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
William Booth’s Conversion and the Church’s resistance to the Poor
While Booth was working in the ‘bondage of slavery’ as a pawnbroker’s apprentice in Nottingham, he gave his life to Christ.
Although many very dramatic conversions followed his preaching, Booth’s own conversion was fairly straightforward: sudden conviction of sin, repentance and faith in Christ, all in the space of an evening.
He had begun attending some Methodist meetings and, at about 11pm, walking home, he suddenly realised that he must surrender to the Christ the Methodists had been preaching so earnestly about.
The first evidence of his conversion was a confrontation with his stingy employer, Francis Eames. Eames, who sounds like a character right out of a Dickens novel, continued working his apprentices after midnight on Saturday into the early hours of Sunday morning (they were supposed to close at midnight).
The new convert immediately felt this was breaking the Sabbath and refused to work. He was sacked. However, Eames relented and soon restored his most reliable employee. But it was pitiable work.
First attempts at preaching Booth now began to emulate his new-found hero, John Wesley. ‘There is one God’, he was later to say, tongue in cheek, ‘and John Wesley is His prophet!’ He knew instinctively that the gospel must be communicated urgently with those around him. He and a friend began preaching in the open air. He would stand on a barrel and preach to the two or three people who might listen, urging them to attend a nearby meeting.
Seeing a gang of men on their way to the pub, Booth called out to them, urging them to repent and stop wasting money on drink while their wives were waiting at home for them to bring food.
But he wasn’t merely scolding people for irresponsible behaviour, he was preaching Christ too. And when he began to get some converts from amongst the poor he found it difficult to convince them to come to church.
Finally, one Sunday, he would be resisted no longer and ushered a reluctant group of ragged-trousered followers into Broad Street Methodist Church. The effect was…well, awkward. The pastors may have had a commitment to evangelistic preaching, but they clearly weren’t ready to cross any cultural bridges to reach those around them who were poor.
Booth was called to a Deacon’s meeting at which he was told not to do that again. This probably wasn’t a huge surprise to him. He knew what Wesley could never have imagined: that the once revivalistic Methodist church in Nottingham had become respectable.[i]
For the next post in this series, on William Booth’s own early experiences in evangelism, click here
To read the first post in this series on The Salvation Army click here
[i] Much of the material here is found in Richard Collier’s excellent book, The General Next to God (Glasgow: Fontana, 1968)
It could have gone so well. His father, Samuel Booth, had made some money, quite a lot of money, and then lost some money, quite a lot of money.
His business ventures and investments (as a nail manufacturer and then builder) rose and fell and then, early into his second marriage, they crashed beyond recovery.
Samuel and his first wife, Sarah, had enjoyed some prosperity, living in a large house in a village outside Nottingham. But it didn’t last. After Sarah’s death, and the death of their only child five years later, Booth Sr. had to scale down.
But first he remarried. It doesn’t appear to have been a happy match. He was already sliding steadily downhill towards hardship. William describes his father as obsessed with making money. His mother, Mary, the daughter of a well-to-do farmer, was 16 years younger than Samuel and was 33 when they married.
The inevitable happened. They left the big house and moved to a relatively poor suburb of Nottingham, where William was born in April 1829.
William Booth was the only (surviving) boy of the family with one older sister and two younger sisters.
Their situation went from downsizing to considerable losses to outright ruin. Booth wrote, ‘bad times set in, heavy losses followed one on the heels of the other, making the early days a season of mortification and misery.’[i]
It would seem that both parents were somewhat ashamed of their situation, with few friends and few visitors to the family home.
There were brief moments of relief but Samuel was never able to lift his family to financial stability.
Out to work at 13
Although William had attended a good school, at the age of thirteen his father was no longer able to afford the school fees and he was sent to work as an apprentice to a pawnbroker. This experience of badly paid work, and particularly of seeing his employer profiting from the vulnerability of the poor had a profound effect on Booth.
‘I had scarcely any income as an apprentice, and was so hard up when my father died, that I could do next to nothing to assist my dear mother and sisters, which was the cause of no little humiliation and grief.’
‘The system of apprenticeship in those days generally bound a lad for six or seven years. During this time he received little or no wages, and was required to slave from early morning to late evening upon the supposition that he was ‘being taught’ the business, which, if he had a good master, was probably true.
It was a severe but useful time of learning. My master was a Unitiarian – that is, he did not believe Christ was the Son of God and the Saviour of the world, but only the best of teachers; yet so little had he learned of Him that his heaven consisted in making money, strutting around with his gay wife, and regaling himself with worldly amusements.
At nineteen, the weary years of my apprenticeship came to an end. I had done my six years’ service, and was heartily glad to be free from the humiliating bondage they had proved.
I tried hard to find some kind of labour that would give me more liberty to carry out the aggressive ideas which I had by this time come to entertain as to saving the lost; but I failed. For twelve months I waited. Those months were among the most desolate of my life. No one took the slightest interest in me.
Failing to find employment in Nottingham, I had to move away.’[ii]
For the next post, on Booth’s conversion and the church’s resistance to his early converts click here
For the first part in this series on The Salvation Army click here
Today we see them, usually around Christmas, ringing a bell and calling for cash donations into red buckets.
In the US they’re a not-for-profit we trust. They’re doing good. Serving those in need.
In the UK they’re held in affection as a kind of mix between the St. John’s Ambulance men and a village fete brass band playing the kind of tunes we imagine were popular in the 1940s. They’re faithful, and part of us.
Kindly people all. They don’t seem to be at war.
It’s amazing how words can lose their meaning through familiarity. Because those two words Salvation and Army were a perfect description for one of the most committed and self-sacrificing forces of evangelisation in the late 19th century. And their influence continues.
In this upcoming series of posts your faith is going to be stirred, your compassion aroused and your desire to do something about poverty in your city will resolve itself, I hope, into action.
– how the passion of the leading Evangelist of the Methodist churches in Britain led to thousands of conversions
– how a commitment to evangelism led to the formation of a church planting movement
– how the power of the Holy Spirit lifted people from poverty to leadership in their communities
– how those who were largely unreached by the established churches were gathered and mobilized for global mission
– how unemployment, starvation and disease were tackled head-on by Christians refusing to accept the status quo
– how the latest technologies and musical innovations were harnessed for gospel proclamation
– how tough, unbelieving communities were reached through creative, sometimes downright crazy, attention-getting gospel initiatives
– how persecution from both rich and poor that led to violence and even martyrdom couldn’t stop the relentless love of a genuinely missional community
– how a movement that began among a few drunks and no-hopers who mocked the message and threw rotten eggs at the messenger spread right across the globe
This is the story of Christ amongst the poor. This is the story of mercy triumphing over judgement. This is the story of blood and fire.
Hudson Taylor on bringing our needs to God Alone
When we read biographies of some of the Christian leaders of the 19th Century there is a common feature which immediately strikes us: a commitment to pray to God until the answer comes, rather than appeal to men.
The name George Muller immediately comes to mind, but we could also mention Spurgeon and Hudson Taylor.
Getting it from the horse’s mouth
Taylor was seeking to grow in faith, to exercise ‘spiritual muscles’, in preparation for the demands of faith in China. The incident he describes in the following passage is perhaps one of the most famous in his life. I have edited it down somewhat but it is a sheer delight to read it in his own words.
‘I thought to myself, “When I get out to China, I shall have no claim on any one for anything; my only claim will be on God. How important, therefore, to learn before leaving England to move man, through God, by prayer alone.”
At Hull my kind employer, always busily occupied, wished me to remind him whenever my salary became due. This I determined not to do directly, but to ask that God would bring the fact to his recollection, and thus encourage me by answering prayer. At one time, as the day drew near for the payment of a quarter’s salary, I was as usual much in prayer about it. The time arrived, but my kind friend made no allusion to the matter. I continued praying, and days passed on, but he did not remember, until at length, on settling up my weekly accounts one Saturday night, I found myself possessed of only a single coin, one half-crown piece…’
Serving the Poor
‘That Sunday was a very happy one…After attending Divine service in the morning, my afternoons and evenings were filled with Gospel work, in the various lodging-houses I was accustomed to visit in the lowest part of the town…
After concluding my last service about ten o’clock that night, a poor man asked me to go and pray with his wife, saying that she was dying. I readily agreed, and on the way to his house asked him why he had not sent for the priest, as his accent told me he was an Irishman. He had done so, he said, but the priest refused to come without a payment of eighteen pence, which the man did not possess, as the family was starving.’
The dilemma of a single coin
‘Immediately it occurred to my mind that all the money I had in the world was the solitary half-crown [about 2 days’ labourer’s wage in 1860 – worth roughly £120 in 2011], and that it was in one coin; moreover, that while the basin of water gruel I usually took for supper was awaiting me, and there was sufficient in the house for breakfast in the morning, I certainly had nothing for dinner on the coming day.
Somehow or other there was at once a stoppage in the flow of joy in my heart; but instead of reproving myself I began to reprove the poor man, telling him that it was very wrong to have allowed matters to get into such a state as he described, and that he ought to have applied to the relieving officer.
His answer was that he had done so, and was told to come at eleven o’clock the next morning, but that he feared that his wife might not live through the night.
“Ah,” thought I, “if only I had two shillings and a sixpence instead of this half-crown, how gladly would I give these poor people one shilling of it!” But to part with the half-crown was far from my thoughts.
I little dreamed that the real truth of the matter simply was that I could trust in God plus one-and-sixpence, but was not yet prepared to trust Him only, without any money at all in my pocket.’
Into the home of the starving
‘Up a miserable flight of stairs, into a wretched room, he led me; and oh what a sight there presented itself to our eyes!
Four or five poor children stood about, their sunken cheeks and temples all telling unmistakably the story of slow starvation; and lying on a wretched pallet was a poor exhausted mother, with a tiny infant thirty-six hours old, moaning rather than crying at her side, for it too seemed spent and failing.
“Ah!” thought I, “if I had two shillings and a sixpence instead of half-a-crown, how gladly should they have one-and-sixpence of it!” But still a wretched unbelief prevented me from obeying the impulse to relieve their distress at the cost of all I possessed.’
‘It will scarcely seem strange that I was unable to say much to comfort these poor people. I needed comfort myself. I began to tell them, however, that they must not be cast down, that though their circumstances were very distressing, there was a kind and loving Father in heaven; but something within me said, “You hypocrite! telling these unconverted people about a kind and loving Father in heaven, and not prepared yourself to trust Him without half-a-crown!”
I was nearly choked. How gladly would I have compromised with conscience if I had had a florin and a sixpence! I would have given the florin thankfully and kept the rest; but I was not yet prepared to trust in God alone, without the sixpence.’
Prayer for the Poor
‘To talk was impossible under these circumstances; yet, strange to say, I thought I should have no difficulty in praying. Prayer was a delightful occupation to me in those days; time thus spent never seemed wearisome, and I knew nothing of lack of words.
I seemed to think that all I should have to do would be to kneel down and engage in prayer, and that relief would come to them and to myself together.
“You asked me to come and pray with your wife,” I said to the man, “let us pray.” And I knelt down.
But scarcely had I opened my lips with “Our Father who art in heaven” than conscience said within, “Dare you mock God? Dare you kneel down and call Him Father with that half-crown in your pocket?”
Such a time of conflict came upon me then as I have never experienced before or since. How I got through that form of prayer I know not, and whether the words uttered were connected or disconnected I cannot tell; but I arose from my knees in great distress of mind.’
Relief – and joy!
‘The poor father turned to me and said, “You see what a terrible state we are in, sir; if you can help us, for God’s sake do!”
Just then the word flashed into my mind, “Give to him that asketh of thee,” and in the word of a King there is power.
I put my hand into my pocket, and slowly drawing forth the half-crown, gave it to the man, telling him that it might seem a small matter for me to relieve them, seeing that I was comparatively well off, but that in parting with that coin I was giving him my all; what I had been trying to tell him was indeed true: God really was a Father, and might be trusted.
The joy all came back in full flood-tide to my heart; I could say anything and feel it then, and the hindrance to blessing was gone; gone, I trust, for ever.’
My life was saved!
‘Not only was the poor woman’s life saved, but I realised that my life was saved too! It might have been a wreck, would have been a wreck probably, as a Christian life, had not grace at that time conquered, and the striving of God’s Spirit been obeyed.
I well remember how that night, as I went home to my lodgings, my heart was as light as my pocket. The lonely, deserted streets resounded with a hymn of praise which I could not restrain.
When I took my basin of gruel before retiring, I would not have exchanged it for a prince’s feast.’
Trusting God to supply – back to prayer
‘I reminded the Lord as I knelt at my bedside of His own Word, that he who giveth to the poor lendeth to the Lord: I asked Him not to let my loan be a long one, or I should have no dinner next day; and with peace within and peace without, I spent a happy, restful night.
Next morning for breakfast my plate of porridge remained, and before it was consumed the postman’s knock was heard at the door.
I was not in the habit of receiving letters on Monday, as my parents and most of my friends refrained from posting on Saturday; so that I was somewhat surprised when the landlady came in holding a letter or packet in her wet hand covered by her apron.’
A letter from Heaven
‘I looked at the letter, but could not make out the handwriting. It was either a strange hand or a feigned one, and the postmark was blurred. Where it came from I could not tell.
On opening the envelope I found nothing written within; but inside a sheet of blank paper was folded a pair of kid gloves, from which, as I opened them in astonishment, half-a-sovereign [ = 120d. A half crown = 30d] fell to the ground.
“Praise the Lord!” I exclaimed; “400 per cent for twelve hours investment; that is good interest. How glad the merchants of Hull would be if they could lend their money at such a rate!”
Investing in the Bank which cannot fail
‘I then and there determined that a bank which could not break should have my savings or earnings as the case might be, a determination I have not yet learned to regret.
I cannot tell you how often my mind has recurred to this incident, or all the help it has been to me in circumstances of difficulty in after-life.
If we are faithful to God in little things, we shall gain experience and strength that will be helpful to us in the more serious trials of life.’[i]
For the first part in the Hudson Taylor story click here
For the next part in the Hudson Taylor story click here
Anyone who knows me knows that I’ve had a kind of love affair with India for most of my adult life.
Nevertheless my admiration for Indian scholar Vishal Mangalwadi is anything but sentimental. I am genuinely impacted every time I hear him speak. It’s the same kind of impact I felt when I first read the works of Francis Schaeffer.
Somewhat guided by his notes (!), but also peppered with stunning digressions and off-the-cuff insights, his teaching energises me every single time.
He is currently working on a book about the central influence of the Bible in the development of the Western World, which, coming from an Eastern perspective, is intriguing.
This message is part of his material for that book. To be honest, I could have chosen any one of these messages but I thought the title alone might grab your interest.
Can a nation be born in a day?
Low church attendance, binge drinking, poor housing, violent crime, limited Christian impact. It looked like Christianity was in trouble.
At the beginning of 18th Century Britain, confidence in the old faith was in serious decline.
‘God is not Great’ circa 1700
Amongst scholars belief in the miraculous elements of the Christian faith were considered superstitious. ‘Christianity Not Mysterious’ (1696) by John Toland, a leading Deist, represented the only serious intellectual position of that period. Perhaps mild by today’s standards, at the time it represented a new departure.
It is interesting to note that such publications seem to precede a sudden, sweeping and unexpected moves of God’s grace. Could it be that God Himself seeks to vindicate His own glory? Can God be provoked?
Now that we’ve had ‘The God Delusion’ (Richard Dawkins) and ‘God is not Great’ (Christopher Hitchens), could we also suddenly find ourselves in a fresh era of power and Christian influence, where God’s Spirit seems to be poured out more effectively, more powerfully and with greater impact than we’ve seen before?
Church Influence and Attendance in Decline
As Deist and Rationalist ideas gained ground across the leadership of the church in the early 1700’s both the spiritual and moral impact of Christianity began to wane.
Church attendance began to fall rapidly and churches began to be reorganised and scaled down.
The infamous ‘Gin Craze’, spurred on by the prohibition of imported liquor, swept the nation as multitudes took to making their own gin and created a genuine national crisis. Alcoholism was common.
Social and Economic Crisis – Poverty and Violent Crime
The former restraints of the Puritan era were being thrown off with relative ease. Living conditions for many were squalid. The slums were a breeding ground for disease as well as violent crime and the meagre efforts of churches, religious organisations and Parliament made very little impact.
The general view of the Christian faith was summed up by Bishop Butler who, in 1738 asserted that Christianity was treated as though ‘it was now discovered to be fictitious…and nothing remained but to set it up as the subject of mirth and ridicule (Quoted by Arnold Dallimore, George Whitefield, vol 1, Banner of Truth, p.31)
A Brand Plucked from the Fire!
What the good Bishop failed to take into account was that three years previously a young man called George Whitefield had been born again. He had begun preaching the gospel with a fervency that hadn’t been heard since the days of John Bunyan.
Also, in the very year in which Butler lamented the loss of Christian influence in England, two brothers had finally humbled themselves, followed in Whitefield’s footsteps, and given their lives to Christ, John and Charles Wesley.
You can purchase Dallimore’s biography of Whitefield here