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William Booth and the Inspiration behind the Salvation Army 1865

This entry is part 3 of 6 in the series Reform
This entry is part 3 of 15 in the series Reformers and Radicals
This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Reforming Women

William Booth, the inspiration behind the Salvation Army 1865

William Booth was a reforming philanthropist with a desire to improve the world for others. He founded the Salvation Army and gave hope to millions but how did he achieve this?

What was the William Booth vision?

These words of Booth from ‘In Darkest England and The Way Out’ 1890. This from 2nd July 1865, the date of his first meeting preaching to the crowds on the old Quaker burial ground in Mile End London.

“When I saw those masses of poor people, so many of them evidently without God or hope in the world, and found that they so readily and eagerly listened to me, following from open meeting to tent, and accepting, in many instances, my invitation to kneel at the Saviour’s feet there and then, my whole heart went out to them. I walked back and said to my wife:-

O Kate, I have found my destiny! These are the people for whose Salvation I have been longing all these years. As I passed by the doors of the flaming gin-palaces tonight I seemed to hear a voice sounding in my ears, ” Where can you go and find such heathen as these, and where is there so great a need for your labours?” And there and then in my soul I offered myself and you and the children to this great work. Those people shall be our people, and they shall have our God for their God.”

William Booth biography

Historical Context in which Booth was inspired to form the Salvation Army

The Salvation Army was inspired and formed at the same period as:

  • The tradition and harsh treatment of the poor continued  in England reflected in the development of both the Old Poor Law and the 1834 Poor law Amendment Act.
  • The 1830 Beer Act allowed any ratepayer to buy a licence to brew and sell beer, this made it difficult to control and polite society was concerned at the increase in drunkenness and the impact of such idleness on society. Alcohol was being abused to drown the sorrows, sometimes at the cost to the family and children who were struggling to survive on low wages and poor social conditions,
  • 1859 Darwin has published the Origin of the Species:  a controversial and radical step forward not only in science but challenging the fundamental and christian led beliefs of the time.
  • The end of the American Civil War in 1863
  • 13th Amendment Established in the US, in the US, outlawing slavery but this did not prevent the 200,000 Black contingent of the Union army being prohibited from joining the Victory march in New York City on their return.
  • JS Mill was beginning to articulate the right to representative government and asserts the principles of the right and need for the equality of women and right to the Franchise (the Vote.)
  • The rapid growth of the  London Docklands and the pushing back to the East of London’s poor population. This resulted in the East End becoming established for the disenfranchised Londoners from the docklands. This was what William encountered and observed on London’s streets.
  • London Society for Women’s Suffrage is formed in 1867 following defeat of the amendment to the 2nd Reform Act of that year
  • Women’s rights were still very few and Married Women’s  Property Act did not come into being until 1870 women can keep ยฃ200 and its provisions were still quite minimal.
  • Society was far from equal the middle class were emerging through quite literally their trade and industry, but the lot of the poor had not been significantly improved for a long time and with the provisions of the 1834 amendment act had actually gone backwards.

The Salvation Army reaching 58 nations just during his lifetime. His legacy has been the enduring on-going ceaseless good social work of the Salvation Army which continues today.

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William Booth biography

William was born in 1829 in England. His father was reasonably wealthy at that point but subsequently made a series of bad investments, turned to drink and the family suffered its own share of hardship:

  • By 1842 William’s father was bankrupt and could not pay his school fees. William was considered of working age at 13 and was apprenticed to a pawnbroker where he no doubt witnessed further the reality of poverty in a society where there was no legislated welfare system.
  • At 15, he became committed to his faith and religious beliefs as central to his life. He converted to Methodism. He taught himself to read and write, read extensively and was effectively ‘self-educated’.
  • He became a lay preacher and an Evangelist, he and his close friend Will Sansom took to ministering to the poor of Nottingham. Sadly it was the death of his close friend from TB that might have been a key turning point in William’s life. Forcing him to make the move to London.
  • His apprenticeship ended in 1848, he sought work in London.
  • He found work in pawnbroking for a while but then became a full-time Methodist preacher but his frustration with the process led him to resign and start open-air preaching so strong was his calling. He was influenced by the American Revivalist James Caughey who was regularly visiting London and preached at the Broad Street Chapel that William attended.
  • 1855 William Married Catherine Mumford: He became engaged to Catherine Mumford and they married on 16th June 1855, at Stockwell New Chapel. The wedding was simple, they wanted to preserve their funds for their ministry. They had 9 children.
  • The rest of their lives was devoted to their cause. They were initially treated as radicals and vilified by the establishment of the time including the Church of England, other notable Philanthropists such as Lord Salisbury who viciously described Booth as an “Anti-Christ” and there were even divisions amongst their own children.
  • One of the main complaints against Booth in the early days was his elevation of women to a man’s status but this should be balanced with the historical perspective, prior to women’s suffrage the standard view had been that women were of lesser legal status than men. event to suggest differently was radical and brave.
  • Booth was threatened by violence The alcohol-selling industry and other capitalists of the old order resisted and attacked Booth and his Army. Salvationists died in clashes with the opposition, records show that in 1882 alone, 662 Salvationsists were assaulted, 251 women and nearly two dozen children under 15.
  • they took on the plight of the lowly and the desperate, welcoming the most needy, including alcoholics, criminals and prostitutes
  • they preached with evangelical zeal that eternal punishment was the only fate for those who do not believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the need for repentance for all, from sin to deliver the certainty of holy redemption. This was nothing short of  their own personal crusade.
  • They created the Salvation Army to create its own Welfare system, to abolish vice and poverty by taking direct action, providing homes for the homeless, farm communities where the urban poor could learn to support themselves with agriculture, training centres, taking in ‘fallen women, released prisoners and providing help for the drunks.
    Fundamental was the belief that whilst suffering such hardship there was little if no chance of an individual  finding the path to redemption: but with help and a way forward conversion and redemption was possible for everyone.
The publication of Booth’s book in 1890 set out the vision and philosophy of their organisation and became a best seller. Quoted above you you can explore free here on the Gutenberg Ebook project the full text.
  • This strident and articulate vision coincided with further radicalism as they took forward their fight for social justice further. Most notably against the criminal conditions of the matchmakers and the poisonous and disfiguring phosphorous materials they were forced to work with.  The Booths campaigned tirelessly to end these terrible conditions.
  • Taking up the battle specifically in their campaign against Bryant and May as featured in our related post about the Matchmakers and the strikes of 1888.  They went as far as to set-up alternative factory with health and safety, as well as wages as cornerstones of their endeavours. They were taking on the tyrants of the emerging industrial class and they were not slow in speaking their minds. In 1901, Gilbert Bartholomew, managing director of Bryant & May, announced it had stopped used yellow phosphorus.
  • Actions definitely spoke even louder than their words. William clearly saw that instead of empowering the working class the Industrial Revolution and the Workhouse were little more than paid slavery and would never support the changes in people needed for them to achieve the religious salvation he believed was critical for each and everyone they helped in society.
  • They were the originators of the Soup Kitchen and their organisation overcame competition with over 500 competing charities at the time.  William’s energy must have been enormous.

Gradually with solid endeavour and the relentless determination of Booth, the public mood shifted:

  • William Booth organised conducted tours of MPs and journalists round this ‘model’ factory. He also took them to the homes of those “sweated workers” who were working eleven and twelve hours a day producing matches for companies like Bryant & May. The bad publicity that the company received forced the company to reconsider its actions.
  • The public and the media saw the impact of this sustained social force and it with others was a significant influence in building the case for social reform in England and all over the world.
  • Event the Press now supported and respected William, he had won them over.
  • He became a Freeman of the City of London, was received by Monarchs and Politicians, granted an honorary degree from Oxford University and was invited to the coronation of Edward VII

William died in 1912 when he was 89 working hard right to the last. His eldest son became the leader (William Bramwell Booth) and the organisation has continued in different but equally tough environments to pursue its cause. Even growing-up I can remember the Salvation Army before any other charity, probably aided by its distinctive identity and uniform. ]I can also recall a Salvationist family at school and how even today it was quite tough for the children integrating with the rest of us. Now I think how brave they were in a largely secular world to stick to their own beliefs whether I believed in them or not.

I’ll Fight!
While women weep as they do now, I’ll fight.
While little children go hungry, as they do now, I’ll fight.
While men go to prison, in and out, in and out, as they do now, I’ll fight
While there is a drunkard left,
while there is a poor lost girl upon the streets,
while there remains one dark soul without the light of God,
I’ll fight – I’ll fight to the very end.”  Booth’s beliefs and motivations  in a simple nutshell

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