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William Booth

1829-1912. Founder and first general of the Salvation Army.* Born in Nottingham, he was converted in 1844 and became first a minister, then an evangelist, in the Methodist New Connexion Church. In 1861, however, he resigned because its leaders wanted to restrict him to a limited circuit. He became a free-lance evangelist and in 1865 began meetings in London's East End, where extreme poverty and hardship were the rule for most people. Gradually the work grew, was named “The Christian Mission,” and spread to other centers. He was aided by his wife Catherine,* herself a gifted preacher. Both tackled social evils alongside his direct evangelism; by 1872 he was running five “Food-for-the-Million” shops, selling cheap meals. He and his colleagues were often attacked physically when preaching, but there were remarkable instances of lives transformed by the Gospel.

Military terminology was then the vogue (“Onward, Christian soldiers” was written in 1865), and one of Booth's leading helpers, Elijah Cadman, in 1877 advertised meetings in Whitby of “The Hallelujah Army Fighting for God.” They labeled Booth “General,” which was fitting because control of the Mission was centralized in Booth's hands. Then in 1878 the process was taken a final stage: the “Salvation Army” was born. In 1879 it had 81 mission stations manned by 127 full-time evangelists; and it had the first Salvation Army band, formed in Salisbury. Very soon the policy of setting sacred words to secular tunes was adopted; as Booth put it, “Why should the Devil have all the best tunes?”

In 1880 came the uniform, preceded in 1878 by the first volume of “Orders and Regulations for the Salvation Army.” The military system was rigidly enforced, and Booth was undoubted commander-in-chief. As the Army grew, Booth and his tireless wife (helped by their children) set up training homes for cadets, and initiated overseas advances, to the USA, the Continent, and India. A new headquarters was opened in London in 1881, and by 1884 the Army had 900 corps, more than 266 of them outside Britain.

Booth was totally absorbed in the growth of the Army, which was fiercely and at times brutally opposed. Money was scarce, debts grew, scandals threatened to destroy the cause. In 1886 he toured the USA, pulling together an organization that had fragmented into three parts. In 1887 the sight of homeless men on London Bridge prompted Booth to start the Army's social work; careful inquiries showed desperate need. Cheap-food centers, night shelters, an unemployment exchange-all these he set up as his wife lay dying of cancer. The need was focused in his book In Darkest England-and the Way Out, finished in 1890 just before Catherine died. It was a best seller, a storm center of controversy. Booth planned Farm Colonies, a Missing Persons Bureau, a Poor Man's Bank, Legal Aid for the poor; he even set up a match factory to help expose the evils of a private enterprise firm in that same line of business.

Now virtually alone, Booth traveled the world, a figure of international renown. In 1904, aged seventy-five, he did a twenty- nine-day “automobile evangelistic” tour of Britain-1,224 miles and 164 meetings long. In 1907 he toured the USA. In 1908, nearly blind, he was in Scandinavia. In 1910 he visited Holland, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, Italy. At last, in August 1912, he died; 150,000 people filed past his coffin; 40,000 attended his funeral. He had traveled five million miles, preached nearly 60,000 sermons, and drawn some 16,000 officers to serve in his Army.

Biographies by H. Begbie (1920), W.H. Nelson (1929), S.J. Ervine (2 vols., 1934), R. Collier (1965). See also bibliography under Salvation Army.