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William & Catherine - a love story
A Blind Date
In early 1852, when a young man called William met a girl named Catherine at a tea party organised by a mutual friend, who would have thought that it would initiate a chain of events which would result in one of the greatest love stories in Christian history, and a Christian ‘hands on’ ministry and mission which in 2015 will celebrate its 150th anniversary?
Yet the inauspicious gathering at the London home of matchmaker Edward Rabbits did just that. Because the ‘William’ in question was William Booth and his ‘Catherine’ was Catherine Mumford. Together they would eventually create the Christian movement which became The Salvation Army, now an international church and charity organisation which spans the globe, operates in nearly 130 countries, has millions of church members and supports millions upon millions more every day.
Evangelism and Passion
When they met, the young William and Catherine were both already devout Christians – part of the Methodist Church at a time when it was in something of a turmoil. The couple were among those seeking new spiritual experiences of God and the Holy Spirit, questioning the authorities and trying to discern God’s will for their lives. Within weeks of meeting they had declared their love for each other and became engaged.
William was already determined on a life in Christian ministry and evangelism - preaching and helping people find God. He had been inspired by the American evangelist James Caughey, and indeed he and Catherine felt a lifelong affiliation to the American Holiness Movement. But William had a poor education and even as a young man was very single-minded - attributes which made him an unlikely candidate for being accepted into a church. In Catherine, who was his superior in education and theological understanding, he had found a spiritual sole mate and one who would help him to fulfil his potential. From the start of their relationship Catherine pledged to nurture, support and bless William. But she was no wallflower. Catherine was as purposeful and uncompromising as her young man.
From childhood Catherine was committed to the temperance cause – teetotalism, abstinence from alcohol – and was passionate about earthly and spiritual matters in equal measure, from the welfare of animals to the equality of women and their right to preach in church. Although quiet in nature and plagued by ill health for much of her life, Catherine had an inner strength which belied her physical weaknesses. It was no coincidence that William eventually eschewed alcohol and came round to the idea of women in church leadership – both later central to the ethos of their Salvation Army. Catherine could be very persuasive, and together the Booths became formidable.
Today The Salvation Army is renowned across the world, but it's creation did not come quickly, or easily.
For William and Catherine there were years of separation even before they married in June 1855. William was following his passion as a travelling evangelist in Lincolnshire in the English Midlands region, having secured the job soon after Mr Rabbit's tea party
William was constantly trying to find a place in a church which would accommodate his passion for evangelism - he tried for ordination in various churches and eventually was ordained in the Methodist Church. But even then the couple found themselves battling the authorities, who wanted them to conform to their regulations and play by the rules.
'The Converting Shop'
At first the Methodist Church accommodated William Booth's passion for preaching and allowed him to continue his itinerant evangelism, and although this meant large periods of separation from his family, he loved it.
Finally, the church authorities, although appreciative of William’s evangelistic zeal and success, felt the young man needed to experience settled leadership in a church. They insisted on his taking up positions in various churches across the north of England. William and Catherine weren't happy with the idea, but went anyway and their Christian ministry thrived.
In Gateshead near Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in the north east of England their church, Bethesda Chapel, quickly became known as ‘The Converting Shop’, so many people came to faith there. It was in Gateshead that Catherine began to find her own voice. She would ultimately become one of Britain's first renowned women preachers but it was in Gateshead that she first took to the pulpit.
Catherine Booth was greatly influenced by the American preacher Phoebe Palmer and it was also in Gateshead that she wrote a famous article, a retort to criticism of Mrs Palmer’s preaching tour in England. This was a strident defence of Mrs Palmer and other women who felt called to Christian ministry. The document was entitled “Female Ministry; or Women’s Right to Preach the Gospel”.
Church life was by now proving too restrictive for the Booths and after years of perseverance they split from the Methodist Church and stepped out in faith into their own itinerant Christian ministry.
Then followed years of travel, uncertainty, debt, opposition, and continuing separation. Although his audiences were often mixed, William’s campaigns - often held in tents and music halls and open air services - attracted many from the ‘masses’. Catherine invariably found herself preaching to the upper and middle classes, and women in particular, in theatres as well as small gatherings. Both were in the business of ‘saving souls’ but it was only in 1865 when they found themselves back in London that the Booths began to develop the ministry that eventually became The Salvation Army.
If ’tis love to wish thee near,
To shed for thee the silent tear,
To start at every step and fear,
Yet hope, that it will bring thee near –
If this be loving, then I love.
If ’tis love to wish that I,
Knit by some strange mysterious tie,
Might with thee live or with thee die,
Then dwell with thee eternally –
If this be loving, then I love.
(William Booth 1872)
* from the original personal letters of William and Catherine Booth held in the British Library London - The Booth Papers MS 64799-64802
Life and Letters
William and Catherine were great letter writers. In the days before email and telephone, this was their only means of communication when they were apart – not only before their marriage but also later when their ministry often involved separation. Across almost 40 years, until Catherine’s death in 1890, the Booths exchanged copious notes and letters, most of which are today held in trust in the British Library in London.
From the very beginning of their relationship they poured out on paper not only their love for each other but also their thoughts on life and faith, health and child rearing, sermonising and spiritual challenges and aspirations. Their letters are surprisingly intimate for the Victorian era and provide us an insight into the everyday lives of this normal, but exceptional couple. Their love for each other is touchingly revealing. In 1872, 20 years after their first meeting, William was still writing to Catherine in the most passionate of terms.
Despite her physical frailty, Catherine – a good Victorian mother – produced eight children and at times in the marriage held the fort not only at home, but also in the church. William suffered from depression for much of his adult life and experienced at least one nervous breakdown. This meant that from time to time he left the family for a ‘break’ in a sanatorium.
The Booths, like many middle and upper class Victorians, had an almost obsessive interest in health. In the day when a bout of diarrhea and sickness could take a child’s life within a couple of hours and before penicillin, antibiotics and other modern medicines, the prevention of illness was all consuming. Both William and Catherine believed in the power of homeopathy and hydrotherapy, and William would often go to a ‘spa’ in Matlock in Derbyshire to recover from his depression, where the chief ‘treatments’ involved immersion in and application of cold water.
'The Christian Mission' - 1865
In 1865 Catherine was engaged to speak for a few weeks in London and the family came 'home'.
Soon after arriving, as William walked through the East End, he became aware of the needs of the poorest of society, noticing not just their spiritual but also their physical deprivation. He preached outside the Blind Beggar pub in the East End of London and was then noticed by a group of evangelists who invited him to preach to the masses in a tent on the Mile End Waste.
It was July 2 1865 – the date which is today marked as the beginning of the organisation that became The Salvation Army and which, in 2015, will be marked as part of the 150th celebrations of the founding of the Christian movement.
William and Catherine’s ‘East London Christian Mission’ (later ‘The Christian Mission’) attracted ‘congregations’ that were invariably and predominantly rough and ready and drawn from the hard working classes. Very soon the organisation was also developing feeding programmes, help for families, vulnerable street women, people without homes and needing work, and much more. These initiatives were the forerunners of the developed social action programmes which became part of The Salvation Army’s DNA and for which the organisation is now renowned across the globe.
However, it was not originally designed that way.
Although born into a middle class family, William was apprenticed into pawn broking at the age of just 13 when his father Samuel, a speculator and failed businessman, could no longer afford to keep him at school. Soon after he was put to work, his father died and William’s meagre wage helped to support his mother and three sisters. William loathed pawn broking, which preyed on the poverty and insecurities of the poor working class who could not make ends meet. Catherine, also raised in a middle class home, also developed a social conscience early in life, but despite their natural compassion for the marginalised, the Booth’s ministry was not initially focused on ‘social action’ or ‘good works’. This came gradually, as both William and Catherine began to see beyond the spiritual needs of those who came under their ministry.
'The Salvation Army' - 1878
The Booths also did not set out to create a new ‘church’ or Christian denomination. They wanted to see people converted to Christianity - to be 'saved' for Jesus - but then to return to the established churches to make a difference.
However, these new Christians naturally wanted to worship together, and eventually the Christian Mission developed it’s own ‘stations’ or church bases. William and Catherine also gathered around them individuals and supporters from all levels of society who helped to develop the fledgling mission organisation, including their own children and men like George Scott Railton, who became William’s right hand man along with the eldest Booth child, Bramwell, who would go on to succeed his father as the second 'General' of The Salvation Army.
In 1877 the Christian Mission had 31 stations in the British Isles.
By 1883 there were 427 Salvation Army corps(churches)and communities and it was already going global.
It was in 1878, when drafting The Christian Mission’s annual report that Mr Railton wrote:
The Christian Mission
under the superintendence of the Rev William Booth
Bramwell Booth took exception to the word ‘volunteer’, maintaining that he was no such thing, but a ‘regular soldier’ in the work of Jesus. William, it is said, leaned across the desk and crossed out ‘Volunteer’, replacing it with the word ‘Salvation’.
So The Salvation Army was born.
Despite early opposition, the change of name and the development of a military structure and the growth of programmes which not only touched people’s souls but also improved their physical well-being led to an explosion in the popularity of the new Christian movement.
Remaining at the heart of this new Christian 'movement' in those early days - until her death of breast cancer in 1890 and his death of natural causes in 1912 - were William and Catherine Booth.
Two spiritual and single minded individuals, dedicated to each other and to God, who despite their personal frailties, ill health, professional uncertainty and opposition, raised an Army of Christians which even today is impacting millions of lives.
It is a phenomenal testimony to the way in which God uses ‘ordinary’ people to do extraordinary things for him.
* This article is based on a similar piece written by the author which appeared in the Plain Truth magazine in Spring 2014.
* Cathy Le Feuvre is the author of 'William and Catherine, the love story of the founders of The Salvation Army told through their letters' (Monarch Books 2013)