As a young boy growing up in the Salvation Army, it seemed as though every home I would go to had a dark and terrifying print of William Booth, usually on the stairs. It was worse at night, the beaked nose, the stern face, the full white beard - all left a young Junior Soldier like me in awe of The Founder!
150 years ago today, Booth began preaching in the filthy poor streets of the East End, true Dickensian England at it's worst. His motto from the start, 'Go for souls and go for the worst!' Night after night in those early days he would return home after midnight, bruised, bleeding, his clothes sometimes torn after being assaulted. It was only after the conversion of former prize fighter Peter Monk that Booth had a bodyguard to stand with him in the more intimidating moments.
Stations opened up quickly across London as Booth discovered the established church didn't want his kind of converts. One radically changed life attracted another, and an army of saved men and women was born.
In the space of only 20 years, Booth's East End mission had expanded to 80 church plants, 130 Evangelists, 1000's of volunteer preachers - but the onset of fierce persecution against the Salvation Army in the 1880's only caused the pace of growth to increase more rapidly. In 1882 alone, almost 700 Salvation Army leaders were brutally assaulted, and the first martyr for the gospel came at Hastings that year.
Great social change was taking place in late Victorian Britain, and Booth and his Salvation Army were at the forefront here too. More than just a gospel preaching movement, they fought for the rights of the poor and the worker, lobbying parliament, setting up homeless shelters and eating houses way before their time - always with the gospel to the fore - 'You can't preach the gospel to a man with an empty stomach', were Booth's words which led to the slogan, 'Soup, soap and Salvation!'
Nearing the end of his life, Booth was told to slow down. His response: '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 in and out of prison as they do now, I'll fight. I'll fight to the very end.'
By the time of his death in 1912, Booth had travelled all over the world. The Salvation Army had already spread into 58 countries and his gospel had touched the lives of 100's of 1000's from amongst the poorest of society.
The General whose face scared me as a child and shaped my upbringing, began a kingdom legacy 150 years ago today which is still not complete. He would not have been one to rest and celebrate. Even when he had the chance to mix with royalty later in life, the gospel was the one focus of his thinking. Writing to King Edward VII these words say it all: 'Sire, some men's ambition is art. Some men's ambition is fame. Some men's ambition is gold. My ambition is the souls of men.'
We salute you today General Booth. May your one ambition continue to be realised through us!