By Rev. Dr. Ed and Janice Hird
Cholera. Everyone’s fear, and it was happening again. William and Catherine Booth were there to help feed, clothe, and care for the sick in the stinky, rancid streets of East London. It was 1866.
The incoming tide from the Thames River dumped sewage into East London’s water reservoir. Almost 6,000 people died. Two years earlier, Catherine and William Booth had started the Christian Mission in this part of London. This is where the poorest of the poor lived.
Charles Dickens commented: “I consider the offensive smells, even in that short whiff, have been of a most head and stomach-distending nature.” The smell from the Thames was so bad that people became violently ill. The Great Stink was not completely dealt with until 1875.
Catherine, because of scoliosis curvature of the spine at age 14 and incipient tuberculosis at age 18, was often forced to spend weeks lying in bed. Nothing however stopped her passion to make a difference in the lives of lost and hurting people. She was always kind to everyone and never told a lie.
She had a strong Methodist upbringing, reading the Bible through eight times before the age of 12. As a preteen, she became concerned with the effects of alcoholism on the community, serving as Secretary for the Juvenile Temperance Society. Her father, while part of a total-abstinence league, used to periodically fall off the wagon.
At the home of Edward Rabbits, in 1851, she met William Booth, who, like Catherine, had been expelled by the Wesleyans for reform sympathies. He was reciting a temperance poem, “The Grog-seller’s Dream,” which appealed to Catherine.
As a vegetarian, she abhorred cruelty to animals. If she saw a driver mistreating a horse, she would rush out onto the street and compel the driver to treat the horse more humanely. Catherine, despite her natural shyness, would go to the slum tenements in East London, knock on doors, and ask them ‘Can I tell you about Jesus?” Some people say that she was a better preacher than her husband William. She even wrote a 10,000-word essay, asserting equality for women in ministry. Although William Booth had initially rejected the idea of women preachers, he changed his mind, later writing that “the best men in my Army are the women.” One of Catherine’s sons later commented, “She reminded me again and again of counsel pleading with judge and jury for the life of the prisoner. The fixed attention of the court, the mastery of facts, the absolute self-forgetfulness of the advocate, the ebb and flow of feeling, the hush during the vital passages – all were there.”
Catherine Booth lobbied Queen Victoria to successfully support the Parliamentary Bill for the Protection of Girls, changing the age of consent from 13 to 16. Three hundred and forty thousand people signed her petition to end sex trafficking of thirteen-year-olds. She started the Food-for-the-Million Shops where the poor could purchase hot soup and a three-course dinner for just sixpence. On special occasions such as Christmas Day, Catherine would cook over 300 dinners to be distributed to the poor of East London. She became known as the “Mother of The Salvation Army”. Queen Victoria noted, “Her majesty learns with much satisfaction that you have with other members of your society been successful in your efforts to win many thousands to the ways of temperance, virtue and religion.”
William, originally a pawnbroker’s assistant, was a practical doer. In 1865, he used a tent on a used Quaker graveyard in East London. His passion was for soup, soap and salvation. His motto was to ‘go for souls and go for the worst.’ Many of the local churches didn’t want William’s poor young converts because they would soil the seats.
In 1867, the Booths only had 10 full-time workers, but by 1874, the ‘Hallelujah Army’ had grown to 1,000 volunteers and 42 evangelists, all serving under the name The Christian Mission. In 1878, William changed the name to Salvation Army, with all the converts becoming soldiers or officers. “Onward Christians Soldiers” became their favorite marching song. In 1882, 669 Salvationists were brutally assaulted, with one woman dying. During 1881 to 1885, 250,000 people were converted and joined the Army. More Londoners in an 1882 survey were worshipping with the Salvation Army than all the other churches combined.
Catherine designed the Salvation Army flag and bonnets which served as helmets to protect from rocks and rotten eggs. The red on the flag symbolizes the blood shed by Christ, the yellow for the fire of the Holy Spirit and the blue for the purity of God the Father. The star contains the Salvation Army’s motto, ‘Blood and Fire’. This describes the blood of Jesus shed on the cross to save all people, and the fire of the Holy Spirit which purifies believers. The Salvation Army uses this flag in their marches of witness, dedication of children and the swearing-in of soldiers. It is sometimes placed on the coffin at the funeral of a Salvationist. Catherine had the Salvation Army flag brought into her bedroom as she was dying, saying “the blood and fire, that has been my life. It has been a constant fight.”
Catherine and William revolutionized the match factories. Women were earning a pittance for sixteen-hour days. The deadly fumes from the yellow phosphorus rotted their jaws, turning their face green and black with foul-smelling pus. Catherine pointed out that other European countries produced matches tipped with harmless red phosphorus. The factory owners Bryant and May said that red phosphorus was too expensive to make the switch. After Catherine’s death from breast cancer in 1890, her grief-stricken husband William opened a Salvation Army match factory, paying the workers twice the usual wage while using harmless red phosphorus. He organized tours by MPs and journalists to meet the yellow phosphorus victims, and to see the new alternative red phosphorus match factory. In 1901, Bryant and May buckled under the pressure and stopped using the toxic yellow phosphorus.
Catherine loved the poor. “With all their faults”, she said, “they have larger hearts than the rich.” William said at her funeral, “She was love. Her whole soul was full of tender deep compassion. Oh, how she loved.” Catherine believed that “if we are to better the future, we must disturb the present.” May the blood and fire of William and Catherine Booth’s ministry inspire us to disturb our present with love.
Rev. Dr. Ed and Janice Hird are the co-authors of Blue Sky, a novel