On Christmas Day 1833, four-year-old Catherine Mumford stood inside St Botolph’s with her parents John and Sarah, watching the vicar baptise her brother, John Valentine. Little did she know then that one day she would become co-founder of The Salvation Army, one of the world’s most influential Christian foundations, with churches, schools, hospitals, and social programmes in more than 130 countries.
Born on 17 January 1829 in Struston, near Ashbourne in Derbyshire, Catherine had moved to Boston when her father started a carriage business in the town at 98 West Street. He was a strong advocate of Teetotalism. Catherine, too, embraced the cause, becoming secretary of Boston’s juvenile branch.
A story is told that when she was bowling her hoop along a street in Boston she saw a ‘drunk’ being dragged to the town’s lock-up by a policeman surrounded by a jeering crowd. Coming alongside, she held his hand. Today, Salvation Army personnel are among the world’s leading practitioners in the treatment of alcohol addiction.
Catherine’s mother brought her up as a Methodist. They attended the Red Lion Street Chapel but as she preferred Catherine not to pick-up the bad habits of others, she taught her at home. A biographer wrote: ‘her austere mother was all the world to her daughter - her companion, her confidante, her spiritual directress, her teacher’. Catherine thrived on such subjects as the nature of sin and forgiveness, holy living and the authority of the Bible. Years later she wrote many helpful books for the Army’s fledgling converts, some of which are still in print.
In 1854 Catherine married William Booth, a Methodist preacher, accepting the conventions of motherhood and being a model minister’s wife. That was until 1860 when two things happened. She started to preach and, when William became ill, she took over his role as church minister, not the accepted thing in Victorian England. This watershed moment for the Booths impacted on the role of women in church for generations, something still reverberating in churches today.
Within a year, Catherine and William were a team of itinerant evangelists. Eventually they moved to London and started a revival mission in the East End. By 1878 this had become The Salvation Army. W T Stead, editor of the Pall Mall Gazette and a close friend wrote in tribute, ‘No one will ever know how much all that is most distinctive of the Army is due directly to the shaping and inspiring impulses of Mrs Booth’. To which Roger Green adds, ‘Her vision of aggressive Christianity certainly provided a foundation for this new direction’.
Catherine died aged 60 on 4 October 1890, or as The Army says, was ‘promoted to Glory’. As her funeral bier passed through London, the city came to standstill. No rank was inscribed on her coffin for she had none; instead it simply read ‘The Army Mother’