Home » Wesley » From New Connexion Methodist to William Booth


From New Connexion Methodist to William Booth


This paper first appeared in Papers of the Canadian Methodist Historical Society,
Volume 9, pp.91-107, (Toronto, Canadian Methodist Society Historical Society, 1993)

From New Connexion Methodist
to William Booth


Victor A. Shepherd

I: From John Wesley To The Methodist New Connexion

Wesley himself had anticipated a connexional crisis in Methodism. In 1766, twenty-five years before his death, he became aware of a demand for

a free conference; that is, a meeting of the preachers, wherein all things shall be determined by most votes…. It is possible, after my death, something of this kind may take place. But not while I live. To me the preachers have engaged themselves to submit, and to ‘serve me as sons in the gospel’ . . . To me the people in general will submit. But they will not yet submit to any other.1

Wesley may have been prepared to have his death dispel his autocracy and forestall any one else’s; but only his death would do it. He had no intention whatever of sharing his authority with others within the Methodist precincts. As discerning as he was totalitarian, however, he unerringly forecast a rent in the seamless garment of the movement. In fact he foresaw three groups forming. (i) Up to one-quarter of the Methodists (he meant Methodist preachers) would attempt to “procure preferment in the Church” 2 – that is, the Church of England, the established church. Presumably these would be those who had grown weary of being looked upon as second-class citizens, marred by “enthusiasm” and social inferiority. This group was farthest removed from the New Connexion. (ii) Other preachers would become congregationalists and secure pastorates in this milieu. While Wesley did not specify who would constitute this second group, I imagine that they were those ministers who, having taken Wesley at his word- “There is but a hair’s breadth between me and Calvin” – and who, aware too of the modified Puritanism which remained in Wesley, decided to move closer to a Christian body which was self-consciously informed by Calvin and Calvin’s Puritan heirs. (iii) The third group, the largest, would remain steadfast at the centre of the Methodist ambit, and would continue to preach Methodist doctrine and uphold Methodist discipline.

Wesley, concerned as to what kind of leadership might replace his autocracy, appointed the One Hundred Preachers as heirs to his authority. This arrangement was facilitated by means of the Deed of Declaration of 1784. To be sure, the company of One Hundred were to exercise a benign and benevolent dictatorship:

I beseech you, by the mercies of God, that you never… assume superiority over your brethren; but let all things go on… exactly in the same manner as when I was with you…. do all things with a single eye, as 1 have done from the beginning, without prejudice or partiality.3

Government was to be exclusively in the hands of preachers, men, currently Wesley’s assistants, whom he felt he could trust to maintain the ethos he had imparted.

Those Methodists who did not want an institutional rupture with the Church of England were aware that such matters as the administration of sacraments had to be settled in conformity with Anglican tradition. Wesley, it must be remembered, insisted to the last that he was an Anglican priest. Quickly it was asked if only those preachers whom Wesley himself had ordained were permitted, and this would scarcely have satisfied the Anglican hierarchy, since Wesley was not a bishop, or if all itinerant preachers were allowed. By 1795 it was agreed that anyone authorized by the Methodist Conference could, while each society was to determine who would administer the sacraments. This decision, along with the decision to allow Methodist services of worship during the hours of Anglican worship, effected a de facto separation from the established church.

A comparably vexatious matter pertained to the role of the laity in church government about which Wesley had written

As long as 1 live the people shall have no share in choosing either
stewards or leaders among the Methodists. We have not and never
had any such custom. We are not republicans. and never intend to be. It would be better for those who are so minded to go quietly away.4

At least fifty people immediately upon Wesley’s death in 1791, so far from going quietly away, decided to make a noise. They proposed startling changes for church government, among which were: class members were to choose their own leaders, society members were to choose society stewards, preachers could admit a member to or expel a member from a society only with the consent of a majority of that society, and itinerant preachers could be assigned their duties only by stewards at the quarterly meeting.

In the meantime the company of One Hundred Preachers, the collective successor to Wesley himself, had circulated a letter reminding the Methodists that the One Hundred were the sole rulers of the movement. In no time disputes over lay jurisdiction abounded. For instance, in 1792 a Methodist preacher, having administered the Lord’s Supper, found that church trustees (lay persons who in this particular case wanted Methodism to identify with the established church) barred him from preaching in other chapels on the circuit. Did lay persons have the right to circumscribe the ministry of someone who had been ordained by Conference? If so, then lay control was operative.

The controversy appeared to come to a head quickly with Alexander Kilham, a preacher whom Wesley had accepted in 1785. Kilham, not unlike many Methodist preachers, identified himself not with the Anglican supporters among the Methodists but with those who favoured affiliation with Dissenters. A Dissenter replete with the courage of his convictions, Kilham announced that collaboration with the Church of England was evidence of the world’s infestation of the Christian’s mind and heart. In the face of his Anglican-leaning fellows, Kilham circulated a letter arguing that many Methodists did not receive Holy Communion inasmuch as they could not receive it conscientiously from ungodly clergy in the midst of ungodly communicants. Kilham insisted that all Methodists were de facto Dissenters. And since Methodist preachers were every bit as qualified as other Dissenting ministers, why not have them administer the sacraments instead of referring their people to an Anglican priest? In a second pamphlet Kilham replied to those who had rebutted him tartly.

At the following Conference, dominated, of course, by preachers, Kilham was strongly censured and his pamphlet condemned. Despite Kilham’s praise of John Wesley, he was accused of defamation. Nonetheless, a motion to expel him was defeated.

In a third pamphlet Kilham argued that every circuit or district should be represented at Conference by a delegate of its own choice – the incipient democratization of church government. A fourth pamphlet followed, signed ‘Martin Luther’. Clearly Kilham was telling whoever would listen that he regarded the administrative structures of Methodism as little better than papal tyranny. The fifth pamphlet Kilham delivered to Conference in person. It argued that scripture was normative even in administrative matters. Here the Calvinist influence is unmistakable, transmitted through Puritans and Dissenters, and exemplified for Kilham by the Scots Presbyterians whom he came to cherish when he was Methodist minister in Aberdeen and in whose denomination he saw lay representation in the church courts.

Kilham’s magnum opus was not long coming: The Progress of Liberty Among the People Called Methodists.5 It was a plea for freedom of conscience. In it he wrote, “is it not amazingly strange that any sect or party should refuse to give to their brethren what the laws of our country so cheerfully allow?6 This document detailed matters which he claimed were supported by scripture; for instance, members should determine their own class leaders, the circuit meeting should approve any preacher proposed for the itinerary, circuits should appoint lay delegates to district meetings, district meetings should appoint lay delegates to the Conference of Preachers where these lay delegates, along with preachers, would have jurisdiction over both spiritual and temporal affairs.

Opposition was swift and sure and severe: London preachers urged Newcastle District to put Kilham on trial. The district in turn deferred trying him until Conference met. Kilham went to ecclesiastical trial in Wesley’s Chapel, London, in 1796. When he requested a copy of the charges, his request was denied. Conference expelled him in July, 1796, having tried him without formally charging him. Subsequently he asked if he might be allowed to preach as a layman. A few Methodist ministers were assigned to meet with him for the purpose of assessing his suitability. The meeting occurred. He was asked to recant and to refrain from further criticism of any sort. He refused, and his excommunication was sealed. A biographer later wrote of him,” it is impossible not to conclude that the sentence of expulsion was unmerited, and that he was not treated with either charity or justice by the Conference”.7 Everything that Kilham had suffered to see implemented Conference then turned down.

In August, 1797, three other preachers, William Thom, Stephen Eversfield, and Alexander Cummin, left the Conference and met with Kilham to form “The New Itinerary”, renamed eventually “The Methodist New Connexion” [MNC]. In this latter body, administrative responsibilities were shared jointly by clergy and laypersons. Five per cent of the Methodists joined. Their representative statement at the second Conference of the MNC merits perusal.

It was not from an affectation of singularity that determined us to proceed in supporting the rights and liberties of the people…. It was a conviction arising from scripture that all the members of Christ’s body are one; and that the various officers of it should act by the general approbation and appointment of the people.8

Kilham laboured indefatigably on behalf of the MNC, and died in 1798 at the age of thirty-six. He had spent himself to overturn Methodism’s exclusion of lay jurisdiction, concerning which a highly-placed Methodist official had written, ‘We have the most perfect aristocracy existing perhaps on God’s earth. The people have no power; we have the whole in the fullest sense which can be conceived.”9

The MNC grew very slowly. After ten years it had only thirty-five ministers, eighty-four chapels, and 7,202 members. Since mainstream Methodism was firmly ensconced in the more densely populated areas of Britain, the MNC attempted to move into sparser regions. Indeed, so sparsely populated were they that it was difficult to generate a congregation. The MNC ministers were paid a pittance, while the physical demands on them were overwhelming. Not surprisingly, then, almost fifty per cent of MNC ministers who were admitted in the first seventeen years of the denomination resigned after an average service of only six years. Moreover, it came to light that trust deeds did not permit chapels to be transferred from the Wesleyan body to the MNC. Litigation ensued frequently, as unpleasant as it could only be. Members were often politically suspect, thought to be possessed of convictions similar to those of revolutionaries in France and anarchists in Britain. After fifty years it had 19,289 members (including 3,201 in Canada). The name of one of its members, however, was destined to be heard around the world.


II: From The Methodist New Connexion To William Booth

William Booth (1829-1912) was first a minister among the Wesleyan Reformers.10 His people cherished him and pressed him to remain in their communion. Catherine Mumford, later his wife, urged him to join the MNC inasmuch as this off-shoot was better organized, in her opinion, (Booth himself regarded the Wesleyan Reformers as organizationally chaotic) was more widely distributed, and hence afforded a wider sphere of service, albeit chiefly in the urban areas of heavily-industrialized north England.11 Ironically, of course, so far from providing a larger sphere of service Booth was soon to find the MNC so cramped as to be a strait-jacket.

From the inception of his theological training, Booth’s heart ached for the wretched of soot-corroded England whom he saw, as Wesley had seen before him, when most church leaders saw no one at all. In his diary he wrote that he felt “much sympathy for the poor, neglected inhabitants of Wapping [an area of east London] and its neighbourhood as I walked down the filthy streets and beheld the wickedness and idleness of its people”.12

Booth’s ability was as great as his compassion. While MNC ministers were generally granted permission to marry only after four years’ probation, Booth’s exceptional gifts won him permission to marry Catherine after only one year. Like wild-fire, the reputation of the spellbinder-preacher spread throughout England. Invitations to preach deluged him. The MNC knew by now that Booth was a star in its firmament. Nevertheless, the denomination remained ambivalent about him. On the one hand he had given the MNC household familiarity; on the other hand several denominational authorities disapproved of his methods. By now the MNC, along with the parent Methodist body, had been granted the social respectability so long denied, while with respectability came spiritual vacuity. Early in his ministry MNC authorities had rebuked Booth for welcoming so-called riff-raff to worship. He had been told that they could attend worship if they entered and left by the rear door of the chapel, and, once inside, remained behind the pulpit platform where they could not be seen. Booth was a dramatic preacher, intense to the point of being uncomprehending when he found other preachers dawdling over a second cup of tea while millions lived in temporal squalor and faced eternal ruin. Yet millions venerated him. When he left the island of Guernsey in 1854 following a preaching mission, countless people lined the pier to bid him adieu. His popularity did nothing to endear him to denominational hierarchs who regarded his theology and his presentation as deficient in taste.

Booth himself was aware that dross could be alloyed with precious metal. When he beheld the distress of the people who streamed to the communion rail, weeping and crying out, he wrote to Catherine, “Amidst all this I could not help but reason, Is it right? Is this the best way?”13 Yet he remained convinced that it was a way, a way through which he witnessed the transformation of those who had languished in a spiritual wasteland and the deliverance of those who had been enslaved in a manner which social historians have described hauntingly.

At the same time Booth knew that popularity as such did not betoken spiritual depth. God alone could render fruitful the work of even the most gifted servant; of himself, the preacher could generate nothing. “My present popularity almost frightens me”, he wrote Catherine, “I am alarmed as to the maintaining of it. I mean the carrying out of the work of God. Yesterday morning was a perfect failure. But God can, and I firmly believe God will, work.”14 Booth knew too that popularity is the most dangerous threat to any preacher. What would be gained if the world gathered at his feet if he, meanwhile, had forfeited himself before God? To Catherine he wrote once more, “My soul pants for something deeper, realler, more hallowed in my soul’s experience. If I fail it will be here.”15 Discerning in his awareness that other ministers were devoid of zeal for the gospel, Booth was prescient in recognizing that his own zeal would immerse him in trouble with fellow clergy. On his twenty-sixth birthday he wrote Catherine, “I cannot but be surprised at the want of any aspiring emotion so apparent in many of our ministers; they are nothing and seem content. 1 deplore this, yet if I was like them I should be very much happier.”16

Institutional wisdom outweighed clergy resentment and antipathy sufficiently to let the Annual Conference of the MNC free Booth of circuit fetters in London and appoint him to widerranging evangelistic work. It was felt that Booth might even lend a tonic to those circuits whose anaemia had heretofore been incurable.

This is not to say that Booth’s ego swelled in proportion to the crowds who hung on him. On the contrary he had moments when he was riddled with self-doubt. At such times he doubted the sincerity of many who had newly made profession of faith; he doubted his vocation; he wondered if anything lasting would come of his work. Telling Catherine of a woman who had claimed to be the beneficiary of the Saviour’s mercy only to be found, a day or two later, stumbling further into the darkness, he wrote, “I find so few who seem to me to live Christianity. Who is there?”17 At the nadir of his self-doubt he considered abandoning his evangelistic work in order to seek a position in commerce, however slender, that would feed him, his wife and their family adequately. He concluded that he lacked the friends and influence needed to land him a “secretaryship” or similar position.

Booth’s occasional self-doubt, however, was nothing compare to the hostility of the MNC. Institutional nastiness now varied directly with the crowds who turned out at his services and the penitents who responded to the gospel-invitation he articulated. Everything about him was denounced. The towns and cities where he had announced the bad news of God’s judgement and the good news of God’s mercy and patience hungered to have him return. The denomination did not shut him down at first, not wishing to incur adverse publicity, but neither did it allow him to proceed unopposed.

Many clergy-colleagues bitterly resented Booth’s notoriety. They had no idea what his ministry was costing him and his family: long periods away from home, energy-depletions which left him exhausted, next-to-no money, no fixed address as the family moved frequently in and out of shabby lodgings, and a wife whose health, never robust, was now chronically sub-standard even as she struggled to speak in public while sustaining numerous pregnancies.

Booth was careful to submit to denominational oversight inasmuch as he reported duly to superiors whenever they wanted to query him on matters pertaining to his ministry. Nevertheless, in 1857 denominational authorities decided to curtail him. At the Annual Conference he was told that his days as itinerant evangelist were over; he was being reassigned to circuit work. To his parents-in-law he wrote,

For some time I have been aware that a party was forming against me. Now it has developed itself and its purpose. It has attacked and defeated my friends, and my evangelistic mission is to come to an immediate conclusion. On Saturday, after a debate of five hours, in which 1 am informed the bitterest spirit was manifested against me, it was decided by 44 to 40 that I be appointed to a circuit. The chief opponents to my continuance in my present course are ministers…. I care not so much for myself…. My concern is for the Connexion – my deep regret is for the spirit this makes manifest, and the base ingratitude it displays.”18

A perceptive and sympathetic layman, not infected with the clergy’s rabies theologorum, wrote to Booth,

I believe that as far as the preachers have power, they will close the New Connexion pulpits against you. Human nature is the same in every Conference, whether Episcopalian, Wesleyan, New Connexion,Primitive [ie, Primitive Methodist] or Quaker. And the only way for men such as you to escape the mental rack and handcuffs is to take out a licence to hawk Salvation from the great Magistrate above, and absolutely refuse to have any other master.”19

The Booths were appointed to Brighouse, a grimy, industrial town, and were accommodated in the worst part of it. Catherine quickly added up the spiritual emptiness of their superintendent, “a sombre, funereal kind of being, utterly incapable of cooperating with Mr. Booth in his ardent views and plans for the salvation of the people”.20 William, saddened and disappointed at the treatment accorded him by denominational authorities who seemed unable to grasp what impelled him, fervently wished to be “independent of all conclaves, councils, synods and conferences”.21

This is not to say that Booth had no supporters among the ministers. A few brave men courted denominational sanctions in standing by someone institutionally regarded as an ineradicable irritant. Indeed, following his ordination in 1858 (Booth had been the focus of undisguised denominational outrage before he was even ordained!) he wrote of the event,

I was surprised to find so large a number of revival friends at the Conference. John Ridgeway, William Mills, William Cooke, Turnock and many others are anxious on the question of my reappointment to evangelistic work. Birmingham, Truro, Halifax (my own circuit), Chester, Hawarden, and Macclesficid have presented memorials praying Conference to reinstate me in my former position. The discussion had not come on when the business closed last night. 22

Booth and others had known that the controversy surrounding him would be a major item on the Conference agenda. The reader can only be struck by the administrative conjuring; the most controversial item in the denomination managed not to get to the floor!

A compromise was suggested at the Conference meeting of 1861. Booth insisted that his vocation could not endure it. The president of Conference, Henry Lofts, decided to settle Booth’s future in a private meeting to which only delegates were admitted. He ordered that the chapel gallery be closed immediately. Catherine, seated there, saw at once what Crofts was going to do. Leaping to her feet she cried, “Never!” “Close the doors!”, the enraged president of Conference fumed.23 William bowed to the president chairing the meeting and walked to the narthex, where he met Catherine at the foot of the gallery stairs. They embraced each other and together departed from the denomination which had frustrated and harassed them for years.

Almost at once he was invited to conduct a short series of meetings in Cornwall. The “short” series continued for eighteen months, during which both William and Catherine preached night after night to the fishermen and townspeople who had rowed and walked miles to attend. The Methodist New Connexion failed to understand that it needed Booth desperately, while he had no need of it at all.

Denominational authorities were glad to see him go. The ferment his ministry fostered inconvenienced bureaucrats. Little wonder that one of Booth’s several biographers wrote of the institutional hounding of someone the world will never forget, “Officialdom exists in a system; officialdom has its own dignity to consider; officialdom is mediocrity in purple.”24

In his letter of resignation Booth was content to leave his exoneration in the hands of God.

Looking at the past, God is my witness how earnestly and disinterestedly 1 have endeavoured to serve the Connexion, and knowing that the future will most convincingly and emphatically either vindicate or condemn my present action, I am content to await its verdict.25

No one pretends that the future condemned his action.

III: Retention And Repudiation

Most significantly Booth retained what he believed to be the substance of Wesley’s theology. In 1885 a Methodist writer, Hugh Price Hughes, interviewed Booth for an article in The Methodist Times. “Have you any special advice for us Methodists?”, Hughes asked the now-famous Booth. The latter’s reply was swift and simple: “Follow John Wesley, glorious John Wesley”.26 Wesley, it must be remembered, looked upon the doctrine of sanctification as “the grand depositum which God has lodged with the people called Methodists.”27 The doctrine, and, Wesley would have reminded us, the reality of which the doctrine spoke, was characteristically substantive of the Methodist movement, the principle of cohesion of all that it believed and did. William Booth and his followers continued to emphasize sanctification, or renewal by God’s Spirit through faith. While Wesley and Booth did not disagree with the sixteenth-century Reformers’ understanding of total depravity (“Allow this”, said Wesley of total depravity, “and you are so far a Christian; deny it, and you are but a heathen still.”28) as well as the transaction wrought in the atonement. They both considered the Reformed tradition to have undervalued ‘transformation’; they were convinced that God could do something with sin beyond forgiving it.

This is not to say that everything in Booth’s understanding of sanctification and holiness can be found explicitly in Wesley. In fact for years I have felt that The Salvation Army’s understanding of sanctification lies closer to that of John Fletcher, a Methodist thinker whom Wesley knew and loved, than precisely to that of Wesley himself. Nevertheless, the spirit of Wesley’s doctrine is the spirit of Booth’s. Nowhere, as far as I know, has Booth spoken a critical word about Wesley.

Again, this does not mean that Booth shared Wesley’s theological sophistication. Wesley was steeped in Patristics; Booth would not have known Athanasius from Ambrose. Wesley was Oxford University trained and multi-lingual; Booth left school early in order to apprentice to a pawnbroker. Wesley was schooled in the Reformers and drank deeply of the Puritan wisdom lodged in his grandfather and his wife’s grandfather as well; Booth merely insisted that the doctrine of double predestination was an abomination. Nevertheless the ethos of Wesleyanism, particularly the vision of such thoroughgoing transformation as to set no limits to the efficacy of God’s grace, Booth believed himself to have retained in his work and witness. One might say that while Booth possessed relatively little of that theological erudition which saturated Wesley, he profited much from the explicit theology which Wesley breathed into his followers.

Another Wesleyan aspect which Booth retained had to do with the unchurched. When the MNC forbade Booth to be an itinerant evangelist and instead appointed him to circuit work, he did not find himself preaching to an empty church. Wherever he preached the sanctuary overflowed — often more than a thousand attempted to hear him. The problem for him was not that no one came to church; the problem was that those who came were the Sunday congregation! Repeatedly he asked himself one question: “Why am I here with this crowded chapel of people who want to hear the message? Why am I not outside bringing the message of God to those who don’t want to hear it?29 Before Booth, Wesley had taken up outdoor preaching when he was startled at its effectiveness with George Whitefield. Since Whitefield, a spirit-quenching superiority had settled upon the MNC; it felt that such an endeavour decidedly lacked that taste preferred by those with social aspirations. For this reason Booth also rented buildings to which came hordes of people who would never have attended a conventional place of worship.

When Wesley had commanded the gospel at mineheads, in factories and in the marketplace to those who would otherwise never have heard it, it was a miracle that he could communicate with people who were light-years removed from him in terms of formal education; it was surely a greater miracle that he wanted to. (An equal miracle, albeit remote from Booth’s passion, was found in George Whitefield; the bastard son of an English barmaid communicated effectively with England’s social elites!) Like Wesley, Booth was extraordinarily gifted at speaking compellingly to those whom the church customarily slighted.

Another retention has to do with hymnody. Virtually everyone in Wesley’s family was gifted poetically, his younger brother, Charles, outshining them all. Charles, it must be remembered, wrote three times as much poetry as William Wordsworth. Booth was similarly gifted, as were several others in his family, especially his son, Herbert. Booth’s hymns are idiosyncratically marked by images of vastness.

boundless salvation, deep ocean of love,
fullness of mercy Christ brought from above.
The whole world redeeming, so rich and so free,
Now flowing for all men, come roll over me.

Perhaps the best evidence of Booth’s retention of Wesley is found in The Salvation Army’s hymnbook: the genius of Charles Wesley has been preserved.

Booth’s repudiations of the Methodist New Connexion abound. He repudiated entirely the MNC’s characteristic sharing of church government with lay people. While no Christian leader to his time had used lay people as effectively as Booth, he refused to share authority with them. Modelling his organization on the military and naval mindset of the British empire in the Victorian era, Booth insisted that the distinction between clergy (“officers”) and lay people remain ironfast. In this regard he repudiated the MNC but retained the autocracy of Wesley himself! Booth had become exasperated with the ponderous, cumbersome stodginess of lay committees and subcommittees which debate and defer only to delay or defeat the deployment of the one thing which the Spirit is urging for needy people. When asked why The Salvation Army had so few committees Booth replied laconically, “If there had been committee meetings in the days of Moses the children of Israel would never have got across the Red Sea.” (It is only fair to add that Booth’s totalitarianism was the source of major grief and disruption relatively quickly; several of his relatives departed, unable to endure a dictatorship with whose edicts they disagreed.) In Booth’s defense it should be stated that upon leaving the MNC and forming The Christian Mission he was saddled with a committee of thirty-four which met only once a year. In view of the rapidity with which Booth added up what had to be done and the speed with which he himself wanted to move in doing it, and in view of the formative decisions which have to be made quickly in the birth of a new movement, the committee of thirty-four was hopelessly inefficient. George Scott Railton, an early and ardent supporter of Booth, himself fed up with procedural labyrinths, turned to Booth and said, “You tell us what to do and we shall do it.”30 While Wesley was alive he and he alone ruled Methodism; when Elijah’s mantle fell on Booth (Booth thought), Booth liked the fit. Here Booth repudiated everything Kilham and his colleagues had suffered to effect in the New Connexion.

Booth, it must be remembered, insisted initially that he did not want to found a sect. He wanted only to form an evangelistic agency for those for whom (namely, all of us) the hands of the clock registered two minutes to twelve. All authority is given to military officers in combat inasmuch any other arrangement will only guarantee the destruction of those in danger. For Booth waging war was more than a metaphor, waging war was literal truth.

Another aspect of Methodism which Booth repudiated was its non-deployment of women preachers. In the course of Sunday worship during their sojourn in Brighouse, Catherine arose from her seat and walked slowly down the aisle towards her husband. He assumed that his wife was ill and needed assistance. Instead she ascended the pulpit stairs, stood beside her husband, and announced that she had come forward to make public confession of sin. “I have been disobeying God”, she blurted as she unfolded her resistance to her vocation to preach.31 Booth, aware that this was a vocation, and aware too that it was anathema in the churches of his era, yet also knew that vocations must be confirmed and sealed. He informed the congregation that Catherine would preach that evening. In no time she enthralled crowds, and in no time MNC authorities disapproved. Catherine was adamant:

I have searched the Word of God through and through. I have tried to deal honestly with every passage on the subject…. I solemnly assert that the more 1 think and read on the subject, the more satisfied I become of the true and scriptural character of my views … what endears the Christian religion to my heart is what it has done, and is destined to do, for my own sex.32

She preached until she died at age sixty-one. The daughter of a clergyman and better educated than her husband, schooled in philosophy, literature and history, she was transparently possessed of compassion for addicted men and women, many of whom were illiterate. Not content to address these people, she fearlessly walked indescribable streets where desperate human beings lived in near-savagery. Subsequently she wrote,

I remember in one case finding a poor women lying on a heap of rags. She had just given birth to twins, and there was nobody of any sort to wait upon her…. By her side was a crust of bread and a small lump of lard…. The babies I washed in a broken pie-dish, the nearest approach to a tub that 1 could find. And the gratitude of those large eyes, that gazed upon me from that wan and shrunken face, can never fade from my memory.33

For years William Booth quipped, “Some of my best men are women”. Among his officers he never hesitated to promote women over men. (This tradition continues. The current leader of The Salvation Army is a woman, Eva Burrows.)

A third area where Booth distanced himself from his precursors concerns the sacraments. He never forbade his people to partake of the sacraments, and in fact continued to administer them himself for several years after leaving the MNC. In his preoccupation with evangelism, however, he noticed increasingly that people put their confidence in the sacrament itself, rather in that reality (namely Jesus Christ) to which the sacrament pointed and which can be received only in faith. Convinced that we are born in sin, are not heirs of the kingdom of heaven, and urgently need a new standing before God (forgiveness) and a new nature as well (regeneration), Booth regarded any notion of sacramental efficacy as superstitious (because untrue) and dangerous (because deceptive). The water of baptism does not cleanse anyone of original sin; the rite of baptism does not alter the child before God. Since baptism, for Booth, was symbolic, his people could submit to it if they felt that doing so strengthened their faith; they could also, Quaker-like, decline it. Ever on the lookout for religious formalism devoid of spiritual reality, Booth suspected any churchly activity which diminished one’s awareness of the need of conversion. There is but one genuine baptism, he insisted, the baptism of the Holy Spirit. There is but one genuine communion, faith-communion with Jesus Christ. Here, of course, Booth repudiated Wesley utterly. As an Anglican priest, Wesley not only had insisted that Methodists be faithful in their attendance at Holy Communion; Wesley had even said that the Lord’s Supper was a converting sacrament, as well as a confirming one.

The sixteenth-century Reformers had said that the sacraments were God-ordained primarily to strengthen weak faith. Booth maintained that they could strengthen weak faith for those who thought they could; increasingly, however, he came to feel that more often than not the sacraments, or at least the public’s quasimagical view of the sacraments, obscured the need for faith, and to this extent could be spiritually deleterious. Oddly enough, when in 1882 The Salvation Army still administered the sacraments, a magazine article noted that for the first time in the history of the church, Holy Communion had been administered by women.34 At an Exeter Hall meeting in 1889, Booth said characteristically, “Neither water, sacraments, church services nor Salvation Army methods will save you without a living, inward change of heart and a living, active faith and communion with God.”35

In any discussion of Booth’s repudiations it is natural to look for formal theological disagreement since so many denominational splits are rooted in doctrinal differences. It is all the more surprising, then, to realize that with one exception (the role of the laity in church government) Booth never distanced himself doctrinally from the MNC. The cleavage lay, rather, in ethos. While Booth and the MNC used the same vocabulary and subscribed to the same doctrine, he felt the denomination now upheld the ‘salvation’ of the newly-respectable, whereas he saw all of humankind facing the same judge, meriting the same condemnation, standing together on the brink of eternal loss. His passion for evangelism was commensurate with his conviction of human peril. In addition, while MNC authorities opted to do nothing for those deemed not to be “our sort of people”, Booth’s heart was broken by the material bleakness, degradation and dehumanization which was largely the part of the masses whose lives were governed by the “Satanic mills” of urban putrefaction. His denomination never owned his zeal, his compassion, his urgency, his preoccupation. This is not to say that it was wrong and Booth right. Neither is it to say the converse. It is, however, to recognize afresh that wisdom always awaits justification at the hands of her children.


1. Minutes of Wesleyan Conference, 1812 ed., i(1766), 60. (emphasis Wesley’s). For much of the information in this part of the paper I am indebted to Davies, George and Rupp (ed.), A History of the Methodist Church in Great Britain.

2. Davies, George and Rupp, 276.

3. Minutes, 1791, 234 Letters, VII, 266. Wrote this letter in 1788.

4. Letters, VII, 196.

5. Kilhaln, The Progress of Liberty Amongst the People Called Methodists, (Alnwick: 1795).

6. Kilharn, 18-19.

7. Townsend, Alexander Kilham, The First Methodist Reformer; (Lon-

don: 1889), 72.

8. Minutes of the Methodist New Connexion, 1798 10.

9. Coke, Cardinal Examination of the London Methodist Bill, in Edwards,

After Wesley,. (London: Epworth Press, 1935), 50-51.

10. For much of the following I am indebted to Begbie, Life of William Booth, Vols. 1 and 11. (London: MacMillan, 1923) and Collier, The General Next To God; (London: Collins, 1965).

11. Encyclopedia of World Methodism, II, 156-7.

12. quoted in Begbie, op. cit., 1, 181.

13. Ibid., I, 194.

14. Ibid., 197.

15. Ibid., (emphasis added).

16. Ibid., 201.

17. Ibid., (emphasis Booth’s)

18. Ibid., 1, 244 (emphasis Booth’s).

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid., I, 245.

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid., 1, 248.

23. Collier, 35.

24. Begbie, 1, 230.

25. Ibid., I, 253.

26. Hughes, “An Interview with William Booth on The Salvation Army”, The Methodist Times, 5 February 1885, 81-82.

27. Wesley, Letters VII, 15 Septernber 1790.

28. Wesley, Sermons (Burwash ed.), “On Original Sin”.

29. Collier, 33.

30. Ibid., 55.

31. Ibid., 34.

32. Begbie, 1, 208 (emphasis Catherine’s).

33. Ibid., 1, 249.

34. Noncomformist and Independent, 9 February 1882 in Kew, Closer Communion, 42.

35. Kew, 50.