Was William Booth a Socialist?

Remember the WWJD fad? Lots of folks were wearing bracelets and apparel with those four letters: WWJD. “What would Jesus Do?” was a question posed by Charles Sheldon in his short novel “In His Steps.” 

During that time, I seem to recall someone writing a piece asking, “What would William Booth do?” We sometimes love to opine about whether our esteemed founder would be “rolling over in his grave” over things happening in our Army today, or instead celebrating the great accomplishments of an international movement he started in the East End of London.We have Booth’s writings, his actions, and some records of his sermons on which to base our opinion. We are fond of citing quotes like “Go for souls and go for the worst!” or “Do something!” or “My ambition is the souls of men.” But perhaps his most famous quote is one that some historians claim he did not actually use in his Farewell Address at Royal Albert Hall in 1912:

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 upon the streets, While there remains one dark soul without the light of God, I’ll fight!

I’ll fight to the very end!” 

This is a call to social action! Consider the actions he took: he mobilized public support with newspaper publisher W.T. Stead to get Parliament to outlaw child prostitution by raising the age of consent. He opened a match factory to contest the occupational hazard of “phossy jaw.” He wrote the book “In Darkest England and the Way Out” setting forth a blueprint for social reclamation that influences Salvation Army ethos to this day.

 But, other than petitioning Parliament to change the law on child prostitution, Booth’s activism was directed toward taking direct action to address problems, rather than lobbying the government to do so. Times have changed, though. Government now provides the services – from education to health care, from feeding to sheltering – that Booth and his fellow activists provided in the 19thcentury.

So what would William do? Would he engage in “hashtag” advocacy? Would he march with Black Lives Matter protesters? Would he create a Facebook page? I’ll leave that for you to discuss among yourselves! What I DO know is that he was an activist – and that each of the conditions he lamented still exists. He would fight!

Booth was not a socialist, but he was definitely a social activist. He was an evangelist who recognized that salvation involved more than just getting someone to say the “sinner’s prayer.” All of his endeavors were focused on saving the lost, spiritually and socially. That’s why we are The Salvation Army.

We know well the Great Commission, the Greatest Commandments, but Booth would not want us to forget Jesus’ Great Compulsion, which should be ours as well:

The Spirit of the LORD is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, 19to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor.

Luke 4:18-19 NIV

Once again, a hearty “thank-you” to all who serve on the front lines of “the salvation war” as you diligently seek the salvation of the lost, including salvation from the social sins that afflict them.

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