The next time you find yourself standing in the aisle of a Salvation Army thrift store holding a 69-cent pair of corduroys, a five-dollar designer dress, and a shopping basket full of other unbelievable bargains, you can send a note of mental gratitude to the memory of William Booth. Never heard of him? Booth was an English minister and social reformer who founded the Salvation Army, a worldwide church and charitable organization. Of course, Booth’s original intention was not to delight shoppers with a keen eye for a great deal, but rather to bring the Christian gospel to the needy and others on the fringes of society.
Booth was born on April 10, 1829, in Sneinton, a suburb of Nottingham, an industrial city in central England. He grew up in poverty. Originally a member of the Church of England, Booth converted to Methodism when he was 15. As a teenager, he and his friends held meetings at which they preached and urged people to recommit themselves to Jesus Christ. During the 1850’s, Booth began traveling throughout London, preaching to the poor and homeless. He also became a Methodist minister and married Catherine Mumford, who would help him found the Salvation Army. However, Methodist leaders did not agree with Booth’s methods of ministry, and Booth left the church in 1861. He began traveling around England, holding revivalist meetings to awaken interest in Christianity. His revivals included the Hallelujah Band, a group of converted “sinners” recruited to help convert others.
In 1865, Booth set up a tent in a Quaker cemetery in London’s East End and began holding revival meetings. His services were a success and he drew followers. At first, Booth aimed to convert people to Christianity and direct them to established churches. But many such churches were not welcoming to Booth’s converts, who included destitute people, criminals, and others with morally questionable pasts. Booth then founded an independent religious organization called the Christian Mission and established facilities to aid the poor. In 1878, he renamed the organization the Salvation Army.
The Salvation Army took on a semimilitary structure with military ranks and uniforms. Booth was the first general (director) of the army. He organized revival meetings on street corners with stirring music by Salvation Army bands. Many people ridiculed Booth’s showmanship and his sympathy for social outcasts and the poor. But the Salvation Army rapidly grew into a religious institution of international importance. Booth’s wife and eight children all worked in the army. Two of their children, William Bramwell Booth and Evangeline Cory Booth, served as generals. Booth died on Aug. 20, 1912. By that time, the Salvation Army was doing work in parts of Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, North and South America, and the Pacific region.
Today, the Salvation Army operates in more than 100 countries. It is organized around corps community centers. Commanding officers who are ordained ministers direct these centers, which provide religious services, counseling, moral education, and other social services. The Salvation Army also operates many hospitals; addiction rehabilitation centers; homeless hostels; homes for children, the elderly, and mothers and babies; and day-care centers. In addition, its workers visit people in prison and provide services to armed forces and disaster relief. So, when you purchase that next great bargain at your local thrift shop, you also will be contributing to William Booth’s legacy of charity.