Catherine Booth began her public speaking in 1860. Years later, after the conclusion of one of her addresses in Exeter Hall in London, a gentleman exclaimed, “If ever I am charged with a crime, don’t bother to engage any of the great lawyers to defend me; get that woman!”
Such was often the effect of the diminutive and frail Catherine Mumford Booth on many of those who heard her. Her preaching was sometimes likened to that of a lawyer: mastering her facts, arguing her case and pressing home her claims in the minds and hearts of her audience. This was not always the case. Catherine was reared in a strict Methodist home and, except for the occasional female class meeting leader, saw few women in places of responsibility and fewer still preaching the gospel. She entered public life reluctantly but responded in earnest to what she perceived to be the calling of God.
Even as a child she was deeply convicted about spiritual matters. She grew into both a knowledge and an assurance that she was a child of God by grace, which was confirmed in later life with an experience of sanctification. Although her careful religious rearing as well as her fear of being influenced by the world led her throughout her lifetime to live a strict personal life (there were no cards, novels, frivolous clothing or alcohol allowed in the Booth home), it would be false to conclude that the religious life was for her a dull habit.
The opposite was the case. She regarded religion joyfully, centered on a living and vital relationship with Jesus Christ and manifested by a life of consecrated service for Christ and His kingdom. This was biblical blessedness for Catherine Booth, and she reveled in the wedding feast of the kingdom of God.
Catherine was a woman of clear convictions and she was both single-minded and consistent in those convictions throughout her lifetime. She often referred to her “settled views,” sharing them and trying to convince others of their correctness and of the righteousness of her causes. Such views were the substance of her writing, her teaching and, above all, her preaching. Her friend W.T. Stead wrote of her, “She preached out of the fullness of her heart. As she had lived so she preached.”
To the several vocations of her life—wife, mother, friend, advocate and preacher—Catherine consecrated herself completely. However, by her own admission, she felt most at home on the platform of a place like Exeter hall in London or in a Salvation Army corps preaching the gospel. That was the life she felt destined to, and it is as a preacher that Catherine should be most notably remembered.
She moved people deeply with her verbal skills, her commitment to the ideas she espoused and the passion of her delivery. She served her Christ and her generation well by founding, along with her husband William, a mission and an Army. She gave herself in utter abandonment to God and to His work as she perceived it.
In spite of personal faults and physical frailties, she was unselfish in her devotion to God and His kingdom and perceived the work of The Salvation Army as of divine origin and initiative. It could never be said of Catherine Mumford Booth that she thought of herself before others or that preaching the gospel or defending her beloved Army were means toward fulfilling her own needs or stroking her own ego. Seriousness about her vocation and commitment to a cause and a life greater than herself prevented Catherine from the kind of egocentric ministry too often seen in our times.
By the time of her engagement to William, Catherine was convinced that there had to be a meeting of their minds beyond the ideal of the equality of women to the practical issue of female ministry. Some of the lengthiest correspondence from Catherine to William after their engagement deals with this matter. This was still quite theoretical for her—she had no practical personal experience of preaching.
William was not totally ignorant of this subject, and at the invitation of a friend, heard the preaching of a woman in London by the name of Miss Buck. W.T. Stead records that William “left the chapel saying that he should never again oppose the practice (or women preaching), since Miss Buck had certainly preached more effectively than three-fourths of the men he had ever listened to.”
The most crucial and direct letter from Catherine to William on the subject of women in ministry is dated April 9, 1855, just before their marriage in June. This is a lengthy epistle of 16 pages dealing with many matters, but the heart of it exemplifies Catherine’s most precise thinking to date related to women in ministry.
She wrote: “If on that other subject you mention, my views are right, how delighted I should be for you to see as fully with me on it too; you know I feel no less deeply on this subject, and perhaps you think I take a rather prejudiced view of it; but I have searched the Word of God through and through, I have tried to deal honestly with every passage on the subject, not forgetting to pray for light to perceive and grace to submit to the truth, however humiliating to my nature, but 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 own views . . .
“Oh I believe that volumes of light will yet be shed on the world on this subject; it will bear examination and abundantly repay it . . . I believe woman is destined to assume her true position, and exert her proper influence by the special exertions and attainments of her own sex . . . May the Lord, even the just and impartial One, overrule all for the true emancipation of women from swaddling bands of prejudice, ignorance and custom, which, almost the world over, have so long debased and wronged her.”
Catherine maintained that the witness of Scripture, far from constraining women, justified women in ministry and indeed envisioned women as well as men proclaiming the gospel as a sure sign of the breaking in of God’s kingdom, inaugurated with the life, ministry, death and resurrection of the Christ. On the other hand, a mistaken and misled suppression of women in ministry “has resulted in . . . loss to the Church, evil to the world, and dishonor to God.”
She wrote: “Whether the Church will allow women to speak in her assemblies can only be a question of time; common sense, public opinion, and the blessed results of female agency will force her to give us an honest and impartial rendering of the solitary text on which she grounds her prohibitions. Then, when the true light shines and God’s works take the place of man’s traditions, the doctor of divinity who shall teach that Paul commands woman to be silent when God’s Spirit urges her to speak, will be regarded much the same as we should regard an astronomer who should teach that the sun is the earth’s satellite.”
Catherine Booth: A Biography of the Cofounder of The Salvation Army by Roger J. Green will be published by Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, MI November 1996. The book will be available through the Army’s Supplies and Purchasing departments or by calling Baker Book House at (800) 877-BOOK. It will also be printed in the United Kingdom by Monarch Publishing.
Green, R. (October 1996) Catherine Booth: Model Minister. The War Cry, 26, 4-5.