One hundred years ago this year General William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army ‘went to glory’ at the age of eighty-three.
For three days his body lay in state at the Congress Hall in Clapton, east London. It was estimated that 150,000 people packed the streets on the day of his funeral at Olympia in west London. Men women and children from all walks of life came to pay their last respects. Kings, Emperors and Presidents sent personal messages of condolence. King George himself wrote: ‘Only in the future shall we realize the good wrought by him for his fellow creatures. Today there is universal mourning for him. I join in it.’ Queen Alexandra, the Queen Mother wrote: ‘Thank God, his work will live forever’.
Unknown to most, one of Booth’s most ardent admirers, Queen Mary attended the ceremony coming unannounced at the last minute with her Lord Chamberlain, Lord Shaftsbury. It is said The Queen sat next to a woman with a very different history from her own. A woman who had once been a prostitute, rescued through the ministry of the Salvation Army. That ex-prostitute pronounced a stirring epitaph for the General: “He cared for the likes of us.”
Although their methods offended some of the more genteel church goers of the day, The Salvation Army were effective in reaching out to the poorest and toughest in society. Some lambasted Booth for reducing religion to that of the music hall but their style connected with the working classes up and down the country. A motely crew of converts became effective evangelists, people like Billy Herdsman an escapologist whose Houdini style act caught the attention of the crowds. There was another show-business recruit, George Fox, the Converted Clown. In Leicester, Sarah McMinnies billed herself as the Saved Barmaid. There was Happy Hannah, the Reformed Smoker. These, along with Hallelujah Fishmongers, Blood-washed Colliers, Saved Dog-Fanciers and the Converted Pigeon-Flier all had one thing in mind, to see people experience the forgiveness of Christ. Their billing reinforced the message that this was a religion for the masses.
At this point it’s worth highlighting one of Booth’s most militant and effective officers, Elijah Cadman. From the age of six, Cadman was a boy chimney sweep. At 4.00am every morning he would be forced up chimneys, scraper in hand to loosen the build up of soot. From infancy he was hardly ever sober. In his teens he moved from his native Coventry to nearby Rugby where he established a street gang known as the ‘Rugby Roughs’. He gained a fearsome reputation as a boxer. His conversion came about when he and a friend attended a public hanging outside Warwick prison. As the trap doors swung open, the ropes snapped tight and the condemned men breathed their last, Cadman’s friend turned to him and said “Elijah, that’s what you’ll come to one day.” Those words proved to be the catalyst; appalled by the realisation of his life of sin he turned his back on his old ways. He would now fight for God as hard as he ever fought any one in the boxing ring. His favoured method to draw the crowds was to ring a big hand bell. He billed himself as “The Saved Sweep from Rugby”. Even though Cadman was illiterate it didn’t stop him being an effective preacher, he would memorise whole passages of scripture by heart. Cadman and others had a common touch which the people loved.
With his growing army of fearless evangelists, Booth had come a long way from his modest beginnings in Nottingham where, from the age of thirteen he worked as a pawnbroker’s apprentice. It was probably this work that cultivated in him a deep loathing of the poverty, injustice and suffering that he saw every day.
William Booth was initially reviled by the established church, the Earl of Shaftsbury branding him as ‘anti-Christ’. Salvationists were persecuted by violent mobs to which the police turned a blind eye. Yet at the time of his death the Salvation Army had influence in fifty-eight nations. From Europe to India, the United States to Japan. The pawnbroker’s assistant died as a man honoured by the world.
Just three short months before he was remembered and celebrated at a funeral which resembled that of a head of state; a frail William Booth addressed the Albert Hall packed with 10,000 faithful followers. At that time, he gave what turned out to be his farewell address. The crowd was hushed as he spoke. He spoke of the far reaching effects of the practical gospel proclaimed by the Salvation Army all over the world. He concluded:
The object I chose all those years ago embraced every effort, contained in its heart the remedy for every form of misery and sin and wrong to be found upon the earth, and every method of reclamation needed by human nature. It is of course the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
It is this Gospel which houses the poor, benefits the working class, promotes temperance and good health, reforms criminals and transcends politics. It is Jesus Christ who changes lives and makes all these things possible. It is Christ only who is the answer to the problems and struggles.
Is the Salvation War coming to a close? This war is just beginning. My part is coming to an end. But while I still have breath, I commit myself to strive for the Lord and those that need him.
While women weep as they do now, I’ll fight; while little children go hungry as they do now, I’ll fight; while men go to prison, in and out, in and out, I’ll fight; while there yet remains one dark soul without the light of God, I’ll fight. I’ll fight to the very end! Fellow Salvationists, the war is not over. Win it for Jesus Christ!
One hundred years on, who is fighting for those in poverty? Who is moving out of the hip and trendy churches in the ‘safe’ areas? Who is moving to the rough, tough neglected areas of the UK to live out the gospel? Who is going to fight for the dark souls without the light of God today? Who is ready to fight to the very end? In 2012 the salvation war is far from over, let’s win it for Jesus Christ!