1865 is a landmark year for historians, friends and members of the Salvation Army.
It was in July, 1865, that William and Catherine Booth finally moved to the capital city of England and of the British Empire. Catherine had already ministered effectively at an outreach to prostitutes. William was eager to preach the Christian message among those who seemed most resistant to it: the working classes.
The decision was made but the strategy wasn’t yet clear.
Darling, I’ve found my destiny!
Richard Collier, in his superb biography of Booth, The General Next to God, paints Booth’s turning point skilfully:
He came up the Mile End Road, East London … Outside the drab red-brick façade of The Blind Beggar tavern he halted. From beneath his arm he drew a book and … gave out the verse of a hymn.
In an instant faces were glued to the pub’s glass windows; a ragged unwashed throng pressed curiously about the stranger …
‘There is a heaven in East London for everyone,’ they heard him cry, ‘for everyone who will stop and think and look to Christ as a personal Saviour.’
From the pub there came only a spattering volley of jeers and oaths … Then from the rear a rotten egg came whizzing to find its mark and the subtle spell was broken. With the yolk trickling slowly down his pallid cheek the stranger paused, and prayed. Then, pulling his hat over his eyes, he walked rapidly westwards …
Towards midnight, as Catherine later recalled, a key grated abruptly in the lock and Booth, his eyes shining, strode into the living-room.
‘Darling,’ were the first words that burst from his lips, ‘I’ve found my destiny!’[i]
Booth was deeply concerned for the unchurched. Evangelical churches in the city seemed to be doing well, but there was a vast multitude of those who were utterly apathetic about God, faith, or Christian ethics.
More than two-thirds of the working classes never come to church
Booth could see the poverty and the bitterness that went along with it:
The moral degradation and spiritual destitution of the teeming population of the East of London are subjects with which the Christians of the metropolis are perfectly conversant. More than two-thirds of the working-classes never cross the threshold of church or chapel, but loiter away the Sabbath in idleness, spending it in pleasure-seeking or some kind of money-making traffic. Consequently, tens of thousands are totally ignorant of the Gospel; and, as they will not attend the means ordinarily used for making known the love of God towards them, it is evident that if they are to be reached extraordinary methods must be employed.[ii]
Both William and Catherine were extraordinarily hard-working. They rarely seemed to rest. And so, with no regular form of income, William set about organising campaigns, tent missions, evangelistic outreaches – irrespective of the likelihood of a positive response.
A passionate determination for mission
His passion and urgency to communicate the love of God to ‘dying men’ became the driving force of the remainder of his life, and of the organisation that would soon come to birth: The Salvation Army.
He later wrote,
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-Air 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 to our West-End home 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 to-night (sic) 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 up to this great work. Those people shall be our people, and they shall have our God for their God.’[iii]
Is there such a passion for those who are so indifferent to the Christian message today?
Is there such a longing, such a willingness to sacrifice, to work, to pray, to preach, in order to see lives turn to Christ in our day?
As churches organise for mission in the great cities of the world, may we not take early discouragements to heart. May the great churches in our cities not only focus on those who are already open to our message; may they find a resolve to reach those who have already written Christianity off.
A rotten egg smacked Booth on the side of his face. As he walked home at midnight a conviction was born in his heart – the Gospel must be preached – ‘That night,’ he later declared, ‘The Salvation Army was born.’[iv]
©2015 Lex Loizides / Church History Review
[i] Richard Collier, The General Next to God (Glasgow: Fontana/Collins 1965) 15,19
[ii] Harold Begbie, Life of William Booth: The Founder of the Salvation Army (2 vols. London: MacMillan, 1920) 1:302
[iii] George Railton, General Booth (London: Hodder and Stoughton 1912) 56