Remembering General William Booth

On August 20, 1912, General William Booth—co-founder of The Salvation Army—was promoted to glory. More than a century later, his Army is bigger, stronger and more far-reaching than ever. The General’s legacy is The Salvation Army of today, his priceless gift to the poor and marginalized—a lasting tribute to the working of God in the life of an ordinary man who was able to do extraordinary things.

After the General was promoted to glory, tributes poured in from all over the world. King George V of the United Kingdom wrote to the Army’s new General (William’s son, Bramwell): “The nation has lost a great organizer and the poor a whole-hearted and sincere friend, who devoted his life to helping them in a practical way.” President Howard Taft of the United States wrote that the co-founder’s “long life and great talents were dedicated to the noble work of helping the poor and weak and giving them another chance to attain success and happiness.”

The media reaction was swift and effusive. The Daily Express in the United Kingdom reported: “The loss to the world is very real, and really felt.” The South African News said: “William Booth is dead. And with him passed away one of the most vivid and striking personalities the world has ever seen.” Describing The Salvation Army as “a miracle wrought in an age of materialism” it concluded: “You may disagree with the methods of the Army … but you must recognize the miracle and acknowledge the gifts of the miracle worker.”

In Canada, the Toronto Mail and Globe told its readers: “William Booth … accomplished in his lifetime a task of such world magnitude as commanded not recognition alone, but sincere personal admiration from three British sovereigns, and won the reverent affection of an innumerable host out of every nation of mankind.” The New York Times put it more simply: “No man of his time did more for the benefit of the people than William Booth.”

The scale of the reaction to the promotion to glory of the Salvation Army co-founder is difficult to rationalize from a modern viewpoint. For many people the closest experience is perhaps the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997. Her funeral procession went through London streets lined with more than a million people. Booth’s funeral procession drew crowds of double that size!

Richard Collier’s biography of the founder, The General Next to God, records that 40,000 people attended the General’s funeral. Among this vast crowd were “thieves, tramps, harlots, the lost and outcast to whom Booth had given his heart.” Also there—sitting unnoticed by many at the rear of the hall—was Queen Mary, wife of King George V. This was as clear a message as any that the man who had begun his work among the outcasts of society had touched the hearts—and maybe stirred the consciences—of even the most privileged people.

Some people may question the point of remembering the death of the Army’s co-founder, but this article is not a memorial—it’s a cue for both remembrance and celebration. Even in 1912, the understandable sadness of loss was accompanied by what The Times of London reported as an “air of gladness pervading the ranks of the Army.”

When William Booth “laid down his sword”—as Salvationists were informed in 1912—his Salvation Army was at work in 58 countries. Today, that number is 131 and growing. The General’s “promotion to glory” should be treated as just that—a “promotion,” a moving on, a stepping forward. We do not reflect morbidly on what has been lost but instead we celebrate the legacy and influence of a great man who, 107 years ago, went to meet his maker and claim his eternal reward.

Hallelujah!

Adapted from an article published on Salvationist.ca for the 100th anniversary of William Booth’s promotion to glory.