On July 2 1865 a tall dishevelled man with dark unruly hair and a hooked nose stood up to speak in a tent on the Mile End Waste in Whitechapel in East London.
The tent was rather decrepit, and the crowd mostly represented everything that 'polite' society at the time would have abhorred - drunkards, street women, ruffians, people from the very poorest levels of society who all hoarded into the tent to listen to the guest speaker for the evening. The sight, and the smell of the crowd on that warm July evening must have been overwhelming!
But Rev William Booth, for it was he who stood in front of the crowd, felt immediately at home among these people. He hadn't grown up in the lap of luxury but had worked in a pawnbrokers shop from the age of 13. As a young Christian who desperately wanted to be an evangelist, he had been turned away or fallen out with several churches and congregations and had finally steered his own course and had travelled the country preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the 'whosoever'. He and his wife Catherine, herself a talented speaker and writer, in setting up their own Christian ministry, had not opted for the luxurious option. They often found themselves penniless, raising eight little children and relying on the good nature of friends and family members for support. They lived on faith.
Yes, William and Catherine Booth knew what it felt like to be excluded from society, unloved by the majority and living on the very edge of financial disaster.
Yet when William stood up in that tent on the old Quaker Burial Ground, the guest of the East London Special Services Committee who had organised the evangelistic mission, it was the start of something which would eventually result in a worldwide Christian organisation which today spans the globe, and reaches out to millions of needy and disadvantaged people every day.
From the humble beginnings of a tent in the East End of London grew William and Catherine's own outreach and mission to the community where they found themselves - the East London Christian Mission, later to be known simply as The Christian Mission. Although the central focus of the Booth's organisation was always to see people's lives transformed by the love of God, eventually the Christian Mission developed into more than a 'preaching ministry' and into a practical mission, offering support and assistance - food, clothing, shelter, jobs - to those who found themselves at the bottom of the social pile. However, in the process, God also used the Booth's ministry to reach people from all levels of society, transforming millions of lives not just spritiually but practically.
It wasn't until 1878 that the Christian Mission was renamed The Salvation Army, but it is July 2 which is celebrated and marked every year as 'Founders' Day' - the 'start' of the ministry which grew into The Salvation Army.
Although we are nearly 150 years on from that tent on the Mile End Waste, the need of society is still great. People are still struggling to survive, struggling to make ends meet, battling addiction, finding themselves in situations from which it is difficult to exit. 'Polite' society still often looks down on those who they perceive to be weak, people remain voiceless and powerless. And The Salvation Army is still there - to help, to support, to bring the love of God into lives without love. Not necessarily offering a 'hand out' but invariably a 'hand up' - to help people help themselves out of their situations. More importantly, the spiritual needs are still great. People still have a need for the transforming love of Jesus Christ, no matter their social or economic status in the world today.
As William Booth stood preaching on that warm July evening in a tent on an old burial ground, he could not have foreseen what would come. But, undoubtedly, he trusted God for the future.
Perhaps THAT is the overriding message of Founders' Day - Trust God, he knows the future!
My book William and Catherine - their love story told through their letters is published in Autumn 2013 by Monarch Books.