We have come to take the Salvation Army for granted. For most of us it is an almost reassuringly permanent feature, in an age when everything changes. We see its members in their distinctive uniforms, drive past their curiously named 'citadels' and note and approve of their presence at times of disaster and their work with down-and-outs. The 'Sally Army', we think - perhaps adding 'doing a good job' - and don't pause for further thought. Yet the Salvation Army, which celebrates the 150th anniversary of its founding this year, owes its origins to one of the most remarkable couples in history: William and Catherine Booth. Together they became one of the most powerful and effective husband-and-wife partnerships in history.
William Booth was born in Nottingham in 1829, became a Christian as a teenager, went on to become a Methodist minister and evangelist and soon felt called to work with the lowest levels of Victorian society (and those levels were very low!). From the start, William Booth believed that it wasn't enough to simply preach to people who were starving - you had to feed them as well. So he organised soup kitchens and overnight shelters and preached to those who attended. The result of this was even more converts. However, he soon faced a problem: his converts were not accepted into existing churches. (One of the tragedies of the Victorian period was that churches that had once been warm increasingly became part of a rigid and layered society in which everybody knew their place.) Encouraged and supported by his new wife, the formidable Catherine, William Booth created a new organisation, which became known as the Salvation Army. Although the Booths denied it, it was a new church denomination and one which brought together evangelism and social care as well as providing a spiritual home to new Christians.
Despite extraordinary opposition - some violent - the Salvation Army expanded and became a worldwide phenomenon. Catherine Booth died in 1890 and was buried amid extraordinary scenes of mourning by the masses whom she had befriended. By the time of William's own death in 1912 - an event which also attracted tens of thousands of mourners - the Salvation Army was present in 50 countries. There is much we could learn from William and Catherine but let me suggest that three things are particularly striking.
First, their spiritual passion. From his conversion in his teens until his death at the age of 83, William Booth retained a profound and deep spiritual faith, which Catherine shared with him. If you read anything of what he said or wrote, his intense love for Christ and his debt to grace is evident. What is remarkable about this deep-felt faith is not simply its intensity but also its duration. His Christian faith was a truly lifelong enthusiasm, with a rich joy in Christ, and came with the realisation that to be truly saved is to be willing to do something for Jesus. Consider this from Catherine: 'Jesus doesn't ask you to go to chapel or join the church and pray, but to get down and give up your heart to him, to choose whom you will serve, and do it at once, and everything else will follow.'
William and Catherine Booth's spiritual passion is remarkable because as the Salvation Army grew rapidly so the pressure to get involved in social action also increased. By the end of the nineteenth century William Booth was, in effect, what we would call today the Chief Executive Officer of a large multinational organisation engaged in massive amounts of social work. The pressures on both him and Catherine to shift their focus from the invisible work of saving souls to the very visible one of feeding, clothing and housing people must have been enormous. But neither of them lost their intense faith and it was that faith which kept them labouring for Christ to the very end.
There's a lesson here for us. You sometimes hear of people saying of some spiritual person that they are 'too heavenly minded to be of any earthly use'. I doubt it was ever true but if you wanted an example that proved the exact opposite then the Booths are it.
Secondly, I am challenged by their courageous vision. By rights, the Salvation Army shouldn't have come into existence. William Booth could have stayed within the Methodist Church, where he would probably have had a fruitful ministry. And Catherine Booth could have been a wonderful Victorian minister's wife. But instead, and together, they had the vision to see that the only way forward in the work to which God had called them, was to create a radically new organisation and they had the courage to create it. We, of course, look at the Salvation Army and see it as the very epitome of unchanging Christian tradition, which is ironic given that in Victorian times it was the most revolutionary of institutions. It needed courage to start it and courage to maintain it. William Booth was hit by stones and bricks; Catherine was verbally abused and ridiculed. They were rejected by lots of people, including some whom they might have expected to support them. One of these was the great Christian statesman, Lord Shaftesbury, who called William Booth 'an Antichrist', which is about as damning as you can get. They were also viciously attacked by Thomas Henry Huxley, the aggressive atheist of their day - but I doubt that worried them.
Here's another lesson. If God gives you the vision and you're convinced it's right, then go for it. God intended the church to be a wonderfully radical and dynamic organisation but men and women keep turning it into the dullest and most ineffective of human institutions. It shouldn't be so!
Finally, I have enormous respect for their holy wisdom. One of the most difficult things to do in life is to balance two powerful pulls in opposite directions. William Booth was a gifted preacher with a tremendous burden for the conversion of souls. Yet at the same time he had an astonishingly compassionate heart for those who suffered in any way. Catherine held similar priorities. History is full of people who, under similar tensions, either crack or decide to do only one of the two things they want to do. The extraordinary thing about the Booths is that they managed to balance both demands. Against all the odds, the Salvation Army they created somehow managed (and still manages) to hold together the twin priorities of caring about saving souls and caring for bodies. Somehow the Booths had the wisdom and grace to be able to do two things and, what is more, to do them well.
The story of William and Catherine Booth is a truly remarkable and inspiring story of how a man and a woman quite literally transformed society, not just in a village or a town but across the world. To read about them is to be challenged. In some respects, you have to make allowances for differences between then and now. So, for example, I don't think anybody today would create a Christian organisation with military ranks and uniforms and give it the motto of 'Blood and Fire' (which may sound appallingly militaristic to us but was actually a reference to the blood of Christ and the fire of the Holy Spirit). Yet far stronger than the differences between their time and today are the similarities. It's both challenging and disheartening to read that many of the evils the Booths opposed are still with us. So, the Booths worked strongly against the sexual trafficking of young girls, were outspoken against the exploitation of workers and campaigned endlessly for the homeless. Some things haven't changed. The best possible monument to the 150 years of the Salvation Army would be a few more people like William and Catherine Booth.