Life & Soul

Heretic of the week: William Booth


As Christmas approaches, cities throughout Britain and Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States will increasingly see members of the Salvation Army in their distinctive blue uniforms – whether as massed bands in concert halls, or as individuals or couples raising alms through ringing bells. But the Salvation Army is not a mere charitable organisation; it is an actual religious denomination, founded by the redoubtable “General” William Booth (1829-1912).

Born in Nottinghamshire to a family that had known extremes of wealth and poverty, young William had to leave school and was apprenticed to a stockbroker after his father’s latest financial downturn. Samuel, William’s father, had not shown any interest in religion, but was baptised on his deathbed.

After that, Booth became attached to a Methodist faction. First a lay and then an ordained preacher, he showed a flair for open-air evangelism. His experiences having led him to work among the destitute – and particularly among alcoholics – he founded an urban mission. In 1878 he reorganised it, broke with the Methodists, and transformed his mission into the Salvation Army, with himself as General and a hierarchy of ranks.

He coined their motto, “Blood and fire”, which referred to the Saving Blood of Christ and the Sanctifying Fire of the Holy Ghost. But while preaching the necessity of Christ for salvation, he abolished baptism and Holy Communion as sources of unnecessary controversy. Despite some opposition, Booth’s followers spread throughout the British Empire, the US, and many other countries.

Known today primarily for their work in disaster relief and assisting the poor, the Salvationists primarily recruit new members from among those whom they assist. Thus far, they have managed to avoid any major schisms. Although on the evangelical side, their non-sacramental Christianity generates little controversy.