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General William Booth was the founder of the Salvation Army, the worldwide religious and humanitarian organization. He and his missionary family were key players in the Revivalist Reform Movement of the 19th century. Believing that religion should alleviate the sufferings of the poor and convert sinners into ministers of salvation, Booth organized his new church based on fiery sermons, military-styled ministry, and a grass-roots campaign throughout the slums of the world.
Photo: Reverend William Booth, Public Domain
Booth was born in Nottinghamshire, England, in 1829 and baptized in the Church of England. He embraced Methodism at the same time that he supported the Chartists, a radical working-class movement that urged political, economic, and social equality. Inspired by the religious awakening sweeping England, when Booth was 16 he and a band of friends began to hold cottage meetings where they preached, sang, and strove to lead souls to salvation by asking them to recommit themselves to Christ. These meetings, together with works of charity among the local poor and sick, foreshadowed the Salvation Army, which would come into being some 20 years later.
The Hallelujah Band
In the intervening period, between 1845 and 1865, Booth served as a Methodist minister; met and married the woman who was to inspire and share his ministry, Catherine Mumford; broke with the Wesleyan tradition; and undertook an evangelical mission in Staffordshire where within seven weeks he claimed 1,700 souls who professed to have found salvation. The extraordinary success of this ministry prompted William and Catherine Booth to travel throughout England organizing open-air revival meetings, whose most original feature was the Hallelujah Band, a motley crew of converted sinners whom the Booths enlisted to help convert others. As one contemporary described them (in words which were echoed in Vachel Lindsay's 1913 poem, “General William Booth Enters Into Heaven”):
"They were a show company of converted reprobates...as motley a crew of reclaimed blackguards as ever mustered on a convict ship...poachers, drunkards, wife-beaters, prize-fighters, and gaol-birds of every degree of infamy...eagerly enlisted in the service of revival."
Leading his Hallelujah Band, Booth made his way to London, where in 1865 he staged a huge and highly successful meeting in a large tent at the Quaker Burial Ground. This led Booth to the conclusion that he needed to establish a religious society on permanent lines--a church whose fundamental doctrine was that no one can be saved who does not try to save other people.
First designated the Christian Revival Association, in 1865, it was later called the Christian Mission, and finally renamed the Salvation Army, in 1878. Booth envisioned his corps of evangelists--with men and women holding equal rank--as an army ever on duty against the dark forces of Satan, crime, poverty, and human suffering.
By 1878 there were 50 stations and 88 evangelists; two years later the Booths established their magazine, The War Cry, and a training center for missionaries in London. By 1890, when Catherine Booth died, the Salvation Army's numbers had risen to almost 13,000, in missions on three continents.
The Booth Family in America
William Booth first visited the United States in 1888, and he entrusted the ministry for the New World to several of his children, among them Ballington, Bramwell, and Evangeline.
Evangeline Booth, the seventh of the eight children, was born on Christmas Day in 1865, the year her father began what would become the Salvation Army. A founder of hospitals, a charismatic preacher, a friend of the late Transcendentalists, a composer of evangelical songs and hymns, Evangeline Booth would serve as American Commander of the Salvation Army from 1904 to 1934, at which point she became the first woman general of the worldwide organization.
General Booth was promoted to glory, in the words of the Salvation Army, in 1912. Evangeline, who became an American citizen, lived until 1950.
General Booth in Song
In 1914,Charles Ives, who had recently been Evangeline Booth's neighbor in Hartsdale, New York, recalled the Salvationist tune "Are You Washed in the Blood of the Lamb?" when he was setting Vachel Lindsay's poem, "General William Booth Enters Into Heaven." The same poem inspired Sidney Homer's setting of 1926.
--Thomas Hampson and Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold, PBS I Hear America Singing