When William and Catherine Booth moved into the east end of London in 1865 their goal was to preach the Christian message and bring people to faith in Christ.
The plan was that any converts would join existing churches. But it didn’t really work out like that.
Booth’s preaching was dynamic and urgent. Many, who would never go to church, heard him and many hundreds were converted. But after their conversion they still wouldn’t go to the churches and, if they did, the churches didn’t seem to want them.
Booth began to look for meeting halls and somewhere to create a headquarters for the London mission. But he needed funds.
One minister, writing for a Christian magazine, describes a meeting he attended with William Booth one Sunday afternoon. I’ve edited down his article but it gives us a flavour of the amazing power of the Holy Spirit working in a context of consistent evangelism.
The structure of the meeting was that, after an introduction, several people would briefly tell of their experience of conversion or of adventures in evangelism and then a hymn would be sung, followed by yet more testimonies. At the end Booth preached and prayed.
As you read through this abbreviated account of the meeting, maybe you could pray for similar evangelistic zeal to characterise your life and the life of your church, and that God would similarly begin to bring large numbers of people to a personal and life-changing faith in Christ.
Here we see personal boldness in evangelism, conversations happening in homes, and in the streets. There are several references to the effective use of tracts (short, easy to read leaflets or brochures which explain the gospel) as well as public preaching. Perhaps one of the reasons the churches used to ‘reap’ more was that, quite simply, they ‘sowed’ more. Enjoy!
The Experience Meeting
‘On the afternoon of Sunday, January 31st, I was able to see some of the results of William Booth’s work in the East of London, by attending his Experience Meeting, held in the East London Theatre. About 2 o’clock some of his helpers and Converts went out from the Mission Hall, where they had been praying together, and held an Open-Air Meeting in front of a large brewery opposite the Hall. The ground was damp and the wind high, but they secured an audience, and then sang hymns along the road, till they came to the theatre, taking in any who chose to follow them. Probably about five hundred were present, though many came in late.
The Meeting commenced at three, and lasted one hour and a half. During this period fifty-three persons gave their experience, parts of eight hymns were sung, and prayer was offered by four persons.
After singing Philip Philips’ beautiful hymn, ‘I will sing for Jesus,’ prayer was offered up by Mr. Booth and two others.
A young man rose and told of his conversion a year ago, thanking God that he had been kept through the year.
A negro, of the name of Burton, interested the Meeting much by telling of his first Open-Air Service, which he had held during the past week in Ratcliff Highway, one of the worst places in London. He said, when the people saw him kneel in the gutter, engaged in prayer for them, they thought he was mad.
A middle-aged man, a sailor, told how he was brought to Christ during his passage home from Colombo. One of the tracts, entitled, ‘John’s Difficulty,’ was the means of his conversion.
A cabman said he used to be in the public-houses constantly; but he thanked God he ever heard William Booth, for it led to his conversion.
Three young men then spoke. The first, who comes five miles to these Meetings, told how he was lost through the drink, and restored by the Gospel; the second said he was unspeakably happy; the third said he would go to the stake for Christ.
A sister spoke of her husband’s conversion, and how they were both now rejoicing in God.
A young man testified to the Lord having pardoned his sins in the theatre on the previous Sunday.
Two sailors followed. The first spoke of his conversion through reading a tract while on his way to the Indies four months ago. The other said he was going to sea next week, and was going to take some Bibles, hymns, and tracts with him, to see what could be done for Christ on board.
A young man of the name of John, sometimes called ‘Young Hallelujah,’ told of his trials while selling fish in the streets; but he comforted himself by saying, ”Tis better ‘an before.’ He had been drawn out in prayer at midnight on the previous night, and had dreamed all night that he was in a Prayer Meeting.
A converted thief told how he was ‘picked up’ and of his persecutions daily while working with twenty unconverted men.
A man who had been a great drunkard, said, ‘What a miserable wretch I was till the Lord met with me! I used to think I could not do without my pint, but the Lord pulled me right bang out of a public-house into a place of worship.’
A young woman said: ‘I well remember the night I first heard Mr. Booth preach here. I had a heavy load of sin upon my shoulders. But I was invited to come up the stage. I did so, and was pointed to Jesus, and I obtained peace.’
Another told of his conversion by a tract, four years ago, on his passage to Sydney. ‘To my sorrow,’ he said, ‘I became a backslider. But I thank God He ever brought me here. That blessed man, Mr. Booth, preached, and I gave my heart to God afresh. I now take tracts to sea regularly. I have only eighteen shillings a week, but I save my tobacco and beer money to buy tracts.’
A stout man, a navvy, who said he had been one of the biggest drunkards in London, having briefly spoken, was followed by one known as ‘Jemmy the butcher,’ who keeps a stall in the Whitechapel Road. Some one had cruelly robbed him, but he found consolation by attending the Mission Hall Prayer Meeting.
Two young lads, recently converted, having given their experience, a dock labourer, converted seventeen months ago, asked the prayers of the Meeting for his wife, yet unconverted.
A young woman gave her experience very intelligently. It was a year and a half since she gave her heart to the Saviour; but her husband does not yet come with her.
The experience of an old man, who next spoke, was striking. Mr. Booth had announced his intention, some time back, of preaching a sermon on ‘The Derby,’ at the time of the race that goes by that name. This man was attracted by curiosity, and when listening compared himself to a broken-down horse. This sermon was the means of his conversion.
A young man told how his sins were taken away. He worked in the city and, through a young man talking to him in the street, he was able to see the way of Salvation, and rejoice in it. He used to fall asleep generally under preaching. ‘But here,’ he said, ‘under Mr. Booth, I can’t sleep.’
A blind girl, whom I had noticed earlier singing heartily in the street, told of her conversion.
Then Mr. Booth offered a few concluding observations and prayed. The Meeting closed by singing. Such is a brief outline of this most interesting Meeting, held Sunday after Sunday.
I could not but wonder at the change which had come over the people. The majority of those present, probably nearly five hundred, owed their conversion to the preaching of Mr Booth and his helpers.
In the evening I preached in the Oriental Music Hall, High Street, Poplar, where five or six hundred persons were assembled. This is one of the more recent branches of Mr. Booth’s work, and appears to be in a very prosperous condition. I found two groups of the helpers singing and preaching in the streets, who were only driven in by the rain just before the Meeting commenced inside. This is how the people are laid hold of.
Shall this good work be hindered for the want of a few hundred pounds?’i
More next time.
For the first part of the Salvation Army story click here
i. George Railton, General Booth (London: Hodder and Stoughton 1912) 59-64
© 2015 Lex Loizides / Church History Review