For 140 years The Salvation Army (SA) has been ministering to the material and spiritual needs of underprivileged people in different parts of the world. This Perspectives article will sketch Catherine Booth’s vital role in the founding and dramatic early decades of The SA’s ministry.
In 1865 Catherine Booth’s husband, William, established The Christian Mission to minister to lower-class individuals in London’s degraded East End. Over the course of the next ten years The Christian Mission expanded to more than thirty ministry centers and preaching stations in towns scattered throughout England. In June of 1877 The Christian Mission was reorganized and renamed The Salvation Army.
Considerable military terminology and symbolism soon came to be used. Lay members of the mission were now soldiers, and evangelists were captains and lieutenants. Mission stations were called corps. William Booth, The Salvation Army’s general superintendent, was referred to as the General. Catherine never held a rank in The SA, but she did eventually assume the honorary title of the Army mother.
During 1878 and 1879 Catherine was kept constantly on the go, speaking at “war councils” in various cities and towns, presenting The Salvation Army flag to new corps, and explaining as well as defending the Army’s mission and methods to supporters and critics alike. Such ministries took her to fifty-nine towns in 1879. The SA was then experiencing explosive growth, growing to 130 corps and 195 officers in England that year.
Beginning in 1880 The Salvation Army’s ministry mushroomed beyond England and Wales to other parts of the world. That year and the next a dozen corps were established in both the United States and Australia. Within a year and a half of the first Salvation Army street meeting in Canada, a whopping 200 corps under the direction of 400 officers had been established in that country.
Despite its dramatic success (or because of it), The Salvation Army attracted many critics and opponents. Catherine played a major role in defending The SA against its numerous detractors. Anglican clergy denounced the Army as having no part in historic orthodox Christianity. Upper class individuals and members of the Established Church were especially critical of some of the Army’s novel methods: SA soldiers marching in the streets; “Hallelujah Lasses” preaching in the streets or speaking publicly in churches; the Gospel being preached in theatres and circuses; adapting secular tunes to many of the spiritual songs employed in their services; showcasing in public meetings trophy converts rescued from notorious pasts.
To one critic of such measures Catherine responded earnestly: “Oh, my dear sir, if you only knew the indifferent, besotted, semi-heathenish condition of the classes on whom we operate, you would, I am sure, deem any lawful means expedient, if only they succeeded in bringing such people under the sound of the Gospel. It is a standing mystery to me that thoughtful Christian men can contemplate the existing state of the world without perceiving the desperate need of some more effective and aggressive agency on the side of God and righteousness.”
The Salvation Army also experienced persecution from the “Skeleton Army.” Mobs, many of which were incited by individuals with vested interest in the alcohol industry, used intimidation and physical violence in an effort to silence Nonconformist groups that dared to challenge traditional social customs and religious beliefs. Quakers, Methodists, Baptists, Congregationalists and The Salvation Army were all targets of such mob violence. Police and local magistrates often turned a blind eye to the brutal attacks.
In 1882 alone, sixty buildings used for Salvation Army purposes were attacked (and sometimes all but destroyed) by rioting crowds. That year 669 Salvationists were assaulted, including 251 women and twenty-three young people under the age of fifteen. A group of SA lasses in Whitechapel, East London, were tied together with rope and pelted with live coals. Two female Salvationists died as the result of injuries sustained in an attack at Guildford.
Such harrowing incidents drew considerable attention to the unjust treatment The Salvation Army was experiencing in various parts of Britain. Public sympathy began turning in its favor. The right of the Army to conduct street marches was defended in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords.
In 1885 the number of SA corps in Great Britain increased from 637 to 802 while foreign corps rose from 273 to 520. By the end of that year the Army had 1,322 corps and 3,076 officers stationed around the world.
In the closing years of her life Catherine was one of the key individuals who assisted her husband in working out an extensive plan to minister to the pressing economic needs of England’s “submerged tenth,” the percentage of the nation without the basics of food, shelter and work. The Salvation Army launched a greatly expanded program for addressing those needs.
But in the Booths’ minds, social work was clearly secondary to the primary spiritual ministry of leading people to Christ. Social ministry was appropriate and necessary to alleviate human suffering and to gain a hearing for the Gospel. But lasting economic and moral reform in individual lives and in society could only come about as people were led to saving faith in Jesus Christ and had their lives transformed by His Spirit.
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A much-fuller account of Catherine Booth’s life and ministries is related in my book Women of Faith and Courage (Christian Focus, 2011). Roger Green’s Catherine Booth, A Biography of the Cofounder of the Salvation Army (Baker, 1996) provides a more comprehensive account of her life. Other encouraging and instructive incidents from the lives of William and Catherine Booth are included in my book Timeless Stories, God’s Incredible Work in the Lives of Inspiring Christians (Christian Focus, 2010).
Copyright 2017 by Vance E. Christie