In 1842, thirteen-year-old William Booth’s life changed. His father, Samuel Booth, lost his business. The elder Booth had once been a nail maker, but when his trade became the victim of mass production, he started a business as a small-time builder. Unfortunately, recurring recessions took their toll, and finally Booth went out of business. It put him and his family into difficult circumstances. As a result, William Booth, who had grown up in a household with enough money to have him educated, was sent out to learn a trade. He was apprenticed to a pawnbroker in a seedy part of Nottingham, England.
“Make money,” was the advice of Booth’s father, who died bankrupt the next year. Booth did learn about making money while learning his trade. But his apprenticeship also gave him another kind of education. Working in a pawnbroker’s shop, he was in daily contact with the poor and destitute. One biography noted, “He learned as from a primer what poverty did to people.” It’s no coincidence that during his years as an apprentice, he became a person of faith – a Christian.
In 1849, Booth moved to London and took a position in a pawnshop in a poor area south of the Thames River. But after only three years, he gave up his trade and became a minister. He saw faith as the solution to the problems of those who were struggling to survive. And he embarked on a lifelong mission that had two objectives: saving lost souls and righting social injustices.
At first he became a Methodist New Connection minister, then a travelling evangelist. But in 1865 when some people from the area heard him preach in front of the Blind Beggar Pub in East London, he was recruited to become part of a tent ministry that came to be called the Christian Mission.
From there, Booth ministered to the poorest people in London. The East End contained half of the paupers, homeless, and starving in London. His early converts were some of the most desperate types of people: thieves, prostitutes, gamblers, and drunkards. He was trying to make a difference, but his efforts were not met with appreciation, even from the very people he was trying to help.
He and his fellow workers were harassed and brutalized. Local tavern keepers worked especially hard to undermine his efforts. Even street children threw stones and fireworks through the windows of their meeting hall. Booth’s wife, Catherine said that he would “stumble home night after night, haggard with fatigue. Often his clothes were torn and bloody, bandages swathed his head where a stone had struck.” But Booth would not retaliate in kind. He refused to give up.
Booth worked to feed the poor, house the homeless, and share his faith. His organization continued to grow. By 1867, he had ten full-time workers. By 1874, more than one thousand volunteers and forty-two evangelists worked with him. In 1878 when they reorganized, Booth gave the group a new name. From then on, the organization would be called the Salvation Army.
Unfortunately, that didn’t stop the group’s opponents. Booth was labeled “anti-Christ” by the reformer Lord Shaftesbury. An opposition group formed to try and stop Booth and his associates. They came to call themselves the Skeleton Army. An article in the Bethnal Green Eastern Post in November 1882 described them:
“A genuine rabble of ‘roughs’ pure and unadulterated has been infesting the district for several weeks past. These vagabonds style themselves the ‘Skeleton Army’ … The object of the skeleton army was to put down the Salvationists by following them everywhere, by beating a drum and burlesquing their songs, to render the conduct of their processions and services impossible … Amongst the skeleton rabble there is a large percentage of … loafers and unmitigated blackguards … [and] the disreputable class of publicans who hate the London school board, education, and temperance, and who, seeing the beginning of the end of the immoral traffic [sic] and prepared for the most desperate [sic] enterprise.”
Despite the horrible treatment they received, the officers and volunteers in the Salvation Army persevered, and they helped hundreds of thousands of people. Often they converted the very individuals who had persecuted them.
In 1912, William Booth, then age eighty-three, delivered his last public address. In it he stated his commitment to investing in people:
“While women weep as they do now, I’ll fight; while little children go hungry as they do now, I’ll fight; while men go to prison, in and out, in and out, as they do now, I’ll fight; while there is a drunkard left, while there is a poor lost girl on the streets, while there remains one dark soul without the light of God, I’ll fight – I’ll fight to the very end.”
Three months later, he died. As one observer put it, the “general” who had led the Salvation Army for more than thirty years was ‘promoted to glory.’
William Booth spent a lifetime treating people better than they treated him. And as a result, he lived on the highest level, personally and unprofessionally. He travelled the high road.
There are really only three roads we can travel when it comes to dealing with others. We can take
- The low road – where we treat others worse than they treat us
- The middle road – where we treat others the same as they treat us
- The high road – where we treat others better than they treat us
The low road damages relationships and alienates others from us. The middle road may not drive people away from us, but it won’t attract them to us either; it is reactive rather than proactive and allows others to set the agenda for our lives. The high road helps to create positive relationships and attracts others to us; it sets a positive agenda with others that even negative people find difficult to undermine.
We, as believers, need to work at taking the high roads with others every day. Treat people better than they treat you!