William Booth: the balance between education and evangelism

William Booth the reader!
William Booth the reader!

When William Booth taught his fellow ‘soldiers’ in the Salvation Army certain key principles, one of those he emphasized continually was the importance of being able to genuinely influence people towards faith in Christ.

So far so good. Most Christian leaders would agree. We’re only playing if we’re only publishing.

CH Spurgeon, while coming from a different theological viewpoint from Booth, was also unapologetic about the need for results. Souls need to be saved.

And so Booth includes in his own story the fact that, certainly in the mid-19th Century, formal theological training didn’t help equip him in his evangelistic Mission.

Booth moves to the Methodist New Connexion
After Booth arrived in London in 1849 he joined a Methodist church and began preaching with some success.

Discouraged by the lack of missional intentionality, he joined the Methodist New Connexion, and was encouraged to seek ordination.

Booth at this time was sent to preach for churches that were losing numbers, and for whom it was felt little could be done. He’d go for two weeks at a time, preaching each evening with much success, sometimes drawing the positive attention of the local press.

There was no doubt that he was a gifted evangelist, but he had no formal training for ministry. He had not even completed High School let alone received a University education.

Booth was self-conscious about this deficiency and asked if he might study under a theologian within the New Methodist Connexion denomination. Surely theological training would help him in the mission.

Give me a chance
His prayer was, ‘Give me a chance of acquiring information, and of learning how more successfully to conduct this all important business of saving men to which Thou hast called me, and which lies so near my heart.’[i]

Disarmingly, Booth writes, ‘But instead of better qualifying me for the work of saving men, by imparting to me the knowledge necessary for this task I was set to study Latin, Greek, various sciences, and other subjects, which, as I saw at a glance, could little help me in the all-important work that lay before me…’[ii]

Nevertheless he kept studying until the day finally came when his tutor would hear and assess his preaching. Booth knew he would be evaluated on theological content and not necessarily evangelistic impact.

The occasion was a regular evening service in a church. And there were non-believers there. It was soon clear that this could be no practice run. In his mind the mission always trumps any ‘in-house’ priority, which in this instance, was his own future prospects.

Booth: ‘I saw him seated…at the end of the church…I realized that my future standing in his estimation, as well as my position would very much depend on the judgement he formed of me on that occasion…

I knew that my simple, practical style was altogether different from his own, and of the overwhelming majority of the preachers he was accustomed to approve…

I saw dying souls before me…
[But] I saw dying souls before me, the gates of Heaven wide open on the one hand, and the gates of Hell open on the other, while I saw Jesus Christ with His arms open between the two, crying out to all to come and be saved.

My whole soul was in favour of doing what it could to second the invitation of my Lord, and doing it that very night.

I cannot now remember much about the service, except the sight of my Professor, with his family around him, a proud, worldly daughter sitting at his side.

I can remember, however, that in my desire to impress the people with the fact that they could have Salvation there and then, if they would seek it, and, to illustrate their condition, I described a wreck on the ocean, with the affrighted people clinging to the masts between life and death, waving a flag of distress to those on shore, and, in response, the life-boat going off to the rescue.

And then I can remember how I reminded my hearers that they had suffered shipwreck on the ocean of time through their sins and rebellion; that they were sinking down to destruction, but that if they would only hoist the signal of distress Jesus Christ would send off the life-boat to their rescue.

Then, jumping on the seat at the back of the pulpit, I waved my pocket-handkerchief round and round my head to represent the signal of distress I wanted them to hoist, and closed with an appeal to those who wanted to be rescued to come at once, and in the presence of the audience, to the front of the auditorium. That night twenty-four knelt at the Saviour’s feet, and one of them was the proud daughter of my Professor.’[iii]

The brief but happy review
The next day Booth met with his tutor for the review.

‘My dear Sir,’ the tutor said, ‘I have only one thing to say to you, and that is, go on in the way you have begun, and God will bless you.’

Booth didn’t complete his studies with the New Methodist Connexion. He writes, ‘I had hardly settled down to my studies before I got into a red-hot Revival in a small London church where a remarkable work was done. In an account of this effort my name appeared in the church’s Magazine, and I was invited to conduct special efforts in other parts of the country.

This, I must confess, completely upset my plans once more, and I have not been able to find heart or time for either Greek or Latin from that day to this.’[iv]

Neither Booth, nor the Salvation Army were anti-education, but in terms of equipping men and women for evangelistic effectiveness, he was adamant that men and women should be appropriately equipped for effective ministry. And that meant a blend of standard education as well as specific equipping to bring people to faith in Christ.

An old Pentecostal preacher is quoted as saying, ‘In all yer learnin’, get the fire!’ Sound advice. Get the learning but get the skills too. And Booth would agree: Get the fire!

To read Booth’s impassioned plea for all Christians to witness click here

For the first post in the Salvation Army story click here

© 2014 Lex Loizides / Church History Blog

 

[i] Quoted by George S Railton, General Booth, (St Albans: The Salvation Army Printing Works, 1912) p.41

[ii] ibid

[iii] ibid p 42

[iv] ibid p.43

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