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The General and the Mother

17 January 2014

This devoted couple were often apart, Ted Harrison learns

William and Catherine: The love story of the founders of The Salvation Army, told through their letters
Cathy Le Feuvre
Monarch £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9 (Use code CT261 )

TODAY, General William Booth is revered as the grand old man of the Salvation Army, seen with long white beard, posing stiffly in his uniform for a monochrome photo­graph.

Cathy Le Feuvre's book William and Catherine, provides a contrasting picture of William as young man, husband, father, and radical Christian, through that very Victorian medium of hand-written letters. She relates the early years of the Salvation Army through the personal and intimate correspond­ence between William and his wife.

Writing to Catherine, William shared his vision of ministry, his moments of self-doubt, and his domestic anxieties, with the one person in whom he could completely confide.

"My dearest love," he writes just before Christmas in 1852. "The meeting went off to middling last night. . . They called mine the speech of the night, and a wretched thing it was, I know. . . I shall endeavour my dearest, to manage money matters some way without troubling you. My washing is to be done for 12/- per quarter. . . Cheap, is it not?"

Thirty years later, the struggling evangelist was celebrated inter­nationally. Catherine, too, was in demand as a preacher, and the two spent much time apart. In 1886, when William was in the United States, Catherine wrote: "I got home from my last tour and saw your clothes hanging up, I felt awful. . . I long for you daily."

In a letter home, the same year, William recalled their early days together. "I came rushing up the Brixton Road to hold you in my arms and embrace you with my young love."

The letters provide new insights into significant events in the Army's early years, including a notorious court case, which, thanks to the courage of Bramwell, their son, exposed the hidden evil of Victorian child prostitution. It was Catherine who took the more radical stand over the issue, William advising caution.

William was a driven man, who found in Catherine an ideal and, in church matters, equal partner. But, as a 19th-century woman, she carried the burden of family life. "The children have been extremely trying today; both Willie and Ballington are poorly and very fretful," she writes, stressed, to her absent husband.

Ted Harrison is a former BBC religious-affairs correspondent.


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