William Booth was a British Methodist preacher who founded the Salvation Army and became its first General. This Christian movement, founded in 1865, had a military structure and government, that has spread from London, England, to many parts of the world and is known for being one of the largest distributors of humanitarian aid.
Booth was born in Nottingham (state), England. He was the son of Samuel Booth and Mary Moss. His father was an architect, which provided him with sufficient funds. William's father was married twice, his first wife Sarah died and so did their only child, a son named William, died five years after Sarah. Later on his father met Mary Moss, he proposed to her but she declined. He persuaded her to change her mind and she excepted even though she was sixteen years younger than he. Samuel and Mary had five children together, Henry, Ann, William, Emma, and Mary. Henry died as a young child and Emma was an invalid from birth, she died at the age of forty having never married.
As Samuel was forced into bankruptcy by successive trade recessions, William eventually said of him:
"My father was a Grab (a greedy man). He had been born in poverty. He determined to grow rich; and he did. He grew very rich, because he lived without God and simply worked for money; and when he lost it all, his heart broke with it, and he died miserably."
Samuel Booth was not a religious man, and although he had little interest in his children, he insisted that they attend church regularly. He was baptized on his deathbed, after which he committed his wife and children to God. Those who surrounded him, including his son William, sang “Rock of Ages” as he died.
Due to his father's bankruptcy the family could no longer afford William's school fees, so at the age of 13, William was apprenticed to a pawn-broker (money loaner).
Two years into his apprenticeship, at the age of 15, Booth was converted to salvation and Methodism. He then read extensively and trained himself in writing and in speech, becoming a Methodist preacher. At the age of 20, Booth reluctantly left his family and moved to London, where he found work and lodging in a pawnbroker's shop. Booth tried to continue preaching in London, but the small amount of preaching work that came his way frustrated him, and so he resigned as a preacher and took to open-air evangelizing in the streets and on the Kennington Common (a large park in London, similar to our New York City Central Park).
On April 10th 1852, Booth's 23rd birthday, he left pawnbroking and became a full-time preacher. Just over a month after he started full-time preaching, on May 15th , William Booth became formally engaged to Catherine Mumford.
Booth remained a pastor at a church appointed to him by the Methodist headquarters, but he was dissatisfied with his work as a pastor in a single church. He knew he was called to reach the multitudes as an evangelist. He requested to be appointed to evangelistic work but was denied. He therefore resigned his position and became an independent evangelist. For this, he was barred from campaigning in Methodist congregations.
His doctrine remained much the same, though; he preached that eternal punishment was the fate of those who do not believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the necessity of repentance from sin, and the promise of salvation. He taught that this belief would manifest itself in a life of love for God and mankind. Eventually, each of Booths' children became involved in the ministry.
In 1865, at the age of 36, Booth and his wife Catherine opened The Christian Revival Society, where they held meetings every evening and on Sundays, to offer repentance, salvation and Christian ethics to the poorest and most needy, including alcoholics, criminals and prostitutes. Booth and his followers practiced what they preached , they were self-sacrificing Christians. They performed a lot of social work such as opening “Food for the Million” shops (soup kitchens), not caring if they were scoffed at or mocked for their Christian ministry work.
Thirteen years later they changed the name of their ministry to “The Salvation Army”, modeling it in some ways after the military, with its own flag (or colors) and its own music. He and the other soldiers in God's Army would wear the Army's own uniform, this symbolized 'putting on the Armour,' for meetings and ministry work. Booth became the "General" and his other ministers were given appropriate ranks as "officers".
Though the early years were lean ones, with the need of money to help the needy an ever growing issue, Booth and The Salvation Army persevered. In the early 1880s, operations were extended to other countries, most profoundly in the United States, France, Switzerland, Sweden and others including most of the British Empire like Australia, Canada, India, South Africa, New Zealand, Jamaica, etc. During his lifetime, William Booth established Army work in 58 countries and colonies, traveling extensively and holding, “salvation meetings”. Booth regularly published a magazine and was the author of a number of books; he also composed several songs. In his books the convictions and principles behind the ministry really stood out. Booth proposed a strategy to apply the Christian Gospel and work ethic to the problems. The book speaks of abolishing vice and poverty by establishing homes for the homeless, farm communities where the urban poor can be trained in agriculture, training centers for prospective emigrants, homes for fallen women and released prisoners, aid for the poor, and help for drunkards. He also layed down schemes for poor men’s lawyers, banks, clinics, industrial schools and even a seaside resort. He says that if the state fails to meet its social obligations it will be the task of each Christian to step into the breach. Booth's ultimate aim was to get people saved! Booth once said,
“I have no intention to depart in the smallest degree from the main principles on which I have acted in the past. My only hope for the permanent deliverance of mankind from misery, either in this world or the next, is the regeneration or remaking of the individual by the power of the Holy Ghost through Jesus Christ. But in providing for the relief of temporal misery I reckon that I am only making it easy where it is now difficult, and possible where it is all but impossible, for men and women to find their way to the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
In his later years, he was received in audience by kings, emperors and presidents, who were among his ardent admirers. Even the mass media began to use his title of 'General' with respect. In 1899, Booth suffered from blindness in both eyes, but with a short rest, was able to recover his sight. Later he had to have his right eye removed and had a cataract in his left eye. William Booth was 83 years old when he died, He was buried with his wife in the main London burial ground for 19th century ministers and tutors.
William and Catherine Booth had eight children together, Bramwell, Ballington, Kate (Catherine), Emma, Herbert, Marian, Evangeline, and Lucy. All his children, except for Marian who was sickly, served in the Salvation Army with their spouses in various countries.