William Booth Biography

William Booth when a Young Man

William Booth when a Young Man

William Booth was born into affluence in Nottingham, England in 1829, but his family descended rapidly thereafter into poverty. When his father could not pay for schooling, William was apprenticed by a pawnbroker. Soon Booth was converted to Methodism, and he declared, “God shall have all there is of William Booth.” He trained himself in writing and oratory, and he preached the Gospel with his closest friend until the young man died of TB.

The following three decades until Booth formally founded the Salvation Army would seem a hodge-podge of disappointments and false starts unless one looks closer for the hand of God in the events. He began pawnbroking but was miserable.  He did lay preaching on the side, then open air evangelism on street corners.  He joined the Methodist Reformed Church but became increasingly dissatisfied when they assigned him to pastorates; he longed to be free to preach evangelistic campaigns. At about this time, William married a Catherine Mumford (1855), a woman who was apparently in full support of his desire to launch out independently.

William Booth Preaching

William Booth Preaching

When he resigned from the denomination the Methodists barred him from campaigning in Methodist congregations. However, some missionaries heard him evangelizing and invited him to hold a revival on an ancient Quaker cemetery on Mile End Waste. He began preaching often to the poor and destitute of London’s East End—ministering even to alcoholics, criminals and prostitutes.  The work could be discouraging and many hurled stones and set off fireworks during his meetings. His wife said he often arrived home in the evening with torn clothing and a bloody bandage wrapped around his head.

Booth’s Christian Mission became the Salvation Army in May, 1878. Booth was dictating a letter in which he claimed his group was “a volunteer army.” A son heard this and declared, “I’m not volunteer, I’m a regular,” so the name Salvation Army was birthed.   What we may consider a bit eccentric, eventually proved effective for the Salvation Army: they produced uniforms, had a flag, military ranks, rousing music, and military orders.  Of course, Booth himself became known as the “General.”

They initiated many programs for the needy such as Food for the Millions (a soup kitchen), job training, industrial schools, homes for fallen women and recovering drunks, because many were not allowed into churches. This was far from a Commun

Salvation Army Logo

Salvation Army Logo

istic concept. The primary mission remained preaching the Gospel to all who would hear it. Salvationists who immigrated to other countries began writing to Booth of the need for a chapter here or there, and Booth was quick to respond. Operations were set up in the United States, France, Switzerland, Australia, Canada, India, South Africa. Argentina… During Booth’s lifetime the Salvation Army would spread to fifty-eight countries and colonies.

With perhaps some ghostwriting assistance, Booth’s book In Darkest England and the Way Out became a best seller and established a philosophy and a structure for ministries such as his. Of course, there could not be such a burgeoning ministry without some opposition.  Alcohol merchants feared he would hurt business so they attacked marches against drunkenness. Several Salvation Army members were killed in clashes. In the year 1882 alone 662 members were assaulted: 251 females and 23 under age fifteen.

The press and the Church of England were often hostile toward the Salvation Army and among their charges was that Booth and his wife were becoming insanely wealthy through a phony ministry front. Nepotism was charged when Booth placed many members of his family in leadership positions. It was claimed that Booth could be rigid and dictatorial. He was criticized also because he placed women in leadership positions when they proved dedicated and competent.  The Army’s motto “Blood and Fire” was misrepresented as glorying in the blood of sinners and the flames of hell.  The actual meaning of the motto was “the blood of Jesus and the fire of the Holy Spirit.”

William Booth as an old man

William Booth in his latter years

However, in the end it was impossible to argue against the great good that Booth’s ministry was doing throughout the world. Public opinion began to soften. As he reached older age, he was invited into audience with kings, emperors, and presidents. He began losing his sight in both eyes and his right eye was finally removed in 1909. In spite of this he campaigned in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy and other nations. He died at age 83 and 150,000 people were said to file past his coffin as it lay in the Clapton Congress Hall.  He had completed his mission.

Author Info

Steve Fortosis earned a doctorate from Talbot School of Theology in 1990. He then taught for many years in Christian colleges and a seminary. He has written nine books including compilations, devotionals, biographies and other non-fiction.  His book, Boxers to Bandits, by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has enjoyed a circulation of 100,000 copies. He now lives in southwest Florida with his wife. They have five grandchildren.

Dr Steve Fortosis