William Booth: The Man of Emotion
Gordon Taylor, formerly Associate Director of the Heritage Centre until his retirement in 2011, writes our guest blog to coincide with the publication of his 2 volume biography, 'The Life and Legacy of William Booth' by Salvation Books in August 2019. Volume 1: The Man and His Mission (448pp, £15), Volume 2: The General and His Army (552pp, £16).
One hundred years ago the world was waiting for the publication of Harold Begbie’s two-volume Life of William Booth, which had been delayed by the First World War, but which eventually appeared in February 1920. In assessing the enduring influence of two eminent Victorians, Harold Begbie felt that the ‘man of intellect’ (Charles Darwin) had prevailed over the ‘man of emotion’ (William Booth).
Almost a century later, the ‘man of emotion’ has not been forgotten, and my new two-volume biography of William Booth has been published to record his life and legacy. Based on thousands of source documents, a fresh attempt has been made to document his long life in all its complexity and variety, and self-consciously to record explicitly where the information comes from, so that anyone interested can explore the sources further in more detail, as fancy takes them. The man of emotion and passion, of commitment and purpose, dedicated himself to a life of service and intensive action for the glory of God and the benefit of his generation.
The documents available include a bewildering variety of letters, some fragmentary, some more extensive, diaries (either original, or in published extracts), personal reflections, interviews, reports, etc., some quoted extensively and others contributing perhaps only a sentence or two – sometimes a revealing insight, sometimes a fleeting impression. Some sources complement each other, with one shedding light on a passing reference in another. Some documents are isolated, chance discoveries, some are part of a more extensive series. The sources vary for different phases of his life.
His earliest surviving letter, written shortly after arriving in London from Nottingham, indicates a man of friendship, who has left behind good friends in Nottingham, and has not yet made new friends in London. He made an early visit to the Surrey Zoological Gardens, only a short walk across Kennington Common from his new home.
In an article written for his grandchildren, he spoke about his excitement as a boy of seeing the elephants, lions and tigers at the annual Goose Fair in Nottingham. He always had a fondness for animals. Rabbits, dogs, birds, fishes, or anything with life in it, were his ‘unspeakable delight’.
Although fifty years later he dismissed his youthful romances as follies and frivolities, he still wrote with affection about his teenage girl-friend and the attractions which charmed him – her figure, her eyes, her hair and her disposition – when he was giving advice to young and not-so-young Salvationists about ‘courting’.
His letters to Catherine before and after their marriage indicate many of his passions and enthusiasms, though probably nowhere do we get a clearer picture of the man of emotion than at the time of Catherine’s lengthy illness and too-early death at the age of 60.
He poured out his heart in a series of letters to The War Cry, writing about the tension between wanting to be at home with Catherine and having to go out to work, and after her death he faced a very public period of grieving, culminating in a highly charged address at the graveside, which The Daily Telegraph commended as the only significant piece of oratory at Catherine’s funeral.
The Daily Telegraph, 15 October 1890, p5
Speaking for the last time in public, at William’s 60th birthday celebration in the Clapton Congress Hall, Catherine said that most people would think William had always been bold and self-sufficient, but there were many times when he was so full of ‘trembling and fear’ that he would never have gone out if she had not been behind him.
William Booth never forgot where he had come from. When he received the freedom of Nottingham in 1905, he said that he loved the city as ardently as any human being loved the home of his childhood. Yet, in his early years, Nottingham was for him a place of sorrow. As the result of economic depression, his family had been reduced to poverty. He left school at 13, and was ‘thrown into the world’. His whole life seemed to be blighted and the future seemed ‘darkness itself’.
At times this darkness almost seemed to overwhelm him. When three of his children resigned their officership and left the Army, his letters reveal the depths of his grief and emotion. When he wrote at length to his daughter Evangeline to give her fatherly advice about marriage, he referred to his own experience of loneliness.
William Booth with his daughter, Evangeline Booth, c.1907
In his later years, as age and diminishing eyesight overtook him, he wrestled with his emotions, trying to retain a sense of purpose while holding on to his overriding belief in the providence of God.
Throughout the long years of his ministry, he committed himself to fight – ‘while women weep’, ‘while little children go hungry’, ‘while men go to prison, in and out’, ‘while there is a poor lost girl upon the street’, ‘while there yet remains one dark soul without the light of God’. His life was one long fight, and the man who said in one of his songs, ‘my tempers are fitful, my passions are strong’, was rightly called the ‘man of emotion’, not because he was bound or imprisoned by his emotions, but because he was driven and impelled by love for the lonely and the lost.
The biographer, like the film-maker can use only a small percentage of the material available for the final cut. After feeding the 5,000, Jesus told his disciples to gather up the fragments that are left, so that none of them will be lost. I have done the same. I have left behind an extensive file of source material, which can be made available to researchers who want to know even more about the life and legacy of the ‘man of emotion’, William Booth.