Today I'm doing something a little bit different. I'm sharing with you a chapter of the first book I ever wrote.
It was published in September 2013 and it was the first of two books commissioned by Lion Hudson/Monarch publishers to mark the 150th anniversary of the worldwide Christian movement, The Salvation Army, in 2015 and it's the story of the founders of that church and charity organisation, William Booth and Catherine Booth.
When I was asked to write their story I immediately wanted to make it a bit 'different' to other 'biographies'. I knew that through their lives together - from their first meeting in 1852 until Catherine's death on October 4th 1890 - they had written letters to each other. These letters are held by the British Library in London and they and the Booth family kindly gave me permission to reproduce some of the letters in my book.
My reading of their love letters, and my understanding of their characters, motives, moods and history led to another element of the book. Instead of just historic narrative around the letters, I also created little stories, imagining their lives and the lives of those around them based in part on their own words in their letters.
Catherine died from breast cancer - when we launched my book on September 25th 2013 at The Salvation Army in London, we combined it with a coffee morning for Macmillan Cancer Support - and Chapter 19 of the book ... the penultimate chapter actually ... is the narrative of her final days.
When news of her death became known, there were newspaper tributes across the world and The Methodist Recorder of 9 October 1890 paid tribute to her as “the greatest Methodist woman of this generation”.
Today I share this with you, to celebrate this incredible woman whose death was mourned not just by her beloved husband and her large family, and the wider Salvation Army across the world who called her 'The Army Mother' ... but by many more who admired and loved her.
“Mrs Booth is here, sir; shall I bring her in?”
Sir James Paget looked up from his desk and nodded. No matter how many years he was in practice, this remained the worst part of the job.
The small woman entered the room.
“Good day, Mrs Booth. Please, take a a chair.”
Catherine Booth slipped onto the chair on the other side of the large heavy oak desk on which the consultant had her paperwork spread out in front of him. She sat carefully, smoothed her dark skirts with her delicate hands, and slid off her r gloves.
“Has no one accompanied you today, Mrs Booth? One of your daughters? Your husband?”
“No, sir. I have come alone. I thought it best. The General ... Mr Booth, that is ... is preparing for a trip and leaves shortly. He wanted to come but ... there is so much to do.”
Catherine Booth spoke softly, and precisely. There was no hint of emotion in her voice, although her face was as white as snow, framed by her greying hair under her dark poke bonnet.
“Well, Mrs Booth. I have my conclusions.”
Sir James looked at the woman across the desk. She smiled a wry little smile.
“And, Sir James? Is it what we thought it was?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“And ... ?”
“Well, as we feared, the disease is quite advanced already.”
“My mother died of it. Did I tell you that?”
“Yes, Mrs Booth.”
“And ... ” she swallowed deeply... “Is there anything...? I mean, what... time...”
Sir James Paget looked at Catherine Booth. His heart ached for her.
“Well, as I said before. In this stage it could be eighteen months, maybe two years. But there is really... nothing much... we can do.”
Catherine Booth cleared her throat and then smiled, sadly but sweetly.
“God is good, Mr Paget. He knows what He is about. But there is one thing perhaps you can do for me.” “Anything, Mrs Booth.”
“Might you be so kind as to ask your secretary to perhaps call me a cab? I do need to get home. William... Mr Booth ... will be anxious.”
It was February 1888. Catherine had been ill for a while. Sometime during the previous year she had found a lump in her breast and her family doctor had warned that it was, more than likely, cancerous. Eventually she was persuaded to make an appointment with the eminent Harley Street consultant, surgeon, and pathologist Sir James Paget, who confirmed that Catherine had incurable cancer. She had been in agony for some while, but the news that she was dying left William, in particular, inconsolable.
On her return home after that appointment with the doctor, William was waiting and ran out into the street to meet her and help her into the house, where she broke the news just received from Sir James.
William later recalled the emotional meeting.
She tried to smile upon me, through her tears; but drawing me into the room, she unfolded to me gradually the result of her interview. I sat down speechless. She rose from her seat and came and knelt beside me, saying, “Do you know what was my first thought? That I should not be there to nurse you, at your last hour.”
I was stunned. I felt as if the whole world was coming to a standstill. She talked like a heroine, like an angel, to me. She talked as she had never talked before. I could say nothing. I could only kneel with her and try to pray.
William was due to leave for a series of meetings in Holland that night and Catherine insisted he went, although he left early to return to London where, he recalled, “life became a burden, almost too heavy to be borne, until God in a very definite manner comforted my heart.” The 3 March 1888 edition of the Salvation Army newspaper, the War Cry, delivered the news that The Army Mother, as Catherine was beginning to be known, was seriously ill.
Daughter Emma’s wedding to Frederick Tucker was brought forward to April in order that Mama could be present. Catherine’s last public engagement was on 21 June 1888, when she delivered an address at the City Temple, a free church in Holborn in London.
She managed to attend William’s sixtieth birthday celebrations in The Salvation Army’s Clapton Congress Hall in East London on 10 April 1889 and, although she missed the dinner, where a reported 2,000 people sat down to eat, Catherine did address the gathering and reflected, with humour, on their early days together
As my dear husband was speaking, I thought of his beloved mother, whom I loved as much as my own, and admired more than almost any woman I ever knew. When he was speaking of her, and making you laugh over his likening himself to her in his meekness and self-depreciation, I said to my friend there: “It is quite true, though you would not think it,” for no one knows the bolstering-up, and almost dragging-up, I was going to say, that sometimes I had to do for him in those early days. You would think now that he had always been the bold and self-sufficient – as some people think – man he is, but I can assure you he went forth ofttimes with so great trembling and fear for himself that he would ever have gone if I had not been behind him.
Catherine was still the only person who could be completely honest with and about William Booth, who even his most loyal supporters, friends, and colleagues recognized to be an autocratic leader and, particularly as he grew older, less patient and kind with those around him. For William, his wife’s rapid decline after her diagnosis was unbearable, as he anticipated the loss of the one with whom he had shared his life for nigh on forty years.
The family, who had moved from their home in Rookwood Road in Stamford Hill in the borough of Hackney, where they had lived for a few years, to Hadley Wood, a more leafy suburb further north, which was thought to be more conducive to Catherine’s good health, were now on the move again.
Soon after his birthday party in 1889, the family relocated to Clacton-on-Sea on the Essex coast, in order that she could have her dying wish – to be “Promoted to Glory” near the ocean. Family and Salvation Army life continued. William spent as much time as he could in Clacton, virtually moving his office to Essex.
During her long final illness, when Catherine Booth could do little more than occasionally attend private meetings and functions and then not even that, her main focus became her family, her friends, The Salvation Army, and her writing. She penned letters and notes to individuals and articles for Salvation Army publications. Even if she could not physically work, she was determined that her spiritual warfare would continue. Among the letters and articles were those to comrades at home and overseas, which were designed to reassure and encourage:
Regard no opposition, persecution or misrepresentation. Millions upon millions wait for us to bring to them the light of life. Although not able to be at the front of the battle in person, my heart is there, and the greatest pain I suffer arises from my realisation of the vast opportunities of the hour, and of the desperate pressure to which many of my comrades are subject, while I am deprived of the ability to help them, as in days gone by.
A number of times the family were called to Catherine’s bedside, but she persistently clung to life. 1889 turned into 1890 and in September of that year she was still with them, insisting, despite her son’s protestations, that Herbert marry his Miss Schoch, as planned. Although she could not attend the wedding, a chair and her portrait were set in the place where the groom’s mother should have sat.
Although heartbroken, William continued with his work. Even while his wife was dying, he was writing a book that would become central to The Salvation Army, its ministry and its witness in the future. Catherine encouraged him, and indeed continued to give constant advice as her husband wrote In Darkest England and The Way Out, described as a “social manifesto”.
This 140,000-word tome explored ideas that had been gradually gestating in his and Catherine’s hearts, minds and ministry (if in fact they had not been there from the outset), including providing shelter, food, and training for the poor. Early on, even in the days of the Christian Mission, soup kitchens and food distribution had been included in the Booths’ outreach to the disadvantaged. Work among prisoners and with homeless and vulnerable men and women had already commenced and Salvation Army refuges were emerging. William’s book developed these ideas further and also explored the concept of helping those without hope to learn new trades, primarily in agriculture, and then assisting them to emigrate to better lives in the New World.
Aided in its writing by William’s old friend, the newspaperman W.T. Stead, In Darkest England and The Way Out compared what was considered to be “civilized” England with “Darkest Africa”, a continent then viewed as backward and poverty-stricken. William Booth suggested that many of the inhabitants of London and England, despite the “Industrial Revolution”, were not much better off when it came to quality of life than those in the underdeveloped world. The book drew on recent research by another Booth, the philanthropist and social researcher Charles Booth, who was documenting working-class life near the end of the nineteenth century. William’s book also expounded the concept of “The Submerged Tenth” – the proportion of the population that he claimed were living on the border of or in poverty, and which the Darkest England schemes would be there to save: three million and more men, women, and children who needed ““rescuing”.
William Booth’s vision to help the poor out of the distress they found themselves in was by no means unique – Christians had been practising “good deeds” throughout history and attempts to rehabilitate the poor were common in Victorian England. But the book, which was published just two weeks after Catherine’s death, was destined to become a best-seller and formed the foundation of The Salvation Army’s modern social welfare approach to faith and salvation. It would capture the imagination of the masses, much to the discontent of those in society who wished the poor to remain, largely, in their place. As in the early days of The Salvation Army, when William and Catherine battled with those who believed their new Christian movement to be outrageous, the language of the book and its programme were viewed as radical. It advocated the abolition of poverty and vice by, among other things, a link between the Christian gospel and a strong work ethic, and promoted the
establishment of communities for homeless people, where they could be trained for appropriate employment. Out of this vision came the Farm Colony at Hadleigh in Essex, which did just that, preparing people for a future often as emigrants to a new life abroad. The book also proposed homes for fallen women and released prisoners, schemes for legal assistance for the poor, banks and clinics, industrial schools, and so much more. William Booth proposed that if the state failed to meet its social obligations it should be the task of each Christian to step into the breach – a snipe at the government if ever there was one.
For some, this might have sounded radical. For William and Catherine Booth there was no confusion. They were not turning their backs on their spiritual convictions. Far from it! All the projects and programmes and outreach outlined in In Darkest England and The Way Out had just one aim – to ensure that people became Christians. What good was it to have “saved” people if they continued to be in desperate circumstances and unable to fulfil their new potential as children of God? What hope had they of responding to the gospel if they were drunk, hungry, homeless, abused, and without hope?
William’s book was being finished as Catherine was dying, and in the introduction he paid tribute to the wife so recently departed:
To one who has been for nearly forty years indissolubly associated with me in every undertaking I owe much of the inspiration which has found expression in this book. It is probably difficult for me to fully estimate the extent to which the splendid benevolence and unbounded sympathy of her character has pressed me forward in the life-long service of man, to which we have devoted both ourselves and our children. It will be an ever green and precious memory to me that amid the ceaseless suffering of a dreadful malady my dying wife found relief in considering and developing the suggestions for the moral and social and spiritual blessing of the people which are here set forth, and I do thank God she was taken from me only when the book was practically complete and the last chapters had been sent to the press.
For Catherine there was now not much more time. One of her final messages for her beloved Salvation Army came in a letter to Salvationists from her bed for the 1890 annual Self Denial campaign and appeal.
My Dear Children and Friends,
I have loved you so much, and in God’s strength have helped you a little. Now, at His call, I am going away from you.
The War must go on. Self-Denial will prove your love to Christ. All must do something.
I send you my blessing. Fight on, and God will be with you. Victory comes at last. I will meet you in Heaven.
This was published on 4 October 1890. Three days before, Catherine had suffered a massive haemorrhage. The family gathered for the final time around her bed in Crossley House in Clacton-on-Sea for a four-day vigil, during which they all prayed and sang. On the day of the publication of her final letter, at 3.30 in the afternoon, Catherine Booth, aged sixty-one, was finally Promoted to Glory.
My darling One,
I never thought of you wanting a line or you should have had a better one, but you will accept this, just to assure you of my fullest and most satisfying assurance of your unalterable and eternal love to me. I have never doubted the possession of your heart from the day you first declared it mine. We were wed for ever, and though I go first you will soon follow and we shall find our all again in that eternal day, Amen, Amen.
Goodbye, darling, till then. I shall be the first to greet you on that eternal shore with all our children
and thousands of spiritual children from all lands.
Yours as ever, Catherine
Chapter 19 (pages 293 to 302 of the book) ends with a note which Catherine wrote to her beloved William in her final days and it is in equal measure, heart breaking, stoic and full of hope in the future, albeit not here on earth.
That was Catherine ... and if you want to read more about her and William, their early lives before they created The Salvation Army, the first years of that movement and their love and family life, my book is still available including online through Amazon and all the usual websites and the publisher Lion Hudson.