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New Connexion Methodist
to William Booth
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.
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
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 I have done from the beginning, without prejudice
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 I 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.
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
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
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
Kilham’s magnum opus was
not long coming: The Progress of Liberty Among the People Called
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?”
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
Everything that Kilham had suffered to see implemented Conference then turned
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 percent 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.
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.”
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 percent 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.
From The Methodist New Connexion To William Booth
William Booth (1829–1912) was first a
minister among the Wesleyan Reformers.
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.
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
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?”
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.”
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, realer, more hallowed in my soul’s experience. If I
fail it will be here.”
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. I deplore
this, yet if I was like them I should be very much happier.”
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 wider ranging
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
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 compared 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 judgment 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
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 I
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
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
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”.
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
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
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.
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.
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 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 I 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.
No one pretends that the future
condemned his action.
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, it must be remembered, looked upon the doctrine of sanctification as
“the grand depositum which God has lodged with the people called
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.”)
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
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?
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.
salvation, deep ocean of love,
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 iron fast. 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.”
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.
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 I 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.
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 I 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.
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.)
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 quasi-magical 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.
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.”
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.
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.
George and Rupp, 276.
234 Letters, VII, 266. Wrote this letter in 1788.
The Progress of Liberty Amongst the People Called Methodists, (Alnwick:
Alexander Kilham, The First Methodist Reformer; (London: 1889), 72.
of the Methodist New Connexion, 1798 10.
Cardinal Examination of the London Methodist Bill, in Edwards, After
Epworth Press, 1935), 50–51.
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).
of World Methodism, II,
in Begbie, op. cit., 1, 181.
I, 244 (emphasis Booth’s).
Interview with William Booth on The Salvation Army”,
The Methodist Times, 5 February 1885, 81–82.
Letters VII, 15 September 1790.
Sermons (Burwash ed.), “On
I, 208 (emphasis Catherine’s).
and Independent, 9
February 1882 in Kew, Closer Communion, 42.