"Pawnbroker to Pulpit!" William Booth could have used that subject any time he gave his life story in a revival crusade. When just a youth, he was taken out of school to become an apprentice pawnbroker in his native Nottingham, England, and he later plied the pawnbroker's trade in London's seamy south suburb of Walworth. Doubtlessly, it was in this environment where he saw the wretchedness, the poverty, the depravity and misery of the masses that Booth's heart felt its first hunger to help a fallen humanity.
Five months after Booth began his apprenticeship, an epochal event occcurred which, too, was to shape his soul toward the spiritual--he was rudely awakened from his sleep to see his father die. It was the scene of a death-bed "repentance," for it was "the first time in his life Samuel Booth professed any interest in religion." As he died--with an Anglican minister, William's mother, and his two sisters singing "Rock Of Ages"--an indelible impression was made upon the soul of the young Booth. He began attending Broad Street Weslyan Chapel and once, after hearing a disturbing discourse on "A Soul Dies Every Minute," and reflecting on his sins, young William Booth "publicly repented and made the surrender of his soul to God. Instantly the burden of his guilt was rolled away, his soul was flooded with peace, and from that hour it was his fixed purpose to devote himself to God and to his generation."
He was fifteen and, at first, young Booth plunged into politics--revolutionary politics. He was appalled by the awful crying of children begging bread, outraged by the fathers who pawned their last possession for one more drink, and inflamed by "the passionate oratory of the Chartist, Fergus O'Conner." But another man influenced Booth about the same time. Rev. James Caughey, an American revivalist, was used by God to challenge Booth to "proclaim the everlasting Gospel to others." And at seventeen years of age, William Booth preached his first sermon. Incredibly, in that first sermon in a cottage on Kidd Street, Booth preached some of the principles that would be practices of his future "Army."
He preached on street corners, still plying his trade as a pawnbroker. On Sundays he would round up his rag-tag, ragamuffin group of drunkards, wife-beaters, and bring them to the chapel, often leading many of them forward for prayer and pentinence. But the elders of the chapel, repelled by the sight and stench of products of his street evangelism, expelled him from the membership. Booth had been sympathetic to the Reformers and joined them, but he soon wearied of their ways of making "hirelings" out of their preachers. However, it was during his short stay with the Reformers that young Booth met Catherine Mumford, the woman he would marry, and the woman who would be known worldwide as the "Mother of the Army."
Booth briefly considered the Congregationalists, but as he read thirty or forty pages of Abraham Booth's, Reign of Grace, which stressed the Calvinistic doctrine of election, Booth was so repelled "he threw the book across the room, resolved to have nothing to do with it." He then fellowshiped with the Methodist New Connection, carrying on evangelistic work under their sponsorship. He soon chafed under the submission to their authority and, in 1857, entered evangelism as an independent.
It was in a tent campaign in London's Whitechapel area, Booth heard and heeded the call that would result in his worldwide work. Coming home one night, he greeted his wife,
Oh, Kate, I have found my destiny. These are the people for whose salvation I have been longing all these years. As I passed the doors of the flaming sin-palaces tonight I seemed to hear a voice sounding in my ears, "Where can you go and find such heathen as these?" And there and then in my soul I offered up myself and you and the children to this great work. These people shall be our people, and they shall have our God for their God.
Booth preached in that tent and, when winter weather came, in an old dancing hall. Then a house was purchased, a theater rented, even a pigeon shop and a skittle-alley housed their meetings. The East London Christian Mission, as it was known, attracted great crowds and needed some permanency of place if it were to survive. Again God raised up a man to minister to Booth's financial needs. A Mr. Edward Raymond Rabbits, a bootmaker, a Reformer, had subsidized Booth so he could make the transition from a pawnbroker to a full-time preacher. At Whitechapel it was a Mr. Morey and a Mr. Reed who gave great financial assistance to help the struggling ministry and the needy family of ten.
Thus in 1869 the Christian Mission was on firm financial ground: there were 14 preaching stations, some soup kitchens, 140 services indoors and outdoors each week. By now Mrs. Booth was preaching, too, a most unheard of precedent in preaching.
In 1878, the Mission received its new name--"Salvation Army." Probably a convert, Lijah Cadman, prompted the title, although Catherine is credited with it too. The organization already had its "Rules and Rgulations." Advertising often announced, "War!War! 2,000 men and women wanted to join the Hallelujah Army!" In 1878 a copy of the Mission magazine announced that the mission had "organized a salvation army to carry the blood of Christ and the fire of the Holy Spirit into every corner of the world." From there transitions were made easily and effortlessly: the General Superintendent became the "General," members became "Soldiers," evangelists became "Officers," uniforms were adopted. Services were held in "barracks" later called "citadels." Brass bands were begun and military terms instituted. A flag was designed and the motto, "Blood and Fire," adopted. In 1880 the official magazine became the "War Cry."
The charter of the Army was to carry "the blood of Christ and fire of the Holy Ghost into every corner of the world." The United States was the first nation to be "invaded." First it was Philadelphia, the New York City, then other citadels were oganized. Australia was opened and, in 1881, Marichale, Booth's eldest daughter, began the work in France. When General Booth died in 1912, "there were ministries in fifty-eight countries, the Gospel preached in thirty-four languages, a record unparalleled in the history of any other religious organization."
Booth's ministry originally was exclusively evangelistic, but he determined that one could not preach to a man with an empty stomach. Thus he set out "to minister to the physical that the spiritual may be made the more effective." Josiah Strong spoke of his successes: "Probably during no one hundred years i the history of the world have there been saved so may thieves, gamblers, drunkards and prostitutes as during the past quarter of a century through the heroic faith and labors of the Salvation Army."
That success was not without price, persecution, imprisonments, beatings, bludgeonings, brickbats,etc. One well wrote, "The early salvationists won with scars and bloody noses, the respect which was to assure toleration of their privilege."
Something of the spirit of the "salvationists" in those days was the spirit of their founder. Even after blindness took one eye, and he "was worn out," Booth evangelized until his death. Something of the compelling constraint, the impelling motivation that moved him to tireless activity in soul winning is seen in these two episodes before royalty in his native England.
Queen Victoria called him in once to enquire, "General Booth, what is the secret of you ministry? How is it that others are so pale, so pallid, so powerless, so weak, and you are so mighty." William Booth looked into the face of his queen and, with tears streaming down his face that looked so much like an Elijah or a Moses, said, "Your Majesty, I guess the reason is because God has all there is of mee...I guess it is because God knows that I am hungering to keep souls out of Hell."
And on June 24, 1904, William Booth wrote in the autograph album of King Edward VII:
"Some men's ambition is art,
Some men's ambition is fame,
Some men's ambition is gold,
My ambitions is the souls of men.
A wild, wiered, wicked world today needs some more men with the same heart-hunger!
Taken from the book "Profiles in Evangelism"