William and Catherine Booth: Mercy, Mission and Faith

William and Catherine Booth and their family
William and Catherine Booth and their family

Long before William Booth was known as the General of the Salvation Army he was known as a Methodist Evangelist. He was passionate, fiery, insistent on results.

And he remained an Evangelist until his death.

He seemed to know little embarrassment when dealing with the subject of hell (once famously saying he wished that preachers would get just five minutes at the gates of hell in order to arouse their compassion).

Mercy! Have you heard the word?
But he was also a preacher of Christian compassion:

‘Mercy! Have you heard the word? Have you felt its power? Mercy! Can you describe its hidden, unfathomable meaning? Mercy! Let the sound be borne on every breeze! Mercy! Shout it to the world around until there is not a sin-unpardoned, a pollution-spotted, a Hell-marked spirit unwashed, unsanctified! Until there is not a sign of the curse in existence, not a sorrow unsoothed, not a tear unwiped away! Until the world is flooded with salvation and all men are bathing in its life-giving streams!’[i]

He might well have become a popular local pastor, as the great CH Spurgeon became at about the same time. But Booth felt the same itinerating pull of his Methodist forefathers, who had said, ‘The whole world is now my parish!

My Horizon was smaller and needed less to fill it!
Reflecting in later years on the invitation to pastor a church, he wrote, ‘The Spalding people welcomed me as though I had been an angel from Heaven, providing me with every earthly blessing within their ability, and proposing that I should stay with them forever! They wanted me to marry [Catherine] right away, offered to furnish me a house, provide me with a horse to enable me more readily to get about the country, and proposed other things that they thought would please me. With them I spent the happiest eighteen months of my life. Of course my horizon was much more limited in those days than it is now, and consequently required less to fill it.’[ii]

After his marriage to Catherine Mumford in 1855, and his continued success as a traveling evangelist, his role amongst the Methodist new Connexion began to be debated by his peers.

Local Methodist pastors were not entirely happy with Booth riding into town, preaching up a storm, getting their congregants ‘saved’ and then disappearing in a cloud of glory. He needed to be brought into line.

The infighting is painful to read, but, in the end, the Methodists made it so uncomfortable for the Booths that they felt they had no option but to resign.

The Booths break away from Methodism
Catherine, writing to her parents, expressed their resolute determination to break free (there is, of course, an irony in this, as the Salvation Army later had to defend itself against charges of inflexibility):

‘I do not see any honourable course for us but to resign at once and risk all (if trusting in the Lord for our bread in order to do what we believe to be His will ought to be called a risk).’[iii]

The break finally came in 1861. At the final meeting where their future was to be decided, a compromise was offered to them but which was unacceptable to Booth. Catherine was seated in the gallery above the proceedings and when Booth took a glance upward to her, she called out ‘Never!’

Booth stood up and waved his hat towards the door, while shouts of ‘Order! Order!’ rang out. He walked across the chapel floor where he met his wife at the foot of the stairs to the gallery, embraced her, and then walked out of the meeting and into their future.

It was a future that held continued evangelistic fruit for them both, but one which later drew thousands of others into that fruitfulness. But more of that later…

©2014 Lex Loizides / Church History Blog

[i] Harold Begbie, Life of William Booth: The Founder of the Salvation Army (2 vols. London: MacMillan, 1920) 1:92

[ii] ibid 1:133

[iii] ibid 1:250

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