General William Booth – 1829-1912

General William Booth

William Booth

‘The man who changed Victorian Britain’

The mid-nineteenth century was a time of Christian resurgence in several places in the world. Its most outstanding pioneer in Britain was William Booth, who by the end of his life, had a loyal following of 16,000 full-time officers in his Salvation Army, living a disciplined life of sacrifice and service in fifty-eight countries.

The story of this amazing man has recently been retold by Richard Collier in his book The General Next to God (Fontana).

General William Booth’s early life

William Booth was born in Nottingham in 1829 of well-bred parents who had become poor. He was a lively lad nicknamed Wilful Wil. At the age of fifteen he was converted in the Methodist chapel and became the leader of a band of teenage evangelists who called him Captain and held street meetings with remarkable success.

In 1851 he began full-time Christian work among the Methodist Reformers in London and later in Lincolnshire. After a period in a theological college he became a minister of the Methodist New Connexion. His heart however was with the poor people unreached by his church, and in 1861 he left the Methodists to give himself freely to the work of evangelism. Joined by Catherine, his devoted wife, they saw their ministry break out into real revival, which in Cornwall spread far and wide.

One memorable day in July 1865, after exploring the streets in an East End district where he was to conduct a mission, the terrible poverty, vice and degradation of these needy people struck home to his heart. He arrived at his Hammersmith home just before midnight and greeted his waiting Catherine with these words: “Darling, I have found my destiny!” She understood him. Together they had ministered God’s grace to God’s poor in many places.

Now they were to spend their lives bringing deliverance to Satan”s captives in the evil jungle of London”s slums. One day William took Bramwell, his son, into an East End pub which was crammed full of dirty, intoxicated creatures. Seeing the appalled look on his son”s face, he said gently, “Bramwell, these are our people—the people I want you to live for.”

William and Catherine loved each other passionately all their lives. And no less passionately did they love their Lord together. Now, although penniless, together with their dedicated children, they moved out in great faith to bring Christ”s abundant life to London”s poverty-stricken, devil-oppressed millions.

At first their organisation was called the Christian Mission. In spite of brutal opposition and much cruel hardship, the Lord blessed this work, and it spread rapidly.

William Booth was the dynamic leader who called young men and women to join him in this full-time crusade. With enthusiastic abandon, hundreds gave up all to follow him.

“Make your will, pack your box, kiss your girl and be ready in a week”, he told one young volunteer.

Salvation Army born

One day as William was dictating a report on the work to George Railton, his secretary, he said, “We are a volunteer army,”

“No”, said Bramwell, “I am a regular or nothing.”

His father stopped in his stride, bent over Railton, took the pen from his hand, and crossing out the word “volunteer”, wrote “salvation”. The two young men stared at the phrase “a salvation army”, then both exclaimed “Hallelujah”. So the Salvation Army was born.

As these dedicated, Spirit-filled soldiers of the cross flung themselves into the battle against evil under their blood and fire banner, amazing miracles of deliverance occurred. Alcoholics, prostitutes and criminals were set free and changed into workaday saints.

Cecil Rhodes once visited the Salvation Army farm colony for men at Hadleigh, Essex, and asked after a notorious criminal who had been converted and rehabilitated there.

“Oh”, was the answer, “He has left the colony and has had a regular job outside now for twelve months.”

“Well” said Rhodes in astonishment, “if you have kept that man working for a year, I will believe in miracles.”

Slave traffic

The power that changed and delivered was the power of the Holy Spirit. Bramwell Booth in his book Echoes and Memories describes how this power operated, especially after whole nights of prayer. Persons hostile to the Army would come under deep conviction and fall prostrate to the ground, afterward to rise penitent, forgiven and changed. Healings often occurred and all the gifts of the Spirit were manifested as the Lord operated through His revived Body under William Booth’s leadership.

Terrible evils lay hidden under the curtain of Victorian social life in the nineteenth century. The Salvation Army unmasked and fought them. Its work among prostitutes soon revealed the appalling wickedness of the white slave traffic, in which girls of thirteen were sold by their parents to the pimps who used them in their profitable brothels, or who traded them on the Continent.

“Thousands of innocent girls, most of them under sixteen, were shipped as regularly as cattle to the state-regulated brothels of Brussels and Antwerp.” (Collier).


In order to expose this vile trade, W. T. Stead (editor of The Pall Mall Gazette) and Bramwell Booth plotted to buy such a child in order to shock the Victorians into facing the fact of this hidden moral cancer in their society. This thirteen-year-old girl, Eliza Armstrong, was bought from her mother for £5 and placed in the care of Salvationists in France.

W. T. Stead told the story in a series of explosive articles in The Pall Mall Gazette which raised such a furore that Parliament passed a law raising the age of consent from thirteen to sixteen. However, Booth and Stead were prosecuted for abduction, and Stead was imprisoned for three months.

William Booth always believed the essential cause of social evil and suffering was sin, and that salvation from sin was its essential cure. But as his work progressed, he became increasingly convinced that social redemption and reform should be an integral part of Christian mission.

So at the age of sixty he startled England with the publication of the massive volume entitled In Darkest England, and the Way Out. It was packed with facts and statistics concerning Britain’s submerged corruption, and proved that a large proportion of her population was homeless, destitute and starving. It also outlined Booth’s answer to the problem — his own attempt to begin to build the welfare state.

All this was the result of two years” laborious research by many people, including the loyal W. T. Stead. On the day the volume was finished and ready for publication, Stead was conning its final pages in the home of the Booths. At last he said, “That work will echo round the world. I rejoice with an exceeding great joy.”

“And I”, whispered Catherine, dying of cancer in a corner of the room, “And I most of all thank God. Thank God!” As the work of the Salvation Army spread throughout Britain and into many countries overseas, it met with brutal hostility. In many places Skeleton Armies were organised to sabotage this work of God. Hundreds of officers were attacked and injured (some for life). Halls and offices were smashed and fired. Meetings were broken up by gangs organised by brothel keepers and hostile publicans.

One sympathiser in Worthing defended his life and property with a revolver. But Booth’s soldiers endured the persecution for many years, often winning over their opponents by their own offensive of Christian love.

The Army that William Booth created under God was an extension of his own dedicated personality. It expressed his own resolve in his words which Collier places on the first page of his book:

“While women weep as they do now, I’ll fight; while little children go hungry as they do now, I’ll fight; while men go to prison, in and out, in and out, as they do now, I’ll fight—I’ll fight to the very end!”

Toward the end of his life, he became blind. When he heard the doctor’s verdict that he would never see again, he said to his son: “Bramwell, I have done what I could for God and the people with my eyes. Now I shall see what I can do for God and the people without my eyes.”

But the old warrior had finally laid down his sword. His daughter, Eva, head of the Army’s work in America, came home to say her last farewell. Standing at the window she described to her father the glory of that evening’s sunset.

“I cannot see it,” said the General, “but I shall see the dawn.”

(This article was found in an out-of-print paperback ‘Pioneers of Revival,’ by Charles Clarke dated 1971 published by the Fountain Trust, which is no longer in existence.)

For further research

William Booth