Born APRIL 10, 1829

William Booth [PD-1923]

William Booth [PD-1923]

William Booth understood poverty. He had to quit school as a young teen to contribute to the family income. William was 14, working as an apprentice for a Nottingham, England pawnbroker when his father died. That increased the family’s financial strain.

His parents weren’t churchgoers. After his father’s death, William accepted an invitation to a church service. At Broad Street Wesleyan Chapel, William surrendered his life to God. He stated, “God shall have all there is of William Booth.” His conversion ushered in a new era of hope for England’s poor.


Five years later, William moved to London. He worked for a pawnbroker but felt drawn away from the trade. Rather than providing a few coins to those who pawned items, he wanted to give them the life-changing gospel. William became a Methodist lay preacher.

William and Catherine Booth  [PD-1923]

William and Catherine Booth

He soon met Catherine Mumford. They had a June wedding in 1855. For the next 35 years, William and Catherine served God as a team. Both preached, ministered to the needs of the poor, and wrote about their convictions. They also raised eight children.

The couple eventually disassociated from established religious organizations. In the summer of 1865, while Catherine preached to the more well-to-do in west London, William held evangelistic meetings in the slums of east London. His tent services won over the down-and-out and outcasts. The Booths settled in east London as missionaries to the poor.

They made plenty of converts, but Churches refused to accept the new Christians. William and Catherine committed themselves to be the church for those they won. Their initial goal was to prepare others for eternity and then to address their socio-economic needs.

                                                                                                   RAISING AN ARMY

In 1878, the Booths renamed their ministry the Salvation Army. The military theme permeated the organization. They designed a flag. Recruits wore uniforms. They formed brass bands. Everyone was given a military rank, serving under  “General” William Booth. The Salvation Army magazine was eventually dubbed The War Cry.

Salvation Army band. Photo by Kaihsu Tai.

Salvation Army band. Photo by Kaihsu Tai.

In the early years, many resisted the Army’s approach. The brass bands were sometimes pelted with eggs and rocks or attacked with clubs. Playing music and preaching outside of taverns became especially risky. Not only because the Army condemned the evils of alcohol, but when they were attacked, local policemen didn’t always protect them. Recruits learned the value of the general’s words, “Work as if everything depended upon your work, and pray as if everything depended upon your prayer.”


With time, the Salvation Army’s success led to acceptance and praise from high places. Charles Spurgeon  stated, “If the Salvation Army were wiped out of London, five thousand extra policemen could not fill its place in the repression of crime and disorder.” King Edward VII and Winston Churchill as political leaders eventually endorsed the Army.

Rodney "Gypsy" Smith in his Salvation Army uniform.  [PD-1923]

Rodney “Gypsy” Smith in his Salvation Army uniform.

The Salvation Army’s mission couldn’t be confined to one continent. In the 1880s, recruits received their marching orders to other parts of the world. They went to Europe, the United States, South America, Africa, and India. Their mission in other countries succeeded, and their ranks grew.

Before becoming a well-known evangelist, Rodney “Gypsy” Smith got his start in the Salvation Army, attaining the rank of captain. Seven of the Booth’s eight children served as officers. Two of them led the organization.

                                                  LIGHTING ENGLAND’S DARKNESS

General Booth had always found practical ways to help the poor. In 1869, the Army began serving Christmas dinners. Soup kitchens followed. His concern for homeless men sleeping beside the road led to the first Salvation Army hostel. In 1885, William began campaigning against teenage prostitution.

Promoting social reform on a larger scale came in 1890. William’s book In Darkest England and the Way Out detailed a plan to train England’s poor to rise above the conditions they were born into. He called his plan  “providing for the relief of temporal misery.” The book suggested job training and job placement programs that included relocating some families to employ their new skills overseas.

An ad for the Salvation Army match factory in east London. [PD-1923]

An ad for the Salvation Army match factory in east London. [PD-1923]

In 1891, the Salvation Army addressed another of England’s social needs. They opened a safety-match factory in London. Too often the poverty-level workers were subject to a disease called “phossy jaw” resulting from the white phosphorus used in the matches. The Salvation Army factory used a safer phosphorus. The cover of every box of the safer match said “Lights in darkest England.”


The same year William’s book was published, he lost his greatest co-worker and friend. During their 35 years of marriage, Catherine had raised their eight children while gaining the title, “Mother of the Salvation Army.” She trained the Army’s women workers, accepted preaching opportunities, and remained her husband’s sounding board.

Their teamwork ended late in 1890. Catherine had contracted breast cancer. She died on October 4th.

The Salvation Army continued expanding. In San Francisco, a year after Catherine’s death, Captain Joseph McFee had a new idea for providing Christmas dinners for the poor. He set up a kettle at the Oakland ferry landing for passersby to contribute to the cause. His idea caught on. The Salvation Army Christmas kettles (now with bell ringers) has become a Christmas tradition.


William Booth statue outside his birthplace, now a Salvation Army Center and museum. Photo by David Lally, copyrighted and licensed for reuse .

William Booth statue outside his birthplace, now a Salvation Army Center and museum. Photo by David Lally, copyrighted and licensed for reuse.

William once stated his dedication with the words, “While women weep, as they do now, I’ll fight; while little children go hungry, 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, where there remains one dark soul without the light of God—I’ll fight! I’ll fight to the very end!”

And he did. When William Booth died October 20, 1912, his impact on society couldn’t be denied. He had enlisted and commissioned two million workers. They had taken the message to fifty-five countries.  Thousands of lives had been rescued, improved, transformed. As many as 150,000 mourners attended his funeral. Including Queen Mary.

                     A CENTURY LATER

Salvation Army Thrift Store  [PD-US]

Salvation Army Thrift Store [PD-US]

Today, just over a century beyond William Booth’s death, the Salvation Army marches forward in extending God’s love around the world. Just a few of their programs in 2013 include disaster relief, housing for the homeless, thrift stores, youth camps, prisoner rehabilitation, and the annual Red Kettle Christmas Campaign.

Image courtesy of Salvation Army USA.http://www.salvationarmyusa.org/usn/www_usn_2.nsf.

Image courtesy of Salvation Army USA.

L4G—————————————————-L4G—————————————————–L4G      LET ME KNOW:  How has General Booth’s story informed, encouraged, or otherwise helped you? I welcome your comments.


  • Fisk, Samuel. Forty Fascinating Conversion Stories. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1993.
  • Hanks, Geoffrey. 70 Great Christians. Scotland, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2000.
  • Larsen, Timothy, ed. Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2003.
  • “William & Catherine Booth.” Christian History. Vol. IX. No. 2, 1990.
  • http://www.salvationarmyusa.org/usn/www_usn_2.nsf/vw-local/Home.






About William E. Richardson

I'm married to a wonderful woman named Deb. We're the parents of a son and daughter who bring great joy to our lives. I currently pastor the Assembly of God church in Afton, Iowa.
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