these homes, caring for 4000 women. 33

As well as opening homes for women escaping prostitution, Booth got the idea that an army needed a marching band, and in 1878 the Salvation Army began forming brass bands. 34 This added a new type of outreach to their already growing ministry. Salvation Army bands began marching through the streets of London, playing Christian hymns, and often this music was accompanied by street preaching and tract distribution.

Booth’s marching bands and preachers were met with a mixed response. In spite of all of the Salvation Army’s noble efforts to help others in a spiritual and practical way, they were not always appreciated by the people in the inner cities. Booth, his band and his preachers were often pelted with eggs, hot potatoes and mud, while trying to carry on these forms of outreach. Assaults on Salvation Army soldiers sometimes escalated into riots. In 1882 alone, 669 Salvation Army soldiers were either beaten or knocked down. In Northampton, one angry rioter swung a knife at a Salvation Army woman. In Wolverhampton, thugs threw lime into the eyes of a Salvation Army child. The Salvation Army’s first martyr was a Mrs. Susannah Beaty, who died a short time after being pelted with rocks and kicked. 35 Booth’s wife, Catherine, tells us that many nights Booth came home with torn clothes and bloody bandages from being assaulted during his preaching. 36 One contemporary of Booth’s, the Rt. Hon. George Lansbury, commented that often he saw Booth and his followers mishandled by the mobs and he wondered if they would come away alive. 37 The love for God and humanity that burned in Booth and the other Salvation Army soldiers could not be dampened by any of these attacks. In Booth’s own words; “…but with hearts filled with the love of God we are more than a match for all the opposition men and devils can raise…” 38

Opposition to Booth and his army became more organized as numbers of angry protesters together formed an organization that they called the “Skeleton Army.” This gang was set up solely for the purpose of opposing the Salvation Army. The Skeleton Army representatives claimed that the Salvation Army marching bands were a nuisance to the city. They argued that they were not opposed to the Salvation Army holding meetings indoors, but marching through the streets was wrong. They defended using force to stop the marches on the grounds that the authorities were not doing their job to stop the marches. 39 As well, many brewers and barkeepers were very offended at the preaching of the Salvation Army, preaching that insisted that alcoholism was a vice and a sin before God. Some of these brewers made financial contributions to the Skeleton Army. As the Salvation Army was conducting marches, the Skeleton Army would frequently walk alongside them, carrying bats, and pelting the Salvation Army soldiers with egg shells that were filled with paint. One of the worst attacks on Salvation Army soldiers was on Sunday, Aug. 17, 1884, when a large crowd of Skeleton gangsters rushed a Salvation Army band, striking soldiers with glass bottles and bricks. The police intervened, breaking up the riot. 40 In 1882, in England alone, nearly 700 Salvation Army personnel were brutally assaulted on the streets. 41

Even though brutal persecution against the Salvation Army volunteers increased, the local authorities did not always come to their defence. The mayor of Folkstone, England, did nothing to discourage these kinds of hostilities, but to the contrary, shouted this condemnation on the Salvation Army; “Drive ‘em into the harbor, or else into hell. Take their flag, and tie it round their necks and hang ‘em!” Salvation Army soldiers were also imprisoned in England. Nine Torquay bandsmen were imprisoned for playing their band instruments in the street. Captain Anker Deans and his lieutenant were sent to prison for fourteen days for playing their drums in Buckingham. Captain Edward Gay spent two months in jail for playing his instrument in public. 43

The persecution that the Salvation Army experienced did not dissuade them from their task. By the time Booth was sixty years of age, his 10,000 officers were conducting 50,000 meetings per week and in Britain alone, they visited 54,000 homes per week. 44 Around this same time he launched out on another major project. Booth published a book titled In Darkest England And The Way Out, in which he argued for government support in eliminating poverty in England, and laid out a detailed plan of action. This plan was composed, Booth says, as he “cried out for some more comprehensive method of reaching and saving the perishing crowds.” 45 His three-step proposal included; firstly, the establishment of urban workshops that would train the unemployed in various work-related skills; secondly, the establishment of farm colonies where the unemployed learned farm skills; and thirdly, the emigration to overseas colonies where the unemployed could find work to do. Despite the many critics of the program, such as T. H. Huxley, who objected to government support being granted to Christian projects, the plan was implemented. Its first step, the urban workshop, continued late into the twentieth century; its final two steps ran until 1906. 46 By the year 1906, as a result of this program, 188,684 persons found employment. 47

By 1906, the Salvation Army had provided many amazing services to the poor. Along with other services, they supplied 52,254,490 meals to the poor. Cheap lodgings were provided for 21,581,135 homeless. They located 12,325 lost persons. They accepted 35,207 women and girls into rescue homes. They visited 720,593 families who lived in slums. They visited and nursed 44,893 sick persons. 48 General William Booth died on August 20, 1912 at the age of eighty three. A crowd of 150,000 people filed by William Booth’s casket and 40,000 people attended his funeral. 49

As we consider Booth, his army, and the extent of their service, we must ask some questions. Was it wrong for Booth to break with tradition and hold services in secular buildings rather than in churches? Were the crowds justified in throwing potatoes and bricks at the Salvation Army soldiers? Was the fact that this happened, evidence that the Salvation Army really was a nuisance to the people of England? Was their service actually criminal activity that merited jailing? Was it wrong that the British government funded Booth’s project? NO! If we were to ask the thousands who did find meals, clothing, shelter, work and faith in Jesus Christ as a result of the work of Booth and his army, we would hear much gratitude expressed. Booth and his army was not needed most in the fancy cathedrals of England, but rather, in the city streets. Every true and noble work must run the gauntlet of fierce opposition. Although their countless acts of love were misinterpreted at times, it cannot be maintained that they were a nuisance to the people of England. They were a nuisance to the prostitution industry, and to the alcohol industry, but not to the people themselves who were victimized by these industries. The British government’s decision to give funding to their work was a decision that helped many thousands of people find employment. It was a decision that should be applauded by those who care for the poor who suffer around them.

What motivated this army of men and women to make the sacrifices that they did in the face of such adversity? What was their source of courage in the midst of violent opposition? It was a love for Jesus Christ and for the world around them. It was a love that demonstrated itself in an undying determination to serve others with both practical and spiritual help. It was a love that they saw in their founder, William Booth, and a love which they came to know themselves. Booth’s example was always before them. Booth was always keenly aware that one day he would stand before Jesus Christ, who would judge his life either a success or a failure. From the time when he exclaimed, at age fifteen, “God shall have all there is of William Booth” till the time of his death, William Booth faithfully lived out his mission to rescue others. The soldiers who stood by him courageously stepped out to fulfil this mission also, and this has become their testimony as well.

Shawn Stevens


2. Richard Collier, The General Next To God (Glasgow: William Collins & Co., 1965), 15.

3. Ibid., 20.

4. Norman H. Murdoch, “The General,” Christian History 26, (1990): 6.

5. Minnie Lindsay Carpenter, William Booth (London: Wyvern Books, 1957), 10.

6. Richard Collier, The General Next To God, 22.

7. Norman H. Murdoch, “The General,” Christian History 26, (1990): 7.

8.A. William Booth, quoted inThe Judgement Seat of Christ, Rick Howard (Naioth Sound & Pub. Co., 1990). 8.B. Ibid., 97.

9. Richard Collier, The General Next To God, 23.

10. Ibid., 26,27.

11. Ibid., 31.

12. Ibid., 31.

13. Norman H. Murdoch, “The Army Mother,” Christian History 26, (1990): 6.

14. Richard Collier, The General Next To God, 35.

15. Robert Sandall, The History Of The Salvation Army (Don Mills: Thomas Nelson & Sons, (1966), 13.

16. Ibid., 37.

17. Ibid., 53.

18. Cyril Barnes, God’s Army (Illinois: David Cook Publishing Co., 1978), 14.

19. Robert Sandall, The History Of The Salvation Army, 128.

20. Ibid., 110.

21. Ibid., 60.

22. Ibid., 76, 77.

23. Ibid., 78.

24. Ibid., 78.

25. Ibid., 43.

26. Ibid., 105.

27. Richard Collier, The General Next To God, 49.

28. Ibid., 48.

29. Ibid., 55.

30.A Richard Collier, The General Next To God.

30.B Ibid., 56.

31. Ibid., 62.

32. Ibid., 57.

33. Ibid., 110-129.

34. Ronald W. Holtz, “The Story Behind Salvation Army Music” Christian History 26, (1990): 38.

35. Richard Collier, The General Next To God, 94.

36. Ibid., 41.

37. Robert Sandall, The History Of The Salvation Army, 121.

38. Ibid., 120.

39. Cyril Barnes, God’s Army, 53.

40. Richard Collier, The General Next To God, 96-99.

41. Cyril Barnes, God’s Army, 52.

42. Richard Collier, The General Next To God, 96-99.

43. Cyril Barnes, God’s Army, 4.

44. Richard Collier, The General Next To God, 165.

45. William Booth, In Darkest England And The Way Out (Atlanta: The Salvation Army, 1984) 2.

46. Norman H. Murdoch, “In Darkest England” Christian History, (1990): 33.

47. Cyril Barnes, God’s Army, 73.

48. Cyril Barnes, God’s Army, 73.

49. Norman H. Murdoch, “The General” Christian History 26, (1990): 9.


Barnes, Cyril. God’s Army. Illinois: David Cook Publishing Co., 1978.

Booth, William. In Darkest England And The Way Out. Atlanta: The Salvation Army, 1984.

Booth, William in “The General.” Christian History 26, (1990).

Carpenter, Minnie Lindsay. William Booth. London: Wyvern Books, 1957.

Collier, Richard. The General Next To God. Glasgow: William Collins & Co., 1965.

Holtz, Ronald W. “The Story Behind Salvation Army Music.” Christian History 26, (1990).

Howard, Rick. The Judgement Seat of Christ. Naioth Sound & Pub. Co., 1990.

Murdoch, Norman H. “In Darkest England.” Christian History, (1990).

Murdoch, Norman H. “The Army Mother.” Christian History 26, (1990).

Murdoch, Norman H. “The General.” Christian History 26, (1990).

Sandall, Robert. The History Of The Salvation Army. Don Mills: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1966.