It’s 17 January 1829 and in a place called Ashbourne in Derbyshire in England, a baby girl is coming into the world.
Her name is Catherine – Catherine Mumford – and little did her parents John and Sarah know, but their daughter would grow up to change the world.
I’m not understating that. Really!
And if you doubt me then I need to tell you one more thing.
Catherine grew up to marry a man called William – William Booth – and together they would go on to found a Christian ‘movement’ that would eventually become The Salvation Army, the global church and charity organisation that today supports and cares for millions of people, many of them disadvantaged and unable to help themselves.
People with addictions, homeless men and women, children, people who don’t have enough food and who are ill, people who yearn for education, those who are seeking work, and those who are exploited including the victims of human trafficking or modern slavery. Today, The Salvation Army is in over 130 countries and responds to need wherever they find it. And although the history dates back more than 150 years they remain relevant. During this COVID-19 pandemic, local Salvation Army churches and other associated groups are working to help people in over 100 countries!
The Salvation Army makes a difference to people’s lives every day … and it is ultimately all down to William and Catherine Booth, who’s Christian faith, vision and inspiration started it all back in 1865.
I think Catherine was an incredible person. She grew up in a Methodist household but quickly developed her own Christian faith and although she was a sickly child, she apparently read the Bible voraciously and immersed herself in spiritual things from an early age. She wasn’t a healthy person all round, it’s thought among other things she suffered from a curvature of the spine. But in her spirit she was bold and brave, and determined in her Christian faith.
When she met William Booth, a fellow radical Methodist, in 1851 – it was almost love at first sight. He was a poor would-be evangelist who would struggle for years to find a place in a church. She supported him through difficult years, and after they married in July 1855, despite her ill health they went on to have eight children, all of whom survived into adulthood and who would all become part of their mission. Catherine was also a Christian evangelist and writer/theologian, and a sought after preacher in her own right, at a time when women preachers were not only rare but frowned upon by ‘polite society’.
In fact, it was ‘polite society’ to whom Catherine often preached - middle class and upper class ladies in particular.
And in 1865, after the family moved to London for one of HER preaching engagements, William finally found his purpose, preaching to the poor and uneducated, those who 'polite society' and established churches of the day often disregarded and even excluded. From this grew a mission to reach out and support those who could not look after themselves and who others considered unworthy.
Between them, William and Catherine Booth founded the (East London) Christian Mission and then in 1878 the name was changed to The Salvation Army, adopted uniforms and a military structure, and the mission really took off. Yes, it was and is still ultimately about preaching the Christian gospel, and 'saving lost souls' but it became more. What was the point of preaching to a person who was hungry - perhaps food might be a good idea? The Salvation Army wasn't and isn't just about a 'hand out', helping people to survive their day, but also about a 'hand up', assisting people to help themselves, providing accommodation, skills, work and helping to rebuild their confidence.
I know what you’re thinking – Cathy seems to know a lot about this woman and her husband and the movement they founded!
Well, I should. My first ever book – published in September 2013 – was a biography of the couple.
Drawing on letters which they exchanged from the time of their first meeting until Catherine’s death in 1890 from breast cancer, I learned so much about the duo, and how they came to create the worldwide Christian movement which today is their legacy.
Much of what The Salvation Army stands for today is down to Catherine, her interpretation of scripture and her personal and professional influence. The teetotal stance which The Salvation Army still holds to, the equality of the sexes in ministry – both men and women are ‘ordained’ and 'commissioned' to preach and lead - and even the work with victims of human trafficking which dates back to Catherine and other pioneering women from across society and church denominations to advocate for the raising of the age of consent and the protection of girls and women lured into the sex trade. This was just one of the campaigns for the betterment of poor people at a time when poverty blighted British society.
My book is called ‘William and Catherine – the love story of the founders of The Salvation Army, told through their letters’ (Monarch Books 2013) Weird I know, but true! If you fancy reading all about them then I invite you to do so! The book is still available on many online platforms.
And I hope you will be as inspired as I am, not just by their joint passion for God and people but also by the life of Catherine – a complicated, strong Victorian who was truly a woman before her time!
When she died (or in Salvation army parlance, when she was 'Promoted to Glory'), The Salvation Army was still a rather peculiar notion to many who still did not understand it, but it was gaining credibility.
The Methodist Recorder paid tribute to he as ‘the greatest Methodist woman of this generation’ (9 Oct 1890) and the Manchester Guardian newspaper wrote in its obituary ‘She has probably done more in her own person to establish the right of women to preach the gospel than anyone who has ever lived.’(18 Oct 1890)
All that - and The Salvation Army!
What a legacy!
Historic images from The Salvation Army International Heritage Centre
The Salvation Army UK
William and Catherine - the love story of the founders of The Salvation Army, told through their letters - on Amazon