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William Booth

(1829-1912)

 

Every sinner on a street corner knows of The Salvation Army with its nice uniformed brass bands and its social welfare. The famous paper War Cry is renowned as a tool for aiding the poor - what good, self-respecting sinner would not like to purchase a copy of it in the process of helping those worse off? But to understand why William Booth and the Salvation Army Movement appears here in the ‘moulding influences’ of our Pentecostal study, we need to look a little further back to the beginnings of this Blood and Fire Army to see how it was used as a revival-evangelistic movement and to the life of William Booth.

 

William was born and raised in Nottingham, England where he took his first job at age 13 as a pawnbroker in a very poor part of Nottingham. Here he saw clearly and how terrible the poverty in British society was. At 17 years old he preached his first message in a cottage with a shoe box for a pulpit surrounded mostly by women who thought him ‘quaint.’

 

He moved to London where he carried on working as a pawnbroker and preached in the open-air as well as the odd time at a nearby chapel. He longed to preach more but all doors seemed to be closed to him but nevertheless at 23 he stepped out into full time ministry as a preacher. This lanky preacher who was over 6 foot tall had real enthusiasm and fire in his preaching. In 1855 Booth joined a group called the New Connection as an Evangelist. These were effective and active years of evangelism but after four long dreary years looking after a local church he left them and returned to independent evangelistic work.

 

When Booth set himself towards mission work in East London in 1865 with its population of 3 million, a fire burned in his very bones. This great city was depraved. Its poverty was an abomination. Drunkenness, crime, blasphemy and depravity were everywhere. He had no desire to start a church, a denomination, a movement or an army. His sole desire was the conversion of lost souls. As he began the great task of winning souls to Christ he coined the name Christian Revival Association which soon changed to the Christian Mission.

 

He broke the religious trends by allowing illiterate pagans converted by Christ to stand and testify in meetings to the power of God which had saved and cleansed them. He recruited his first Evangelists from amongst London’s 100,000 pubs, as well as the brothel houses of the city. With fiery Gospel preaching he dug sinners out of the hellish ditch in which they were born and lived. Initially Booth was rejected by the church of his day - his religion was vulgar – and he had no time for pew warmers. He would preach on street corners until his voice was hoarse; a spiritual midwife birthing soldiers, evangelists and labourers for Christ.

 

He was not playing games he was waging war. Booth did not care about the pride of man he was saving souls from Satan and Hell. He expected sinners to cry hot tears of repentance and arise transformed by the power of God. He believed sin was man’s problem, not low self esteem. This was militant evangelism, not user-friendly evangelism. This was New Testament winning of souls, not the latest trends of nice popular Christianity. When he preached sinners would kneel on the mucky ground of streets or at the penitent form in meetings in order to yield to Christ. The first brass band was birthed almost by accident, not for entertainment but was simply to be the herald in town and city centres of a coming ‘fire and brimstone’ message from some anointed rough Evangelist. These pioneer soldiers preached in a way that had not been seen since the days of Wesley and Whitefield. Comfortable Christianity kept its distance. They not only carried something of Wesleyan fire but also something of the reality and spirit of George Fox whose preaching made sinners tremble.

 

Booth soon altered the name to Salvation Army with its motto “Blood and Fire.” He stood for an old fashioned message of Blood sacrifice preached by fire baptised messengers. He named his paper War Cry and gave his people a crimson flag. By 1879 there were 81 stations manned by 127 Evangelists, a hundred of which were converted through him. These labourers were ridiculed, slandered, scorned and attacked. Mobs, hooligans and drunks made them the target of every type of abuse. They wore a brass “S” on their lapels with pride. Salvation of lost souls was their singular task. They called their stations barracks and often had to board up all their windows as stones were hurled so frequently.

 

This pioneer spirit griped individuals to carry the salvation banner abroad into other nations. By 1884 there was a total of about 900 corps of which 260 were in foreign lands. They had success but a success that normal Christianity did not want to imitate.

 

These Salvationists had no time or place for ‘sipping saints’ they waged war upon the use of alcohol. They believed in holiness of heart and holiness of lifestyle. In Britain pub owners and brothel keepers did not sit idly by, they fought back. They decreed that they would fight and wage a war for the utter destruction of these ‘fanatical street ranters’ who had done all in their power to destroy these popular businesses. Mobs in Britain thought nothing of setting the clothes of young female Salvationists on fire or pouring hot tar and burning sulphur on a marching troop. It became popular to attack and beat Salvationists half to death. Across Britain these preachers of righteousness were regularly thrown in prison by the police.

 

What kept these Salvationists going? Firstly, they had a real vision of where men and women were going without salvation in Christ. Hell was real to them. Secondly, they were a praying people. It did not matter what country these soldiers served in, each one daily fell to his knees at 12 noon to pray for his suffering comrades to stand strong and preach the gospel uncompromisingly and clearly, even unto death. They held all night prayer meetings, lying prostrate under the power of God as they travailed in prayer for the salvation of lost souls. Their one resort in every situation was fervent persistent prayer in Jesus’ name. If the answer seemed to delay then they added their tears and groans.

 

Booth himself would often walk to the front line in hard areas. He cared about his suffering workers but he cared more about Christ’s cause in the cities, towns and villages of the land. High society and British politicians called him a charlatan, a trouble maker and an anti-Christ, but he refused to sound the retreat. It is estimated that in the first few years of the 1880’s about 250,000 souls came to old fashioned mourners benches seeking Christ as Saviour through the labours of these soldiers that he had trained.

 

Onward this Army marched. By 1890 there were 2,900 corps. This year was marked by the sad loss of Booth’s dearly loved wife Catherine. Still the work forged on. The old General could be brash and rough as sand paper but at the same time weep with compassion over those oppressed under the hand of the devil. At times he paced the floor in the middle of the night unable to sleep with the thought of souls going to Hell. The fire for lost souls which God had placed in his heart was caught by a great many others.

 

In 1904 Booth heard of a new and unusual work in Wales. A young Prophet had arisen and Wales was seeing a mighty revival. It had been back in 1876 that Booth himself had visited the Rhondda valley which was the beginning of a spiritual revival and which continued with Salvationists labouring in this valley in the following years winning many to Christ, stirring many and angering many. It was in one of these campaigns in 1879 that the young Joseph Jenkins was awakened, stirred and set on fire with evangelistic fire and later used greatly in the 1904 Welsh Revival. In 1882 Seth Joshua was converted in a fiery Salvationist meeting and his brother soon followed. After Joshua's new birth he at once set about the work of evangelism which he continued in until the Welsh Revival. There can be no doubt that these two men caught something of the Army’s evangelistic fire.

 

In 1906 Booth’s own daughter Katie who was married to Arthur Booth-Clibborn fully embraced the Pentecostal Movement. Smith Wigglesworth and his wife Polly caught the fire of the Salvation Army and zealously carried it into their future ministry. Others like T.B. Barratt and James Tetchner had connections with the Army when it was truly on fire. Wherever the message of Pentecost went some ex-Salvationist would be found in the midst. Booth and the Salvationists handed to the new Pentecostal Revival a heritage of local and International militant evangelism that could endure every opposition. It gave an example of rugged pioneer-ism against sin and decadence. It gave this new movement a penitent form for kneeling sinners. It gave them a motto of Blood and Fire.

 

Booth was “promoted to glory” in 1912. By this time the Army was active in 58 countries and colonies. 


Edited from "Pentecostal Pioneers Remembered" by Keith Malcomson. Copyright 2008 by Keith Malcomson. No part of this article may be reproduced without the permission of the author.




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