Your City is Probably Surprisingly like 19th Century London

Artist's depiction of a 19th Century London Pawnbroker's shop front.
Artist’s depiction of a 19th Century London Pawnbroker’s shop front. Booth was an apprentice pawnbroker in London.

At 19 William Booth moved to London. It was 1849. Like many others from the rural areas, he needed to find work.

His sister and her family lived in London, but her drunken husband would not allow Booth to stay with them for any length of time.

‘He arrived in London as a seeker of work, the son of a poor and struggling mother in the provinces, with no influence, with no money, and with no friends.’ [i]

He was alone in a very crowded city, where poverty and sickness were on every side. As had been the case in Nottingham, his own experiences of personal need combined with his compassionate observation of the needs of others, would shape his future ministry.

Booth’s biographer, Harold Begbie gives us a description of London that is both vivid and powerful.

And before we press on too much further with the story of The Salvation Army and how they began to actually sought to solve some of these problems, let’s read Begbie’s account with our own cities in mind.

While there clearly are differences, aren’t his descriptions of mid-nineteenth century London unnervingly familiar to those of us living in the great cities of the world today?

And don’t we need some present-day William and Catherine Booths to rise up? Don’t we need many more modern-day Salvation Armys to get to work and engage with the pressing issues of the major cities of the world?

London in 1849
‘It is difficult for the modern mind to conceive truly of the England of that period. Humanitarianism, which has become with us, if not a passion and a religion, at least good manners, was then regarded as the misguided hobby of a few fussy and mischief-making philanthropists…

Little concern was shown by the churches or the chapels for the bodies of men. No shame was felt for such a term as ‘Ragged Schools.’ There was no system of national education, factory legislation permitted children to work for ten hours a day, there was no real inspection of these insanitary places, no idea of housing reform, no provision for poverty but the execrable Poor-House.

Few agencies existed for ministering to the physical needs of the poor, the mental needs of the uneducated, the spiritual needs of the sunken masses, the most elemental needs of perishing children…

The phrase ‘social conscience’ had not been invented; men were satisfied with, accepted as a God ordained system of human government, a state of individualism which trod millions underfoot for the enrichment of tens.’ [ii]

Booth’s response began with the somewhat awkward method of simply standing up and preaching to crowds, if he could gather them. Although our specific methodology may differ according to our context, as followers of Christ, the passionate proclamation of the gospel of Christ must also be central – as central as it was for Booth and the early Salvation Army.

But I jump ahead. For now, take a closer look at your city, your town. How can you reach the majority of the residents there with the gospel?

What initiatives are in place in your city to tackle poverty, vice, greed, homelessness, violence?

Let us know!

To read Booth on the balance between Education and Evangelism click here

For the first post in the Salvation Army series click here

[i] Harold Begbie, Life of William Booth: The Founder of the Salvation Army (2 vols. London: MacMillan, 1920) 1:77

[ii]  HB 1:74

© 2014 Lex Loizides / Church History Blog

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