Catherine Booth. [Click on image to enlarge it.]
Catherine Booth, known as the Mother of the Salvation Army, was one of the most extraordinary women of the Victorian era. She had firm convictions on a broad range of issues, such as social work among the poor and destitute, abstinence from alcohol, the legal age of consent for girls, vegetarianism, and the humane treatment of animals. She also held that women must have full equality with men in Christian ministry.
Childhood and Youth
Catherine Mumford Booth was born on January 17, 1829, at Ashbourne, Derbyshire, a small community in the East Midlands. Her father, John Mumford, a carriage maker and itinerant lay preacher, and her mother, Sarah Milward Mumford, were ardent members of a Wesleyan Methodist chapel. She had four brothers, but only one, John, grew to adulthood.
Catherine Mumford spent much of her childhood confined to bed. She suffered from spine, lung and heart trouble. Except for a short period at school, she was educated at home by her mother, with whom she had close ties. Sarah Mumford disliked works of fiction and encouraged her daughter to read the Bible because she believed that it contains supreme wisdom. Confined to bed, Catherine read the Bible from cover to cover eight times before she reached the age of twelve. She also read books about theology and church history, which was unusual for a young woman in her time. A book about the life and work of John Wesley exerted a profound influence on her future vocation.
Boston in Lincolnshire
In 1834, the family moved to Boston, Lincolnshire, the native town of Catherine's father, who was very active in the local temperance movement. Catherine's father sparked off in her the ideas of the temperance movement, but he went through emotional and financial crises and lost his faith in the early 1840s. In 1843, being only twelve, she began writing letters to various magazines her father subscribed in support of the temperance movement. In 1846, he became an alcoholic and lost steady employment. From that time Catherine abhorred alcoholic drink and joined a temperance movement. At twelve she became a secretary of a Juvenile Temperance Society. (9)
In 1844, her family moved to Brixton, a district in south London, where Catherine joined a Wesleyan congregation and was also involved in the temperance movement. She led a girls’ Sunday school class in Clapham. In London, Catherine Mumford wrote a diary between 1847 and 1848, and spiritual letters to her friends and relations, which revealed her future vocation. After a few years she was dissatisfied with the Wesleyans and became a member of another congregation created by the Reformers, a group of people who left the Wesleyans.
In 1852, she met William Booth and they were married at Stockwell New Chapel on June 16, 1855. Despite poor health she bore eight children. She admired her husband's work and hoped that he would share her views on the position and mission of women. In one of her letters, she presented her Christian feminist views.
How can it be expected that a being trained in absolute subjection to the will of another, and taught to consider that subjection her glory, as well as an imbecile dependence on the judgment of others, should at once be able to throw off the trammels of prejudice and sound judgment which are indispensable to the proper discharge of maternal duties? [It is] nothing but improper culture, consequent on the false notions entertained of her nature and vocation. Never till she is valued and educated as man's equal will unions be perfect, and their consequences blissful. [Mumford 350]
Catherine Booth did not intend to change women's domestic roles, but she objected to their alleged intellectual and moral inferiority. In 1858, she began to assist her husband in his pastoral work at Gateshead, Durham. Initially, William Booth was reluctant to female preaching, but gradually he changed his mind. In 1857-1858, at Brighouse, where he held his Methodist New Connexion pastorate, he encouraged his wife to take a “ class of female members ” and to teach Sunday school. (Murdoch 351)
Preaching and Proselytising
Catherine Mumford Booth by George Edward Wade.
In 1860, Catherine Booth began to preach herself with the full approval of her husband, although many people were initially bewildered, because Victorian women were traditionally expected to devote themselves to domestic work and avoid the public sphere. However, Catherine Booth was strongly convinced that women were not intellectually inferior to men and had the right to preach. She soon proved to be an exceptional orator and contributed significantly to moral and social reform. She preached in around the docklands of Rotherhithe in South London (image) and Bermondsey (image). During her husband's evangelistic tours, Catherine Booth shared his pastoral work. Her ministry was very popular, everywhere attracting crowded audiences, which often included members of the middle-class who wanted to contribute to the evangelisation of destitute slum dwellers.
In 1865, William Booth founded the East London Mission, but as he did not earn any money at that time, Catherine Booth became the sole bread winner for family. She preached in West London and other places and also sold her pamphlets. In her writings and public speeches she advocated the employment of women evangelists. Early in 1873, Catherine Booth began holding services in Portsmouth. Within a few months she gathered a congregation of some 3,000 people in a music-hall building frequented mostly by soldiers and sailors.
First-Wave Christian Feminist and Suffrage Campaigner
As Norman H. Murdoch wrote in his article, “Female Ministry in the Thought and Work of Catherine Booth: ” Her “ideas on the right of women to preach evolved gradually” (349). In 1850, at age twenty-one, Catherine Mumford wrote a letter of complaint to a London congregationalist clergyman, Dr David Thomas, that he demeaned woman as a moral being. She advocated gender equality in the Christian Mission and later in the Salvation Army. She later presented her ideas in the pamphlet published in 1859 “Female Ministry: Or Women's Right to Preach the Gospel, ” revised in 1879 in Papers on Practical Religion.
It was nurture, not nature, that crippled the female intellect. She argued that woman's training from babyhood even in this highly favoured land, has hitherto been such as to cramp and paralyze rather than to develop and strengthen her energies, and calculated to crush and wither her aspirations after mental greatness rather than to excite and stimulate them. The day is only just dawning with reference to female education and therefore any verdict on woman as an intellectual being must be premature and unsatisfactory. [Murdoch, Origins. 349-50]
Catherine Booth also supported the suffrage movement hoping that women voters “would be a powerful force for good in the world. ” (Rappaport 103) She believed that intellectually woman was man's equal, but the lack of training or lack of opportunity made her sometimes inferior. When The Salvation Army was established in 1878, Catherine Booth began recruitment of young women, mostly from the working classes, later called Hallelujah Lasses, whose task was to bring relief to female and child residents of slum districts. She contributed significantly to the establishment of rescue homes for young prostitutes and wayward and delinquent women.
Death and Legacy
On 21 June 1888, Catherine Booth made her last public appearance at the City Temple. She was stricken with cancer and retired to Clacton at the sea. She died on October 4, 1890. Her funeral in London was attended by 38,000 people. She was buried at Abney Park Cemetery on October 4. Pamela J. Walker wrote that:
The Salvation Army had lost one of its most important theologians and preachers; as an example of female leadership and authority, she had inspired thousands of Salvationist women. 
Although Catherine Booth did not have much formal education, she began serious writing when she was only twelve. In her adult life she contributed to the Salvation Army magazines and publications. Her major works include Papers on Practical Religion (London, 1879), Papers on Aggressive Christianity (1881), Papers on Godliness (1882), Life and Death (1883), The Salvation Army in Relation to the Church and State (1883), and Popular Christianity (1887).
Catherine Booth, a chronic invalid and mother of eight children was an early Christian feminist. She contributed significantly to the success of the Salvation Army and its practice of social relief work that was ahead of her time. She encouraged women to take up more active roles in society as she strongly believed in the moral and social equality of men and women. Her fight against child prostitution resulted that Parliament passed a law raising the age of consent from thirteen to sixteen.
References and Further Reading
Booth-Tucker, Frederick St. George. The Short Life of Catherine Booth, the Mother of the Salvation Army. Whitefish, MO: Kessinger Publishing, 2005.
Duff, Mildred. Catherine Booth A Sketch. Whitefish, MO: Kessinger Publishing, 2004.
Eason, Andrew Mark. Women in God's Army: Gender and Equality in the Early Salvation Army. Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2003.
Green, Roger J. Catherine Booth: A Biography of the Cofounder of The Salvation Army. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1996.
Mayne Kienzle, Beverly, Pamela J. Walker, eds. Women Preachers and Prophets Through Two Millennia of Christianity. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998.
Murdoch, Norman H. Origins of the Salvation Army. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1996.
___. “Female Ministry in the Thought and Work of Catherine Booth.” Church History, vol. 53 (3) 1984, 348-362.
Prochaska, F. G. Women and Philanthropy in Nineteen Century England. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.
Rappaport, Helen. Encyclopedia of Women Social Reformers. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, Inc. 2001.
Walker, Pamela J. Pulling the Devil's Kingdom Down: The Salvation Army in Victorian Britain. Berkeley, CA.: University of California Press, 2001.
Yaxley, Trevor. William and Catherine: The Life and Legacy of the Booths. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers, 2003 .
The Salvation Army International Heritage Centre, London http://www.salvationarmy.org.uk/heritage.
- The Origin and Early Development of the Salvation Army in Victorian England
- William Booth: Founder of the Salvation Army
- William and Catherine Booth: A Chronology of Founders of the Salvation Army
- The Hallelujah Lasses
- Bibliography and Further Reading
Last modified 27 September 2012