The Shorter Writings of Catherine Booth
- ISBN: 9781498561150
- Published By: Lexington Books
- Published: October 2017
When Catherine Booth’s preaching career auspiciously began on Pentecost Sunday, May 1860, it also set in motion a remarkable writing career. In front of a packed house at Bethesda Chapel in Gateshead-on-the-River-Tyne, a space that could accommodate more than 1250, she rose to her feet. Two inner voices, she recalled, battled within her—one from God urging her to bear testimony; the other from the Devil mocking her for being foolish and unprepared. Yet on that morning, the first voice won and—importantly—her husband, William, the Chapel’s charismatic minister, validated her call and allowed her to preach at the evening service (20). From that point on, words and ideas flowed out of her.
That first oration is not reproduced in this new collection Settled Views: The Shorter Writings of Catherine Booth, edited by Andrew M. Eason and Roger J. Green, but many other sermons and pamphlets are, providing a composite picture of the deep convictions—in her own terminology, “settled views”—that Booth shared with listeners and readers over the next thirty years. Together, these writings provide yet more evidence for why Booth became such a renowned (does one need to add “woman”?) preacher and theologian in both her time, and beyond.
After more than a century of hagiographic—and mostly insider—accounts that focused on Booth’s extraordinary career, scholars are increasingly taking Booth seriously as a teacher, thinker, and theologian. John Read’s recent biography, Catherine Booth: Laying the Theological Foundations of a Radical Movement (Lutterworth Press, 2014), for example, argued that she was the principle architect of Salvationist theology. Eason and Green follow in a similar vein, inviting readers to grapple deeply with the theological ideas expounded in Booth’s shorter writings, many of which have been inaccessible to all but the most assiduous researchers. Arranging the chapters around five central issues—salvation, sanctification, female ministry, social issues, and world missions—the editors frame the volume and each chapter with useful introductions that provide basic biographical and historical context. The result is a more dynamic portrait than usually emerges from Booth biographies.
Raised within the culture of early 19th-century evangelical revivalism, Booth’s beliefs and attitudes were formed early—and changed little throughout her life. Her devout mother, Sarah Mumford, imbued in her a love of scriptures, and an abhorrence of worldly things. Booth’s self-directed reading of the works of John Wesley, John Fletcher, and Charles Finney shaped her views of sin and salvation. Her father’s struggle with alcohol convinced her that tee-totalism was the only Christian path. Her teacher, Elizabeth Key, emphasized the necessity of testifying and praying in public. Through their chapter introductions and sermon selections, Eason and Green emphasize the continuity and consistent logic of her strongly held, deeply rooted, and sometimes controversial teachings, almost to the point of implying that unchanging theological views are a virtue.
Despite—or perhaps because of—a lack of schooling, Booth was a masterful popular writer. She had a gift for words, and wrote in simple, folksy, and mellifluous prose. On paper, her diction is confident and direct, filled with righteous conviction. Booth offers vivid images and memorable phrases. While this volume says little about her public presence and speaking style, one can imagine what a profound impact she made on audiences.
One can also quickly see why Booth’s teachings on sanctification were compelling to 19th-century audiences. Following the teachings of Phoebe Palmer and others in the Holiness movement, Booth believed in a second conversion, one that would restore humanity to true righteousness. In 1868, she described personal holiness and practical godliness as “the great want of the age” (87). While other scholars have explored the origins and implications of her holiness theology more thoroughly, Eason and Green’s selections invite us to see new dimensions. We witness Booth entice, cajole, and convince her audience to renounce their sins in an effort to achieve perfection. Her three simple steps (borrowed from Palmer) for sanctification—consecrating oneself to God, believing in sanctification, and bearing witness to it—offered the hope of “deliverance from inward evil and renewal of the heart in righteousness and true holiness.” This teaching was controversial among fellow evangelicals—one Anglican parson described it as “unscriptural and dangerous” (88). Yet the selections here show how appealing Booth could be. Her formula for a more faithful life anticipates the secular, self-help articles on today’s Buzz Feed.
While David Bebbington categorizes holiness theology among the conservative trends in 19th-century evangelicalism, Booth’s theological vision also includes more progressive elements, which Eason and Green elucidate in chapters on Booth’s advocacy of female ministry, and opposition to the sexual double standard. Since Pamela J. Walker situated the Army within broader gender history and drew causal links between Booth and the women’s movement in Pulling the Devil’s Kingdom Down (University of California Press, 2001), Booth has emerged as an unlikely proto-feminist champion. Her writings allow us to see how she advanced that vision. Even her husband, who initially did not share her advocacy of women’s spiritual equality, was a target. Shortly before their marriage, she wrote to William, urging him to “settled [his] views” on the topic, but he did not easily acquiesce. The exchange provides a glimpse of how Booth’s use of the phrase “settled view” might sometimes equate with a demand for agreement with her righteously-held beliefs.
Even though both editors are closely affiliated with the Salvation Army, they don’t hesitate to show some of Booth’s human failings. For example, some of Booth’s writings suggest how judgmental she could be. She condemned theater, novels, and Shakespeare. So, too, friendships with the “ungodly.” In The War Cry (June 8, 1882), she described in horrified terms the young women she was supposed to teach – “oh how they were dressed! … Some of them in low dresses, with gold necklaces and gold bracelets, arranged after the fashion of this world” (68). She labeled the lower working classes, especially slum dwellers, as a “continent of dark, indifferent, infidel souls!” (44). A champion of overseas missions, Booth emphasized the spiritual depravity of African and Asian peoples. One is struck anew by the deep roots of the “us and them” mentality in some strains of contemporary evangelicalism.
If the volume should ever be revised, my one major request would be for it to include more contextual information on each selection in the body of the text, rather than relegating that material to the endnotes. Time, place, and audience do matter, even if Booth’s ideas were “settled.” That criticism aside, Eason and Green’s compilation of Booth’s shorter writings provide yet another helpful opportunity to reconsider Booth’s enduring imprint on the Salvation Army and evangelicalism more generally.
Jacqueline R. deVries is Professor of History at Augsburg University.Jacqueline deVriesDate Of Review:July 29, 2019