Married to William Booth, the founder of The Salvation Army, Catherine Booth was a woman who inspired the hearts of so many young girls to take courage, be bold in speaking out and not to be afraid of having their thoughts heard. She challenged the ‘norm’ and became a figurehead for women to look up to as a role model and mentor.
Born in 1829, Catherine grew up in a devoutly religious and sheltered world in a small Victorian town with her parents. By the age of twelve Catherine had read her Bible 8 times. A devout Christian, Catherine was keen and eager to learn more and more about her God and who he was. Her solid knowledge of the Bible would play a key role in ministering into people’s lives much later in her life when she was preaching to large audiences.
It is apparent, when looking at Catherine’s life, that she did not let much come between her and God. When she was young she became seriously ill and was forced to stay in bed for a long time as a result of Spinal Curvature. For most people this may have led them to doubt the power and love of God, but for Catherine, she spent her time in bed writing articles to magazines, expressing her concern for those with alcohol problems; something she felt was a big concern and should not be ignored. Her concerns for others did not go away and when she was older she played an active role in helping those in poverty or suffering from an injustice in society.
One of the biggest things of note about Catherine Booth was her courage to speak out about the inequalities between men and women. When she met William Booth in 1852, he was strongly against women preachers, but even after they were married, Catherine did not let her husband’s opinions discourage her. She knew what God had called her to do and the gifts she had been given and was not ashamed of them. Catherine acknowledged that ‘The Fall’ in Genesis had put women into subjection, as a consequence of sin, but she argued that to leave them there would be to reject the gospel, which proclaims that the grace of Christ had restored what sin had taken away. She argued that men and women are all one in Christ. Even though it was unheard of for women to speak publicly, Catherine stood up in front of a crowd at Gateshead Bethesda Chapel after being suddenly prompted to speak. When debating about women preachers Catherine was quoted as saying, “If the Word of God forbids female ministry, we would ask how it happens that so many of the most devoted handmaidens of the Lord have felt constrained by the Holy Ghost to exercise it? The word and the spirit cannot contradict each other!”
For so many women alive at this time, Catherine would have been a role model and encourager, as so many would have felt it not right to use their gifting and felt the pressures of society. Catherine was able to give so many of these girls and women the freedom to feel they could speak out and use their gifts as God intended. After hearing her speak and understanding the gifting God had given his wife, William Booth changed his mind and understood Catherine’s right and yearning to speak. Many others also joined William and as they listened to her message realising the power of God working through her.
It is evident that Catherine felt strongly about women preachers, but she was also willing to submit to her husband, William Booth. She knew, going into her marriage that preaching would take up a lot of their time and even on their honeymoon it has been said that William spent some time preaching. She was a woman of great integrity and understood what it meant to ‘practice what you preach’! When the couple began The Salvation Army, originally named the Christian Mission, Catherine took on a lead role in helping at the forefront of the mission. Catherine and William both agreed that they wanted men and women to have equal rights within the Salvation Army, something that was uncommon and a rare sight for many people. The churches soon realised that the Salvation Army were doing something right though, with 17,000 people worshiping with them on one weeknight compared to the 11,000 in ordinary churches.
Although it was common for people speaking in the open air to be imprisoned, Catherine and her fellow speakers carried on, leading revival services and wanting to see an end to poverty and injustice. Catherine understood the importance of meeting people where they were and often went to people’s homes, especially the homes of alcoholics, who she had felt a calling to help since she was a little girl. Her yearning to help the oppressed led Catherine to set up Food-for-the-Million shops, where the poor could buy hot soup and a 3-course meal for very little money. This went on throughout the year and one year Catherine served over 300 people on Christmas day. The act of service is clear throughout Catherine’s life, with her continuing to serve people in need when she may have wanted to be at home with her family. Catherine raised 8 children in total and longed to provide a loving, caring environment for her children to grow up in. Alongside this she still preached and served the poor.
Whilst working with the poor Catherine discovered what was known as ‘Sweated labour’, where women and children were working in awful conditions for long hours with very little pay, and immediately felt compassion towards them. Her compassion drove her to action and, along with her fellow Salvation Army members, tried to shame the employers into giving the workers better pay and working conditions. It was not long before Catherine also found out that some of the workers were risking their health as they were producing matches with harmful chemicals. This drove her to campaign against this situation, but Catherine sadly died of cancer during the campaign in 1890. William Booth understood the importance of the campaign and carried it forward until justice was served.
Throughout her life Catherine Booth gave herself to other people, constantly willing to help and care for others. She understood the importance and significance of praying and listening to God and sought wisdom and guidance from spending time with him. She had a heart for the poor and oppressed and did anything in her power to fight against poverty and injustice. She empowered and inspired other women by being the woman God wanted her to be and not what the World wanted her to be.
It is encouraging and inspiring to read and research this incredible woman. Her persistence has encouraged me, as I am sure so many have been encouraged before. The courage she showed through many of life’s tough situations and believing in herself and God when others doubted her beliefs is truly remarkable. It is ironic how Catherine fought for so long against the inequalities of her world when we today are ourselves dealing with the same battles and trials against the same injustices. I think we can all learn from Catherine Booth, her determination and fortitude meant so many others were able to live the life God intended. She is known to have said‘If we are to better the future we must disturb the present.’ Are we prepared to follow in her footsteps and stand up for the injustices in our world?