By Roy Hattersley
Doubleday, 352 pp.
William and Catherine Booth, the "mother" and" father" of our nation's largestcharitable fundraiser, lack their historical due. Exemplars of the Victorianzeal to reform and will to succeed, the Booths usually serve as historicalfootnotes to religious figures--including John Wesley, Phoebe Palmer, andAimee Semple McPherson--whose legacies are, arguably, no richer than theirown. A new biography by Roy Hattersley, a British politician-turned writer,offers a wonderful introduction to the couple that celebrates theirachievements while honoring their humanity.
Both Catherine Mumford and William Booth were born in northern England in1829. They grew up in what Americans would call lower-middle class familiesand became evangelical Christians at an early age. After meeting in 1852, theysoon married--starting a partnership that spawned seven children and onedenomination. Initially, neither seemed an ideal candidate for religiousleadership. At a time when most clergy were well-educated, conversant withGreek and Latin, William Booth had little interest in books or scholarship. Catherine, his intellectual superior, was doomed by her sex; in the 19thcentury, respectable women did not preach or teach in church.
But Catherine announced early on that exegetes who restricted women's role inthe church were in error. Galatians 3:28 "there is neither male nor female forye are all one in Christ Jesus" was proof text enough for female ministry. While even her husband had doubts, she doggedly won him over and was, for manyyears, the family's chief breadwinner and the more famous evangelist of the two.
Hattersley duly appreciates the Booths' remarkable blend of religiousinnovation and social commitment. While other churches preached about theheathen poor, William Booth set out to save them. He met them on their ownturf, holding revivals in pubs and tents, street corners and theaters. To thechagrin of his critics, he cared more for Christianizing than civilizing hisconverts. The newly-saved were put to work winning their fellow sinners. Tothe consternation of staid citizens, this meant rough-edged Salvationiststestified in public, marched in brass bands, and encouraged women to preach.
Booth's social agenda was equally ambitious and irreverent. In his 1890 opus"In Darkest England and The Way Out" (a play on Henry Stanley's Africanchronicle), the General (as William Booth was know) envisioned a social schemethat rehabilitated drunks, prostitutes, criminals and the hard-coreunemployed. Although the entire plan was never put into action, the Army didset up a network of homes for women and children, hotels for working people,hospitals, orphanages, and work stations.
Despite these accomplishments, Hattersley argues that the Salvation Army isjust the tip of the couple's claim to fame. "The ideas on which it was builtwere at least as important as its size and scope. They played a crucial partin changing the social climate in Victorian England. William Booth--believingin the Christian duty to help both the deserving and undeserving poor--stirredthe conscience of a whole generation and contributed mightily to the greatvision of social justice which, paradoxically, sprang from those hard times.No one did more to convince society that that we are all members one of another."
In fact, the Booths vision of "practical religion" addresses the split betweenspirituality and social activism that bedevils our own time. According to theArmy's teaching, the two are inseparable and, as difficult as is it to getit right (critics today still carp that the Army has become toosocially-oriented), finding the balance is the only way to follow Jesus'footsteps. The Booths also addressed the contemporary quandary of how best tohelp the poor (as well as who among the poor to help). Rather than test orinterrogate in the hope of separating the deserving from the undeserving poor,Salvationists helped those who were willing to work. (They also helped thosewho could not work.) They believed in restoring human dignity, savingfamilies, and changing systems by changing people.Hattersley captures all of this and more. He portrays Catherine and William aslife partners whose passion for God is rivaled only by their human frailties.They created a global movement yet seemed incapable of responsible parenting.They inspired multitudes to privation and sacrifice yet regularly ran off forrest cures and hydrotherapy. They rebelled against any external authority yetdemanded total submission from their followers.
Elegantly written, "Blood and Fire" sounds, to an American ear, English intone. Hattersley's writing is dry, in the best sense of the word and, whenappropriate, arch. His straightforward style has a warts-and-all approachwhich, for those who have read previous hagiographic accounts of the Boothfamily or of the Salvation Army, is akin to a refreshingly cold shower. TheBooths' eldest son Bramwell, alternately oppressed and ignored by his parents,is a psychological mess. George Scott Railton, William's prot*g* and the manwho brought the Army to America, is brilliant but slightly mad. Catherine issubject to bouts of depression, William is a hypochondriac, and both aspire tomiddle-class comforts.
Army aficionados may find small nits to pick. One might wish for would haveliked more about the Booth children, the Army's overseas campaigns, and theyears after Catherine's death. (Most of the book is devoted to the Booths'life together, and William's years alone, 1890-1912, are given relativelyshort shrift.) Still, this is just a wouldn't-it-be-nice list for a work thatis admirably stellar.